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Latin America

Venezuelans flee to Chile in risky nine-day journey by road and river

Unable to afford plane tickets, a growing number of Venezuelans are escaping their country's dire economic crisis and emigrating across South America.
12 Oct 2016 – 12:24 PM EDT
The last stop for immigrants is the bus station in Santiago, Chile.

SANTIAGO DE CHILE – Marianyelis Pantoja knew the trip would be risky, but she was out of options.

She and her six-year-old son started their trek from Venezuela to Chile on Sept. 1. Her husband had left first and was already there. By bus, they traveled from their home in Guarenas, east of Caracas, to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, and from there to Manaus, Brazil, in a 28-hour marathon ride. The money they carried was supposed to last them the entire trip and help them start a new life in Chile.

At noon on Sept. 10, near the city of Iquique in northern Chile, the bus crashed and flipped over, killing the driver and his assistant. Pantoja wasn't wearing a seatbelt and suffered significant cuts to her face. Her son, fortunately, wasn't injured. Authorities are still investigating the cause of the crash, but local media showed that 11 of the more than 30 injured passengers were Venezuelans. The bus was just 20 hours short of Santiago.

“I wasn't murdered by a criminal in my country, but this road almost killed me," Pantoja said by phone. "I still can't believe it. My husband told me that the trip wasn't that hard and that the road wasn't dangerous. Now I don't know if we did the right thing.”

Despite the many risks, desperate Venezuelans are increasingly making the long trip south to Chile to escape their country's deepening economic crisis. They take seven buses, a ferry and a boat, crossing through three countries and 11 cities. Many bring only one suitcase and a bag. This is no vacation: It's a nine-day trip from Venezuela to Chile that's not so much an adventure as an act of desperation.

In the last five years, the number of Chilean visas issued to Venezuelans rose from 758 to 8,381, according to Chile's Department for Foreigners and Migration. Almost 90 percent of visas issued to Venezuelans last year were work visas, most of them for immigrants ages 20 to 35.

Chile has the third-highest minimum wage in Latin America after Panama and Argentina, at $373 per month. The country's economic stability and relatively easy immigration process make it an attractive destination for Venezuelans.

The nine-day odyssey

Pantoja did the math: An airplane ticket would cost $800, in a country where the minimum wage stands at about $20 per month. She tried to buy a ticket in bolívares, but foreign airlines in Venezuela have stopped accepting the local currency to pressure the government to pay its debt, estimated at $3.7 billion by the International Air Transport Association.

Emigrating by land would be cheaper. Pantoja had read that the trip would cost no more than $260 on Buenos Datos Venezolanos, a Facebook group for Venezuelans living in Chile with 30,000 members.

To leave Venezuela, travelers pay bolívares to buy a one-way bus ticket to the Brazilian border, and from there they take a bus to Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon. During the journey, they pretend to be tourists when asked by immigration officials.

From Manaus to Porto Velho, the next Brazilian city, travelers can take a six-day boat trip up the Amazon, or a ferry and a 36-hour bus ride on the feared BR-319 road. Built 40 years ago, it's a 531-mile ribbon through the heart of the Amazon jungle that eats up tires. Passengers with broken-down vehicles are often stranded for hours.

Then travelers must take another bus from Porto Velho to Guajará-Mirim on the border with Bolivia. After that, they take a boat to Guayaramerín, also in Bolivia. The mountain of suitcases threaten to sink the boat and can make the seven-minute ride feel like an eternity.

From Guayaramerín, there are buses to Riberalta and La Paz and then to Los Yungas, the last stop before Chile on a route known as Death Road, rising 15,256 feet above sea level. The 36-hour trek is considered one of the world's most dangerous, and altitude sickness can make travelers faint.

Pantoja’s husband went first. He didn't have a problem getting to Chile, but couldn't find a job once he arrived. Pantoja posted a request in the Facebook group on June 22: “He has no papers, just his passport. Help me please. What should he do?”

Starting from zero

Once Venezuelans finally arrive in Chile, a new struggle begins: starting over.

To begin the immigration paperwork, university graduates need only show their diplomas. But many arriving Venezuelans have to quickly find a job that can lead to a contract in order to start the residency application.

"They are accountants, engineers, teachers, the majority of them very well-educated," said Delio Cubides, executive secretary of the Catholic Chilean Migration Institute. "Before they can work in their own fields they work as janitors, in restaurant kitchens or any other jobs that Chileans don't want.”

Juan Gutiérrez, a 27-year-old engineer from Cumaná in north-central Venezuela, is willing to work anywhere until he manages to get his papers in order.

He had several run-ins with criminals in Venezuela. He lost count of how many times robbers stole his cell phone. One friend was shot and several others were kidnapped, paying huge sums for their freedom. He wanted to avoid all of that.

But he, too, was on the bus with Pantoja and nearly died before he reached his final destination.

When the bus crashed, he suffered a minor injury to his eye and cuts on his hands, arms and legs. After the accident, he helped pull out the legless body of the driver from the wreckage. He reached Santiago penniless because he lost his wallet. But friends helped him, gave him a room and lent him some money.

He can't wait for the bus company to decide if it will compensate passengers after the crash. It only paid for a night at a hotel, and the next day took them to a Santiago hospital.

“It's not like I brought a lot of money. I started out with $800 and spent $260 along the way," said Gutiérrez. "I brought bread, tuna, cookies and chocolate to avoid spending money on food. Everyone brought some food, so we shared.”

When he reached Santiago, he borrowed a phone to contact his family. He told his mother he was okay, and didn't mention the crash.

Alberto Conde, 24, an accountant from Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela, tells a similar story. “I was desperate. I was afraid I would be killed, and the lines to buy food every day depressed me,” he said.

Despite having a good job, he only managed to save around $500 -- less than half the cost of a plane ticket. "I could not ask my parents to make that sacrifice,” he said. After he learned about the land journey on Facebook, he decided to leave.

During nine days of travel, he only took two showers at the bus terminals in Boa Vista and La Paz. He was also on the bus that crashed, and now has several cuts and a splint on one arm.

“I still see that image of the driver dying and vomiting blood," said Conde.

But it wasn't all bad, he added. "I saw scenery that I never in my life imagined. I traveled with other Venezuelans who have the same hope I do: to work and move forward. Now I think of them as brothers, even though we spent only nine days together.”

Finding help from fellow countrymen

The Facebook group for Venezuelans in Chile now has 21 messages from Venezuelans saying that they will make the trek in October.

Many are seeking answers. Some of the frequently asked questions: “How much money should I take?” “What's the least dangerous route?” “Can I bring only $500?” “Can job contracts for visas be faked?”

Others offer advice. “I arrived in Santiago de Chile by land nine days ago," said one immigrant in a Sept. 2 post. "I am creating a Whatsapp group to provide detailed information about each leg of the trip and what you should bring.”

More than 100 people left their phone numbers to add to the group.

Meanwhile, new arrivals are trying to find their footing.

After the crash, Pantoja spent several days recuperating in the Antofagasta home of a stranger, a fellow Venezuelan. Pantoja wasn't wearing a seatbelt and suffered significant cuts to her face. She lost a bag with her cell phone, her Venezuelan ID card, a tablet and clothes, as well as her last $500. Her son, fortunately, wasn't injured.

After two facial reconstruction surgeries, Pantoja is in pain and still shaken.

The bus company only paid for her medical bills. Now she's in Santiago, living on donations from Venezuelans through an fundraiser set up by another good Samaritan.

But last month she fainted and wound up back in a hospital. Her husband is living in Valparaiso, where he got a job, and is caring for their son while she's ill.

“This is an enormous setback for our plans,” said Pantoja. “I don't know what I'm going to do, how I'm going to live … The only thing I can think of right now is to thank God that I am alive and that I managed to leave Venezuela.”

Note: The names of Juan Gutiérrez and Alberto Conde were changed at their request.