Typically you won’t hear anybody recommending Cartago as a must visit destination in Costa Rica and if you asked us a year ago we would have agreed, but we have recently changed our minds.
See, we live in San Jose and although we would love to travel every weekend, it is just not always possible. This past year we have focused a lot on exploring the areas around San Jose and Cartago is one of those areas we have gotten to know really well.
We have discovered there are so many nice things to do in the Cartago province if you just step away from the downtown area. We highly recommend checking it out if you find yourself with a few nights in the central valley area of Costa Rica.
The vibe of the downtown area is hectic and not really the nicest. If you head out of the city area you will find beautiful rolling fields and mountains.
Now on to the rest of the Cartago Costa Rica travel guide!
This guide is not just for the city of Cartago, but rather the whole Cartago province. Most of the villages in this area a very small, so we decided to combine all of them into one handy guide!
Certain parts (aka in the mountains) of Cartago, Costa Rica can be a bit cool throughout the year. When I saw cool I mean you will probably want pants and a long sleeve shirt.
Cartago has a similar climate to San Jose. You can expect cooler temperatures and a lot of wind between the end of December through the end of April. There won’t be any rain during this time, but everything will be a bit brown.
During the rainy season between May through mid-August you can expect a daily afternoon thunderstorm. These storms can be really scary in this area, but it is actually our favorite time of year to visit because everything is so green and pretty. Just get up early and enjoy the day before the afternoon rain rolls in.
Between mid-August and mid-December, you will likely experience more rain and a higher chance of gray days. You never really know though! The weather is always a surprise.
Getting to Cartago
The easiest way to get to Cartago Costa Rica is by flying into the San Jose airport.
It will take you about one hour to drive from the San Jose airport to downtown Cartago.
The best option to get to Cartago is to rent a car. If coming from San Jose airport you can rent a car from close to the airport (but free transportation to the rental car office is provided from the airport).
We suggest using Adobe because they are the most trustworthy rental car company in this country and we have a 10% discount for you. You can read more about renting a car here.
The drive from San Jose is the craziest in the country (in our opinion). You have to drive through downtown San Jose and parts of downtown Cartago to get to most of the places we will mention. People drive like absolute maniacs. We suggest acclimating a bit to driving in Costa Rica before attempting this drive.
If you don’t feel comfortable driving on your own, the cheapest option is to take the public bus. The bus leaves from San Jose every 10 minutes every day between 5am and midnight. It will take you about forty-five minutes on the bus from downtown San Jose to downtown Cartago.
It’s not the most comfortable ride, but it’s cheap (under $5 per person). Definitely get there early before the departure time because once all the seats are taken you may be left standing for the ride.
Getting Around in Cartago
You will really need a rental car while in Cartago. The real gems of this area are outside of the downtown area. To get to all these cool places you will need to drive.
If you opt to take the bus to Cartago, you can rent a car from Adobe and input Cartago as your pick-up location. In the comments section specify that you need the car delivered to you at your hotel in Cartago. They will deliver it to you free of charge if you are within 12 miles of their location.
Keep in mind that most of the Cartago Province is mountainous. We suggest renting a 4×4 or at least an SUV with decent clearance.
Pro Tip: Rent a car with Adobe through our site and you will get a 10% discount! Score! You can find out more about it here.
Visit Irazu Volcano: Now that Poas volcano is closed indefinitely, Irazu is the top pick for seeing a volcano up close and personal. If you’d like to know more about visiting this unique spot, we have a complete guide here.
Hike in a unique pine forest: We recently visited Prusia forest (near Irazu) based on the recommendation of some friends and we loved it! It only cost a few dollars per person to enter the park. You can then hike several miles of trails including one through a pine forest. I kept saying to Thomas that I felt like I was in the Pacific Northwest of the US, not Costa Rica. Just be warned, this is at a very high elevation. Take things slow. I was really struggling at the beginning of the hike until I adjusted a bit. I suggest bringing something with electrolytes like Gatorade to help you out a bit.
Visit an abandoned mental hospital: If you visit Prusia forest you will pass an abandoned mental hospital called Sanatorio Carlos Duran on your way to the parking area. You can also see it as you drive to Irazu. Thomas and I like to bring a picnic lunch with us and visit this spot after visiting Prusia or Irazu. It costs a few dollars per car to enter and you can explore all the buildings and grounds. It’s kind of creepy in spots (especially in the children’s building).
Catch your lunch: One of our absolute favorite things to take visitors to is a trucha. A trucha is a small stocked trout fishing pond next to a restaurant. You are given a string with some bait on the end to catch your trout. Once you catch your trout the employees will take it and cook it up for you (usually they deep fry it so you can eat the bones without any problems). It typically costa about $10 for your whole fish meal which usually includes rice, beans, fried plantains, and salad. It is a unique activity that most tourists never experience. There are several truchas in Cartago. Just search “trucha Cartago” on Google maps to find one close to where you plan on visiting.
Check out an amazing church: Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles is an interesting place to visit not just for its beautiful architecture but also for the story surrounding it. You can read more about the history here.
Visit the cute town of Orosi: I am working on a whole post about Orosi so stay tuned for that. For now, I will say you should definitely check out Iglesia de San Jose, walk across the long swinging bridge, and explore the Tapanti National Park.
Check out some abandoned churches: There are a bunch of abandoned churches in Cartago. Most are stone structures which have been turned into open green space inside. Our favorite to visit is Santiago Apostol. Every time they have attempted to finish this structure an earthquake has destroyed it. Now it is a really cute public park.
Villa Valle Bello: This spot is located in the town of Ujarras. For about $50 a night you can stay in a two bedroom villa with kitchen. Breakfast is also included. The roads to get here are a bit crazy so definitely rent a 4×4 if you plan to visit.
Farm Stay Finca Agropecuaria: This place is located in the town of Orosi. The family that runs this spot are amazing and I guarantee you will feel right at home here. For about $45 a night you can stay in a large basic room. Breakfast is not included, but they do provide meals here for a fair price.
Bella Vista Ranch Ecolodge: This is located in the Turrialba area of Cartago. The views here are amazing and you can even enjoy the scenery from their pool. For a large room with a shared bathroom you can expect to pay under $40 a night.
We definitely suggest checking out Airbnb as well. Sometimes you can get some really great accommodation deals at beautiful places on Airbnb. We like Airbnb because often you can get a place with a private kitchen. This definitely helps us to save some money so we are not constantly eating at restaurants. Also, often staying at an Airbnb will give you a more local experience.
Save $30 off your first Airbnb stay here
Pizzeria a la lena: Anyone who knows me well is aware that a good pizza and craft beer is the key to my heart. This place has got it down. They have a really good selection of craft beers (this is rare for Costa Rica), quality pizza, and a cute seating area.
La Posada de la Luna: If you want a typical Costa Rican meal this is the place to go. We really like the homey vibe here. There are tons of interesting things to look at on the walls. The food is great (you definitely won’t leave here hungry) and affordable for what it is.
Mi Tierra: Another great, homey place with typical Costa Rican food. The portions here are HUGE!
Restaurante 1910: This is a great spot to stop after visiting Irazu. The food is quality (a bit pricier than the other places we’ve suggested) and the vibe is nice.
– Don’t forget that parts of Cartago are at a very high elevation. Just prepare yourself and take it slow.
– Although it may be warm in other parts of the country, at higher elevations in Cartago it can be a bit cool. Definitely, pack at minimum a light sweater.
– The city of Cartago is OK, but please use caution in this area. I wouldn’t say it is dangerous, but also not the safest. You can read our list of Costa Rica safety tips here.