Cartago, founded in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, was the capital of Costa Rica until 1823. The years following the regions secession from the Spanish empire in 1821, were turbulent times for all of Central America and it was know different in Costa Rica. Following a couple of years of struggle in which all four of Costa Rica's major settlements, Cartago, San José, Heredia and Alajuela vied for the right to be the capital of the new country, Cartago lost a brief but bloody civil war with San José. Therefore relinquishing its political leadership while at the same time remaining the religious and spiritual center of the country.
The main reason for the city's fall from pre-eminent status is its location. Located at the base of the 11,000 foot high Irazú volcano, the area has been nearly destroyed by irruption's and earthquakes three separate times. Because of this, even though the town is the oldest in the country, there are very few relics remaining from the colonial period. The town and the people are very resilient and the area surrounding Cartago is some of the most beautiful and agriculturally rich land in all of Latin America.
Cartago is the home of La Negrita, a small black statue of the Virgin Mary. As the story goes, a young girl, on August 2, 1635, was playing in a stream while her mother was washing clothes. On top of a rock she found the little statue and took it home. When her mother found out she was very angry and ordered her to take it back because the real owner was probably very upset. The little girl went to the box where she had hidden it and it was gone. The next day when they returned to the stream the statue was again on the same rock. The mother, upon finding it was very upset, thinking that her daughter had lied. Again they took the statue, this time with the intention of bringing it to the local prist. The next day when they went to get the statue to take it to the priest, it was gone again. They immediately ran down to the stream and there it was once more atop the rock.
This was taken as a message from God and a shrine and church were built on the site. The original church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1920 and the current church, La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles was built six years later. The basilica is in the Byzantine tradition and is probably the most unique church in the country. The north side of the church is the shrine to the Virgin Mary, on the very site where the statue was first discovered. So, on August 2nd of every year, there is a pilgrimage of the faithful to the shrine. People from all over the country walk to Cartago in order to pray to the statue and to ask for miracles. The walls of the main room of the shrine are lined with gifts left by those that have been cured by the power of the Negrita. Most of the trinkets are miniature metal versions, some in gold, of the body parts that have been cured.
The town is a half hour drive from San José and there is good bus service to and from. Because the town sits at nearly 4,800 feet it is much cooler than the other central valley towns. So, take your sweater and umbrella and enjoy a very unique and picturesque town.