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He left Cuba for the U.S., and wound up trekking through 60 miles of dangerous jungle

Omar Vivó, a 45-year-old Cuban migrant, in Necoclí, Colombia in September, on his more than 3,000-mile journey to the U.S. Next Vivó made his way to the Darién Gap to trek on foot through the jungle to the Panama border.
Omar Vivó, a 45-year-old Cuban migrant, in Necoclí, Colombia in September, on his more than 3,000-mile journey to the U.S. Next Vivó made his way to the Darién Gap to trek on foot through the jungle to the Panama border.

Updated October 14, 2021 at 8:03 AM ET

DARIÉN JUNGLE, Colombia — Following a muddy trail through the rainforest of northern Colombia, Omar Vivó was trying to reach the United States, one step at a time.

But getting across the Darién Gap, the name for the vast, roadless jungle separating Colombia from Panama, was proving to be a hard slog. Vivó, a 45-year-old Cuban migrant, stopped frequently to rest and smoke cigarettes and dump the river water out of his rubber boots.

At one point he collapsed on a riverbank in the jungle and declared: "I don't like to admit it, but I feel very bad, very tired."

Before entering the jungle many migrants hire motorcycles or horse carts to take them over grassy trails to where the jungle begins.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Before entering the jungle many migrants hire motorcycles or horse carts to take them over grassy trails to where the jungle begins.

Lacking a U.S. visa, Vivó was attempting to make his way north via a roundabout, overland route through South and Central America and Mexico. The toughest leg is the 60-mile hike across the Darién Gap, a jungle wilderness where the dangers include drowning in raging rivers, snake bites and getting robbed, raped or killed by criminals who prey on migrants.

Yet Vivó had grown weary of Cuba's communist dictatorship and economic stagnation and saw little hope for change. So, like the more than 91,000 migrants who have crossed the Darién so far this year, Vivó decided he would give it a try.

"I said to myself: 'Wow! That's crazy... with the jungle and the snakes," Vivó said. "But then I realized I was also taking risks in Havana. With the food shortages and the economy in ruins, it's like you're already dying, even if it's a slower death than being bitten by a crocodile or a snake."

Vivó takes a break on a riverbank while trekking through the Darién jungle. "I don't like to admit it, but I feel very bad, very tired," he declared at one point.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Vivó takes a break on a riverbank while trekking through the Darién jungle. "I don't like to admit it, but I feel very bad, very tired," he declared at one point.

I had interviewed Vivó a few days earlier in the Colombian border town of Acandí. A divorced father of an adult son and daughter, he worked loading cargo at Havana's international airport but was just scraping by. He had long dreamed of joining relatives in Miami and starting anew but had never before traveled overseas.

"Imagine if you lived in Cuba all your life and never saw any prosperity or progress," he said. "Every Cuban is itching to leave."

Many Cubans have reached the U.S. by taking homemade rafts across the Florida Straits. But Vivó said he knew several people who had tried it and drowned. That convinced him he'd be better off staying on solid ground.

In 2019 he flew to the tiny South American nation of Suriname, one of the few countries issuing tourist visas to Cubans. He saved up money working as a security guard then, starting in March, he began a meandering journey, by bus, hitchhiking and the occasional boat, through French Guiana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and then Colombia.

Vivó struggles through mud on his way to a migrant camp called Las Tecas where he will begin the trek into the Darién Jungle.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Vivó struggles through mud on his way to a migrant camp called Las Tecas where he will begin the trek into the Darién Jungle.

By the time we met, he had logged more than 3,000 miles. But the next leg of the trip — on foot across the Darién Gap — was sure to be the most challenging.

Most of the migrants making the crossing were Haitians who had been living in Chile, Brazil and other South American countries. Some lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic while others figured they would have an easier time getting into the U.S. under the Biden administration. The Haitians were traveling in large groups while Vivó was on his own. That's why he quickly agreed to allow me, photographer Carlos Villalón, who was on assignment for NPR, and our two experienced guides to accompany him during his first two days in the Darién.

Las Tecas is a migrant camp just before the beginning of the jungle.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Las Tecas is a migrant camp just before the beginning of the jungle.

Before leaving Acandí, the last town we would see in Colombia, we stocked up on food, flashlights and sheets of plastic to protect our hammocks from the rain. There were no roads out of town, so we hired a horse cart and a driver to take us five hours down grassy trails to where the jungle begins. We spent a rainy night trying to get some sleep in our hammocks then ate rice and canned tuna for breakfast and began our hike.

But it was rough going.

The endless stream of migrants and frequent rain showers had turned the trail into a mud slick. Vivó stumbled frequently along the hilly route and sometimes had to crawl forward on his hands and knees.

Migrants climb the hilly route through the Darién jungle in challenging conditions with muddy trails and rain in September.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Migrants climb the hilly route through the Darién jungle in challenging conditions with muddy trails and rain in September.

Initially, we followed a trail along the Río Muerto — "dead river" in Spanish — and had to cross it every 10 minutes or so with the water often reaching our waists. Vivó's small backpack was overloaded with clothes, food and a thick Bible. His gear kept falling out, forcing us to stop and repack. He seemed totally out of place in the jungle.

Yet he kept plowing ahead. Villalón, who has spent years photographing migrants in the Darién Gap, was impressed by the persistence and courage of our Cuban companion, calling him "an incredibly strong human being."

And as it turned out, we made decent progress. By the end of the day, we were in striking distance of the Panamanian border. We set up camp, ate more rice and tuna, then fell asleep in our hammocks to the sound of the rain forest.

Vivó rests at his camp the evening before attempting to cross the border to Panama.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Vivó rests at his camp the evening before attempting to cross the border to Panama.

The next morning, over campfire coffee, Vivó joked that he made it through another night without getting attacked by snakes. Then he packed his gear and prepared to hit the trail once more. The NPR team had to return to Colombia's capital of Bogotá, so Vivó planned to join the next group of migrants that came along the trail. Traveling in numbers is key because it helps discourage gun-toting bandits who regularly rob migrants.

Doctors Without Borders says that since May it has documented 180 cases of migrant women who have been raped in the Darién Gap. Panamanian authorities have recovered the remains of 50 migrants who died while making the journey.

Our guides gave Vivó some last-minute tips on how to stay on the main trail and avoid getting lost. Then, after Vivó promised to call us once in cellphone range on the Panamanian side, he wandered down the trail and disappeared.

Vivó, after saying goodbye to his guides, walks toward the Panamanian border.
/ Carlos Villalón for NPR
Vivó, after saying goodbye to his guides, walks toward the Panamanian border.

Several weeks passed and we never got Vivó's promised phone call. He didn't answer text messages. And his Facebook page was dormant.

Finally, Erika Caro, one of Vivó's Facebook friends, wrote to me with the news that once Vivó crossed into Panama, armed men in the jungle robbed him of all his possessions. From there, she said, Vivó made his way to Mexico. But because he lacked a visa he was arrested by immigration authorities and is currently in jail.

Still, Caro marveled at his resilience, writing: "It's a miracle that he's still alive."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.