64km (40 miles) W of San Salvador

Though El Salvador's charms aren't normally found in its crowded, hectic cities, Santa Ana's unique Gothic cathedral, ornate theater, and easy access to the country's most significant Maya ruin make it a place worth visiting.

Santa Ana, an easy 40-minute drive west of San Salvador, is the country's second-largest city, with approximately 275,000 residents. Yet it avoids the sprawling nature of San Salvador because most of its attractions are centered around the city's leafy main square, Parque Libertad. The city's main in-town attractions are its large, neo-Gothic cathedral and ornate and brightly painted theater. Both are among the country's more architecturally interesting landmarks. The plaza itself also offers a glimpse into old and new El Salvador, with young, mohawk-sporting skate punks mingling with matriarchs in traditional dress.

Perhaps the best reason to visit Santa Anta is that El Salvador's most important Maya ruin, Tazumal, is only a 13km (8-mile) bus ride away. Santa Ana also offers the modern conveniences of bank machines, Internet outlets, and a super grocery store. Though it was once the county's most prosperous town, it now has some unsafe neighborhoods. However, the tourist-filled main plaza and its immediate surroundings are safe and well patrolled.

The city's faded glory comes from the coffee boom of the late 19th century, when the town became a major processing center and the coffee barons built haciendas in the surrounding green rolling hills. The collapse in coffee prices in the early 20th century lead to a workers' revolt in 1932 that saw the death of 30,000 campesinos. The city's history goes back much farther, however, as it was originally a pre-Columbian settlement of the Pocomante tribe, and then a place the Pipiles called Sihuatehuacán, meaning place of priestesses. A Spanish bishop saw fit to rechristen it Santa Ana in 1569. It became known as the heroic city in 1569, when it was the center of a successful revolt against the dictator Carlos Ezeta. Though coffee is still an important industry, the city is a major retail and manufacturing center with several foreign-owned factories located in the north.