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Cartago was the original Capital for 300 years !!

Cartago lies about a half-hour by bus (less by car) and 23 km/14 miles east of San José via the Inter-American Highway. It was the original capital of Costa Rica for 300 years until it lost the power struggle to San José.

An additional obstacle to its capital ambitions is that the town rests at the base of the Irazú Volcano, which makes it prone to sporadic temblores, Central Valley earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Its elevation is 1,440 meters / 4,737 feet.

when President Kennedy visited Costa Rica eight months before his assassination in 1963, Irazú welcomed his Alliance for Peace efforts with an eruption that blanketed Cartago and San José with thick volcanic ash. Kennedy left earlier than planned. In the center of town, the ruins of the roofless St. Bartholomew Temple ( most commonly known as Las Ruinas ) dominate the central square, a peaceful garden of bougainvillea and sweet pine trees.

First dedicated in 1575, the church was destroyed in that same year by an earthquake. It was rebuilt, and a second severe earthquake destroyed it in 1910; legend claims it was divine punishment for the actions of an amorous priest.

People from Cartago took that as an omen and left the church ruins standing. Across the street on Av 1 is La Taberna, a likable tavern with a dance floor and restaurant that does a big evening business. The food’s good too. If you’re looking for a quick bite, walk around the corner of Av 1 and Calle 2 to Friendly’s Soda, where you can try typical Tico food.

The town sorely needs a good tourist B&B or boutique hotel. Cartago’s other famous church is La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, where, on August 2 each year, thousands of Costa Ricans make a pilgrimage to honor the black-skinned Virgin Mary, La Negrita. The town all but shuts down as pilgrims head to the basilica. Many walk on their knees as they near the church, a sign of humility.

The story of La Negrita
A peasant girl, Juana Pereira, discovered the statue of La Negrita on August 2, 1635, on what was then the outskirts of Cartago. After a couple of miracles were attributed to the Black Virgin, Church authorities authorized a basilica to be built on the site of the statue’s discovery. The unusual Byzantine style dates from 1926 after the original church was badly damaged in the 1920 earthquake.

Follow the steps behind the altar down to the Cripta de Piedra to see the rock where Juana first found the statue. The adjoining room contains hundreds of miniature silver trinkets ( mostly legs and arms ) and all kinds of charms left by faithful parishioners. They signify alleged or wished-for healing miracles performed by the Virgin. The offerings even include trophies from soccer teams that supposedly won their match due to her help. Water bottled from a spring at the site, purported to work miracles, is for sale in surrounding shops. La Señora de Los Angeles is the Patron Saint of Costa Rica.

Leaving Cartago
If you’ve taken a public bus to Cartago, you can ask for the bus stop that will take you to Orosí and Lankester Gardens, or opt to take a taxi in a different direction up to Irazú Volcano. If you’re planning your visit a day in advance, be sure to get to Irazú early as clouds roll in by late morning ( park opens at 8 am ).

Education, as you go
If you’ve come to Costa Rica to get an education, think about the tropical agro-ecological farm La Flor de Paraíso Environmental School ( 506/534-8003,, near Paraíso, outside Cartago. It offers Spanish language and culture courses, organic farming, artisan workshops, tropical rainforest regeneration projects and a medicinal plant garden. Paying volunteers are needed for the experience of a lifetime.

Live, Retire, Relocate to Costa Rica Book by Christopher Howard

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