Lost in the Atacama Desert

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

An excruciating experience.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

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?”

“Mommy, Give Me Water”

“Let me check my phone and see what’s going on,” Daisy said. 

She turned on the phone with its Chilean chip, and tons of messages came in from other migrants also lost in the different mountains of the area.

“Call my brother, girl,” Yuleska asked. “Tell him to call the police. We’re going to die. Look at the kids, they’re thirsty.”

A few minutes later, a policeman called their phone: “Send me your location. We’re looking for you, stay calm.”

Quite a tall order, but at least now they knew they weren’t alone, so Daisy sent their location and the carabineer’s answer unsettled them: “You’re too far away, ladies.”

The two women checked the map again. When they looked up at the horizon, they saw with horror that the three mountains were in front of them, right at the other end.

They just collapsed crying. They had been wrong all along and now they didn’t know how to get to the other side.

“Oh, my baby, I’m sorry, I’m sorry for making you go through this,” Yuleska told her small daughter, her tears drying on the ground.

At night, they tried to light a fire, but the strong winds and mist interfered, also preventing the rescuers from finding them. There was no choice but to wait until morning.

“Mommy, give me water. You have water.”

The girl’s voice was weak and slow.

“I don’t have any, my love. It’s over.”

“No, mommy, you have it right there!”

The girl pointed at her empty hand.

“I think she’s hallucinating, honey,” Daisy said, worried.

Hallucinations mixed with the tantrums.

“I want my grandma! I want her to comb my hair! Mommy, take me to grandma!”

Without water, food, and with children who might collapse at any moment, another day out there would prove fatal.

Yuleska couldn’t stop crying, desperately hugging her daughter.

“Sweetheart, you know grandma stayed in Venezuela and we’re going to our new home.”

It was hard for her to say the words. Her tongue was thick and covered in saliva that was almost gum.

Lights in the Desert

The only working phone rang at mid-morning. It was the police.

“Do you know where we are?” the sister-in-law spoke without letting the man at the other end talk.

“No, we can’t see you, but don’t worry. Find a mirror, or something that can reflect the sunlight and start aiming it in all directions. We’ll do the same and that way we can locate you.”

Yuleska, who heard everything on the speaker, took out the small mirror that she had in her makeup case, and began reflecting the sun desperately, aiming at any and all directions. It was a few minutes of that until she saw a tiny spot of light, almost indiscernible.

“There they are! Look, look over there!”

Yuleska couldn’t believe it. She felt her daughter’s hands on hers:

“Mommy, it’s almost over.”

Her daughter had the unexpected attitude of a woman and those words were like a shot of hope and strength that Yuleska had never experienced. They bordered the mountain, staying on low ground to avoid more complications. After hours of walking, of winding paths, the carabineers looked like ants. You couldn’t see anything, except their green uniforms.

They slumped over a huge rock to cry, unable to take another step. Julio, one of their travel companions, announced he’d make the trip on his own, at a steady pace. From the desert floor, the women saw him get smaller and smaller. Without water, food, and with children who might collapse at any moment, another day out there would prove fatal. Yuleska’s mouth was a dry well.

From the top, the carabineers would let them know they were there by lighting them up with their flashlights. Suddenly, someone else was heading their way. The dust rising and the unmistakable sound of motorbikes got closer. It was two ramblers doing motocross in the desert.

The women took time to assimilate their own survival. The men had water that they passed to the kids, who drank it desperately while some of it trickled down the corner of their mouths

“God, you’re amazing!” Yuleska yelled. “You’ve saved us!”

A few minutes later, the carabineers came along with the military. The rescue was a fact. The officers tried to calm them down and gave them water, not just to Daisy and her sister-in-law, but to everyone else in the group.

Daisy felt, for the first time in three days, the refreshing feeling of water flooding her mouth. She was so disoriented that she didn’t remember what day it was, but she did know that three days had gone by; it’s what the military officers were murmuring.

When they arrived at the shelter, where they are set to spend their quarantine and their immigration status evaluated, she was seen by a group of doctors. She had lost weight and was very dehydrated, but other than that, she was fine. Yuleska felt that she was being taken care of and given the food she needed.

Right now there’s a police investigation going on, so all the names mentioned have been changed to protect everyone involved. Their fears are many: Will they be able to stay in Chile? Will they have to go without food or water again? Or will they have to face these dangers if they have to return to the country they left behind?