Santa Ana, El Salvador. Most travellers come here for two reasons: to stay at one of the best hostels in Central America, or to hike the incredible volcano just outside of town.
We did neither.
As we groggily awoke from our food-induced coma in Juayua, we slowly made our way to the short strip of road on the far end of town that acted as bus station and waited. After sitting for some time on the hot sidewalk, we learned that the 10 am bus no longer exists and that the next bus to Santa Ana wouldn’t be arriving until later in the afternoon. Not thrilled on the idea of sitting on the curb for another four hours, nor surprised about the schedule conflict (these are chicken busses after all), we track down the next best combination of busses and hop on board.
A quick couple of hours later the bus dumps everyone off on a muggy street corner in Santa Ana, where the temperature is noticeably hotter than anywhere else we’ve been so far this trip. So of course, rather than spending the probably two or three dollars for a taxi, we walk the half hour further in the mid-afternoon sun. Budget travel is great sometimes.
Nearly every backpacker who passes through Santa Ana stays at Casa Verde, and for good reason. Although we didn’t stay there ourselves, we’ve been told by many others how incredible it is, some going as far as saying it’s one of the best hostels in the world – a hefty claim, but I can’t comment either way. While we looked into it, it was booked solid during our time, but it worked out in our favour as Kylee stumbled upon another gem in another part of town. Casa Vieja is a small guesthouse that holds true to that label. A small house near the centro run by Luis and shared with his two very intelligent sons, who all speak fluent English. I can’t recall the last time we stayed in home where the hosts were so brilliantly friendly and helpful, offering constant tips and advice for where to go, what to see and most importantly…
Where to eat
Shortly after our arrival, the topic of food was already flying high and Luis couldn’t be more excited to share his knowledge of local eateries. La Ceiba was his top choice and ours for dinner that first night; a simple pupuseria serving upwards of 25 different types. With no physical menu, we were handed a paper slip listing the filling options and a choice of either rice or corn dough, in which one simply writes down the number of each type they want and the waiter quickly returns to take it away. The sampling of five that we chose included: prawns with cheese, bacon with cheese, beans with cheese, loroco (a small edible flower with a flavour almost reminiscent of truffles) with cheese, and chicharrones with – you guessed it – cheese.
The following morning, prior to exploring the city to burn off some of that queso, we popped into another top-shelf suggestion from Luis. This time a hip, modern little cafe called Panissimo, that served spectacular coffee and pastries. It was so great we returned the next day for a second round.
Skipping the Volcano
As mentioned earlier, most visit Santa Ana for the volcano hike; but our legs were still a little sore from the hike in El Tunco a few days prior, so instead we decided to see what the city itself had to offer. Our first stop for the day was La Escuela de Artes y Oficios José Mariano Mëndez (say that ten times fast), an abandoned art school that was nearly demolished a few years back but was instead left open as a tourist attraction. With all the Mayan ruins in this region, it was a strange change of scenery to see more recent colonial ruins thrown in the mix. As for the aforementioned Mayans, Tazumal is an often overlooked set of ruins just outside of Santa Ana. And while we unknowingly passed it on our journey into town, due to time constraints we weren’t able to get back out before our time was up.
Two of the most famous buildings in Santa Ana are probably the Teatro de Santa Ana, a beautiful and still operating theatre from the colonial era; and the Catedral de Santa Ana. The cathedral being the most photographed structure in town, which is not surprising as the stunning gothic architecture notably stands out when compared to the typical buildings in the area.
Appetites back with a vengeance now we head next door to the cathedral to a popular spot called Simmer Down, which was recommended to us from both Luis and the owner of our hostel back in Juayua. Sitting down on the top deck of the balcony with a fantastic view over the park below, we pick three presumably small tapas items from the menu and sip on some frosty beer. Soon after, two servers are required to bring over the snacks we’d ordered and lay them out on the table. The four crostini were each a small steak sandwich covered in melted cheese, another dish was a cheese and bacon filled bread pie, and the third was a small pile of grilled chicken baked in a pot full of of salty mozzarella.
After nearly an hour, we barely put a dent in it. Needless to say, we ate quite well on the bus to San Salvador the following morning.