Countrified, chaotic and often crawling with traffic, downtown Cartago for many visitors is the penance you have to pay to reach the Basílica de la Virgen de Los Angeles, the sublime national shrine on the far east side of town that is the destination of literally millions each year during a pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of the Angels Day, Aug. 2.
Though it may not rank high on your list of places to spend a day, Costa Rica’s oldest city and original capital, 22 kilometers east of San José, does have considerable charms beyond the Basilica.
For instance, there’s an astonishing Ethnographic Museum in an historic college; a colorful, boisterous market; a gem of a metal church with a wedding-cake interior; a fortress fronted by a glorious rose garden; not to mention an ethereally beautiful cemetery with a dramatically drop-dead, mountain backdrop and… well, you just have to get off the bus or out of your car and discover Cartago for yourself, on foot.
Herewith, a guide to some of Cartago’s overlooked historical, architectural, spiritual and cultural attractions:
The best place to start your walking tour is at the Parque de Las Ruinas de Santiago Apostol, the easiest landmark to find right in the center of town, across from the modern municipal building.
The name is somewhat of a misnomer since these are not exactly ruins but rather the foundations of the last church that never got built. There has been a church on this site since 1570, dedicated to Spain’s patron saint. But thanks to recurring earthquakes and other disasters, each iteration of Cartago’s parochial church was destroyed. The last plans to build a grand church on the site, begun in 1904, were finally abandoned after the massive earthquake of 1910, which destroyed so much of Cartago’s colonial architectural heritage.
Today, the stone walls make a picturesque setting for an artistically designed, well-tended garden inside, open to visitors on the first Sunday of each month. Even if you come on a day when you can’t roam around the garden, you can enjoy lovely views of the garden and excellent photo opportunities through the iron gates.
From the southwest corner of the ruins, walk one block south on Calle 4 to Avenida 3 to find the Casa de Jesús Jiménez, an imposing Victorian extravaganza of gables and gingerbread trim, built in 1911, right after the Santa Mónica earthquake of 1910.
Declared a national monument in 1997, this house is one of the few remaining buildings of its era in town. As happens the world over, developers have been knocking down Cartago’s Victorian houses (sometimes under cover of night) and erecting commercial centers in their stead.
A plaque on the handsome wrought-iron fencing announces that an earlier house on this site was the birthplace of Jesús Jiménez Zamora, the 19th-century Costa Rican president credited with being the father of public education.
Across the street on Avenida 3 is the Iglesia Convento de Padres Capuchinos, the hockey-arena shaped church of the Convent of San Francisco built in 1988. This is the base for the Franciscan order, which arrived in Cartago in 1561. Though the exterior of the church itself is not architecturally inspiring, the church garden houses a charming bronze statue of Saint Francis playing with a dog.
Head west along Avenida 3 four blocks to Calle 3 and you come to the impressive, domed Colegio de San Luis Gonzaga. Founded in 1842, the school moved to this site after the 1910 earthquake destroyed its original buildings near the market, as well as the site’s previous occupant, the Central American Court of Justice. The present neoclassical structure was finished in 1929, after six years of construction.
Apart from the splendid dome, the building’s main architectural asset is the austere, interior courtyard, bordered by a colonnaded arcade around which classrooms were built. In 1989 it was officially decreed an historical-architectural point of interest.
Today, the school, which has turned out many distinguished statesmen and Costa Rican notables, has a student body of 3,000 blue-and-gray-uniformed students, housed here and in surrounding annexes.
It’s an impressive building in its own right, but even more impressive is the secret hidden deep in its earthquake-proof cellar: the Museo Etnográfico. Opened in 1933, the museum houses a wide-ranging collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, as well as relics from the Conquistador era.
Only three rooms long, the museum is a helter-skelter trove of artifacts you can examine up close. The first room features Spanish breastplates and swords and an amazing lineup of colonial-era stirrups, made of wood, bronze and iron.
In the second room, which you enter through a colonial-era, worm-eaten wooden door, is a stunning collection of pre-Columbian ceramics, divided in cases by type of decoration and origin (Mesoamerican or South American). Center stage is a case with charming, three-legged chocolateras decorated with animal figures, vessels for making hot chocolate. On the floor in one corner sit dozens of stone metates (grinding stones), some in the shape of jaguars and one in the shape of a monkey.
In the third room, you’ll find a re-creation of a room in an adobe colonial house, with centuries-old, tooled-leather chairs; a fourposter bed with bamboo springs atop wood planks; religious statues of the era; and tortoise- shell combs lying on a wooden chest.
To visit the museum, you need to reserve at least one day in advance by phone (551-0895). College staff member Cecilia Garro, affable and knowledgeable, will give you a free, personal tour of both the college and museum,Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., when school is in session.
Emerging from the depths of the college, continue west along Avenida 3 for four blocks and turn right (north) at Calle 13 onto the concrete plaza.Walk across the two-block, modern plaza (with regrettably ugly modern light fixtures, compensated by panoramic mountain views) toward the pale green, metal church, La Iglesia de María Auxiliadora.
This 19th-century, Gothic-style church looks a little beaten up from the outside, but once through the wooden doors, you enter a radiant space of blindingly white wooden pillars and a vaulted ceiling dripping gingerbread trim.
Light spills down from upper clerestory windows and floods in from the Gothic side windows of pale green and yellow stained glass. Antique tile floors lead past polished wooden pews to the altar with a show-piece Virgin of Guadalupe, a brilliantly painted replica of a statue in Barcelona.
It rivals the Basilica’s beauty. But unlike the crowded Basilica, you may have this church all to yourself, so you can sit and drink in the tranquility and homespun beauty of the place.
Back out on the street, turn right (east) on Avenida 2, back toward downtown. Four blocks east, at the corner of Calle 5, is the Edificio Pirie, a handsome, two-story building with a turn-of-the-last-century French facade and delicate wrought-iron balconies.
Named for the family of an English doctor who settled in Cartago around 1900, it was for many years a medical hub in the city. The doctor’s son, Willie Pirie, reputedly introduced soccer to Costa Rica around 1906, when he returned from his medical studies in England.
Today, the 1890s building houses the Casa de la Ciudad de Cartago, which holds avantgarde art shows, classes and cultural events (call 550-2340 for schedule).
Across the street is the new town cathedral, Parroquia del Carmen, built in 1960. The architectural interests here are the massive, carved wooden doors from an earlier church.
One block east of the cathedral along Avenida 2, you’ll pass the classical-style Centro de la Cultura Cartaginesa (open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday), an elegant, airy exhibition hall where you can view free art shows.
Practically next-door is the pink-stucco, Monte Carlo-style Club de Cartago, now abandoned and moldering away but still exuding a hint of faded patrician glamour.
Turn left up Calle 1 to reach the Municipal Market, which occupies the whole block from Avenida 4 to Avenida 6. It’s at its most colorful Friday through Sunday mornings, when the interior shops are supplemented by outdoor farmers’ stalls. Inside, you’ll find plenty of sodas where you can pick up a snack or sit down for an inexpensive lunch.
At the northwest end of the market, you’ll find the town’s Victorian train station, with wooden roof arches. It’s rumored – and hoped – that the dilapidated station may be saved and used as an artisans’ center.
From the northeast corner of the market (Avenida 6 and Calle 1), walk one block east on Avenida 6 to the Cuartel General or Comandancia, a squat, yellow-and-brown fort built in 1875 as a military garrison and now serving as police headquarters. Softening the militaristic facade of the building is a beautifully kept garden brimming with roses and canna lilies.
From here, you can walk two blocks south to the Parque de Las Ruinas, where you started, or you can head east along Avenida 4 to visit the Basilica (five long blocks away). If you need an energy boost along the way, stop in at the Panadería Araya (350 meters west of the Basilica). In a town chockablock with pastry shops, this bakery has been famous since 1917 for its colorful array of chewy marzipan fruits, dense baguettes and delicate tea cakes (open 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily).
A Final Resting Place
Unless you are very fit and happy to trudge along a long city street with no shade, take a bus or your car to the not-to-bemissed CartagoCemetery at the far-west entrance to town.
Founded in 1813, this walled cemetery has so many architecturally fine sculptures and tombs and so many notable residents that it was declared part of the National Patrimony in 1994.
Like most cemeteries, it mirrors local history, with clumps of graves marking the cholera plague of 1856 that decimated the city and tombstones marking soldiers’ deaths in the 1856-57 war. And, just like the city, the cemetery suffered severe damage in the 1910 earthquake.
So many tombs and mausoleums toppled that authorities stipulated that henceforth all tombs had to be “bajo tierra” (under the earth). Interestingly, the cemetery is under secular management.
Despite intense lobbying by the Catholic Church in the 19th century to control the cemetery, the citizens of Cartago were determined to keep it secular so that anyone, no matter what religion, could be buried there.
The most scenic part of the cemetery is the San Francisco section, with rows of beautifully sculpted angels and elaborately carved headstones. A white statue of Saint Francis perusing a book presides over the section (pictured here), and there is a stone garden bench where you can sit and enjoy the distant views of the mountains ringing Cartago.
You can reach the San Francisco section by entering at the gate opposite the cemetery office. Opening hours are 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.
By Car: From San José, drive east through San Pedro. Just beyond the Curridabat overpass, stay in the middle lane, which becomes the Inter-American Highway heading south; watch for the left-turn exit to Cartago 15 kilometers farther along. The total distance from San José is about 22 km.
By Bus: Catch a direct bus at the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 5. To follow the walking tour, get off the bus in Cartago in front of the Iglesia Convento de Padres Capuchinos and walk north one block to Las Ruinas. Return buses to San José leave from in front of the Comandancia (police headquarters).