Cartago is a city that has played and continues to play an extremely prominent role in Costa Rican affairs. While it has suffered setbacks over the years usually in the form of earthquakes, it is still on of the country’s most important cities and well worth a visit.
An Introduction to Cartago
Cartago is home to just under 415,000 people and covers an area of 152,68 square kilometers. These numbers include the outer districts and areas which are technically separate towns, and if you count only the population of the inner city, Cartago has around 150,000 residents.
The city sits at an altitude of 1435 meters above sea level, giving it comfortable spring-like climate. Thanks to its proximity to San Jose, many of Cartago’s residents commute to the capital for work. Some of those that stay in the city work in various industrial fields. Much of the city’s economy are made up of agricultural products from the surrounding countryside.
Cartago is home to one of Costa Rica’s major football (soccer) teams – Cartagines – who have won the league three times. It is also a center of education with the country’s most prestigious engineering college located within the city.
From the initial settlement of Costa Rica, Cartago has played a significant role in the country’s development and history. For a long time, the city was the most prominent – more so than its longstanding rival San Jose.
Founded in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, Cartago was the first real Spanish settlement in the country. It was the de-facto capital until 1823 and was home to many of Costa Rica’s most important people. The Spanish king granted the city an official coat of arms in 1565, and later it was awarded a title – ‘Very noble and very loyal.’
At this time there was a healthy rivalry between the cities of Costa Rica, and the decision to favor San Jose was not familiar. There had also been a conflict between the towns about how to run the country after they had won independence. Cartago and Heredia were conservative places which preferred unification with Central America and Mexico. San Jose and Alajuela, on the other hand, were more liberal-minded and wanted full independence. This led to several battles, and it all came to a head in 1835 with the war of the league. This saw Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela unite to challenge the authority of San Jose. Unfortunately, this was a battle which they lost, and San Jose was confirmed as the capital of the country.
Over the years, the city has suffered many earthquakes. However, its residents have always rebuilt it. Perhaps the worst of these occurred in 1910 when the old town was almost destroyed. The legacy of this can be seen in the central plaza where the ruins of a church can be visited.
Cartago occupies a very central location within Costa Rica. It is just sixteen miles southeast of San Jose and within one hundred miles of both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. This puts it at the southern end of the central valley, within which most of the country’s industry and the populations situated.
Cartago’s laid out in a grid. Like in San Jose, the streets which run from North to South were named, and those running from East to West are agendas. These are numbered making it easy to find your way around. The city center is compact making it an easy it to walk around. At its heart of the ‘Plaza Mayor’ or central square which has been the focal point of city life since Cartago’s founding. The two main Avenida run across the northern and southern edge of the plaza and from the main arteries of the city. When followed to the outskirts of Cartago, they are also the easiest routes out of the city to other parts of the country.
Despite its long and illustrious history, the succession of earthquakes which hit the city has conspired to destroy much of the city’s charm. The colonial buildings of Cartago were leveled by these disasters and what you see today is relatively modern. That doesn’t mean that it is an unattractive place, rebuilt into a well organized and functional city.
One building which has survived is the cathedral – or the ‘Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles’ to give it its full title. This dates back to 1639, although rebuilt due to the damage done by several earthquakes. It is arguably the most important, and the most beautiful, church in Costa Rica, as well being the largest. Its architectural style is a mix of the traditional Spanish colonial and neo-Byzantine, creating a unique and instantly recognizable building. The exterior’s painted an understated shade of green, and its roofs a brilliant white. Inside, ornately decorated with wood paneling and lines of columns.
Once a year, the cathedral plays host to one of Central America’s biggest religious occasions. The 2nd of August is the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels. Over two million people make their way on foot from all over Costa Rica. They attend the day’s mass and to pay homage to the black statue of the Virgin Mary. Some people even crawl there to show their devotion, and if you are in the area, it is worth visiting to experience this demonstration of religious piety.
The other main attraction of the city is the central square. This is the heart of the city and is a great place to people watch. This is also home to the ruins of a church destroyed in the 1910 earthquake. Also, the ruins add atmosphere to the place and are an interesting monument to the power of nature. This is just another great part of Costa Rica’s cities.