Santa Ana is around an hour’s drive north west of the capital, San Salvador. Population: 375,000. It’s considered one of the safest places in the country (allegedly the most dangerous peacetime country in the world) and comes up in many lists of where to visit in El Salvador.
However, Santa Ana itself has precious little worth visiting. I want to make that clear from the outset because I was quite disappointed when I arrived. I’d heard it was cute and had some big colonial buildings and a big cathedral, so I was expecting something similar to Antigua, Guatemala. It’s true about the colonial buildings and cathedral: there is a big cathedral and a few colonial buildings but that is all there is. You can see the “sights” in a grand total of five minutes, since they’re all around the main square, Libertad Park.
The rest of the city has no appeal for anyone who isn’t a local. There’s a market if you need to buy market goods, but it’s busy and and one section of it is just a massive pile of garbage bags.
The food is also, frankly, dreadful. I’m not the biggest fan of Central American food in general: rice, beans, platanos, and lots of cheese. On top of that, Santa Ana has a Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and a Little Caesars within a block of each other, and a KFC-style fried chicken place between them. Don’t get me wrong I love pizza, but I don’t want it every day, and it’s super unhealthy.
There’s not much to do at night. This seems to be true across El Salvador in general, but almost everything closes by 8 or 9pm. In the past there was a curfew on parts of the country so this is probably just a lingering consequence of that, but after dark don’t expect to be doing much.
Okay, after all that negativity, before I get hurled abuse at in the comments, some positive things. Santa Ana has decent transport connections to the capital and around western El Salvador and into Guatemala and Honduras. So it’s definitely a good base to stay to see this part of the world, and there are things close by worth visiting: Santa Ana volcano and Ruta de las Flores especially are both beautiful.
I’d also strongly recommend staying at Casa Verde hostel.
It’s the best equipped hostel I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world and when the food outside isn’t great and there’s not much to do after dark, having somewhere comfortable to stay and cook your own meals among good company is invaluable. And since El Salvador doesn’t get many foreign tourists, being among the few there are is helpful in organizing day trips or traveling across borders together. If you’re not normally a hostel kind of person and worry about cleanliness and that kind of thing, Casa Verde is immaculate. And if you’re not a sleeping with 50 other people kinda person, you can splurge on a private room ($22/night instead of $11/night). They also have shuttles to major destinations across Central America (I booked the shuttle from Santa Ana to Copán in Honduras, which leaves three times a week) and day trips to Ruta de las Flores and the volcano, although the latter is very simple to do by public transport.
To sum up, Santa Ana itself will not be high on your list of favorite places in El Salvador, let alone the whole of Central America. But I still think if you stay at Casa Verde, you’ll have an enjoyable time and the easy access to other parts of the country and the surrounding countries makes it more than worthwhile.