Duration: at least five days
Stay: Hostal Casa Verde
Volcano Santa Ana’s incredibly impressive crater marks the highlight for many travelers coming to El Salvador for a good reason. We were left speechless (and breathless) when we first saw the turquoise crater lake. Despite stunning landscapes, Santa Ana offers a perfect base for travelers seeking to get to know the El Salvadorian culture and traditions. Yet, the charming colonial city maintains its authentic vibe, and you are unlikely to spot other travelers on the streets.
- Activities 100% 100%
- Authentic City Life 75% 75%
- Culture 80% 80%
- Adventure 75% 75%
Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second-largest city, marked the end of our travels. So naturally, we were slightly wistful once we got there. It took us one hour from Ataco to Santa Ana. However, our melancholy quickly faded when we met Rosi, our host, who picked us up from the city center. To be closer to the volcano, we decided to stay outside the city. As soon as we passed the gates of Rosi’s house, we were overwhelmed by the luxurious estate. Rosi’s son and best friend, Mario, greeted us warmly, and we quickly felt right at home.
Things to do in Santa Ana, El Salvador
The colonial city center
There are a handful of impressive colonial buildings in Santa Ana’s center. Admits them a gorgeous national theatre and an elaborate white cathedral. The side walls of the cathedral are decorated with delicate carvings. You’ll be able to spot the two buildings from Parque Central. Opposite the cathedral, you’ll find a nice restaurant that affords you a view over Parque Central.
Hang out at Parque Colon and Mercado Colon
After enjoying the friendly atmosphere at Parque Central, we wandered towards the Parque Colon. Amongst your way, you’ll be able to spot colonial “ruins,” which inherit a charm of their own. Just be aware that you are strolling Santa Ana’s most notorious neighborhood. However, the area is rebuilt to allow for more social activities to prevent violence and other crimes. Mercado Colon is an excellent place to hang out, observe, or indulge in a bit of shopping spring. The market is lively, diverse, and cheap. But, because Santa Ana’s biggest market is super crowded at times, watch out for pickpocketers.
Cerro Verde National Park's breathtaking view
We enjoyed the city of Santa Ana, but to be honest, the region is prone to outdoor activities. After a couple of days in the city, we hopped on a bus and arrived and reached Cero Verde National Park within an hour’s journey. The park afforded us fascinating views over volcanoes Santa Ana, Izalco, and Cerro Verde. On top of that, we could spot Lago Coatepeque with its pristine, deep blue water. Together, these natural phenomena make up one of El Salvador’s most impressive landscapes.
Volcano Cerro Verde
The Cerro Verde National Park offers several hikes around the volcano and the park. The area is lush and green and a haven for nature lovers. You can choose between easy and challenging hikes. Several lookout platforms afford you breathtaking views of Lago Coatepeque. The caldera was formed thousands of years ago. If you are up for a swim, a little diving, or water skiing, Lago Coatepeque is the place for you. Just be aware that the lake is a favorite amongst El Salvador’s most affluent. Hence many restaurants and hotels are on the pricey side.
It’s a lot harder to climb volcano Izalco than volcano Santa Ana. The way up is steep, and the slippery slopes will lead you up before leading you down again. Zigzagging your way up, the hike takes a little longer than the Santa Ana hike.
Unfortunately, it’s only possible to visit volcano Izalco if sufficient people sign up for a tour.
Santa Ana’s volcanic crater lake El Salvador’s highest volcano is called Illamatepec. We started our guided tour at 11 am. The hike up was a lot more challenging than we expected. Starting in a forest area, the beginning of your walk is pretty unimpressive.
As we got higher, the flora changed drastically. Colorful lava rocks from beige to orange and red are home to some absurdly impressive plants. The hike took us about two hours, and it’s steep sometimes. It’s pretty windy on top of the volcano, so bring a windbreaker! If the hike didn’t leave you breathless, the view over the volcano crater will most certainly be. The turquoise sulphuric lake looks surreal. It’s so stunning that it seems impossible to take your eyes off the crater lake. As we continued to walk around the crater, we were rewarded with stunning views of Lago Coatepeque, too. It’s an impressive panorama, with Lago Coatepeque on one side and the mesmerizing sulphuric crater lake on the other. For obvious reasons, this hike highlights many travelers coming to El Salvador.
If you are up for a swim, a little diving, or water skiing, Lago Coatepeque is the place for you. Just be aware that the lake is a favorite amongst El Salvador’s most affluent. Hence many restaurants and hotels are on the pricey side.
Discover Mayan culture in Tazumal
Since we were headed to the ruins of Copan in Honduras, we skipped the trip to Tazumal. However, the historical site is one of the most important and impressive pre-Columbian sites in El Salvador. Excavated ruins cover an area of 10 km² and make up the most significant Mayan temple in El Salvador. If you didn’t get a chance to learn about the Mayan culture on your trip through Central America, Tazumal offers the perfect opportunity. You’ll find the ruins only 15 km from Santa Ana. A half-hour bus ride (bus line 218 towards Chalchuapa) from Santa Ana will take you almost to the entrance gate. Just let the bus driver know where you want to get off. They are super friendly and eager to help.
Practical travel tips for Santa Ana, El Salvador
How to get to Santa Ana?
Bus 201 connects San Salvador and Santa Ana. The trip takes about 1,5 hours and costs $1,5. To get to Parque Cerro Verde, take bus 248 from La Vencedora bus terminal in Santa Ana (1.75 hrs, $0.85)
Where to stay in Santa Ana
It's pretty tricky to find a local sleeping arrangement in Santa Ana. Most of the hostels seem very large, crowded and owned by foreigners. So it's worth checking out Airbnb.
When is the best time to visit the crater lake?
The best time to hike the volcano is in the dry season (from November to April). The sky is cloudless, and the bright blue sky promises the best views.
Tips for hiking the crater lake
The tour to hike Santa Ana takes at least 5 hours. Usually, there will be two tours: one starting at 9 a.m and the second at 11 a.m. The hike was way more challenging than we expected. Bring enough water and sunscreen.
There are two points to start the hike—one from the official gate, extending the tour by roughly 30 minutes. The second point to start is a bar at the bottom of the volcano. We wish we had taken this option but only found out too late.
Can I drink tap water in El Salvador?
Do not drink tap water in El Salvador; bring your self-cleaning bottle instead! While water from the national water company (ANDA) is generally safe, you never know the water source the restaurants, hotels, and so on may use.
Bring a self-cleaning water bottle to get clean and cool drinking water.
What's the biggest challenge for the conscious traveler?
Trash: Often, you'll find food vendors selling typical El Salvadorian dishes on the go. It's not just delicious but cheap. To avoid plastic wrapping, choose to buy your food at the bus stations and have them put it in your collapsible container. Bring your water filter or UV bottle to avoid having to buy bottled water.
Sunscreen: Protect Marine life and wear reef-friendly sunscreen!
Packing List Nicaragua
Nicaragua is super diverse and offers plenty of things to do. Check out our packing list, and get ready for an incredible adventure!
Find everything from eco-friendly toiletries to the only travel shoes you’ll ever want to exciting travel gadgets!
Places to visit in El Salvador
Do not skip El Salvador! It’s one of the most amazing countries to visit in Central America!
Golfo de Fonseca, an archipelago shared by Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, a former playground for pirates, afforded us with the most stunning and relaxing border crossing experience in our backpacking history.
San Salvador, El Salvador’s resilient heart. The capital bears deeps scares, many of them still visible at Centro Histórico and in the hearts and memories of its inhabitants. Its heartache was omnipresent, yet the city’s fierce determination for a better future, its hopes and aspirations are infectious and the reason why San Salvador is our favorite capital in Central America.
El Cuco is a sleepy little village. It’s busier on the weekends as many El Salvadorians come to enjoy the stunning beaches. El Cuco is winged by two impressive beaches on either side, Playa Esteron, a remote white-grey sand beach, and Playa Las Flores, which boasts world-class waves for surfing.