Founded in 1563 by Juan Vazquez de Coronado, Cartago, meaning “Carthage”, was Costa Rica’s capital for three hundred years before the centre of power was moved to San José in 1823. Like its ancient namesake, the city has been razed a number of times, although in this case by earthquakes instead of Romans – two, in 1823 and 1910, almost demolished the place. Most of the town’s fine nineteenth-century and fin-de-siècle buildings were destroyed, and what has grown up in their place – the usual assortment of shops and haphazard modern buildings – is not particularly appealing. Nowadays, Cartago functions mainly as a busy market and shopping centre, with some industry around its periphery. The star attraction is its soaring cathedral, or basílica, dedicated to La Negrita, Costa Rica’s patron saint.
The blasted lunar landscape of Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú reaches its highest point at 3432m and, on clear days, offers fantastic views all the way to the Caribbean coast. Famous for having had the gall to erupt on the day President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica on March 19, 1963, Irazú has been more or less calm ever since. But while its main crater is far less active, in terms of bubblings and rumblings, than that of Volcán Poás, its deep depression and the strange algae-green lake that fills it create an undeniably dramatic sight.
Looming 32km north of Cartago, the volcano makes for a long and entirely uphill but scenic trip, especially in the early morning before the inevitable clouds roll in (about 10am). While the main crater draws the crowds, it’s worth noting that the shallow bowl to its right, the flat-bottomed and largely unimpressive Diego de la Haya crater, is the remnant of Irazú’s first and largest eruption: when it blew in 1723, the eruption lasted ten months and showered San José in ash.
There’s not much to do around here after viewing the main crater from the mirador – no official trails cut through this section of the park, though you can scramble among the grey ash dunes that have built up on Playa Hermosa, the buried older crater that spreads to the left of the walkway and is dotted with what little vegetation that can survive in this otherworldly environment. Stay behind the barriers at all times, though, as volcanic ash crumbles easily, and you could end up falling into the ominous-looking lake.
The agricultural town of Turrialba, 45km east of Cartago on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Central, boasts sweeping views over the rugged eastern Talamancas – and not much else. With the demise of the railroad to the Caribbean and the opening of the Guápiles Highway further north, Turrialba has faded in importance, though there are a number of worthwhile day-trips around town: most visitors come through here en route to the Monumento Nacional Guayabo or for a white-water rafting trip on the thrilling ríos Pacuaré or Reventazón, but there are also the excellent biological gardens at CATIE and the smoking cone of Volcán Turrialba to explore.
Regarded as one of the world’s premier tropical research stations, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, otherwise known by its acronym CATIE, is unique in Costa Rica. For the last 65 years, the agricultural research and higher education centre, 4km east of Turrialba, has worked on marrying the needs of Latin America’s rural poor with those of the environment – it was here that the technique for producing palmito (heart-of-palm) from the pejibaye was developed – and at any one time it is involved in over a hundred research and development projects, from tackling climate change to producing disease-resistant tropical crops.
It’s this expert knowledge that makes the tours of CATIE’s landscaped Jardín Botánico so eye-opening. The genial guide will introduce you to some of the 472 species being preserved here, explaining the virtues of the miracle fruit (it makes sour things taste sweet) or divulging some of the 101 benefits of eating noni; the tour is very interactive, so you’ll spend much of your time sniffing spices, touching tubers and munching on freshly picked tropical fruit such as mangosteen and pink ornamental bananas.
As well as hosting a number of vital germplasm projects, including one of the most important collections of coffee and cacao plants in the world, CATIE harbours a variety of wildlife: armadillos, coatis, sloths and caimans, and, attracted by the myriad tropical plants, 300 species of bird – the central lagoon alone is home to boat-billed heron, northern jacana and purple gallinule, and is the roosting site for a hundred or so great white herons. Keen birders can take part in the bird-banding research run by the Programa Monitoreo de Aves, part of an ongoing study into land-use transition – vital when so many Costa Rican farmers are replacing their coffee plantations with sugar cane. Volunteers can help with the catching, weighing and releasing of birds in various habitats across campus.
The most accessible ancient archaeological site in Costa Rica, the Monumento Nacional Guayabo lies 19km northeast of Turrialba and 84km east of San José. Discovered by explorer Anastasio Alfaro at the end of the nineteenth century, the remains of the town of Guayabo, believed to have been inhabited from about 300 BC to 1400 AD, were only excavated in the late 1960s. Administered by MINAE (which also controls Costa Rica’s national park system), Guayabo today suffers from an acute shortage of funds: some of the montículos (stone mounds) are in a poor state of repair and only a small part of the site has been excavated. With the withdrawal of the annual US aid grant, the prospects for further exploration look bleak.
The site, a dairy farm until 1968, is visually disappointing compared to the magnificent Maya and Aztec cities of Mexico or Guatemala – cultures contemporaneous with Guayabo – though it’s well to remember that civilizations should not necessarily be judged on their ability to erect vast monuments. Facing the considerable difficulties posed by the density of the rainforest terrain, the Guayabo managed not only to live in harmony with an environment that remains hostile to human habitation, but also constructed a complex system of water management and social organization, and expressed themselves through the “written language” of petroglyphs.
The mysteries of Guayabo are amplified by today’s site, which lacks anything in the way of information or interpretation; it’s a good idea to hire a guide to help you decipher what can otherwise look like random piles of stone. Either way, it’s best to start at the gloomy exhibition space, which has a model showing how the town would have looked, before heading up to the mirador for an overview; the trail (1.6km) then weaves its way down among the mounds.
Most of the heaps of stones and basic structures now exposed were erected between 300 and 700 AD, though the (still working) aqueducts at the northwestern end of the site are some 2000 years old. Excavations have shown that the Guayabo were particularly skilled in water conducting – look out for the stone tanque de captación near here, where they stored water carried in these subterranean channels from nearby springs.
At the heart of the town is the central mound. Of the 43 montículos that make up the site, this is the tallest circular base unearthed so far, with two staircases and pottery remains at the very top. Guayabo houses were built to a hierarchial system, and it is likely that this was home to the community chief, a cacique, who had both social and religious power. Near the central mound, you can see some of the tombs (known as Tumbas de Cajón, or Drawer Tombs) that have been uncovered in various parts of the site. They were constructed in layers of rock (hence their name) brought from surrounding rivers; unfortunately, the tombs discovered so far have been plundered by looters long ago. Beyond here, at the eastern end of the site, a paved road, the Calzada Caragra, runs for 200m before disappearing into thick jungle; the main entrance to town, this was believed to have once stretched for 20km.
The people of Guayabo brought stones to the site from a great distance, probably from the banks of the Río Reventazón, and petroglyphs have been found on 53 of these – most are now in the Museo Nacional in San José, but you can still see carvings of what appear to be lizard and jaguar gods, and an altogether more intriguingly patterned rock, the so-called Sky Stone, believed by some experts to represent a celestial map of the southern skies, and therefore possibly of use as an ancient calendar.
Other than this, little is known of the people who lived here, and there are no clues as to why Guayabo was ultimately abandoned, though hypotheses include an epidemic or war with neighbouring tribes.
The least-visited of the Valle Central’s major volcanoes, Volcán Turrialba (3328m) erupted for the first time in 145 years on January 5, 2010, blowing a large vent in the crater’s upper wall and forcing the evacuation of sixty people from local villages; dramatic cloud plumes (up to 2km high) continued to spout skyward for the first few months of the year.
The park is open again, but with restricted access, according to volcanic activity. Check the latest before venturing up here – and note that the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (OVSICORI) haven’t ruled out the January eruption being the precursor to further, larger-scale seismic activity.
Turrialba is blessed with two of Central America’s finest white-water rafting rivers on its doorstep. Indeed, the scenic Río Pacuaré’s adrenaline-inducing mix of open canyons and narrow passages has made it one of the best on earth – when rapids are called “Double Drop” and “Upper Pinball”, you know they’ve earned their names. Although a controversial hydroelectric-dam project has put paid to some of the most popular sections of the Río Reventazón, there is still a lot of world-class water to ride, especially the technical drops that constitute the Pascua section, where you can tackle the “Corkscrew”, the “North Sea” and “Frankenstein” (it’s a bit of a monster), among others.
Most day-trips on the Pacuaré run the 29km stretch of Class-IV rapids on the Lower Pacuaré; trips down the Reventazón tend to hit the Class-III rapids at the Caribbean-side section of Florida or, for experienced rafters, the 24km of Class IV+ rapids at Pascua. Multi-day trips on the Pacuaré include overnight accommodation at jungle lodges along the river.
After workaday Cartago, the verdant Valle Orosí, occupying a deep bowl just 9km to the southeast, is a veritable Garden of Eden. Passing through Paraíso, the road drops down a ski-slope hill to the pretty villages of Orosí and, on the other side of Lago Cachí, Ujarrás, each with their own lovely church; annoyingly, although they lie less than 8km apart, no bus runs between them, so without your own transport you’ll have to backtrack to Paraíso. Southeast of these lies the little-visited Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo Cerro de la Muerte, a wildlife-rich park that’s one of the closest places to the capital for rainforest hiking.
One of the most interesting activities in the area is visiting Café Cristina, a small-scale organic coffee farm about 9km northeast of Orosí, on the road from Paraiso to Turrialba, which has been toiled by an American family since 1977. The charismatic owners, Linda and Ernie, offer ninety-minute tours and take great pride in explaining every stage of the coffee-making process – from growing to milling to roasting. The tour culminates in one of the sweetest cups of coffee you’ll taste in Costa Rica.
Nestled in a little topographical bowl between thick-forested hills and coffee plantations, Orosí is one of the most picturesque villages in Costa Rica. Its bucolic charms have a way of seducing visitors, and many end up staying far longer than they intended – on a clear morning, when the lush hillsides are drenched in sunlight and with Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes hovering on the horizon, Orosí can feel like the most idyllic spot on earth.
While Orosí’s laidback atmosphere is its top attraction, the village does also boast the Iglesia San José de Orosí (built in 1735), Costa Rica’s oldest church that is still in use, which sits squat against the rounded pates of the hills behind. This simple, low-slung adobe structure, single-towered and roofed with red tiles, has an interior devoid of the hubris and frothy excess of much of Latin American religious decor. The adjacent religious art museum exhibits fascinating objectos de culto from the early 1700s such as icons, religious paintings and ecclesiastical furniture, along with a faithful recreation of a monk’s tiny room.
Rugged, pristine Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo Cerro de la Muerte, 12km southeast of Orosí, is one of Costa Rica’s least-visited national parks. Altitude in this watershed area ranges from 1220m to 3490m above sea level and contains three life zones (low mountain and premontane rainforest, and paramo), a range of habitat that provides shelter for a variety of bird and animal life, as well as countless species of insects – it’s perhaps one of the easiest places in the country to spot the beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly. Flora is equally spectacular, including bromelias, heliconia and numerous ferns and mosses; it has been estimated that each hectare contains up to 160 different species of tree. The park is divided into two sectors: Tapantí, accessed from Orosí (and described here), and Macizo Cerro de la Muerte, approached from the Interamerican Highway.
Tapanti is chock-full of mammals; about 45 species live here, including the elusive tapir, as well as ocelot and margay, although you‘re more likely to spot paca, coati and, if you‘re lucky, kinkajou. Birdlife is abundant, particularly along the trails that winds up into the hills: look out for black guan, tinamou and chacalaca. The park’s high rainfall makes it nirvana for reptiles and amphibians, too, including eye-lash viper and basilisk lizard.
The celebration of the Virgin of Los Angeles (El Día de la Negrita) on August 2 is one of the most important days in the Costa Rican religious calendar, when hundreds of pilgrims make the journey to Cartago to visit the tiny black statue of the Virgin, tucked away in a shallow subterranean antechamber beneath the crypt in the town’s basílica. It is a tradition in this grand, vaulting church for pilgrims to shuffle down the aisle towards the altar on their knees, rosaries fretting in their hands as they whisper a steady chorus of Hail Marys: indeed, many will have travelled like this from as far away as San José to pay their respects.
Top image: Beautiful aerial view of the Cartago city in Costa Rica © Gianfranco Vivi/Shutterstock