The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica) is the Cartago's most important site, and Costa Rica's most venerated religious shrine. It is a Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to the Virgen de los Pardos, officially known as Virgen de los Ángeles (the Lady of the Angels).
The basilica was built in 1639 and was partially destroyed by an earthquake. The basilica has since been restored and constitutes a unique mix of colonial architecture as well as 19th century Byzantine style, the current building dates back to 1939. With fine stained-glass windows, hand-painted interiors and ornate side chapels featuring carved-wood altars, the basilica really exudes Byzantine grace.
Local legend says this all came about when the Virgin of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, a small representation of the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus, was found on a rock by a peasant girl in Cartago. She took it home. The next morning the statue was back at the rock. So she took it to the priest and he locked it in a small box.
During the construction, the church was destroyed by earthquakes so many times, it was finally decided to move it to the location where the statue was found and they were able to finish construction. Many people (one being Andrea Meszaros, a local expert on religious affairs) think that the earthquakes were signs that the Lady of Los Ángeles wanted the basilica built there.
Owing to the dark complexion of the stone statue, she is sometimes affectionately called La Negrita or Reina de Cartago (lit. Queen of Cartago). The original statue is kept in a golden shell inside the basilica. In 1824, an official decree declared the Virgin of the Angels the official patron of Costa Rica.
Each August 2nd, the Basilica is the object of extensive pilgrimage and visitation by about 2.5 million believers throughout the country, many of whom join in the celebrated 22-kilometer walk to the basilica during the Romería. Though many people start the pilgrimage from locations all over Costa Rica, some, as a demonstration of their piety, choose to crawl the 22 kilometers on their hands and knees.
At the basilica they wash themselves and drink the water from the rock on which the statue was found. Scientists have since found this water to be safe to drink even though no filtration or chemicals are used to purify the water.
Also on the church grounds is a museum displaying names of those killed in disasters or war. A wall is lined with medals to commemorate those who fell in World War II.
The basilica is open all day long and it is not uncommon to find several people stopping in for a prayer. In addition people will bring small silver medals shaped like body parts, where the shape represents the body part the pilgrim is concerned about. They leave them in front of "La Negrita" in hope that they will be cured. After a time, these medals are collected and stored. A selection of some of them can be seen in the Museum.