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A Little Risk, Stunning Reward in El Salvador

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The beach had been relaxing, the volcanoes and the jungle beautiful. Yet El Salvador also attracted me for more serious reasons. As an undergraduate, I had studied the nation's civil war. In my 20s, I volunteered for an organization that revered the memory of the nation's Catholic martyrs for social justice. I'd enjoyed El Salvador's natural beauty, but I also wanted to reckon with its past.

Plenty of opportunities existed. More than any other Central American nation, El Salvador has transformed the tortured memories of the region's war years into memorials and museums. Along with surfers, political and religious solidarity groups have long been steady visitors to the country.

In San Salvador, pilgrims visit the church where Archbishop Oscar Romero, a defender of the poor, was murdered in 1980 while saying Mass. Across town, a museum displays the bloody robes and personal effects of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter -- all murdered in 1989 by the right-wing, U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.

The epicenter for El Salvador's war tourism, however, is the small town of Perquin, once the mountain stronghold of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (or FMLN, its Spanish acronym). Perquin's major attraction today is the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution, a small facility staffed largely by former guerrilla fighters.

Located in a low adobe building, the museum presents the story from the rebels' perspective; its entry sign declares it a "homage to heroes and martyrs." That emotional tie, combined with a fascinating collection of artifacts, gives the museum the homemade intimacy of a scrapbook.

Its exhibits reveal the nitty-gritty of guerrilla warfare: homemade bombs, propaganda posters and hand-drawn battle plans. It shows how rebels used home intercoms to turn wire fences into telephone lines, and it displays the makeshift studio of the guerrilla radio station. On a hilltop above the museum grounds, I found old trenches and at least one cave -- a clandestine broadcast studio.

Former guerrillas also work as local hiking guides. On my last full day in town, I arranged a trek with an ex-combatant named Rafael Argueta. Only 10 when he became involved in the rebel movement, Argueta was 39 when he led me through piney woods and along a turquoise river. Less than 10 years separated us, but his entire demeanor -- not to mention his bad back and prosthetic eye -- showed life had aged us at dramatically different rates.

Toward the end of our walk in the rain, we passed through a hamlet called El Mozote. A memorial there commemorates one of the largest massacres in modern Latin American history, the Salvadoran army's murder of some 1,000 unarmed peasants in 1981. Argueta saw the massacre's immediate aftermath as a boy soldier; by my count, he would have been about 13 at the time.

He didn't linger on the memory, and I understood: There is a fine line between witnessing an atrocity and vulgarizing it for tourist consumption. We paused only briefly at the memorial before hiking a muddy road back toward Perquin.

At the main highway, we got a lift from one of the small pickups that serve as collective taxis. Argueta and I sat in the back on small benches, a tarp stretched tightly overhead to keep out the rain. As others hailed the truck and clambered aboard, we all pressed together to squeeze everyone in.

The pickup was not comfortable. Because we weren't wearing seat belts, I cannot claim it was terribly safe. In fact, some people will insist that you should never ride in such contraptions. It's a solid and defensible rule; I just prefer to ignore it.

Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel about San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.

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