On our last day in Santa Ana, Emma and I spend the morning walking around the local market. Carlos, our hostel host, has been asking if we want to try the best pupusas in Santa Ana – the only catch is we have to go early. Like 7am. Which is fine by me. I’m awake by then anyway. Emma, a bartender in real life, is less excited for another early morning, but gamely joins us anyway.

The market is a short walk from the hostel and easily found by all the umbrella’s and activity.

We wander through aisles and stalls, twisting and turning until we come to the pupuseria. I don’t know if I could ever find it again! Fortunately Carlos knows it well and, after asking our preferences, places an order for us.

While we wait for the food to be ready, Carlos takes us on a tour through the market.

Some of the back stalls are almost deserted. Or maybe they just aren’t open yet. It’s only about 7:30am after all.

I don’t know what it is about markets in foreign countries that I love so much. Maybe it’s that they are so alive and colorful. Or maybe it’s that they seem to be such an authentic part of life. Whatever it is, I always enjoy wandering around them, taking pictures and experiencing this part of everyday living.

Back inside, Carlos asks if we want to try our hand at making pupusas. I give it ago, trying to imitate the slapping and shaping these women do to form each one. You wouldn’t think it would be very hard, yet mine doesn’t turn out very well. I just need a little more practice.

Carlos says this place has the best pupusas in Santa Ana. It’s the only place packed with people, so I imagine he’s right. That’s him in the baseball hat in the back.

Next we head to another shop to get smoothies. Carlos generously bought the pupusas so we insist on buying the smoothies. I can’t remember exactly what I got, but I think it’s something with strawberries and yogurt.

This is a first for me – a smoothie in a plastic bag. It becomes infinitely more difficult to take pictures as we walk back to the hostel. But I manage to not spill most of it.

This is so much food for 3 people! Emma and I can only eat 2 each before we’re stuffed. There’s bean and cheese, vegetable and cheese, jalapeño and cheese and chicken and cheese. Are you sensing a theme here? Lots of cheese.

After breakfast, Emma isn’t feeling well (and hasn’t been since we arrived in El Salvador), so she stays at the hostel to rest while I go exploring. I know there’s a church and town square I haven’t seen yet, and I want to check them out.

This isn’t the church I’m looking for, but it’s still pretty.

A few blocks further, I come across the town square, Parque Libertad. It’s alive with activity, vendors selling drinks, balloons, candies and just about anything else you might hope to find.

The park is surrounded by well preserved colonial era buildings including the Teatro de Santa Ana, the green building in the photo below. Unfortunately it’s closed on Monday’s, so I can’t tour inside, but I hear it’s worthwhile. A quick Google search confirms it looks impressive and I’m bummed to have missed it. There are also regular performances if you have the time and desire to see a show.

Also overlooking the square is the Catedral de Santa Ana. This is the church I’ve been looking for! Contrary to most churches in El Salvador and Latin America, the Santa Ana Cathedral is built in the neo-gothic style. It’s also the largest and most important church in El Salvador having been built in 1904, when Santa Ana was the capitol.

I cannot get over how blue this boys eyes are. I’m not much of a kid person, but even I find him adorable.

Inside the church is beautiful yet sparsely furnished.

While I’m taking a quick reprieve in the cool interior of the church, a Salvadorian man approaches and starts to talk to me in decent English. Instantly I’m on guard, wondering what his angle is. Does he want money? Is he going to kidnap me? Or maybe he’s just a nice person who wants to practice his English. I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, so while I’m cautious, I sit and talk to him for a bit.  His name is Luis, he’s visiting his father in Santa Ana where he grew up though he now lives in San Salvador.

After talking for a few minutes, Luis offers to show me around more of Santa Ana, from a locals perspective. I agree, both cautious and curious. After stopping by the theater and finding out it’s closed, we make our way the art school, also located on the square. He tells me he attended this school when he was younger and his former instructor still teaches.

You’ve got to be kidding me here. I’m so impressed by this girl’s painting. How does she do it? As someone who is very left-brained, I struggle with creativity and the arts. This blog definitely pushes me to my limit. But I’m always fascinated by those for which it comes easily. I wish I could sit down at a canvas and paint something half as good as the girl below.

Luis asks for a picture with his teacher. Don’t mind me, I’m just a hot, sweaty mess.

We also stop by the music room…

…and the dance room. How cute are these girls learning to belly dance?!

I confess, as any good solo female traveler would be, I’m still a bit skeptical of Luis at this point. As we’re leaving, I’m sure there will be some plug for me to make a donation to the school. But surprisingly, we exit with no mention of money at all. In fact, Luis now wants to take me to the Museo Regional de Occidente located a few blocks away in the old Central Reserve Bank. It’s only $3 to get in, but I’m running short on small change so he offers to pay for me. How kind of him!

The museum is dedicated to the history of currency in El Salvador. Today they use US dollars – a way to make things more expensive, I’m told. The former currency was so devalued it was basically worthless. Upstairs is a small but tasteful collection of pottery, textiles, jewelry and clothing from throughout El Salvador’s history. Downstairs in the old vault is where all the currency is kept.

As someone who loves embroidery and sewing, I’m enamored with these pictures on the wall. They’re all done by hand and so beautifully detailed. I wish I could take one home with me.

We spend about 45 minutes in the museum before I need to be heading back to Emma. Luis walks me to the hostel to make sure I arrive safely, wishes me well on the rest of the trip and we say goodbye. Emma’s feeling a bit better and we have just enough time to grab lunch before we leave. The hostel recommends a place called Ban Ban a few blocks away. Inside is blessedly air conditioned. It’s pouring down rain outside, but it’s still hot and humid. I’m surprised by how modern the interior is. We haven’t been anywhere as sleek and polished as this cafe. The food is pretty decent, too.

While Santa Ana itself isn’t a huge draw, it’s a great home base. And if you’re going to be here for a few days, it’s worth exploring Parque Libertad.

I’d also like to thank Luis for showing me around. I never would have seen the art school, nor the museum if it weren’t for him. I hate having to be cautious when strangers approach, something my male counterparts worry much less about, but I’m so glad I took the time to talk to him.

On the flip side of that same coin, Luis told me he’s scared to visit America, though he would love to. His family originally came from Pakistan a long time ago, so he has that sort of Arabic look (yes I know, Pakistani’s are not Arabic, but it’s still the point he was making). So despite the fact that he’s as Salvadorian as I am American (which is to say very much so), he’s worried that he’d be mistaken for a terrorist and attacked. I can’t even tell you how sad this made me to hear. People shouldn’t be afraid of violence because of how they look.

Anyway, my point is, interacting with locals is such an integral part of traveling and Luis taking his morning to show me his city from his perspective makes my day so much better.

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