Costa Rica



General Information:

Climate: This interior province consists primarily of the Reventazón River valley and the surrounding high mountains to the north (Irazú and Turrialba Volcanoes) and south (Cerro de la Muerte and Mount Chirripó) and is situated practically entirely on the Atlantic side of the continental divide. Therefore, the moisture brought in by the trade winds directly affects most of the province, although the city of Cartago itself is in the rain shadow of the 3,432 meter high Irazú Volcano and as a result is one of the driest parts of Costa Rica, after the lower portions of Guanacaste province. The overall high elevation of Cartago province and frequent cloud cover combine to impart relatively cool temperatures throughout the year.

History: The city of Cartago was first established in 1563 by the Spanish conquistador Juan Vásquez de Coronado. The original village was situated between the Coris and Purires Rivers, several kilometers to the southwest of the present day city. This location proved to be poorly chosen, however, since the settlement was flooded so often that it came to be known as the "City of Mud," and in 1572 was transferred to another site closer to what is now San José.

About two years later, the population was again transferred back to the current site of the city of Cartago, which remained the capital of the province of Costa Rica throughout the colonial period. In 1823, two years after independence from Spain, the country's governmental seat was moved to San José and Cartago was left to develop as a provincial capital of the new republic.

When Vásquez de Coronado first explored the eastern end of the Central Valley he found an area populated by numerous indigenous groups, and thus the Spaniards set about the mission of christianizing the native peoples. The first church built in Costa Rica was constructed during the 1560's in the Valley of Ujarrás near the Reventazón River. The settlement was eventually abandoned, however, due to recurring floods and episodes of pestilence. The ruins of the church are still visible on the site and have been declared a national monument.

The fate of the church in the Cartago parish has not been much better. Construction began in 1574, but between then and 1910 the building had to be rebuilt five times because of earthquake damage. Following the massive destruction caused by the Cartago quake of 1910, the church was abandoned and the ruins now form the centerpiece of a park in the middle of town.

Three blocks to the east of the parish ruins stands the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, an impressive Byzantine style church which is the national religious shrine of Costa Rica. Every year thousands of devotees from across the country make a pilgrimage on foot to honor the Virgin Mary and to render homage for favors conceded. This pilgrimage coincides with the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels held on August 2nd to commemorate the miraculous appearance (and subsequent reappearance) of a small carved image of the virgin mother to a young native girl in 1635. The church was erected on the actual site and the rock on which the statue appeared can be seen in a crypt entered from the left-hand side of the church's altar.


National Parks:

1) Irazú Volcano National Park

2) Tapantí National Park

3) Guayabo National Monument

4) Chirripó National Park

5) Braulio Carrillo National Park


Other Points of Interest:

1) Cerro de la Muerte: Along this approximately 50-kilometer stretch of the PanAmerican Highway, one can see practically all of the country's highland flora and fauna, thus making a drive across Cerro de la Muerte like visiting Mount Chirripó, but without all the strenuous effort.

To the North American who is familiar with the vegetation back home, many plants along the Cerro will look familiar. There are alders, blueberries (not a very juicy variety), gooseberries, lady's slippers, Indian paintbrush, giant thistles, and St. John's worts. Nonetheless, botanical surveys of the area show an even stronger affinity with Andean flora.

However, as a result of geographic isolation from their ancestral species, a high percentage of the life forms in these highlands have evolved into distinct, albeit closely related, species.

In the case of birds, nearly fifty percent of the species recorded from Cerro de la Muerte are endemic, that is, species found in the mountains of Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama and nowhere else. Examples of these endemics include: Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Timberline Wren, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Volcano Junco.

Characteristic elements of the forest understory along the roadside are tree ferns, poor man's umbrella (Gunnera spp.), and scandent bamboo (Chusquea sp.). This bamboo is the dominant understory vegetation in many forested areas and becomes the most conspicuous plant once the tree line is reached between kilometers 88 and 90. A gravel road heading off to the right leads up to the summit of the highest peak in this part of the range at over 3,300 meters above sea level. Numerous local television and radio stations have populated the summit with repeaters.

Beyond this point the highway begins to drop down into the Valle del General and the county seat of San Isidro at a mere 700 meters above sea level. From San José it takes about two hours (nonstop driving) to reach kilometer 90, and another hour or so to San Isidro.

You can walk down any of the side roads going off from the highway and be sure of seeing interesting plants and birds (though, don't leave valuables in an unguarded vehicle).

In the last several years a few local landowners have opened their properties to tourists and charge between $5 and $10 a person for guided tours in their forests. The advantage of visiting one of these farms, in addition to helping the local economy, is that your chances of seeing a Resplendent Quetzal at any time of year are exceptionally good.

Getting there: Take Avenida Central out of town, heading towards Cartago. Upon nearing Cartago, stay on the PanAmerican Highway and follow the signs for Panama. By bus, take the San Isidro del General bus that leaves from near the Coca-Cola bus station. An early start is highly recommended since the mornings are usually sunny and the afternoons are often rainy.

One recommended stop en route, either coming or going, or both, is a local version of a greasy spoon truck stop known as "Los Chesperitos." Located near kilometer 76, the newly expanded cafeteria area offers travelers a variety of taste treats, and their hot chocolate is guaranteed to take the edge off of the worst weather conditions one might encounter on the mountain.

Climate: Sunny mornings can be very pleasant, but overnight temperatures can dip to near freezing, especially from November to January. Bring layers of clothes for being comfortable when out walking around in the varied climate conditions during the course of a day. Take along sun block because if it is sunny the thinner air and cooler temperatures in the highlands can cause you to burn without your even knowing it until it is too late.

History: The name Cerro de la Muerte, which translates as "Mountain of Death", predates the construction of the PanAmerican Highway and refers to the tragic consequences suffered by many who attempted the arduous crossing from the Central Valley to the Valley of San Isidro del General. This entailed a three or four day journey, on foot or on horseback, and meant spending at least two nights in the cold and often rainy highlands. Many were ill-prepared for the inclement weather and, if they did not succumb to hypothermia on the spot, perished from complications such as pneumonia later on.

2) Orosi Valley, Cachí Reservoir & Dam: About an hour's drive southeast of San José, just beyond the town of Paraíso, lies this splendorously scenic valley. Taking the road towards Orosi will bring you to a lookout point on the valley rim that is well worth a stop for the panoramic view of the valley below and Irazú Volcano to the north. The town of Orosi is known as the home of the country's oldest church that is still in use. The building dates back to the 1700's. Several natural thermal springs in the area have been made into bathing facilities.

The Orosi River flows out of the Talamanca mountains and Tapantí National Park, and alongside the town before emptying into the reservoir formed by the Cachí Dam. Following the road around the south side of this manmade lake will take you through the village of Cachí and to the dam. One interesting and curious structure between the village and the dam is La Casa del Soñador (The House of the Dreamer), a small house made of coffee trunks--each one sculpted into unique forms and figures.

From the dam, water is piped several kilometers downriver to the actual power generating station (capable of producing 64,000 kW), which can be reached by taking the road to Tucurrique (the turn off is just before the dam, if coming from Cachí). This road provides breathtaking views of the Reventazón River canyon.

Continuing across the dam, you will come to the village of Ujarrás, the site of the ruins of a church built in the 1560's. Although most of the valley is dedicated to coffee production, this particular area produces large quantities of chayote, a pear-sized green squash grown on trellises.

Climbing up out of the valley you will pass another scenic overlook offering a view from a different angle. Nearby is a fairly spectacular waterfall.

3) Reventazón & Pacuare Rivers (white water rafting): Both the Reventazón and the Pacuare Rivers originate high in the Talamanca mountains on the upper slopes of Cerro Cuerici and empty into the Caribbean Sea after having dropped some 3,000 meters. For much of their length, the two rivers parallel each other. The other feature that they have in common is their excellence as rivers for white water rafting and kayaking.

The Reventazón is undoubtedly visited for this purpose by more people each year than any other Costa Rican river. It has an exciting and challenging 14-kilometer stretch of Class III water between Tucurrique and Turrialba. Above and below this section are even more difficult, yet still raftable portions for those with previous experience.

The Pacuare River has been declared the equivalent of a Wild and Scenic River, and it is indeed both. Local white water companies take rafting enthusiasts down a 30-kilometer run from near Tres Equis to Siquirres, often with at least one night of camping on the river banks. Since 1986, the Costa Rican Electric Company (I.C.E.) has been considering putting a dam on this nearly pristine river; however, for the time being, the river still flows wild and free.

4) Lankester Gardens: Some 600 of the country's 1,400 native orchid species are kept in this 11 ha. garden administered by the University of Costa Rica. This was one of three orchid collections amassed during the early part of the 20th century by Charles Lankester, a British coffee plantation supervisor who was duly impressed by the tremendous variety of orchids he found on the trunks and branches of forest trees that were being felled to make way for more coffee plantations throughout the interior valleys and slopes. Although he did nothing to protect the forests (nor did anybody else in those days), his orchid collections formed a basis for the study and appreciation of these beautiful plants.

The varied landscaping of the grounds creates a number of microhabitats ranging from rain forest to almost desert, and each area showcases orchids, bromeliads, and other plants adapted to the specific conditions of light and humidity. If you can get permission to enter any of the several greenhouses, then you are in for a real treat (bring a hand lens to be able to adequately admire the many stunning miniature species).

The Lankester Gardens are reached by taking the road to Paraiso out of Cartago. Look for a large cube balanced on one corner (by the entrance to Campo Ayala) and turn right; follow the gravel road back about 300 m. to the gardens. The gardens are open to the public everyday from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Phone: 551-9877.




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Richard Garrigues Ó 1996