An easy half-hour public bus ride ($2USD) from San José is Cartago, one of the oldest Costa Rican cities and a great day trip for the budget traveller. Overlooked by many travellers this city has a rich history and incredible architecture and ruins.
Cartago is in the Central Valley of Cartago at the foothills of the Irazu Volcano. The former capital city was founded by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in the mid-1500s, during the Spanish colonial years. Until a volcanic eruption in 1732, it was the largest city in Costa Rica. It remains one of the most important cities in the country as a transportation and economic hub, and the agriculturally-rich valley surrounding the city.
The pride of the city is the beautiful Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels) and the Las Ruinas de la Parroquia (Parish Ruins) in the central park, found about 500m from the bus station. The Basilica is sanctified with a Black Madonna shrine.
A series of earthquakes caused repeated damage and instability. In the early 1900s, a restoration project was undertaken. This is an important site for the faithful every August, when over 2 million people make a 22 km pilgrimage (some on their knees).
Only the outer walls of the 16th century Parish Ruins remain after being destroyed in two earthquakes. The story of these ruins tells of two brothers feuding over a woman, resulting in one brother killing the other. As penance, he decided to build a church on the site. Shortly after construction an earthquake destroyed much of the church. Following several rebuilds and earthquakes, the ruins were not rebuilt after an earthquake in 1910 and have become part of the town square.
The city has done a wonderful job of displaying the ruins and using the space for gardens, art installations, and public events.
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