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The Historic Mystique of Cartago, Costa Rica

Svetlana Bykova,

by Cristóbal Ramírez

As we all know, the capital of Costa Rica is San José. But it was not always thus. A bit over an hour's drive to the west is a city dubbed the "Vieja Metrópoli" (Old Metropolis). The first successful settlement by the invading Spaniards, in 1563, Cartago - honoured as "Very Noble and Very Loyal" by Spain's parliament - served as Costa Rica's capital till 1823.

Actually, little remains of Cartago's very first location, as the city was moved twice (and then suffered powerful earthquakes, in 1841 and 1910). But time heals all wounds, and a visit to this city of nearly 157,000 (414,000 in the greater metro area) offers a fascinating look back into history in a country not overflowing with historical landmarks, along with some other cool extras.

The centrepiece of Cartago's historic centre is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, one of the country's oldest buildings, dating back to 1639 - though the fanciful gray-and-white confection we see today is a hybrid of colonial and neo-Byzantine styles thanks to renovations and reconstructions over the years, the last in 1939. It also has the distinction of being one of Central America's main pilgrimages churches, the faithful flocking here all year round to honour the small statue of Our Lady, which according to tradition was found in 1675 by a peasant girl, and draw water held to be holy from a fountain in the rock where the Virgin was found (you can buy little brown jugs here or bring your own!).

The big deal of the year, however, comes every August 2, when some 2½ million believers make a 22-kilometre (14-mile) journey - the most hardcore on their hands and knees - and understandably, the city practically fills to bursting.

Right near the basilica is another notable site, the ruins of the Parish of St. James the Apostle. It's been the site of churches since 1575, but they kept getting destroyed by earthquakes, and work was stopped and never restarted on the latest rebuilding, in 1910, because of yet another earthquake. So now it's a very atmospheric public park, sometimes used for events.


The Central Market several blocks away is a fascinating warren of stalls and eateries, and it's also well worth venturing out of town a bit. First choice is Irazú Volcano, Costa Rica's highest, with a lake in the main caldera, wreathed in fumes and gases. An otherworldly experience that is an easy drive uphill.

A few kilometres in the other direction, the charming Orosí Valley is a coffee-growing area where you can enjoy rural tourism; a cute little town with Costa Rica's oldest church and even a mineral spa; a handsome lake; and another ruined church in the hamlet of Ujarrás that delivers some very atmospheric photo ops.

And finally, for fans of creepy abandoned sites, seven km (just over four mi.) north of town you can have a look at the Sanatorio Durán, a tuberculosis sanitarium founded in 1918 but abandoned in 1963. Naturally, it's held to be haunted.

Best Iberia fares to San José from the U.K., from Spain.

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