July 29, 2018
By: Juan Arredondo / Angélica Cuevas.

A Journey Towards Uncertainty

Dozens of Venezuelan families decide to cross into Colombia on foot, fleeing a country where starvation and the cost of living threaten to worsen an already massive exodus.

Their motivation: starting over in Bogotá, Lima, Santiago de Chile, or wherever fate takes them.

At least one and a half million Venezuelans have left their country in the past two years using Cúcuta, Colombia, as their primary escape route. Venezuela is currently experiencing unprecedented diaspora growth, spurred by a hyperinflation exacerbated since 2016 and reflected in symbolic wages, bankruptcies, starvation and violence.

The unrelenting devaluation of their currency, the Bolívar, makes the situation even more dramatic for Venezuelans crossing the Simón Bolívar Bridge into Cúcuta. While $1 Bolívar was worth $2.2 Colombian pesos in 2016, by May of this year that same Bolívar had a value of $0.0025 pesos. Many Venezuelans are shocked to learn that their currency is now worth nothing in Colombia; to survive, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. Whole families spend the night in parks and bus terminals in Cúcuta, work informally wherever possible, and sell anything they may have on hand: mobile phones, shoes, wedding bands and even women’s hair.

To collect $50,000 Colombian pesos (US$17 Dollars), which is the cost of a bus ticket from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga, a Venezuelan would have to pay $10,000,000 Bolívares—the equivalent of four months of minimum wage in Venezuela. For many migrants, this is an impossible figure, whether in Venezuela or in Colombia. Cúcuta is the border region with the highest unemployment rate in Colombia, and is the city receiving the most Venezuelans. Earning money there is no easy task.

Instead, many choose to gather their things and take to the road on foot. Such was the story of Junior Reverol, Joselyn Castillo and Karina Gómez (eight months pregnant), who are part of a group of 13 Venezuelans who departed from Cúcuta towards Cali on May 13, 2018—Mother’s Day. This is a journey of some 950 kilometers, which can take up to 18 hours by car.

If truck drivers or vehicles on the road fail to assist them, families going from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga-the first large city along the route that takes them to the center of the country—often walk around 12 kilometers every day. Each break they take is an opportunity to charge their mobile phones and call Venezuela.
“My knees are doing fine, but my feet hurt a lot. I have never had to walk so much in my life, never,” says Ángel Castañeda, 22 years old, who arrived in Cúcuta from Barquisimeto (State of Lara). Ángel desperately needs to find a job to send money to his 20-year-old wife, who is pregnant. Their son will be born by the end of July.

Venezuelans lost on average 11 kilos of body weight in 2017, owing to the shortage and high cost of food.

Venezuela Living Conditions Survey

“We have found better food to eat here, on the streets, than in Venezuela. People give us bread and soda for free. We can at least eat three times a day, and not two, as in Venezuela,” says Gerardo, one of 13 walkers. At 6 p.m., the group arrives at the sector of Donjuana, 29 kilometers from Cúcuta.

How many Venezuelans cross every day?

“What a difficult question,” says Luis Mora, 37 years old, a Venezuelan who works changing tires at Donjuana, and who took the group in.
“If 700 or 800 Venezuelans have walked by this week, it’s a small number. I’m not lying, it’s very sad, and it’s becoming worse because Venezuela is not getting better. So we will be seeing more Venezuelans on the road.”    

Venezuelan walkers seem to wear uniforms, carrying the tricolor bags that Nicolás Maduro’s government provides to schoolchildren. Today, instead of notebooks, these bags carry clothing, medicine and toiletries.

What do you see as you walk?

On foot, by bus or on a bicycle

Jovanny Barreto, or ‘El Muñequito Báez’, has been a road bicycle racer for some 23 years and once competed in the Táchira Tour. Three days ago, he left Barinas in western Venezuela, pedaling on his bike, looking to reach Ecuador. While he moves forward, his strategy is to enter local races that he finds on Facebook, fight for the podium and collect some money to eat and send to Venezuela. Every day he travels 70 kilometers, which he considers training. According to him, if this fails, he will look for a job as a blacksmith, painter, mechanic or salesperson. On May 14, he met the walkers on the side of the road and took a break with them. “Last week, one of my granddaughters asked me for food and I had nothing to give her, so I took off. I am not leaving for good; I will not give up Venezuela for another country. We had to migrate for now, but when my Venezuela has been fixed, I’ll come back,” he said.

On the road, unexpectedly, Colombian bicycle riders and drivers show up, and they give the walkers bags of bread, soda, and plates with food or sweets for the children. Junior’s family stops at least every hour to rest. Most walk in sandals. They have learned that sandals “give them fewer blisters” than sneakers.

Why walk while eight months pregnant?

To get to Cali you first have to go through Bucaramanga. The stretch from Cúcuta to this city, which would take five and a half hours by car, takes between two to three days for the walkers. They travel in groups of three, four, seven, nine, fourteen people. They sleep in tents, on the side of the road, at gas stations or at bus terminals. The intermediate city of Pamplona is a mandatory stop along the way.


“Joselyn, take a picture of me with my new Colombian girlfriend,” says Ángel from a gas station in the outskirts of Pamplona. At the end of the third day of the journey, they make themselves comfortable there to spend the night.
David helps them find room for their bags on a corner covered with grease. Pamplona, at 2,586 meters above sea level, is much colder than Cúcuta, where the afternoon sun can heat up to 34°C. Plastic bags, laid out on the floor, are used to isolate the sleeping pads and the bodies from the cold. It is time to rest.
Morning dawns in Pamplona and the 13 Venezuelans wake up at 6:00 a.m. to continue the journey. On May 15, in an attempt to get to Cali, the group ventures to cross the Los Andes Mountain Range. Mountains up to 3,000 meters high await them, among them El Picacho, one of the highest in the province of Santander.
The trip towards Bucaramanga entails going deep into the Berlín Páramo, where temperatures can drop below 0°C at night. On May 16, the group walks for a couple of hours, until they meet a truck that takes them to the sector of La Laguna, right beside Berlín. There, they spend the coldest night of their lives.

Venezuelans crossing the Simón Bolívar Bridge share a similar, if unfounded, belief that the farther they go from the border, the easier it will be to start all over again. Wherever the road takes them is unimportant, be it Bogotá, Quito, Rumichaca, Santiago or Buenos Aires; whether the weather resembles that of Caracas, Valencia or Barquisimeto; or if their fates lie near rivers, near oceans, or surrounded by mountains—the destination matters not. Moving far away from present-day Venezuela, the unsustainable Venezuela, is the only chance they have to rebuild their lives.