During his two-week trek through the bitterly cold Andean mountains, penniless Venezuelan migrant Jesus Mendoza has eaten better than he has for months in his impoverished homeland.
“In Venezuela, I’d eat two meals a day if I was lucky,” said Mendoza, walking along the Pan-American highway with a tattered backpack. He illegally crossed an unguarded border into Ecuador from Colombia.
“Along the way, Colombians have been generous. They have given us food and water,” the 25-year-old said. “I’ve even been eating chicken, which is a luxury back home.”
An economic meltdown, growing poverty and medical shortages have forced more than 1.6 million Venezuelans to abandon the oil-rich nation since 2015, one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history, the United Nations says.
Venezuela’s rich, skilled and university-educated left to find oil jobs and set up businesses abroad years ago.
Today’s wave of migrants is Venezuela’s poor and most desperate.
Without money for airfare, bus tickets or even a passport, thousands, some carrying babies in their arms, are on foot, walking to find what they hope are better lives in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
Karina Mendez, 38, and her husband left Venezuela two weeks ago for Peru, where they hope to earn money for antibiotics and other medicine for their sick young daughter.
“When you can actually find the medicine you need, it’s too expensive to buy,” Mendez said.
“With what you earn in a month, you can’t even afford to buy the basic things you need to survive. Food prices can rise 40 per cent overnight,” said Rafael Barboza, another migrant walking along the windy highway.
Colombia has taken in the highest number of Venezuelans, about 870,000, and growing numbers are spreading across South America.
Officials from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are meeting in Bogota this week to seek a solution to the migration issue, which threatens to overwhelm the region.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration said last week a “crisis moment” is building, comparable to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Peru this month tightened entry rules for Venezuelans, requiring passports instead of just national identity cards.
Yolanda Montenegro, who runs a private migrant shelter called Casa Hogar Jesus del Migrante in the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, said controls will fuel the numbers crossing illegally.
“Behind every migrant is a family waiting to be fed. It’s only logical that people will carry on regardless of any restrictions placed,” Montenegro said.
More and more migrants have their hearts set on Peru, one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Some 350,000 Venezuelans have settled in Peru this year, up from 2,350 in 2015.
Peru is seen as having fewer work visa restrictions and offering the best chance of jobs as builders, cleaners, waiters and farm labourers.
“I’ve heard Peru has a good economy. My son found construction work there within weeks,” said 52-year-old Daniel Segura, a migrant and lorry driver, who hopes to join his son.
Migrants are also drawn to Ecuador where they can earn in US dollars. It has become home to about 40,000 Venezuelans.
Many have made a new home in picturesque Ibarra, a two-hour drive from Ecuador’s mountainous border with Colombia, washing car windscreens at traffic lights, peddling sweets or working as cheap labour for local businesses.
Angel Mejia, 35, who came to Ibarra in March, works as a hotel cleaner and get tips from guarding parked cars at night. — Thomson Reuters Foundation