17 Things To Do In Cartago, Costa Rica

Cartago is famous for its Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. Every year, many people from all over Costa Rica come here for a pilgrimage. The area near Cartago is famous for its coffee farms, ruins, volcanoes, and cathedral buildings. So, the best things to do in the area revolve around these landmarks. There’s little to no nightlife here. 

For business purposes, my first stay in Cartago was in the Paraiso area. Although I had just three nights to spend, thanks to my expat friend who had stayed here, I was able to discover and experience the best things to do. 

If you’re in Cartago for a short stay, I have gathered some of the best places you can go and things you can do to have a fun time. If you have a rental car and are up for day trips around Cartago and even outside the city for sightseeing, this article is for you. 

Remember, most of these recommendations revolve around mountainous regions, national parks, and scenic drives. nic drives. So it’s better if you have a rental car to move around. 

Key Takeaways

  • What is Cartago, Costa Rica, known for? Cartago is famous for its Basilica, which people from Costa Rica visit annually. Nearby are coffee farms and volcanoes.
  • Free things to do in Cartago —  Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles church 
  • Cheap things to do in Cartago — Lancaster Botanical Gardens (enjoy the view of orchids and tropical flowers)
  • For Adventure — Irazu Volcano National Park and the Prusia Forest
  • Things to do with family —- Sector Prussia (a family-friendly hiking humid rainforest) 
  • Things to do in Cartago as couples — Orosi View Point 
  • Fun things to do at Night in Cartago — None I can recommend. Cartago is well known for shutting down at 6 pm.

For wildlife experience — There are many options; I recommend a visit to the Savegre Reserve.

A list of the best things to do in Cartago is available.

Cartago offers a diverse attractions. However, what you’ll mostly see online is hiking at Irazu Volcano, coffee tours, and downtown exploration.

There’s more to these touristy areas, as you will soon find out. Remember, it would help if you had a rental car to move around quickly. 

Pro Tip:

  • The best time to visit is the dry season, from late December to mid-April, for optimal weather.

1. Rafting at the Pacuare River

One of the most enjoyable activities you can do in Cartago is embarking on a one-day rafting adventure on the Pacuare River. Even if you’re in San Jose, tour packages start at your hotel.

Most tours include a briefing on safety procedures during the ride to the start point. You will receive all the necessary equipment, and most tours conclude with a delicious Costa Rican lunch.

I highly recommend this trip, especially if you like water adventure while still prioritizing safety. You can also book this river journey through the Pacuare Lodge.

Consider this tour, which costs $155 per person. 

2. Visit Santuario Nacional, Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles

The Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles Church is renowned for the appearance of the Black Virgin, Costa Rica’s patron saint, in 1635. Every August, there’s a pilgrimage to honor her.

You can go anytime. Even the kids would enjoy visiting this place. You can stop by to buy a vial of holy water as a souvenir. The address is V37P+JRX, C. 1, Provincia de Cartago, Cartago, Costa Rica. 

The church is stunning, with a golden interior during the day and beautiful lighting at night. Across the street, there are places to eat. 

Around the back, there’s a small free museum with exciting items, including silver body parts left by people seeking healing for specific ailments. The story of the Black Virgin and the church’s construction is fascinating.

The church’s exterior and interior are beautiful. I managed to take many photos because there wasn’t a crowd when I arrived. 

Pro Tip:

  • If you go on a Sunday, there will be several masses, and you won’t get to explore the inside of the church.
  • You must go behind to see the statue of La Negrita and have some holy water. We filled two bottles in the shape of a statue and brought them home.

3. Visit Savegre Reserve to see the wildlife.

When you lodge at the Savegre Hotel in Avenida 5 2, Cartago Province, Cartago, Ciudadela Blanco, Costa Rica, you can access the Savegre Reserve.

The hotel environment itself is stunning. Lots of flowering plants surround the main building and cabins, attracting many birds. You might not even need to venture far to see them! 

FRIENDLY ADVICE:

  • You can hike the trails in the reserve (all of which are uphill and sometimes steep), but I recommend going with the available guide. He knows his birds and natural history, so you’ll get more out of your visit. Plus, he’ll take you up the hill in his outfitted truck, so you don’t have to wear yourself out hiking uphill.

You’ll need to rise early to see the quetzals, and expert guide Marino will drive you to a suitable spot. He has an incredible knack for spotting birds. He helped us see both male and female quetzals, along with other beautiful birds. 

4. Visit the Church of Carthage Ruins.

Private homes, restaurants, and well-known chains like McDonald’s and Burger King surround this attraction, which is only a short 10-15 minute walk from the Basilica.

The gardens surrounding the ruins are well-maintained, with beautiful shrubs and two small fountains adding to the charm. 

You’ll also find several pieces of artwork on display. Behind the ruins, there’s a public park featuring a striking statue of Independence, shops, benches where people rest and enjoy people-watching, and pigeons fluttering about. 

We initially visited at night, which was quite remarkable, and returned the following day to explore in daylight. 

Pro Tip: 

  • Locks may prevent you from entering the ruins. But it’s still intriguing to peek inside. 
  • Unfortunately, we didn’t give the area a perfect recommendation because homeless people appeared to use it for sleeping, which led to unpleasant odors and waste.

Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth a visit. Additionally, the nearby sculpture in the city center is quite impressive.

Inside the ruins, there’s a lovely park filled with colorful flowers and rich history. This site holds great significance for the locals and is a must-see landmark if you’re visiting Cartago.

5. At Lankester Botanical Gardens, see orchids.

The Lankester Botanical Garden is truly breathtaking, especially for orchid enthusiasts. With hundreds of blooming orchids, it’s a sight to behold.

It’s definitely worth the stop, and it’s free. When we arrived at the garden, it was $10 each. They provided a map, and you could walk around.

You can comfortably explore the 26-acre park in about an hour. We visited on a Sunday and found many families enjoying picnics and leisure time.

The garden features various themed areas, including a serene koi pond and an abundance of fascinating plant life.

Despite the closure of the café due to COVID-19, the gift shop remained open, and a food vendor was present in the park during our visit.

Pro Tip:

  • Remember that parking may be limited and the road to the garden can be quite rough.

6. Experience Creepiness at Durán Sanatorium

Initially built in 1918 as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, the Durán Sanatorium, situated north of Cartago, later served as a juvenile detention center. Today, it’s one of the most visited places in the area, known for its rumored paranormal activity.

Visitors who are not residents should expect to pay a steep $15 entrance fee, while residents only pay $2. Despite the fee, it’s worth spending at least an hour exploring this historic site. 

We noticed ongoing restoration efforts during our visit, which won’t compromise its rustic charm. 

I admire the original floors, but I was disappointed to see graffiti on the walls. It would be better if there were more historical information on-site, as many people had to rely on internet research.

Despite these minor drawbacks, the visit was still enjoyable. The atmosphere of the old, abandoned hospital, set amidst a farm with grazing cows and surrounded by mountains, is truly unique. 

Rumors of its haunting add to its allure. The inexpensive entrance fee of around 1200 colones makes it a must-see attraction in the area.

7. Take a stroll around the Plaza Mayor of Cartago, Costa Rica.

The Plaza Mayor of Cartago is a stunning and spacious area at the heart of the city, facing the ruins of the Temple of Santiago Apostle. Costa Rica recognizes it as a historical and architectural heritage site.

You can enjoy a leisurely walk through this historic space, marveling at the impressive ruins that encircle it.

This square has a rich history spanning over 400 years, witnessing critical events of the colonial era and the independence movement. 

With plenty of trees providing shade, it’s the perfect spot to take a break and relax on one of the benches.

8. Walk into the Prusia Forest.

Just a 30-minute drive from Cartago City Center, this Prusia Forest offers a magical experience that’s worth the journey. 

Located in the Prusia Sector and a part of the Iraz Volcano National Park, the Prusia Forest is truly enchanting.

While there’s no bus service available, renting a car is an option. A vast expanse of nature surrounds you once you arrive, with winding trails, towering trees, scenic viewpoints, and diverse wildlife.

It’s the perfect destination for a day trip to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and reconnect with nature. 

Families with children will particularly appreciate the beauty and serenity of this forest. 

9. Visit the Iraz Volcano National Park.

This park is home to the country’s largest volcano, boasting a surreal landscape reminiscent of the moon.

Your visit may get off to a rocky start, with the Sinac website being frustratingly slow, but you may eventually manage to snag tickets just in time at the park entrance. 

Admission prices vary, but they are $15 for non-resident visitors over 13 years old, $5 for non-resident children (2 to 12 years old), and ¢ $500 for domestic visitors and residents of primary and secondary education institutions.

Once inside, the breathtaking views await you. Marvel at the clouds below, and catch glimpses of neighboring volcanic mountains and even the Caribbean Sea. 

You can snap plenty of photos before descending as you pass by farms cultivating potatoes, onions, and more.

Unpopular opinion:

  • The journey to the park is too lengthy for just a 15-minute walk around the volcano.
  • Food options at Irazu Volcano Park are lacking. This is why the Arenal Volcano experience is better. 
  • Purchase tickets online in advance, as internet connectivity at the entrance may be unreliable.

The park offers a pleasant walking experience, with diverse plant and animal life resembling Andean Paramos. The weather can be cool, so dress accordingly. 

Even though clouds frequently obscure the lake, you can still enjoy your couple of hours there.

10. Soak in views of the valley from the Orosí viewpoint. 

Just a short 5-kilometer drive from Orosí center, the Mirador de Orosí is one of the province’s most captivating spots. 

Photography enthusiasts will find ample inspiration here. It’s a fantastic place to spend a leisurely afternoon lounging in the hills and soaking in the stunning views. For a romantic touch, bring along a picnic!

The park itself features lovely gardens and, of course, mesmerizing valley and river views. 

While we were required to show our passports for entry, there was no admission fee. We grabbed some coffee nearby and made our way to the park to savor the scenery from its elevated position. 

Numerous picnic tables, BBQ facilities, and water taps make it ideal for a relaxed outdoor meal.

While it may not be worth a two-hour drive solely for the views from this spot, if you happen to be in the vicinity, it’s definitely worth a visit. 

The panoramic vistas of Orosí are simply spectacular!

11. Horseback riding at Cerro de la Muerte

Situated close to the heart of Cartago, Cerro de la Muerte is a natural gem. There’s no shortage of activities to enjoy here, ranging from hiking along the numerous trails to horseback riding. 

We highly recommend making the climb to the hill’s summit, where you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of a serene lake.

Cerro de la Muerte, one of the highest points in the region, offers several stops along the way where you can indulge in delicious food, fresh fruits, cheeses, and flowers.

FRIENDLY ADVICE:

  • Be careful while driving, as the road can be slippery, and always remain vigilant for wildlife crossing the road. 

Once you reach the summit, be sure to visit the local National Park Office to explore the Cloud Forest and its refreshing, chilly environment.

12. Picnic at Ujarrás Ruins

Getting in was a breeze, and the staff were very courteous. The view of the Orosi Valley is simply stunning. While there are barbecue facilities available, it’s advisable to arrive early to secure a spot. 

There are also attractions for children, making it a family-friendly destination. This local park is a favorite spot for kids who love sliding down the grassy slope on cardboard. I was pleasantly surprised by how well-maintained the park was.

With great views of the valley and river, it’s a perfect place to unwind. There’s no entrance fee, but foreign visitors need to show their passports upon entry. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic or simply relaxing for a while.

While there weren’t many foreigners around, the park is usually bustling with local visitors and residents enjoying the scenery.

13. Catch your lunch (trucha)

Usually located next to a restaurant, a trucha is a small pond that stocks trout for fishing. They provide visitors with a string and bait to catch their trout. This is easily found around Cartoga Town.

Once you’ve caught your trout, the staff will prepare it for you, often deep-frying it so you can enjoy it without worrying about bones. 

A whole fish meal typically costs around $10 and includes rice, beans, fried plantains, and salad.

It’s a unique and memorable experience that many tourists don’t get to try. Cartago has several truchas, so simply type “trucha Cartago” on Google Maps to find one near you.

14. Explore fancy restaurants.

In downtown Cartago, you’ll find La Hidalgue, a charming mid-range restaurant offering delicious traditional Costa Rican cuisine. It’s a great spot to experience authentic local flavors in a welcoming atmosphere.

For meat lovers, El Novillo Alegre is a must-visit. This mid-range restaurant, also located downtown, is renowned for its quality cuts of meat, particularly the steak. It’s a popular choice for those craving a hearty and satisfying meal.

If you’re looking for budget-friendly options, head to Basilico Pizzeria. Situated in downtown Cartago, this restaurant specializes in mouthwatering wood-fired pizzas. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a tasty meal without breaking the bank.

15. Birdwatching at Tapantí National Park

Tapantí National Park offers high-intensity hiking rainforests where you can birdwatch quetzals, hummingbirds, hawks, and parakeets and see monkeys, tapirs, and many more. 

The park provides plenty of picnic areas along the trails, making it perfect for a relaxing outdoor meal beside the river. The majority of trails are short and appropriate for hikers of all skill levels, with one trail specifically designed for experienced hikers.

The park boasts well-maintained roads, clean bathrooms, and helpful advice from park rangers, ensuring a pleasant experience for visitors.

The entrance fees to Tapantí National Park differ from what some guidebooks suggest. The prices are $10 for adults and $5 for kids.

You can even consider this birdwatching tour to Tapanti National Park, which only costs $59 per person with extra treats. 

Pro Tips:

  • If you have time to spare, a visit to Tapantí National Park is worth considering, but if you’re in a rush, you may want to explore other options. 
  • Keep in mind to wear sturdy shoes and pack an umbrella or rainponcho, as it’s likely to rain, especially in the afternoon.
  • For a better hiking experience, I recommend Monteverde National Park instead of this one.

16. Cachí Lake 

Built around a hydroelectric plant, Cachi Lake is a district where you can row in the lakes. Lake Cachi is located less than 10 kilometers from the Rio Perlas Hotel.

The lake is southeast of Cartago and was created by the Cachí Dam.

However, everything here seems overcommercialized. They charge $17 per person to enter the wall.

17. Guayabo National Monument 

A visit to Guayabo National Monument is another opportunity to experience the ruins of a Costa Rican indigenous city.

It offers a well-restored archaeological site with informative signage and scenic walking trails. 

However, reaching it can be challenging due to the limited signage. While it may not be a must-see for all visitors, it may be worth the effort if you’re interested in Costa Rica’s indigenous history or seeking an adventurous experience.

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Know This Before Moving Around Cartago…

Visit Cartago to understand why Costa Rica chose it as its first capital back in 1563. Unfortunately, a giant volcano eruption in 1723 wrecked the town, and San Jose became the capital instead. Nature has its ways!

Note: Cartago is not known for its nightlife. Most places close early, and there aren’t many bars for tourists. 

You’re better off checking out Downtown San José or spots like La Cali or La Calle de la Amargura in San Pedro for a livelier scene when the sun goes down.

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About 

Born in California, Michelle traveled extensively through the USA and Europe before moving to South Florida during the pandemic. Her career in Marketing has taken her all across the world. Her favorite country is France but she'll never turn down a beach vacation!

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