Cartago, Costa Rica: Complete Central Valley City Guide

Cartago Costa Rica is known for coffee farms, beautiful views, and volcanos in the Central Valley

central valley cartago

The Cartago Costa Rica Vibes

Typically you won’t hear anybody recommending Cartago as a must-visit destination in Costa Rica and if you asked us a few years ago we would have agreed.

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!

Background Info About Cartago Costa Rica

Nearest International Airport

Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose

Popular Things to Do

hiking at Irazu Volcano, coffee tours, exploring downtown

Best Way to Get Around

Rental car

Best Time of Year to Visit

Dry season is from late December until mid-April

costa rica vibes about

We’re Thomas (the German) and Sarah (the US-er).

We met in Virginia, moved to Germany, and now live in sunny Costa Rica. It was a spontaneous decision to move here, but it was the best decision!

Want the whole crazy story?

cartago Costa Rica
cartago Costa Rica
cartago Costa Rica

Map Of Cartago

Cartago is located in the Central Valley area of Costa Rica. It is a short drive away from the capital city of San José.

Flights to Costa Rica

The easiest way to get to Cartago Costa Rica is by flying into the San Jose airport.

For flight booking we suggest Skyscanner.

They are our go-to flight booking site for great rates.

Driving to Cartago from San Jose Airport

We like renting a car in Costa Rica because it will definitely give you the most flexibility for exploring. In general, you should feel comfortable driving here if you are a somewhat experienced driver.

Our favorite rental car company is a local company called Adobe-Rent-a-Car. They are the most honest, trustworthy, and just overall amazing rental company we have found here. 

Because we like them so much we asked if they would like to work together and they said, “yes.” 

So we have a 10% discount plus other great perks to pass on to you if you book through us! 

Yay to saving money!

Even if you are considering renting through another company, please read through our rental car page first. There is mandatory car insurance here that you need to know about. 

Our #1 Car Rental Choice
Cartago, Costa Rica: Complete Central Valley City Guide

Adobe Rent-a-Car

  • 10% discount for Costa Rica Vibes readers
  • Free second driver
  • 0% deductible on Liability Protection Insurance
  • Excellent customer service
  • New fleet of well-maintained vehicles

It will take you about one hour to drive from the San Jose airport to downtown Cartago.

The drive is rather hectic. San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and you will have to drive through parts of the downtown area to get to Cartago. People, unfortunately, drive like maniacs. in San Jose.

We suggest acclimating a bit to driving in Costa Rica before attempting this drive.


car rental

The Adobe Rent-A-Car discount includes…..

– A 10% DISCOUNT  





Private Shuttle to Cartago

Adobe also runs an excellent private transfer company.

Your driver will meet you at the airport in a well equipped private van and take you to your destination. T

hey are happy to stop along the way if you want to check out any viewpoints. 

You can get a quote with Adobe Transfers here.

Public Bus to Cartago Costa Rica

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.

Taxi to Cartago Costa Rica

If you are not planning on renting a car, you can always take a taxi to Cartago, but this trip won’t be cheap. I would estimate that it will cost about 70 US dollars. 

When you exit the airport there will be a lot of mean asking if you need a taxi.

We suggest asking if they are a legal registered taxi driver before proceeding.

You NEED to make sure that your driver has a red or orange vehicle with a yellow or green triangle on the front and passenger side door. This is a legal taxi driver.

You can find out more with our guide to Costa Rica taxis.


cartago costa rica
cartago costa rica
cartago costa rica

Transportation 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 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.

cartago view

Cartago Costa Rica Weather

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.

cartago view

Things to Do in Cartago Costa Rica

Visit Irazu Volcano

Irazu is the perfect place to see a volcano up close and personal. Unfortunately, the other nearby volcano, Turrialba Volcano is closed to visitors indefinitely due to continuous volcanic eruptions.

If you’d like to know more about visiting Irazu, 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 costs a few dollars per person to enter the park. You can then hike several miles of trails including one through a pine forest.

Just be aware, this is at a very high elevation. Take things slowly. 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 is a bit creepy in spots (especially in the children’s building).

Catch your Lunch

One of our 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 costs about $10 for an entire fish meal which usually includes rice, beans, fried plantains, and salad.

It is a unique activity that most tourists never get the opportunity to 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 Small Town of Orosi

Orosi is a cute Central American town with foggy green hills, coffee plantations, and a cute downtown area.

Check out Iglesia de San Jose, walk across the long swinging bridge, and explore the Tapanti National Park.

Visit Abandoned Churches

There are a bunch of abandoned churches in Cartago. Most are stone structures that 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 nice public park.

Go White Water Rafting 

Many Pacuare river rating tours start in Cartago. It is possible to participate in a one day or multi-day tour for all skill levels. 

Visit Lankester Botanical Garden

This botanical garden is run by the University of Costa Rica. It is the perfect place to look at plants and relax.

The highlight here is definitely the Japanese garden and their extensive orchid collection.

Cartago, Costa Rica: Complete Central Valley City Guide
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Cartago Restaurants


La Hidalgue: Delicious traditional Costa Rican restaurant in downtown Cartago. 

El Novillo Alegre: Good place for meat (we always get a steak here). Located downtown. 


Basilico Pizzeria: Amazing woodfire pizza restaurant located in downtown Cartago.

cartago view
cartago view
cartago view

Cartago Costa Rica Hotels

There are not too many hotels in downtown Cartago. Instead, we have listed our favorite hotels in both the downtown and surrounding areas. We recommend staying out of the city anyway for a more scenic experience. 

High-End Hotels

Hotel Boutique La Casona del Cafetal– Beautiful hotel located on a coffee farm. There is a spa, wellness, center and restaurant on-site. Many activities including horseback riding tours, cycling, and fishing can be enjoyed on the property or nearby. 

Hotel Quelitales– Amazing bungalows with nature views. There is a delicious restaurant on the property. This is a great jumping-off place for bird watching, fishing, hiking, and more! 

Mid-Range Hotels

Grandpas Hotel– Located just outside of downtown Cartago, these cute cabins are amazing! The views are stunning, the restaurant is great, and the staff is happy to help you with whatever you need. 

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.

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. Breakfast is not included, but they do provide meals here for a fair price.

Villa Valle Bello: This spot is located in the town of Ujarras. Breakfast is included. The roads to get here are a bit crazy so definitely rent a 4×4 if you plan to visit.

Budget Hotels

Casa IrazuLocated near the downtown area, here you can get a large bedroom with a shared bathroom for an extremely reasonable rate. 

Cartago, Costa Rica: Complete Central Valley City Guide
cartago view

Cartago Travel Tips

– Don’t forget that parts of Cartago are at a very high elevation. Just prepare yourself and take it slow.

– Be aware that some parts of this region are not common tourist destinations. I say this because occasionally you might struggle to find someone who can speak English. We like the free Google Translate app for these types of situations. 

cartago costa rica
cartago church
Cartago, Costa Rica: Complete Central Valley City Guide

Packing for Cartago Costa Rica

Cartago can be cool in the mountains. Bring layers and a windbreaker (or rain jacket in the rainy season).

In the downtown area you should be aware of your surrounding and bring a money belt or anti theft backpack.

Check out our Cartago Packing List on Amazon for all the essentials. 

Cratago Costa Rica FAQ

Is Cartago Costa Rica safe?

Generally Cartago is safe. However, it is best to not carry large amounts of cash or walk around at night. Also, ask at your hotel if an area is safe before venturing around.

What is Cartago Costa Rica known for?

The city of Cartago is known for the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. People from all over Costa Rica pilgrimage here every year. The area around Cartago is known for coffee farms and volcanoes.

Articles About Cartago Costa Rica

You Might Also Like Visiting

Alajuela: A bustling city next to the San Jose Airport and a great jumping-off point for so many fun activities.

San Jose: The bustling capital city in the country’s center filled with museums, restaurants, and culture.

Orosi: A remote area of hiking, wildlife, and volcanoes

….if none of those appeal to you, check out our Guide to the Central Valley for more ideas of places to visit in this area.

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  1. Carole Cahill says:

    Can you recommend day trips for 1, 85 year old man and 2, 70+ women. We are not much for hiking, tho a nice slow walk is ok. We love people and music. I was interested in the Jaguar rescue you mentioned in one of your blogs. We just like to have fun and want to enjoy as much of Costa Rica as we can in our 1 week stay.

    1. Hi Carole, I’m happy to help you out! Will you be staying in Cartago? Or where will you be for your one week?