(AP) – For most people, 10 countries in a little over six weeks sounds like a dream vacation. But it was anything but that for Esperanza Sosa Valdes and Ariel Del Sol Pérez, Cuban natives now living in Hastings, Nebraska.
The couple navigated, negotiated, perspired and bribed their way along the perilous, 3,300-mile trek from Ecuador to the United States in the fall of 2012. It was a successful journey that landed them in Central Nebraska with enough stories to fill several books.
“From Ecuador to the U.S.A., all the way, we went north, to Colombia, then Panama, then Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico,” Ariel told the Grand Island Independent through an interpreter. “Every one of those countries has relations with Cuba – so if you get caught, they send you back. They are all deporting Cubans.”
Esperanza, 40, and Ariel, 48, are now permanent residents of the United States and will become citizens within a few years.
Under the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, Cubans who reach the U.S. have earned the right to stay, a policy that dates back to the onset of Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. Ariel’s father, Eugenio, who has since passed away, was a political prisoner for 3 1/2 years in the early 1960s after serving in the counter-revolutionary movement against Castro.
Ariel and Esperanza were born in Ciego de Ávila, in central Cuba. They made the decision to leave for Ecuador in early 2010. After getting their travel visas, Ariel departed on March 10 and Esperanza five months later on Aug. 10.
Ecuador has become a popular starting point for many American immigrants from Latin America and Africa because it has discontinued its visa requirement for tourists. In the past six years, more than 100,000 Cubans have left their native country for Ecuador.
The couple remained in Ecuador for more than two years, living with Ariel’s brother, Adonis, and operating a small food business. The trio began their daunting journey northward on Oct. 6, 2012, when they departed Cuenca, Ecuador, with $4,000.
“We didn’t have an immediate plan to come to the United States,” Ariel said, “but it was always in the back of our minds.”
Their journey was made on foot, horseback, a train, boats, taxis and buses. “We did more than half the trip on foot,” Esperanza said.
Among the obstacles along the way: thick jungles, gangs, drug cartels, FARC (Colombian terrorist army) and the very real daily threats of kidnapping, extortion and theft.
After traveling from Cuenca to Quito, Ecuador, then through Cali, Buenaventura, Bahia Solano and Jurado, Colombia – the latter two cities reached by boat in the Pacific Ocean – Esperanza, Ariel and Adonis had to negotiate the jungle of northern Colombia and Panama.
They spent seven days in the Colombian-Panamanian jungle.
“There was one night when we had a torrential rain, a downpour … all day, all night,” Esperanza said. “We could hardly see, the rain was coming down so hard. There was lightning, it was storming. We were shivering and we were running out of energy. We thought we wouldn’t make it out.”
Guides along the route weren’t always dependable, either.
“Once, in the middle of the jungle, a man who was guiding us turned around and went back,” Ariel said. “He left us. He just disappeared.”
Panama was the first of five Central American countries the group traveled through, each one presenting unique challenges. They avoided checkpoints at borders because of the threat of deportation.
“There are a lot of gangs,” Ariel said of Central America. “Sometimes they will kidnap Cubans, and take your money and take everything, because they know Cubans are trying to get here.
“Everybody’s taking bribes,” he added. “You don’t want to go back? Then you hand out money, each town, each immigration officer, whatever.”
In Nicaragua, they journeyed mostly on foot and horseback, once crossing a river on their horses.
In Honduras and Guatemala, gang violence is an everyday occurrence. The two countries are among the world’s worst for homicides. The group was forced to contact Ariel’s cousin in the U.S., asking for $500 to satisfy an extortionist there.
And then Mexico awaited. The trip through Mexico took 12 days, including two days and two nights aboard “La Bestia” – “the Beast,” a notorious network of freight trains that immigrants hop on in Mexico.
Since there is no room in the freight cars, immigrants ride on top of the trains. Many Latin Americans have died or lost limbs while riding the trains, often by falling off. Robbery, assault and other threats plague travelers, too.
Another name for “the Beast” is “El tren de la muerte” – “The Death Train.”
“Going through Mexico was scary because of all the violence there,” Esperanza said.
On Nov. 22, 2012, Esperanza, Ariel and Adonis arrived at Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. They were granted entry into the U.S., then proceeded to eat their first American meal at Subway.
Their exhausting odyssey was over. Adonis had gone through five pairs of shoes. Esperanza had lost her toenails walking the treacherous territory.
But never did they lose hope.
“Once we got into this journey, there was no way back,” Ariel said. “There was only one way – forward.”