The city of Cartago (pop. 120,000) was founded in 1563 by Juan Vásquez de Coronado, the Spanish governor, as the nation’s first city. Cartago—a Spanish word for Carthage, the ancient North African trading center—reigned as the colonial capital until losing its status to San José  in the violent internecine squabbles of 1823.
In 1841 and again in 1910 earthquakes toppled much of the city. Though the remains of the ruined cathedral testify to Mother Nature’s destructive powers, many old buildings still stand. Volcán Irazú  looms over Cartago.
Cartago’s central landmark is the ruins of the Iglesia de la Parroquia (Avenida 2, Calle 2), colloquially called “Las Ruinas.” Completed in 1575 to honor Saint James the Apostle, the church was destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt a number of times before its final destruction in the earthquake of 1910. Today, only the walls remain.
In 2010, the Cartago Municipal Museum (Avenida 6, Calle 2, tel. 506/2552-8058 ext. 108, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 9 a.m.–3 p.m.Sun., free) opened in the handsome Comandancia de la Fuerza Pública de Cartago, the former army barracks. It has exhibits on the history of the city and hosts temporary art exhibitions and live concerts.
Other sights of tourist interest are few but include the Museo Etnográfico (Elias Leiva Museum of Ethnography, Calle 3, Avenidas 3/5, tel. 506/2551-0895, ext.106, 7 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free), which displays pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts such as religious icons and suits of armor. It’s in the neoclassical Colegio San Luis Gonsaga. On the southwest side of the city, the Iglesia and Convento Salesiano Santo Domingo (on Calle 19) is a beautiful modernist-style church and convent. A statue of the Virgen de los Ángeles by world-famous sculpture Jiménez Deredia greets visitors arriving from San José.
Cartago’s imposing cupola-topped Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Avenidas 2/4, Calles 14/16, tel. 506/2551-0465, www.diocesiscartago.org ), 10 blocks east of the main plaza, faces onto Plaza de Sanctuario Nacional. There’s a unique beauty to the soaring all-wood interior, with its marvelous stained-glass windows, ornate altar, various shrines, and columns and walls painted in floral motifs.
The cathedral is home to Costa Rica’s patron saint, La Negrita, or Virgen de los Ángeles, and the destination of thousands of Costa Ricans during the annual La Romería pilgrimage. The eight-inch-high black statue of La Negrita is embedded in a gold- and jewel-encrusted shrine above the main altar.
According to the legend, in 1635 a mulatto peasant girl named Juana Pereira found a small stone statue of the Virgin holding the Christ child. Twice Juana took the statue home and placed it in a box, and twice it mysteriously reappeared at the spot where it was discovered. The cathedral is said to mark the spot (the first cathedral was toppled by an earthquake in 1926).
Beneath the basilica (and entered from the northeast corner) is the Cripta de la Piedra de Hellaza—a crypt with the rock where Juana found La Negrita, plus fascinating displays of ex-votos or promesas: gold and silver charms and other offerings for prayers answered, games won, etc. On the southeast corner, a spring (la fuente) that emanates from the ground is said to have curative powers.
North out of town, the village of San Rafael de Cartago has a beautiful contemporary church with a bas-relief facade.
The Hotel San Francisco Lodge (Calle 3, Avenida 6, tel. 506/2574-2359, $18 s, $25 d) has eight spacious and Spartan but clean rooms with kitchenettes, TV, and private bathroom with hot water. The surrounding area is a bit dicey by night. It has secure parking.
The B&B Los Ángeles Lodge (Avenida 4, Calles 14/16, tel. 506/2551-0957, $18 s, $25 d), on the north side of the cathedral, offers a near identical option.
Hotel Las Brumas (tel. 506/2553-3535, www.hotellasbrumas.com , $36–48 s, $52–65 d), above San Rafael de Cartago, offers a modern alternative with delightfully furnished rooms. Its Restaurante Mi Tierra serves Costa Rican fare.
The best option in the city is Casa Mora B&B (Calle 16, Avenidas 4/6, tel. 506/2551-0324, www.casamoracr.com , $52–75 s, $70–93 d), Cartago’s only boutique hotel. This converted wooden mansion, built in 1972 in traditional style, boasts five junior suites and suites furnished in antique fashion. It has free WiFi.
Cartago Grill (Avenida 1, Calles 8/10, tel. 506/2551-5342, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. daily) specializes in meats and Argentinian-style grills and serves a casado (set lunch, $3), or almuerzo ejecutivo, as does Amadeus Café (Calle 10, Avenidas 2/4, tel. 506/2552-6262, 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $2–12), a small, pleasant conversion of a colonial home, now filled with contemporary art.
On the north side of the cathedral plaza, La Puerta del Sol (tel. 506/2551-0615, 8:30 a.m.–midnight daily) is good for casados (set meals, $5). Pizza hounds can head west one block to Otero’s Pizza (tel. 506/2551-2634).
For a clean, pleasant coffee shop with WiFi, head to Trigo Miel (Avenida 4, Calles 4/6, tel. 506/2552-2260; and Avenida 5, Calles 3/5, tel. 506/2552-6303; 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.).
Empresa Lumaca (tel. 506/2537-2320) buses depart San José  daily from Avenida 10, Calle 5, every 10 minutes 4:45 a.m.–9 p.m. ($0.70), then less frequently until midnight. Buses will drop you along Avenida 2, ending at the Basílica. Buses depart Cartago for San José from Avenida 4, Calles 2/4; and for Turrialba daily from Avenida 3, Calles 8/10, every 30 minutes 6–10:30 a.m. and hourly thereafter until 10:30 p.m.
In September 2010, the government announced plans to inaugurate an electrified commuter train between San José and Cartago. The Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles (INCOFER) will repair 23 kilometers of track, to be completed in 2011.
Taxis hang out on the north side of Las Ruinas.