How to Have an Incredible 3 Days in Santa Ana, El Salvador
Santa Ana is a very nice change from the hustle and bustle of San Salvador and it’s a really good stop if you’re on your way up to Guatemala. It’s a very safe town, even after dark and is a great base for some of the must see sights of El Salvador. I stayed at Casa Frolaz, a strange combination of hostel, restaurant and coffee shop – but it really worked! The owner Bruno is the most helpful hostel owner I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and had plenty of time to explain what to see, when to see it and how to get there. You might also be lucky enough to be treated to some coffee tasting – always a bonus in my book!
Day 1 – Tazumal Ruins, Chalchuapa
The Ruins of Tazumal are just a smidge over half an hour away from Santa Ana. Catch the 218 chicken bus to Chalchuapa (about $0.36), it will drop you just out the front of the cemetery which is a quick 2 min walk from the entrance. The $3 entry fee (pretty minimal compared to the Copan ruins we visited a few weeks before) in my opinion solidifies this archaeological site a must-see of El Salvador. Surprisingly, the security guards who roamed the ruins had no problem whatsoever with me flying the drone, and as usual it got a fair amount of interest from the general public. I even had one of the security guards point out an iguana sun baking on the ruins as I was taking off, have a look!
Day 2 – Lake Coatepeque
If you’re looking for a place to sink a few beers by the water, there is no better place than Lake Coatepeque. Getting there from Santa Ana is simple, but you’re going to need a strong bladder to last the journey without stopping. Public Transport took ages considering how close it is, but bearing in mind the prices of a tour you’ll be saving a lot – besides you’re bound to have a much more authentic day out if you go with the chicken bus! Bus 220 from the Santa Ana terminal is the one you want – After at least 2 hours of travel, we finally made it down to the edge of the lake, where we spent the afternoon drinking beers on the dock as the sun went down for the day. Now Bruno had told us that the last bus from the Lake to El Congo was at 4pm and we had definitely missed that. But never fear, we thumbed down a ute heading back to El Congo (saving a grueling walk back up the mountain!), getting back into Santa Ana around 7PM.
Day 3 – Santa Ana Volcano
As much as I would have liked to drink beers by the lake for the next few days, I was starting to feel guilty about the lack of exercise I had done in the last 6 months. And because I wasn’t quite guilty enough to go to a gym, I thought that a hike up the Santa Ana Volcano would be the perfect way to fend off the imminent onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Penelope and I had actually attempted to hike the volcano the day before, except we found out that there is ONLY ONE BUS PER DAY to the volcano. This is because they start the tour at 11PM and anyone arriving after that may not be granted access. We paid $1 for the bus (it left at 7:30am from the La Vencedora bus terminal, don’t make the same mistake we did!) and it will take about 90 mins to get there. There is a $1 entrance fee to the park and $6 fee to hike Volcano Santa Ana. That cost includes an armed guard who will protect you from ‘opportunistic locals’ i.e. armed thieves who are looking for cheapskate tourists who don’t want to pay a cent!
As it turned out we went on the same day that some schools had field trips so we ended up sharing the volcano with over 200 kids. The walk starts through someone’s private property (that’s gonna cost you $1). The track then spits you out on to the road where you drive up, so basically you have just walked all around the mountain for nothing – while paying for the privilege! The Santa Ana hike starts here and will take about 1.5 hours depending on how much beer you’ve consumed by the lake.
The hike was pretty easy, save for maybe the top 10 minutes which got pretty rocky and steep. Buy one of the ice-creams from the guy who lugs up an esky (cooler, chilly bin, ice box etc.) all the way up – the condensed milk is the best! If you’ve had some rumbly guts due to some dodgy street food, this is the place to let out any gas you’ve been storing up. There’s a seriously strong sulphur smell which will easily cover up anything you can muster 😉
It was very, very windy up the top so I only got a little bit of drone footage. There were some amazing views from the top – when the slow moving fog cleared. The guard at the top started to get antsy at about 1:30pm, encouraging everyone to get a move on back down the volcano. We hiked down back to the road and decided we didn’t want to walk back up through the private property, so we waited for a ute to drive by so we could hitch a ride down the volcano.
After about 10 minutes we stuck our thumbs out for a police car filled with Ecuadorian officers, all holding big semi-automatic machine guns. We jumped in the ute’s tray (seats already bolted to the truck bed) and enjoyed the winding road and the views overlooking Lake Coatepeque. We could only go so far with the local police, so we jumped out and hitched another ride all the way back to Santa Ana – easily the most generous locals of all of Central America.
I never really planned to go to El Salvador and honestly had pretty low expectations of what I was going to experience. I have to say El Salvador has been the biggest surprise of my trip, and would be my second favourite (behind Colombia of course!) country I’ve visited in Central America. Similarly to Honduras, El Salvador is often skipped by Central Am travelers – likely because of its dangerous reputation. While we heard some pretty horrible stories of robberies and kidnapping, you would be very unlucky to experience any of this first hand. If you have the opportunity, please give El Salvador a chance and you will be rewarded with amazing landscapes, cheap travelling and ridiculously friendly locals.