A Cuban migrant treks 60 miles through the jungle, hoping to reach the U.S. An NPR team follows Omar Vivó as he sets off from Colombia for the U.S., traversing part of the Darién Gap, where the dangers include raging rivers, snakes and criminals who prey on migrants.

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

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The Darien Gap is a roadless, snake-infested jungle separating Colombia and Panama. And it's a dangerous route taken by thousands of migrants, mostly Haitian, making their way to the United States. Reporter John Otis brings us a story of one man's journey.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: We've been trudging through the jungle for only about two hours, but my traveling companion, a chain-smoking 45-year-old named Omar Vivo, is already flagging.

You feeling bad?

OMAR VIVO: Yeah, very tired.

OTIS: Sit down and rest.

VIVO: Yeah, yeah.

OTIS: Although most of the migrants on this trail are Haitians, Vivo is from Cuba. Many Cubans have made it to the U.S. by taking rafts across the Florida Straits, but many have also drowned. That's why Vivo has opted for the much longer overland route that starts in South America. But here in northern Colombia, there are no road links to Panama, the next country on his way north - only dense jungle known as the Darien Gap.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: So Vivo, tired as he is, will have to continue on foot for about 60 miles. That means wading through rivers like the Rio Muerto, which means Dead River in Spanish. Its swift current has swept some migrants to their death.

We're on the Rio Muerto, and we've already had to cross it nine or 10 times within the space of an hour to follow the trail.

I had interviewed Vivo a few days earlier in the Colombian border town of Acandi. He'd grown tired of his job loading cargo at Havana's international airport but had never before traveled overseas.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Imagine," he says, "if you lived in Cuba all your life and never saw any prosperity or progress." As Vivo pondered an escape, he initially ruled out crossing the Darien Gap.

VIVO: (Through interpreter) I said to myself, wow, that's crazy - with the jungle and the snakes. 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.

OTIS: So Vivo, a divorced father of an adult son and daughter, left Cuba in the hopes of joining relatives in Miami. In 2019, he flew to the South American nation of Suriname, one of the few countries issuing tourist visas to Cubans.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I got a job as a security guard," he says. Vivo spent a year saving up money. Then in March, he began a meandering journey by bus, hitchhiking - and the occasional boat - through French Guiana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and now Colombia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VIVO: Gracias.


OTIS: Vivo is one of the few migrants traveling all by himself, so he quickly agrees to allow me, a photographer, and our two jungle guides to accompany him during his first two days in the Darien Gap.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Before leaving Acandi, the last town we'll see in Colombia, we buy food, flashlights, rubber boots and sheets of plastic to protect our hammocks from the rain.


OTIS: There are no roads out of town, so we hire a horse cart and a driver to take us five hours down grassy trails to where the jungle begins.

So Omar, is this your first time riding on a horse on your trip?

VIVO: Yeah, this is my first time.

OTIS: How does it feel to be behind a horse?

VIVO: Good (laughter).

OTIS: At sundown, we reach a clearing holding about 500 mostly Haitian migrants who have pitched multicolored tents and are cooking over campfires.


OTIS: We spend a rainy night trying to get some sleep in our hammocks. The next morning, we breakfast on rice and canned tuna and resume our journey. But it's rough going.


OTIS: Vivo pauses frequently to empty the water out of his boots and to smoke cigarettes - that he's careful not to get wet. He seems totally out of place in the jungle.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Yet he keeps plowing ahead. That's why photographer Carlos Villalon, who's on assignment for NPR and has spent years documenting migrants in the Darien Gap, is impressed by our Cuban companion.

CARLOS VILLALON: Incredible. I mean, the resilience of the guy. And I see him doing this alone. I just see an incredible, strong human being - incredible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

VIVO: No (laughter).

OTIS: And as it turns out, we make decent progress. By the end of the day, we're in striking distance of the Panamanian border. We set up camp, eat more rice and tuna, then fall asleep in our hammocks to the sound of the rainforest.


OTIS: The next morning, over campfire coffee, Vivo jokes that he made it through another night without getting attacked by snakes.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish).


OTIS: We leave Vivo here, but he has at least another week of hiking to reach the other side. He plans to join the next group of migrants to come along the trail. Traveling alone would leave him an easy target for the criminals who attack migrants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Our guides give Vivo some last-minute tips on how to stay on the main trail and avoid getting lost. Then it's time to say goodbye.

VIVO: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

OTIS: It's been great. Have a great trip.

VIVO: Good. OK.

OTIS: OK? Have a really good trip. You'll make it. I'm sure you'll make it.

VIVO: Make it. But when I make it, I call you.


VIVO: Don't worry.

OTIS: Yeah, yeah. Be safe. Take care of yourself.

VIVO: OK. Yeah.

OTIS: Vivo wanders around a bend in the river, and then he's gone. For all of the Cuban's courage, Villalon, the photographer, can't help fretting.

VILLALON: Now I'm worried. I think I'm more worried than he is. I know I'm hoping - I'm hoping - he's going to make it, and we're going to get a phone call in, like, five days.

OTIS: But we never get that phone call Vivo had promised to make once he got across the Darien Gap. He doesn't answer text messages. And his Facebook page has gone dormant. Finally, one of Vivo's Facebook friends writes to me. She says that once he crossed into Panama, armed men in the jungle robbed him of all his possessions. It's a miracle he's still alive, she writes. From there, Vivo made his way to Mexico, but because he lacked a visa, he was arrested by immigration authorities and is now in jail.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in the Darien Gap, Colombia.


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