Just a short hop (20 minutes) over the mountain to the East of San José is the city of Cartago, the old Colonial capital of Costa Rica. Cartago is a rather large city, yet it still feels like a fairly small town, where most people know each other. Cartago is much more laidback than San José. And, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet, it’s a bit cooler (with a Spring-like climate year-round in the tropics!). Cartago has most of the amenities you will need (bilingual schools, shopping, supermarkets, etc.), and the large TerraMall is just 15 minutes away.
One of Cartago’s claims to fame is the “Basilica”, the Byzantine-style cathedral that’s home to the patron saint of the country. It’s the most important church in Costa Rica (and very important throughout Central America), and it is the destination of over a million people each year during an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the patron saint (most of the people walk at least from San José, with some walking from the distant reaches of the country). Just outside of Cartago is the Lankester Botanical Garden, a gorgeous botanical garden with an orchid collection that’s famous world-wide.
Cartago has a wide variety of housing to offer, from local-style homes as well as custom homes, condos and gated communities (although on a smaller scale). The surrounding area is absolutely beautiful, with coffee plantations, farms and lots of forest. Cartago rests at the foot of the dormant Irazú Volcano, which, at an elevation of 11,300 feet, commands the landscape of the surrounding area. An excellent paved road takes you to the very top of the volcano, where you may peer down into several craters. On a clear day, the view extends to BOTH the Pacific and Caribbean oceans!
Go just 15 minutes East of Cartago and you will find the magnificent Orosi Valley! The Orosi Valley is one of the true jewels of the country…one of the most scenic valleys in the entire country. It boasts a pleasant year-round climate and has lots of attractions, and is therefore growing in touristic appeal. The central focus of the area is Lake Cachí, which is formed by the impressive Cachí Dam (which you can drive across). The Cachí Dam marks the beginning of the Reventazón River, which (along with the nearby Pacuare River) has become famous for world-class whitewater rafting and kayaking. The town of Orosi is a lovely town, traditional and quaint, that is enjoying its growing touristic appeal. The town of Orosi is home to the oldest active church in Costa Rica: a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style church built by Franciscan monks in 1743.
Numerous hot springs are found throughout the general Orosi area, with two public thermal baths in the town of Orosi. A high-end hot spring spa/resort is located just outside of town. Mostly small, local-style homes are doing in the town of Orosi, with the surrounding area having custom-built homes up in the hills, to small and large farms (working farms and hobby farms), etc.
Area activities include horseback riding, biking and hiking, and tours of a coffee-processing center. Nearby is the Tapantí National Park (Wildlife Refuge and Rainforest Reserve). It is another undiscovered jewel, yet it is within an hour’s drive of San José. The park is comprised of thousands of acres of magnificent primary rainforest/cloudforest, with trails and picnic areas near the entrance. The park is home to many endangered species, including the tapir, paca, ocelot, jaguarundi and the small tiger cat. Jaguars, toucans, monkeys and many more animals also abound.
One may tour the valley by taking the main road that loops all around Lake Cachí and the Orosi Valley. Along the way, you will find the town of Cachí (another unspoiled, quaint town) and La Casona del Cafetal, a fantastic lakefront restaurant that serves an excellent Sunday brunch that attracts crowds from San José. Continuing on, you pass by the Casa del Soñador (“House of the Dreamer”), where sculptors work, train and sell their carved wooden figures. You then pass over the Cachí Dam and on to the village of Ujarrás, which is home to the ruins of the Ujarrás Church, which was the first church established in Costa Rica and has been converted into a peaceful park. When the rush, noise and traffic of San José get to be too much, a trip over to Cartago and the Orosi Valley will help to soothe your nerves. It’s even better if you can live there. It’s truly a very special area!