Lost in the Atacama desert

Lost in the Atacama desert

An excruciating experience. Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto


These Venezuelan migrants barely survived being abandoned by coyotes in the most arid desert of the planet, trying to reach Santiago de Chile.

By Caracas ChroniclesArmando Díaz

Oct 6, 2020

The Tacna Valley, in Southern Peru, is sometimes warm and sometimes cold, and you will always face a curtain of sand when driving on its roads. It was early September and the average temperature was around 17°C, but for Yuleska that was the least important thing on her mind: when she got off the bus with her four-year-old daughter holding her hand, her sister-in-law Daisy with her two nephews, and her cousin’s wife, her only thought was that she only had one more stop before reaching her destination, Santiago de Chile.

There was no time to lose, so she began looking for the hotel where she would stay temporarily. That’s where her contact was, a man Yuleska didn’t want to name. When they met, they only exchanged a few words.

“We can get you through. I have the contacts, but I need a phone number and I’ll let you know how and when we’ll do it,” the contact explained in a Peruvian accent.

Yuleska and Daisy looked at each other and Daisy gave him a phone number. Then the contact left and they waited at the hotel, spending the night in the same room, sleeping together, with suppressed anxiety. Not knowing what they’d have to do to reach their goal.

The sun was up when Daisy’s phone rang. She answered from the bed, Yuleska staring while the children slept.

“He said we have to go to another hotel, not far from here,” Daisy explained, “and the first thing he asked is if we were willing to walk. I said we were, but our main concern was the children.”

“Right. But, how long is the walk?”

“He said it was a short while. That we’d leave after midnight and by sunrise we’d get to Arica. That’s why we told him that we would plough through, and if we had to carry the kids on our backs, we would.”

Yuleska looked at the children. Her daughter was the youngest, her two nephews were seven and ten years old.

The Quiet Night

The first thing that shocked them at the next hotel was that there were over 40 Venezuelans in a single room. All of them headed to Chile, all of them willing to cross a trail to avoid border control. Yuleska and her family had already done it: Venezuela-Colombia, Colombia-Ecuador, Ecuador-Peru.

The contact explained to the crowd that they were going to split them in groups of men and women. The latter would be taken at six o’clock in a van to the border, far away from the Immigration checkpoint and, sure enough, the old van was parked in front of the hotel on schedule. A woman like Yuleska was inside, with an eight-month-old baby in her arms. They didn’t speak. She focused her eyes on a landscape that reminded her of the dunes of the Médanos de Coro, back in Venezuela.

They arrived to the middle of nowhere.

“Remember, you have to wait here for the other group,” the driver told them from the vehicle. “They’re on foot, so this will take a while.”

He left them alone. A curtain of smoke rose up from the wheels, making them cough; when it dissipated, the van was but a small dot in the distance.

As the sun went down, so did the temperature. Yuleska’s fingers were so cold that she could barely move them, but still she held her daughter. Being that close was key to keep her warm and, more importantly, calm.

They waited for five hours. There was no way of knowing the exact time, as their phones were off, an order the contact had given them.

“Zero communications, so no one bothers you.”

With the other group’s arrival there was also food, and the group of over 40 people was then divided into three sets. Yuleska’s group was made up of 13 people, and they only needed to wait for the sun, trying to bear the bitter cold that no blanket could soothe.

A Dry Well

“Once you reach this point,” their contact told them after the sun came up, “keep walking south without stopping. You will see three mountains. Once you cross them, you’ll be in Arica. That’s about three hours trekking, but since you’re carrying children, it may take six. You’ll be there by noon.”

Looking at the map, Yuleska thought about water and food. She didn’t feel prepared to go up so many mountains in a day, less so with little provisions.

She first dropped exhausted at the top of the third mountain. Her legs were shaking and all she could was pant, groan, and moan.

“I’m done, girl,” she told Daisy. “I think I’m going to pass out.”

The carabineer’s answer unsettled them: “You’re too far away, ladies.”

The long climb would then become a slope. Yuleska would hold on to her sister-in-law, because the terrain was so steep, dreading a misstep with her baby in arms. They made their way down crutching, staying as close to the ground as possible. When they reached the bottom, the sun was right over them, less than half of the water in her bottle was left and it was very hot. She looked up and when she saw yet another mountain, she did feel like fainting.

“One more to go, Yuleska,” Daisy said. “Are you ok?”

“I can’t do it,” she was on the verge of tears. “It’s too high. If it took us like five hours to get down, how long will it take to get to that one?”

“Let’s go, sweetheart, we can do it!” Daisy grabbed her by the shoulder.

At some point in the summit, everything started spinning. She woke up over some rocks and saw one of her companions was helping her out. Her family was at the top, and there still was one more slope towards the edge of the mountain. She began shaking, as her chest heaved with each breath. There was no sign of civilization.

“What’s this?” Yuleska snapped. “Where’s Arica?”

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