Historic Costa Rica – Your Guide to the Ruins of Cartago
The Ruins of Cartago are one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful and significant historical treasures and make a wonderful addition to any adventure vacation itinerary.
Costa Rica entices with a myriad of outdoor adventures and it’s certainly revered as a natural playground. Yet many visitors forget that this is a country steeped in amazing history, both pre and post colonialism. The Ruins of Cartago are not only easy to visit for anyone flying into San Jose but are actually worth a detour, even if you’re flying into Liberia but planning to tour the Central Valley (which you really should do).
The site is atmospheric to the max and, when drenched in beautiful sunlight, makes for gorgeous photography. Get there early in the morning, or an hour before sunset, and you’ll know what we mean.
The site of the Ruins of Cartago is one of the most delightful places to visit in Costa Rica. Once you learn the history, you’ll also understand that this spot encapsulates the ying-yang relationship the country has always had with its spellbinding but at times very destructive volcanic origins.
The History of the Ruins of Cartago
The site of the Ruins of Cartago was home to several churches, the oldest of which was built in the mid-16th century. The original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1630 and this particular natural disaster would continue to plague the location for centuries. The first church to be consecrated (in 1662) suffered through three devastating earthquakes and each time it was lovingly rebuilt. The final earthquake blow occurred in the 1841 and the new church, damaged beyond repair, was left to its demise for almost three decades.
Resilient parishioners and local authorities alike began the next (and what would become final) attempt to rebuilt the church in the early 1900s but the rebuilding project was permanently cancelled after the infamous Santa Monica earthquake that happened on the 4th of May 1910.
The 1910 Santa Monica earthquake has gone down in history as the most catastrophic in Costa Rica’s history. It almost completely levelled the town of Cartago. Over the following decades, the source of the devastation was pinpointed to the Aguacaliente Fault, located just a few miles south of the now-rebuilt town.
The earthquake brought devastation to Costa Rica’s Central Valley and the rebuilding of the Santiago Apostol Parish Church in Cartago was one ill-fated project that was shelved for good. Many locals, by then, believed the ruins to be cursed and haunted so they left well enough alone.
The Ruins of Cartago are not ‘ruins’ in the strictest technical terms but rather the remnants of a historical building that was never actually completed. Having taken on a life and story all its own, the ruins are testament to the resilience of Costa Rica when faced with natural adversity.
Also, perhaps, the wisdom to know when to quit.
What and where? Visiting the Ruins of Cartago
The ruins of the Santiago Apostol Parish Church in Cartago are a cultural heritage site located just half an hour’s drive southeast of the capital, San Jose.
The ruins are set in what is now the absolute center of Cartago Town, left as a reminder of the struggles and all the hard work to protect it, albeit unsuccessfully. Beautiful gardens thrive within its perimeter with a walking path, several benches, beautiful plants, flowers and ponds creating an incredibly relaxing vibe. Locals adore this place and, in many ways, you may find it even more ethereal and contemplative than if it were a fully-completed church.
Cartago Town – worth a longer visit
Cartago was once Costa Rica’s capital and it is still the country’s oldest town. Given the earthquake risks, however, as well as the results of several military battles, capital status was moved to San Jose in 1835. Cartago was left to evolve into a laid-back provincial capital – one with just a few glimpses of its very illustrious past.
Nevertheless, it is a gorgeous town to visit for a few hours. Highlights include not only the Ruins of Cartago but also the partially-destroyed and now heritage-listed cemetery, the neo-Gothic architectural gem that is the Church of Maria Auxiliadora and the historic Pririe Building, an amazing French-neoclassical treasure that was left miraculously unscathed by the 1910 earthquake.
Just a few blocks away from the church ruins stands the imposing Cartago Basilica, one of Costa Rica’s most revered religious buildings, home to the famous Shrine to La Negrita, or the Black Madonna. The basilica was also destroyed by (yes, you guessed it) earthquakes but it was eventually completed in 1930.
Cartago is full of wonderful sculptures, statues and buildings that showcase varying architectural styles. Luckily, the town is also home to some seriously good eateries so extending your visit and staying for lunch is always a great idea.
Among the best-rated restaurants and cafés, you’ll find Bocadito del Cielo (a little bite of heaven!), La Fonda del Alto (both food and views to die for!) and Il Giardino, no-doubt makers of the best wood-fired pizzas in town.
What else can you do when visiting the Ruins of Cartago?
It’s possible to include a visit to Cartago on a day-long adventure hiking in the Irazu Volcano National Park and many people do just that although many tend to just stop in town for a swift photo op of the ruins. In our view, the ruins and Cartago Town itself deserve a dedicated half-day visit of their own accord.
The Ruins of Cartago are also on the way to Turrialba and our Pacuare River whitewater adventures. Although we often suggest a stop-over for many of our guests, it’s always lovely when they’re the ones to mention we stop! It’s a lovely way to inject some history and culture into our nature-based adventures and a visit to Cartago is doable both pre or post adventure tour.
If you have yet to hear about Turrialba, all you need to know is that this is the true adventure capital of Costa Rica. A place where world-class whitewater rafting and kayaking can be enjoyed away from the biggest crowds over on the western side of the country.
Well-known among serious adventurers and thrill-seekers, Turrialba is an astonishing playground for active visitors. Here, you’ll find options for zip-lining, mountain biking, horseback riding and AWD adventuring as well. The region is awash with amazing artisan produce like cheese and coffee and makes for a sensational off-the-beaten-path travel experience.
Discover more of Turrialba before planning your itinerary.
And, when you’re ready to shake off those travel-cobwebs and have the adventure of a lifetime in Costa Rica, we’ll be right here.
Contact us to know more.