Cartago is the third largest city in Costa Rica and it was also the capital of Costa Rica until 1823. Cartago is rich in history and an easy day trip from San José, Costa Rica. It is a little over an hour from Escazu area of San José, give or take an hour depending on traffic.
The things to do in Cartago and Orosi that are listed below. Although Cartago is a day trip from San José, it will take more than one day to see everything below. But this list of historical sights and attractions in the Cartago-Orosí area will give you a sense of the best things to do in the area.
Cartago is in the Cartago Province of Costa Rica, as in Cartago, Cartago like New York, New York.
Things to do in Cartago
Irazú Volcano is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica. From here you can see both coasts and on a clear day, you could allegedly see all the way to Lake Nicaragua. On the weekends there can be long lines waiting to get into the parking lot of Irazú Volcano. Although Cartago sits at the base of the Irazú Volcano, it takes about 30 minutes to get the top from downtown Cartago and it is a beautiful drive. I recommend going early in the morning, not mid-morning, that is when everyone seems to go.
I believe the Irazu Volcano National Park entrance fee is still $15 per adult, $5 per child (2-12) and it is open every day from 8 AM to 3:30 PM.
Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Basilica)
This basílica in Cartago was originally built in 1639, and partially rebuilt in 1939. It is a mix of colonial architecture and Byzantine style.
Cartago Ruins – The ruins in the middle of the town of Cartago have an exhausting number of names – Ruinas de la Parroquia, Ruinas de Cartago, Templo Inconcluso de Santiago Apóstol and the temple of the Santiago Apostle Parish. Although they have many names, it is all the same location and these ruins are right in the middle of the town of Cartago. The ruins are based on plans by German architect Francisco Kurtz with Roman influence and this church is the only example of this architecture in Costa Rica.
The ruins in Cartago are a mix of old and new. The ruins are old, but decorated with new-ish modern statues made out of assorted materials and the new growth of flowers and plants in the garden. Legend says that every foggy night in Cartago it is possible to see a headless priest inside the ruins. As the legend goes, the ghost must wander the ruins forever as a penance for desecrating a holy place. Apparently he and his brother were fighting over the same women and he killed his brother and this has him restless in the afterlife, or maybe he’s just unsettled by a statue welded out of car parts in front of a 500 year-old historical site. Construction was stopped on rebuilding the church in 1910, as every time the church is rebuilt, there is an earthquake that destroys the building. Local folklore is that this site is cursed.
Jardín Botánico Lankester – An easy stop to see the flora that Costa Rica has to offer. Costa Rica is only .5% of the word’s surface, but has 5% of the world’s biodiversity. There are an impressive number of orchid varieties here. Costa Rica has 1,600 species of orchids, making it the country with the most orchids per area than any other country on the planet. 1 out of every 8 Costa Rican orchid species have been discovered and classified by scientists at Lancaster Botanical Garden.
Ruinas de Ujarrás
These ruins are about a 20 minute drive from Cartago. The drive down into the valley to the ruins is stunning. The ruins have a bathroom and playground for children to run around and play.
Orosí is a small town in the Orosí Valley in the Cartago Province. It is about a 30 minute drive from Cartago if you drive straight there on 224, or about an hour drive drive time if you loop past the Ujarrás ruins, Cachí Dam, Cachí Lake and Casa Del Sonador (Dreamer House).
Mirador de Orosí – This is a green space where you can see panoramic views of the valley. They have walking paths and picnic tables. Although mirador translates to lookout, it is more than that, it is a park. On busy weekends there is a line to get in to park your car. If you just want to see the view, if you drive just past it, there is a place to pull over on the side of the road to grab a quick photo without going in the park parking lot. But if it isn’t crowded, stop and check out the view from the park.
Casa del Sonador is a woodworking artisan studio in Orosi that is run by Hermes Quesada. You will go past it if you loop around Lake Cachi.
Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi and the Museum – The oldest functioning church in Costa Rica. It is on the drive to Hacienda Orosi. It is a Costa Rican national monument.
Hacienda Orosi – Gorgeous Thermal Spa & farm to table restaurant with stunning views of the valley below.
And if you don’t want to spend the time or money for Hacienda Orosi, you can take a quick dip in the Orosi natural hot spring.
Tapanantí National Park – is only 20 minutes past Hacienda Orosí. A good stop if you have time for some hikes. This park is 12,500 acres and collects more rain water than anywhere else in Costa Rica. Since water is abundant here, this park provides San Jose with drinking water and hydroelectric power. While this park is know for it’s bird sightings and has over 400 species of birds, animals aren’t seen as frequently as other places in Costa Rica. The park is known for it’s trout fishing which is available April to October and require a permit from the ranger station. If you plan on hiking this park, a guide is recommended.
There are also many coffee farm tours in this area. Finca Christina or Cafe Christina is a coffee tour that is available by reservation only. It is on the way to Ujarras Ruins. Finca Cristina will offer a coffee tour at 9am or 2 pm Monday through Saturday. It is $20 per person and the tour lasts about 90 minutes.
It is worth mentioning that the Cartago province also has the Guayabo National Monument, but it is about an hour the opposite direction of Cartago from all of the above things to do. And the Turrialba Volcano is about an hour drive from Guayabo. If you are at Guayabo on a Friday or a Saturday, check out the Turrialba Farmer’s Market. Also, you should know although the town of Turrialba in Cartago province and the Turrialba volcano share the same name, the drive time between the two is about an hour. And the Turrialba Volcano is currently closed because of eruptions, but you can get within about 2 km of the volcano to view it. If you want to see a volcano in this area, I recommend Irazú. If you are a volcano connoisseur, you might want to also check out Poaz Volcano north of San José, and Arenal Volcano in Alajuela.
WHERE TO STAY
Cartago/Orosi is an easy day trip from San José, here are recommendations for the Best Hotels in San José. Or if you want to continue exploring south of San José, you can drive over to San Gerardo de Dota which is an hour and a half from Cartago. If you want to keep traveling south, Kinkara is an amazing stop that is only 2 more hours from San Gerardo de Dota, and Kinkara puts you only an hour and 15 minutes from Dominical where you can go check out the beach towns of Dominical, Ojochal and Uvita. (Or if you don’t have time for Kinkara, the town of San Gerardo de Dota is only 2 hours to Dominical.)
And if Cerro de la Muerte (Death Hill) is on your bucket list, you’ll drive through this mountain pass that is south of San Gerardo de Dota. (Don’t worry, it’s paved now and not as terrifying.)
And when you get ready to head back to San José, you don’t have to retrace your steps, you can take the coastal highway and it’s only 3 hours back to the San José airport (SJO).
If you feel like there’s something amazing in the Cartago-Orosí area that was missed, please add it the comments below and I will check it out next time I am in the Cartago Province. And feel free to ask questions. Thanks for reading!
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