LA LAGUNA, Colombia — Diagnori Gomez was prepared to walk, but the cold still caught her by surprise.
She’d left her home in the Caribbean coastal city of Maracay, Venezuela three days earlier for Colombia’s border. From there she walked 65 miles in two days, trekking through Colombia’s tropical lowlands to the arid mountains that mark this northeastern part of the country.
Now the 44-year-old mother and former kitchen worker stood before the paramo, the cold and treeless Andean highlands that guarded her path toward Trujillo, Peru, more than 1,000 miles, where family awaited and where she hoped to find a job. It was likely to be a two-week trek, depending on how many rides she could hitch along the way.
“Oh, please, God,” she said, tears trickling from her eyes as she towed her suitcase down the road. “We have nowhere to sleep tonight. Please help us.”
In the tiny town of La Laguna, she found about two dozen Venezuelan migrants like herself, huddled into nooks and corners outside homes and shops.
They wrapped themselves in what blankets they had and prepared to shiver through the night in this stop along the road. They plan to walk this highway for as long as they can, with their sights set on Ecuador or Peru.
“People see such a need to leave their homes that they are going on foot.”
Locals say it’s the same scene every night in this small town along the highway that connects Colombia’s busiest border crossing to the country’s interior.
“It’s not just the border anymore, but the whole country.”
Colombia counted more than 935,000 Venezuelans within its borders in September, almost double the number from the start of this year. Many have resided in the border zones, but the surging influx of migrants there has made finding work virtually impossible. So more and more are moving deeper into Colombia and beyond in search of work and shelter. And they're doing on foot.
“The problem has grown,” said Carlos Medina, director of the Colombian Red Cross in the city of Tunja, 260 miles from the Venezuelan border. “It’s not just the border anymore, but the whole country.”
About 2,000 Venezuelans cross into Colombia each day with intent to settle there, said Colombia’s migration chief, Christian Kruger, at a recent press conference. Up to 5,000 enter Colombia on their way to Ecuador, Peru and other points farther away.
"The numbers of the Venezuelan migration continue growing every day," Kruger said. “People see such a need to leave their homes that they are going on foot.”
Years of trickling Venezuelan migration have left few opportunities for new arrivals in Colombia, so the travelers are forced to search farther down the continent. A record 5,000 Venezuelans entered Peru in one day in August, before the country implemented new entry restrictions, the country’s migration head, Eduardo Sevilla, said in September.
"The numbers of the Venezuelan migration continue growing every day."
He said the number of Venezuelans in his country grew from about 100,000 in December 2017 to 415,000 in September 2018.
Deepening hunger, violence and economic crisis at home have pushed more and more people to leave Venezuela without the means to pay their passage.
Now these neighboring countries find themselves saddled with a steady trickle of Venezuelans towing luggage down their highways. They walk and hitch rides along highways, frustrating each new attempt by regional governments to rein in the runaway crisis.
Colombia has all but conceded its inability to control or measure the flow over its border with Venezuela. Brazil was forced to deploy its military to the border after violence broke out between locals and migrants. Peru and Ecuador in August implemented controls on arriving Venezuelans but had to backtrack when large populations accumulated at their borders and many migrants defied the rules.
In La Laguna, the migrants eagerly accepted bread rolls from 49-year-old Selestino Suarez, a local potato farmer. He’s handed out about 70 rolls every other day since about June, he said.
“You can see they are suffering,” said Suarez, dressed in a thick woolen poncho while the Venezuelans huddled in bedsheets. “They are begging on their knees, so how can one not help?”
CROSSING THE HIGHLANDS
The Red Cross of Colombia tallies up to 150 Venezuelans passing through this highland, elevation 9,800 feet, each Saturday and Sunday when it sends a contingent to attend to the migrants. The organization counted 2,164 Venezuelans crossing the highlands on weekends between July and September, including 514 woman and 95 children.
Volunteers began the project in July as they noticed a growing number of desperate travelers. Back then, it was mostly men walking over the mountains, said Daniela Sanchez, a volunteer director for the Red Cross in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga. But now, she said, she sees ever more women, children and seniors making the trip as desperation deepens in Venezuela and the need to leave grows more urgent.
“They come from very warm places, so to cross the cold highlands is a really hard hit to them,” said Sanchez. “We’ve heard of people who’ve died from the cold, but we haven’t witnessed it.”
In a group of 13 trudging along through the treeless rolling hills, one migrant had wrapped his sneakers in string to keep them from unraveling, and he worried what he’d do when they ultimately fell apart.
That day the group had started their march at 2 a.m., when they gave up trying to sleep through the cold. As the day turned to evening again, they feared what another night in the highlands would bring.
“We’ve suffered hunger like you can’t imagine,” said Luis Lugo, a former mechanic from Zulia as he trudged onward.
“My feet feel broken.”
They flagged every vehicle that passed for a ride. Finally, after 14 hours of walking, a white pickup truck stopped. The driver said he could only fit eight people in his bed, but he didn’t protest as all 13 clamored in. They drove across the mountain pass and back down into the jungle on the other side.
A LONG ROAD
In the city of Bucaramanga, a public plaza hosts an unofficial rest stop for the migrants, who sleep in a handful of tents or atop their piled clothes and blankets. Every day, more arrive to recover from their hike across the highlands.
“My feet feel broken,” said Jesus Rujano, a 27-year-old former bus driver from Puerto Cabello, as he hobbled into camp.
Like elsewhere across the border region, Venezuelans long ago saturated this city’s market for cheap labor, leaving no space for new arrivals to earn their daily bread. So they rest for two days, then continue on.
About 175 miles down the road, back up in the cold highlands, dozens of Venezuelans arrive each day in the city of Tunja.
The shelter, the Holy Spirit Refuge, opened in July when its director, Anny Uribe, noticed the growing number of migrants arriving on foot. Since then, almost 3,000 Venezuelans have slept here.
Men sleep up to three per bed and sometimes fill the halls. One dorm room is made from taped-together trash bags. Charities including the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency have donated food, appliances and beds.
Some health problems become grave by the time migrants make it this far, Uribe said. She recalled cutting the shoes off a child whose blood had dried on the inside, and showed photos of a man with a blister the width of a golf ball where he’d walked through his footwear.
Manuel Bastida, a 33-year-old former security guard from Trujillo, lay in bed with a fever. He said he'd spent three days sick, lying in tall grass by a roadside where no one could see him, and he assumed he would die there. Some locals discovered him while walking by the road and helped him to the shelter.
“Things have gone pretty badly for me,” he said. “For this, I left my family.”
Migrants can spend only three nights in the shelter before they must make room for new arrivals.
In the mid-afternoon, a group of young men and teenagers packed up to depart. They left the shelter and asked locals for directions to the highway.
Andul Suarez was among the group headed toward the highway, where they planned to flag passing trucks until one stopped.
“When I was young, I saw TV programs about Peru,” said Andul Suarez, 17. “I never thought I’d go. Now look at me. I’m on my way.”
Cover image: A group of Venezuelan migrants walk along a highway through the Andean highlands on September 27, 2018. Pu Ying Huang for VICE News.