A Day Trip in Cartago
The city of Cartago was blessed from the day Juana Pereira, a young native girl, went to wash her clothes and came across a modest stone statue of a woman holding a baby in her arms. The legend says that Juana kept trying to take the statuette home, but each time it would disappear and return to the rock where she found it.
Much in the same way, nature has attempted to take away the city, but like the statue it always comes back. Cartago is a modern day Pompeii. It's survived at least three major earthquakes only to be covered in ash during the 1963 eruption of the Irazu Volcano.
Today, Cartago is home to more than 450,000 Costa Ricans. Located in the Central Valley on the outskirts of the Irazu volcano, it is great place to see contemporary and traditional Costa Rican culture including the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, Downtown Cartago, Lankester Gardens, and the Orosi Valley.
Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral
The original capitol of Costa Rica, Cartago has retained many of its past treasures like the Basillica de Los Ángeles, the most coveted of all Costa Rican Catholic churches. Built, rebuilt and renovated, the cathedral still stands in the same place it was founded: upon the rock where Juana Pereira first discovered the statue in 1635.
The Basilica still contains the statuette, mounted atop a golden altar and viewed through a glass window by some 800,000 visitors every year. Most of the visitors are Costa Rican making the August 2nd pilgrimage to see Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Our Lady of the Angels); the patron saint of Costa Rica. Many come to ask for a miracle while others offer small pieces of silver as thanks for a miracle that's been granted. The silver pieces are often smelted in the shapes of body parts like hearts, legs, arms, lungs and ears to represent what Our Lady of the Angels has saved with her miracles. Later, the pieces are collected and displayed in a crypt under the cathedral.
Not all cathedrals are so lucky though, while Our Lady of the Angels was rebuilt time and time again, the church in Cartago's downtown is known simply as “The Ruins”. Today, the ruins serve as the city's town square. In front of the ruins, there's a plaza where many of the city's locals gather on the weekends.
Children bouncing on trampolines and inside inflatable fortresses, boys playing basketball, men playing foozball (yes there are foozball tables) and vendors hawking food are just a few of the sights visible in the plaza on a given Saturday.
Surrounding the plaza is Cartago's shopping district where sidewalks can be crowded and traffic moves slowly. Nearby, there's a weekend farmer's market (open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) where local farmers drive down from the fertile land of the Irazu Volcano to sell their fare to Cartago locals.
Built by British coffee baron, Charles Lankester, the gardens spread out some 10.5 hectares. Home to all manner of flora, there are a number of trails to wander the grounds. Not limited to indigenous plants, the garden's rich soil is home to a variety of habitats including a desert, Japanese garden, Asian jungle, Costa Rica jungle and more.
However, the Lankester gardens are most famous for its vast collection of orchids. More than 1,000 different species reside in the gardens including the world's smallest orchid, the Playtestella, which is so small you'll need a magnifying glass to see its petals.
An hour east of Cartago, hidden among the hills, is the Orosi Valley. Stunningly beautiful from above, the valley appears on fire at certain times of the year due to the brilliant orange by the blooming trees known as the 'Flame of the Forest' scattered throughout the valley. Among the trees are squash and coffee farms, lakes and towns.
One of the coffee farms is a popular lunch destination for locals and visitors. The restaurant, La Casona de Cafetal is a short drive through the coffee fields to the edge of Cachi dam. There, guests are served traditional Costa Rican food including rice, beans and caramelized plantains. The best part though, is the fresh coffee brewed at the table in a traditional Chorreador ; a small single serving brewing device of cotton cloth and wood.
On the way back to Cartago, there's a small park where visitors can see the Ruins of Ujarras. Once a church built by Spanish settlers nearly 500 years ago, it is now a collection weathered red bricks and crumbling limestone that make up the archways and outer walls of the chapel.
The ruins are yet another example of how earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have taken their toll on the area; both beautiful and humbling, the ruins are a reminder of the faith and persistence of people that have rebuilt and will continue to rebuild the city in the face of nature's adversity.