Santa Ana is El Salvador’s second-largest city and has some of the most well-preserved colonial architecture in the country. It’s conveniently located between San Salvador and the Ruta de las Flores, and is a short drive from the Guatemalan border. Because of this, Santa Ana is a popular base for many travellers exploring the region.
Like many cities in El Salvador, it’s still fairly new to tourism. Yet despite its somewhat “rough around the edges” vibe and armed guards aplenty, Santa Ana is a safe city with very friendly residents. Aside from petty crime, that is common anywhere in Latin America, you should have little to worry about.
And while the city itself doesn’t have the same attraction as other colonial towns in Latin America, there are plenty of reasons to visit. From fascinating architecture and Mayan ruins to active volcanoes, coffee plantations, and some of the best pupusas in the country, Santa Ana has a lot to offer.
Things to Do in Santa Ana, El Salvador
Despite being such a well-preserved city, architecturally speaking, Santa Ana isn’t as polished as other popular destinations. And most of its more popular attractions are found a little outside the city, more about this below.
That aside, there are still some terrific things to do in Santa Ana.
Check out the Cathedral of Santa Ana
First, check out the stunning architecture, particularly the Cathedral de Santa Ana in the heart of the square. The towering white spires are the crown jewel in Santa Ana’s urban landscape.
The cathedral was originally completed in 1575. It was rebuilt between 1906 and 1959 after it was destroyed due to a lightning strike. This extraordinary example of art in architecture is stunning to behold. It’s also the only gothic-style building in all of Central America. It’s so strangely beautiful that it almost feels out of place when compared to the colonial buildings surrounding it.
The inside of the cathedral is less impressive, but still worth a peek.
The Santa Ana National Theatre
From the Cathedral de Santa Ana, spin yourself around and stop in for a show at the old theatre just up the street.
Hailing from the turn of the century, the Teatro Nacional de Santa Ana is where the city’s elite would gather for entertainment during Santa Ana’s economic peak. These days, the theatre is still entirely operational and shows plays on an ongoing basis.
Even if you aren’t feeling like seeing a show, it’s worth marvelling at the fantastic building alone. The artwork and design have such a strong European feel, it’s like stepping out of Latin America altogether.
Hours | Tues to Sun 9-12 and 1-5
Cost | $1.50 per person to walk around, prices vary for actual shows.
Explore the Art School Ruins
One of the most overlooked attractions in Santa Ana was never intended to be such a thing. The Mariano Mendez Art School was abandoned many years ago and scheduled for demolition shortly after. Thankfully, its tragic fate was overruled in recent years. And now the crumbling ruin of the former art academy has, in a twist of ironic fate, become a piece of art itself.
If you are a photographer, (or just like taking amazing photos!) or love history and ruins, this is an amazing place to see. The beauty of the old school is left to the elements, just waiting to be photographed. It is best at sunset to head here.
There will likely be a guard in front of the building, who is just there to take your name and country for tourism sake. There is no fee to enter.
Where | Calle Jose Mariano Mendez Pte & 8a ave Sur, across the street from Parque Colon
What to Do Around Santa Ana
Santa Ana is a great base for exploring western El Salvador because it’s so well-connected to some of the country’s best experiences. Most of the real action takes place outside of town and is the reason many people base themselves in Santa Ana. Whether you’re looking for ancient ruins, hiking rugged landscapes, or jumping into a steaming river, you’ll find it all less than an hour bus ride outside of Santa Ana.
Visit the Stunning Lake Coatepeque
Just outside Santa Ana, in the enormous caldera of an ancient volcano, is the impossibly-blue waters of Lake Coatepeque. This is where the rich and famous of El Salvador come to play. So much so that the vast majority of the lakeshore is privately owned by Salvadorian elite.
The good news is that you can still visit and soak in the perfect waters. Rent a jet ski, or go kayaking across the lake. Take a ferry to Teopan island, an important site for the Maya who once inhabited the area. Or, head to Captain Morgan’s hostel for a quick lunch and a cool beer, before jumping straight from the patio into the soothing water below. Even if you aren’t staying, you can buy a day pass for a few dollars.
Coatepeque is great for a day trip, or a longer visit if you don’t mind the simple life.
Getting There | Take bus #242, 1 hour
Joya de Ceren — “Pompeii of the Americas”
Just like Pompeii, the story of Joya de Ceren ends with violence and tragedy. This small farming village, not far from Santa Ana, was destroyed in a blink when the Lomo Caldera erupted, burying the town in 10 metres of ash. The remains of the village are well-preserved, and as a result, the site was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites — El Salvador’s first and only.
This is one place we really wanted to visit, but didn’t get the chance because it was closed for renovations. The roof built to shelter the delicate ruins from weather needed replacement.
Getting There | Take bus #201 heading to San Salvador, but make sure it is not the TUDO bus, as this bus doesn’t make extra stops. Get off in Desvio de Opico. Walk to the gas station on Opico’s main road and grab the bus to Joya de Ceren.
Hike The Santa Ana Volcano
If there’s one activity to do while visiting Santa Ana, it’s making the trek to the highest volcano in the country. Hiking Santa Ana volcano isn’t just the most popular activity around, it’s probably the most exciting.
Hike through the colourful jungle of Cerro Verde park, before twisting your way along the rocky path up the volcano itself. Once you reach the summit, the views are utterly spectacular and you can see for miles in nearly every direction. That is, of course, if you can take your eyes off of the stunning crater lake below you.
For information on how to get here and what to expect, see our Santa Ana Volcano Hiking Guide.
Explore the Mayan Ruins of Tazumal
El Tazumal is the most prominent set of Mayan ruins discovered in El Salvador to this day. And while its display is dwarfed by ruins like Guatemala’s Tikal or Palenque in Mexico, what you see at Tazumal is only the tip of the iceberg.
Due to its location, in the centre of a town, excavation is restricted. The entirety of Tazumal’s size is still not entirely known.
There is a small visitor centre featuring artifacts found at this site and others, though the collection is fairly limited. The ruins themselves are the real draw here, and cultural heritage students from the local university are often on hand to guide you around.
Cost | Locals: $1; Foreigners: $3
How to Get to Tazumal from Santa Ana by Bus
Between Avenida 10a and 8a on Calle 9a poniente, take bus #218 to Tazumal. For a faster ride, try to get the bus that says ‘Directo’ it will shave about 20 minutes off the trip.
More Mayan History at Casa Blanca
Just a few minutes from Tazumal, Casa Blanca is another archeological site and museum. The ruins here are less-impressive than those at Tazumal, though are likely part of the greater Maya city-state that once existed here.
We found the structures themselves leaving much to desire, however, the museum alone is worth the visit — and much more impressive than Tazumal’s. Here there is far more detail about Mayan culture across the region, and the descriptions are in both Spanish and English.
There is also an intense indigo workshop on-site, featuring traditional methods of indigo production. Inquire within.
Cost | Locals: $1; Foreigners: $3; Parking: $1
Take the Plunge at Saltinas Malacatiupan
Two of our favourite things are cliff jumping and hot springs. At Saltinas Malacatiupan you can have them both. This is one of the trickier spots to reach, as it isn’t yet big on the tourist trail, but it’s one of the most unique things we’ve ever experienced.
There are many thermales (hot springs) in this region due to the volcanic activity. So many, in fact, that there is a small river flowing with warm water leading to several gorgeous waterfalls. Climb down past the falls and see the amazing warm pools that are great for swimming in or take a plunge from up top.
Jumping from a cliff into a river of warm water is an incredible and peculiar sensation. It’s truly an exceptional place.
How to get to Saltinas Malacatiupan from Santa Ana by bus.
Take bus 210 towards Ahuchapan, and ask to get off at Atiquizaya, the bus will drop you off at San Juan park in the town. Walk to 5th de Noviembre park to try to get a bus out to the waterfalls. Tell the driver you want to go to Saltinas Malacatiupan, and see if a bus is headed that way.
The buses that take the route to the falls are random, so sometimes there will be a bus and sometimes not. If not you can take a taxi/tuk-tuk to the waterfalls, (Taxi $5).
To return, take a bus going down the dirt road back to the town, head back to San Juan Park and hop on the 210, or any bus headed to Santa Ana. We heard the 292 is also an option to take, but haven’t taken it ourselves. If you do take this bus, please help a traveller out and let us know in the comments.
Visit the Famed Ruta de las Flores
Famed for its charming villages and dramatic landscapes, the Ruta de las Flores is an unmissable experience. And Santa Ana is a great place to begin your adventure.
Relax your mind and body in thermal pools near Ahuachapan or get lost in the living labyrinth of Apaneca. Hike through the jungle and take a dip in soothing waterfalls near Juayua and indulge in the town’s weekly food festival.
Whether you’re into coffee, adventure, gastronomy or nature, the Ruta de las Flores has a little of everything and a lot of awesome.
Where to Eat in Santa Ana, El Salvador
These are some of the best pupusas in not only Santa Ana, but all of El Salvador. We first visited this spot on our first visit, on the recommendation of our guesthouse owner. It was instantly our favourite place in town.
Two years later, we returned to find it’s only gotten better. It’s a no-bullshit kind of spot with a straightforward system. Grab a seat, check off your selections on the provided paper slip, and wait for the food to arrive.
Don’t leave without trying a rice flour (arroz) pupusa with loroco (an edible flower from El Salvador).
Where | 2a Calle Oriente & 17 Avenida Norte
Simmer Down Cafe
This place, located right beside the cathedral, is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike. Ask anyone from Santa Ana where to eat, and Simmer Down will be on their list. We adore this place, and visit whenever we’re in town.
The menu is fairly eclectic, and everything we’ve tried has been delicious (and the portions usually huge!). But their specialty is pizza. Their pizzas are well-made and the selection is almost dizzying. What could be better after hiking an active volcano that a hot pizza and a cold, craft beer?
We recommend: Heading there for a individual pizza, and order the Argentinian one with chimmichurri! The pizza stays crispy with its thin crust.
Yuca con Chicharron
Sometimes called Vigoron, yuca con chicharron is one of our favourite dishes from Central America. And Santa Ana is one of the best places to give it a try.
Boiled or fried yuca is topped with chunks of crispy, fried pork belly and tangy pickled cabbage slaw. It’s like a starchy, meat salad sort of thing and it’s surprisingly refreshing.
The reason it’s so special in the Santa Ana area is that the yuca from the town of Chalchuapa — where Tazumal is located — is some of the tastiest in all of Latin America.
The best place to try it is near Tazumal, but many carts in Santa Ana’s central square sell it as well.
What Not to Eat
Two very popular snack foods in Santa Ana (and El Salvador as a whole) are Tortas and elote loco.
Adventurous food-lovers that we are, we tried these, hoping to like them. We did not.
Elote Loco (literally “crazy corn”), is corn on the cob covered in mayo, ketchup, mustard, salsa Iglesias (like Worcestershire sauce), hot sauce, and cheese. I love the concept, but there are just too many conflicting flavours going on here.
Unlike the delicious tortas of Oaxaca, the Salvadorian version are like a ghetto version of a burger-sandwich hybrid. Typically, a bun is filled with a hot dog, some sort of paste-like burger patty, onions, lettuce, mayo and ketchup. And then grilled until everything is soggy and warm.
We tried this on several occasions, trying to like it. It didn’t happen.
Where to Stay in Santa Ana
The vast majority of travellers stay at Casa Verde, due to the raving reviews. And for good reason. Many who stay here have gone as far as to call it one of the best hostels they’ve ever stayed.
Book Casa Verde | Booking.com
We were fortunate enough to stay at Casa Vieja, a small, family-owned spot right near the centre. The owner and his two sons were gracious hosts and wonderful company; we highly recommend giving them a shout! Luis (the owner) also does private tours and makes an excellent guide!
Book Casa Vieja | Booking.com
Pool House Hostel
Another highly recommended hostel in Santa Ana, with amazing reviews. The owner is very helpful for whatever you might need, and one of the only low cost places in Santa Ana with a (small) pool.
Book Pool House | Booking.com
How to Get to Santa Ana
From San Salvador
Head to Terminal de Occident and take bus #210 all the way to Santa Ana.
From the Ruta de las Flores
Head to Ahuachapan and cross to the opposite corner of the road (kitty corner, or ask the locals exactly where, they are VERY helpful!) heading North East. Hop on bus #210 about 1 to 1.5 hours.
Heading to the Ruta de las Flores? Here is a helpful guide!
From El Tunco/La Libertad
You have 2 choices:
1. Head to San Salvador from La Libertad on #102 then follow above to Santa Ana.
2. Head to Sonsonate on #287 (which is only 2 times per day 6am and 1:30pm) then up to Ahuachapan on #249, then follow above ‘from Ruta de Flores’ to Santa Ana.