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I made my own way from San Pedro, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala to Santa Ana, El Salvador by Shuttle and Chicken Busses. It was an exhausting journey that took me over 15 hours of non-stop travel.
I had, actually, planned to get all the way to Playa El Tunco (on the coast near La Libertad) … but I had to abandon that idea in Sonsonate when I ran out of time (to get to Playa El Tunco from Sonsonate required me to first catch a bus to San Salvador and, then, another bus to the coast).
ABOUT SANTA ANA:
Its historical center is said to offer some of the best preserved architecture in El Salvador, including the Cathedral of Santa Ana (‘a marvel of neo-gothic architecture’).
Many people refer to Santa Ana as the ‘Antigua, Guatemala’ of El Salvador.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodation-wise, this is typical of what you find online … this is for 1 night at the end of October 2017 (at the end of their ‘rainy season’) …
HOTELS & HOSTELS (Nightly Rates):
As you can see, there are several options within our GRANDPAcking price range.
PLEASE NOTE: Hotel and Hostel search sites usually display prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. You may have to add up to 17% to the displayed price to get the final price.
VACATION RENTALS (Weekly Rates):
If you plan to stay a week or more, another good option is to use AirBnB or TRIPADVISOR.COM to book a Holiday Rental / Vacation Rental.
Due to additional ‘service’ and ‘cleaning’ charges, Holiday Rentals are usually best rented by the week. A comparable search reveals the following … please note that these prices are in US$s …
Vacation Rentals are usually displayed INCLUSIVE of TAXES but EXCLUSIVE of any ‘Security Deposit’ (if required). BUT, the displayed price may also be EXCLUSIVE of the host site’s Extra Fees (which can add as much as 16%).
In S.E. Asia, I wouldn’t touch AirBnB with a barge pole … in my opinion and experience the accommodation that you find is an absolute rip off. However, here, they are worth a look.
GRANDPAckers should easily be able to find something online for under US$25 / night.
However, be careful about where the hotel is located … some areas are not that well lit / safe at night … some areas of town are down-right ugly (e.g. around the main Bus Terminal near the main market).
The area east of the Cathedral gets nicer as it approaches the Hospital … but, you get fewer bar and restaurant options and you are further away from everything. Otherwise, stay close to Avenida Independencia.
I wasn’t planning to be in Santa Ana … I was heading for Playa El Tunco … however, I was planning to be in Santa Ana at some stage, so I had done some research.
I arrived at 6:15pm in the dark in the middle of a Thunderstorm. It was 7:00pm before I could get online. My top 2 accommodation picks were not available. So, I booked the nearest one that I could find: Hotel Libertad which was already on my shortlist.
The Private Bathroom was basic, had a cold water shower, and needed a paint job. The fan was a bit too noisy.
But, the bed was comfortable and I needed to sleep.
I had paid US$16.40 for a room that should have been only US$12 … but, I am not sure that just ‘turning up’ and ‘walking the streets’ to find the cheapest hotels in Santa Ana is a good idea. It is, probably, best to pay the premium to book online … unless an hotel has been recommended to you and you know exactly where you are going.
I have been travelling for 3 years now and I am always careful about keeping my valuables safely locked up in my suitcase and about making sure that my hotel door is always locked.
Before opening the suitcase, I called for the manager. He was there in 5 minutes. He speaks good English.
At no stage had any cleaners come into my room (nor offered to) and the manager said that I had the only door key.
We opened the suitcase together and checked for missing contents. US$110 of US$400 had been taken from my wallet. They had tried to take it in such a way that it would not be noticed until a later date.
The manager was embarrassed and seemed like a nice, sincere person. He said that all of his workers had been with him for many years and that they were trustworthy … he came up with as many excuses why it couldn’t be any of his staff that he could think of.
He was in denial … he has a thief working at his hotel … who has a key to the room(s).
This is the first time this sort of thing has happened to me in all of my travels … it had to happen at some stage … it is a shame that it had to happen in a secured hotel … and, in El Salvador.
Have a look yourself:
INTERNET / WIFI:
At the Guatemala / El Salvador border I stopped to buy a Claro SIMcard and Internet Package. They wanted US$25 for just the SIMcard! … so, I declined and arrived in Santa Ana without any mobile communications.
On my first morning I went straight to a local Tigo store. There, I bought a new Tigo SIMcard for US$2 and a 2 week 1.5GB Internet Plan for US$6. Tigo is said to have the best coverage around El Salvador … albeit at a slightly higher price than Claro (which comes a close 2nd).
It is easy to ‘top up’ your phone … just look for any store advertising a Tigo logo.
A few days later, just before my first Plan ran out of data, I decided to do a top up. The most common top ups are US$5.25 and US$10.50. I topped up with US$10.50 and purchased another US$6 Internet Plan. Tigo queued this plan behind the one that I already had. Having used Tigo in Guatemala and Honduras, I was expecting the queued plan to start automatically as soon as my first one completed. In these other countries, if you don’t ‘queue’ your next plan, Tigo automatically gives you one that you may not want – usually a 1-dayer with very little data.
To my surprise, when the first one completed the second one just disappeared! … I only had US$4.50 left, so I had to go and top up with another US$5.25.
MY ADVICE: Wait until your Mobile Plan expires before topping up and purchasing a new Plan.
Most places within the historical center can be reached within a few minutes walk, there’s no need to take a taxi or board a local bus. The Tourist Office outside the Palacio Municipal (just across from the Theatre) has city maps and other information.
However, Santa Ana is a little bit too big to walk everywhere … now and again, you may want to catch a local bus or a taxi.
There are many local busses around – all of which are well numbered with defined routes.
However, routes are complicated, difficulte to follow, and no route map is published … just ask your hotel and they should be able to advise you.
The flat fare is $0.20 for the bigger busses and $0.25 for micro busses; board in front and pay the driver. Some useful lines are:
- R-8 from Metrocentro to downtown, via Bulevar Los 44 (commonly known as the ‘bypass’) to Universidad Catolica, then along 7a Calle and 5a Calle Oriente (get off at Pollo Campero).
- R-9 from Metrocentro to downtown, follows Ave Independencia (get off at Pollo Campero and then walk 3 blocks to Parque Libertad).
- 51-E from downtown (Scotiabank behind the Palacio Municipal) via INSA to UES (Universidad de El Salvador). In opposite direction 51-E goes from UES via INSA to Parque Colon.
- 51-F from downtown (Scotiabank behind the Palacio Municipal) via INSA to Metrocentro. Don’t take 51-F back to downtown unless you’re ready for an 45min ride or want to go to Parque Colon (but if you do, ask the driver if he’s going via IVU as two different 51-F routes exist!).
Un-metered yellow taxis charge US$3 for short distances. US$4 (bargain hard) should get you anywhere in town.
It was a pleasant change to be somewhere that offered cheap eating options.
I found Santa Ana so uninspiring that I really didn’t bother getting around the restaurants. Besides, it was raining most of the time and I didn’t feel like getting wet.
It won’t take you long to find your ‘regular’ spot.
There are lots of ‘street’ food options around the Cathedral Square. Most sell Hamburgers and Tortas (the Central American equivalent of an Hamburger). They’ll cost about US$2. Get away from the square into the side streets and pay US$1.25-$1.50.
The ‘cheap’ option is Pupusas at 3 for US$1. These usually come with a helping of pickled salad.
You can pay as little as US$2.50 for a Burger with French Fries and Salad in a local bar.
Something like a Chicken Meal with soft drink in a KFC-style diner will cost about US$6.95.
There are plenty of options around town under US$5.
Expect to pay an average of US$2.00 for a cheap Breakfast with coffee.
Expect to pay an average of US$2.50 for a cheap Lunch with fruit drink.
Expect to pay an average of US$5.00 for a cheap Dinner with a drink (Fruit Juice or Beer).
Expect to pay US$1.25 for a 330ml local beer (like Pilsener).
If you wander around the side streets you will find lots of small local bars; you will rarely see foreigners in them … I don’t know why not … I found myself a little local and was treated very well by the owners and the guests.
MONEY / PRICES / SHOPPING:
I didn’t buy much in the shops, sorry.
You can find 3 good sized supermarkets within 100 meters of Parque Libertad. One is actually next to the Cathedral.
There is up-market shopping at the Metrocentro.
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY EXCHANGE:
There is only 1 place in town that changes foreign currency: the Cuscatlan Bank opposite the Metrocentro (see, above, map of Santa Ana). However, they only change Guatemalan, Honduran, and Euros.
Bring an ATM card. All ATMs should link back to your home bank. I don’t know the maximum withdrawal limit yet … I will tell you in a future post.
HEALTH & SAFETY:
As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
The properties in Santa Ana all have barred windows and doors for a reason … many lock up as soon as it gets dark. In all of the smaller convenience stores, you will be trading through iron bars and little hatchways.
The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Central America.
You are advised not to walk in remote areas at night – keep on lit, populated streets.
When I was there, mosquitoes were around … but, not a problem.
WHEN TO GO:
Rainy Season is May through October.
I found Santa Ana in Rainy Season is a bit boring and miserable. It rained every day (usually in the pm and night) and it was so unreliable that day trips were a waste of time unless you wanted to get soaked.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO SEE / WHAT TO DO:
There is very little to keep you in Santa Ana, itself. Santa Ana makes a excellent base for discovering western El Salvador’s archaeological and natural spots:
- Parque Arqueológico Tazumal pyramid is one of the most important and most impressive pre-Columbian sites in El Salvador. Excavated ruins cover an area of 10 sq km and are the largest Mayan temple in El Salvador. It is located 15km west of Santa Ana and is open Tue-Sun 9am-4pm. To get there take bus 218 (passing along 31a Calle Poniente – 4a Ave Sur – 11a Calle Poniente – Ave Fray Felipe Sur) to Chalchuapa town; it will drop you almost in front of the entrance gate, $0.30 1/2hr. Don’t take bus 210 to Ahuachapan as it bypasses Chalchuapa town. On the way back to Santa Ana don’t take bus 202 as it goes direct to San Salvador and bypasses Santa Ana. Entry fee for foreigners $3, includes museum.
- Casa Blanca Archaeological Park, open Tue-Sun 9am-4pm, entry fee $3 for foreigners including museum and indigo workshop. Take bus 218 towards Chalchuapa town (details see Tazumal) and get off at the turnoff into Chalchuapa, $0.30 1/2hr. Bus 210 (towards Ahuachapan) from the main bus terminal also passes here.
- San Andrés Archaeological Park. To get there take SEISABUS 201 from 25a Calle towards San Salvador, it will drop you right in front of the entrance gate. Note that TUDO bus 201 also passes here but only the regular service will stop, while the special service doesn’t.
- Joya de Cerén Archaeological Park. Take SEISABUS 201 from 25a Calle towards San Salvador, or bus 276 from the main bus terminal towards Apopa, get at the turnoff to Opico & Quetzaltepeque (2km east of San Andrés), then change to bus 108 towards Opico. The park can be easily visited in conjunction with San Andrés.
- Lago Coatepeque, a beautiful lake that was once an active volcano caldera. To get there take bus 220 from the main bus terminal (ask for Lago), travels via Coatepeque and El Congo, or bus 59 from 31a Calle via Metrocentro and Panamericana to El Congo where you can transfer to bus 220. Last bus 220 back from Lake to Santa Ana at 4pm. Access to the lake shore is difficult due to many private properties, try at one of the hotels or restaurants.
- Cerro Verde, a must for eco-tourists, and the starting point for climbing Santa Ana and Izalco vulcano. Bus 248 departs from bus station “Transportes Vencedora” at Ave Fray Felipe y 11a Calle Poniente (more stops along 25a Calle and at Universidad Catholica) at 7:40 and 11am, returns at 10:30am and 4pm. Beware, sometimes buses are marked 209 (normaly going to Sonsonate, but at these times they go to Cerror Verde). The ride takes 2 hours and costs $0.90. The park is the final stop on the line, so don’t worry about missing it. Entrance fee to the park $3 for foreigners. Inside the park, a small comedor serves breakfast for $1.50 and lunch for $3.
- Santa Ana Vulcano, next to Cerro Verde, is noteworthy for the turquoise lake in its crater. A guided and police escorted tour (they don’t let you do the hike without a guide) leaves Cerro Verde at 11am to the vulcano, $1 for guide, plus $1 to pass through some private property, plus $6 for MARN (ministerio del ambiente y resurcos naturales) to climb the volcano itself. The hike up takes 2h and 1.5h down, and is moderately difficult. Trekking boots recommended. The weather is chilly at the high altitude (2381m / 7812ft) so long pants, a jacket, and a windbreaker are also recommended. Bring at least 1 liter of drinking water with you! Best time for climbing is during dry season (between Nov and April) when perfect sky is the rule, but even in rain season (between May and October) good weather is not uncommon.
- Izalco Vulcano. A guided and police escorted tour (they don’t let you do the hike without a guide) also leaves from Cerro Verde at 11am to the vulcano. Important Note: unless there is a large enough group intending to hike up Izalco, no tour will leave to climb it. Unfortunately there’s no way to know in advance whether there will be such a group without arriving there; hence, it is best to collect your own group in advance and arrive at the site to force the park’s hand.
- Ruta de las Flores is a beautiful route across the mountains south of Santa Ana, with several lakes and waterfalls along the road. To get there, take bus 210 (very frequently) from the main bus terminal to Ahuachapan, $0.50 1hr. Get off at its final stop and transfer to bus 249 departing from the intersection across mainstreet (goes via Ataco, Apaneca, Juayua, to Sonsonate), or bus R-20 (via Ataco as far as Apaneca), $0.40 to Ataco resp $0.55 to Apaneca. From Juayua bus 238 brings you back to Santa Ana 4 times a day (last bus Mon-Sat at 4pm, Sun at 2pm) $0.80, or continue to Sonsonate and take bus 216 (last one at 6:40pm) from main terminal to Santa Ana, $0.90. The Rutas de las Flores can be done as a day trip (although you might miss a lot of its beauty).
- Los Naranjos. While not part of the Ruta de las Flores per se, this tiny village located 23km southeast of town at an altitude of 1450m (4754ft) is the closest place if you seek relief from Santa Ana’s heat. Several hostels, hotels, and fincas in the area offer accommodation (eg Paso Alaska Resort, from $75 or Hostal Casa Blanca, $22-$40). As everywhere in the region, ask locals for security advise (and guide, or even police escort) before setting out in the surrounding countryside. You cannot climb Santa Ana volcano from here! Take bus 216 from the main bus terminal (towards Sonsonate), or bus 238 (towards Juayua, departure times see above), and get off at the gas station which marks the middle of the village. 1hr $0.70.
From Santa Ana, I head for Playa El Tunco. Even if it’s raining there too, it’s got to be better than Santa Ana!
To get there, I have to get a city bus to the Metrocentro, a bus from there to San Salvador, and a bus from there to El Tunco.
I will let you know how I get on in a future post.
Santa Ana is not ‘Antigua’. The town, itself, offers little to a tourist. It offers even less as a GRANDPAcker holiday or retirement destination.
If you come to Santa Ana, you come to use it as a base to explore the surrounds.
Santa Ana DOES NOT make it into my RETIREMENT REVIEWS.