Day Tripping: Cartago
By Brandon Dall’Acqua
Situated in the Irazú Volcano valley just 25 km southeast of San Jose, lies a city of great historic and cultural importance to Costa Rica: Cartago. This one-time capital, until it was moved to San Jose in 1823, still stands as an impressive reminder of old world charm.
At an elevation of just under 5,000 feet above sea level, the climate stays a bit cooler in Cartago than in the rest of the country – usually around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This alluring town was originally founded by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in 1563, in what he described as the ‘most beautiful valley’ he had ever seen. Unfortunately Cartago’s aesthetic appeal was tainted when it was rocked by major earthquakes in 1822, 1841, and 1910, in addition to a devastating volcanic eruption in 1723 that nearly destroyed the whole city. Another explosion in 1963 caused less damage, but still left San Jose covered in ash for nearly two years.
Parish of Santiago Apóstol
A long history of natural disasters has left the city with one of its more beautiful attractions, the Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins. Construction of this district was intermittent between 1870 and 1910, at which point the building process was permanently halted when the third substantial earthquake within a century shook the city. Local legend has it the church was cursed – doomed to remain incomplete thanks to a priest who, in 1577, murdered his brother during a quarrel within the chapel’s holy walls.
Our Lady of the Angels Basilica
According to regional folklore, in 1635 a young girl found a statue of a black Madonna laying on a rock. She brought the statue, known today as La Negrita, home with her. When she awoke the next morning it was mysteriously gone. After searching, she found the statue in the same place as before, lying on the exact same rock. This incident repeated itself several times, until the Catholic Church declared it miraculous and built a basilica on the site. Today, every August 2nd as many as 1.5 million people from all over the country trek on foot to touch this holy rock. The pilgrimage, a sign of religious devotion, has inspired countless prayers asking for cures to health or financial woes, along with simple acts of giving thanks.
At the north end of Cartago’s valley is Volcan Irazú, the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica. Known as ‘El Coloso’ (The Colossus) due to the damage it has caused, it was active as recently as 1994, when it had a short, one-day eruption. One of its more beautiful features is a basin near the summit known as Diego de la Haya, a dark green crater lake. On clear days from the summit, which are rare, one can see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Undoubtedly, Irazú’s most infamous explosion occurred on the first day of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Costa Rica in 1963, after the volcano had lain dormant for 20 years.