Cartago is a quiet city, with little of interest to tourists aside from the Basilica. If you spend time in the city, head to the Parque Central (Central Park), also known as Las Ruinas (the Ruins) ★. This is the site of the city’s ill-fated original cathedral. Begun in 1575, the church was devastated by a series of earthquakes. Despite several attempts, construction was abandoned after the massive 1910 quake, and today the stone and mortar ruins sit at the heart of a lovely park, with quiet paths and plenty of benches. The ruins themselves are closed off.
You might want to stop in at the Museo Municipal de Cartago ★ (Cartago Municipal Museum; (tel) 2591-1050), on Avenida 6 between calles 2 and 4. Located in a former military barracks that has been wonderfully restored, the museum houses a series of local historical displays, as well as a range of changing exhibits, including some featuring local artists. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 9am to 4pm, and Sunday until 3pm; admission is free.
Cartago (and the Orosi Valley) is also a good stop along the way to visit one of the quetzal-viewing lodges in the Dota and Cerro de la Muerte region.
If you’re looking to stay at a nice hotel in this region, I suggest leaving Cartago and heading for the Orosi Valley or Turrialba. But if you’re hungry, a couple of restaurants in the Cartago area are worth a visit: Nila Restaurante ((tel) 2552-4398), serving an extensive menu of steak, seafood, pasta, soups, and appetizers, just east of Cartago; and Restaurante Malanga ((tel) 2551-0750), offering Caribbean fusion, tapas, salads, and vegetarian options, on the road from San José to Irazú.
Legend has it that while gathering wood, a girl named Juana Pereira stumbled upon the statue of La Negrita sitting atop a rock. Juana took it home, but the next morning it was gone. She went back to the rock, and there it was again. This was repeated three times, until Juana took her find to a local priest. The priest took the statue to his church for safekeeping, but the next morning it was gone, only to be found sitting upon the same rock later that day. The priest eventually decided that the strange occurrences were a sign that the Virgin wanted a temple or shrine built to her upon the spot. And so work was begun on what would eventually become today’s impressive basilica.
Miraculous healing powers have been attributed to La Negrita, and, over the years, parades of pilgrims have come to the shrine seeking cures for their illnesses and difficulties. August 2 is her patron saint’s day. Each year on this date, tens of thousands of Costa Ricans and foreign pilgrims spend hours walking to Cartago from San José and elsewhere out of devotion to La Negrita.
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