In January 2016, Yoandra, a 37-year-old single mother taking care of her four-year-old son, faced a stark choice.
Along with her son and older brother, Yoandra had left home in Cuba the year before, seeking a better life. For nearly a year, she’d been living in Ecuador as an undocumented immigrant, without a job or prospects.
She could stay put and hope for the best. Or she could take her chances and leave.
Yoandra, who wishes to be identified only by her first name because she fears reprisals against her family in Cuba, decided it was time to go. Ecuador had just tightened its borders and was beginning to crack down on Cubans living there illegally. She didn’t want to risk deportation. Her aim was to reach the United States.
Diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba were improving. But many Cubans living in South America worried that the normalization of relations would mean that the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy — which since 1996 had granted Cubans coming to the U.S. without a visa the right to stay and get on a fast track to citizenship — might be coming to an end.
It fueled Yoandra and her brother’s decision to get to the border, step onto U.S. soil and become legal residents — and then U.S. citizens.
Their plan was to walk, take buses, boats, planes — whatever it took to cross eight borders through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala — and then finally, from Mexico into the United States.
The first leg of their journey was an 11-day bus ride from Quito, Ecuador, to Turbo, Colombia. After this, they boarded a boat to the Panamanian town of Puerto Obaldía, near the Colombian border.
That’s when the trip started to look grim.
Yoandra thought they could catch a puddle jumper to Panama City. But they found thousands of other Cubans already waiting to catch the same plane, which only left once a month. There was no telling when they could get out.
Worried about running out of time and money, she and her brother stuffed a backpack with as much food as they could carry and joined a small group of Cubans who paid a local guide some $30 to lead them out of the area on foot.
“When your son gets up and says to you, ‘Mom, I’m hungry,’ and you don’t have anything to give him, you get desperate,” she said. “So that’s why we decided to hike through the jungle.”
That jungle was the Darien Gap — a natural rainforest along the Panama-Colombia border, a place notorious for its sometimes deadly dangers. The area is so dense that the Pan-American Highway ends and then picks up again some 50 miles on the other side.
Everything Yoandra had been warned about it was true. There were steep hills and steep drops, narrow paths and rivers with swift currents. There was rain, mud, impenetrable underbrush.
“It was very difficult to climb the hills,” she said. “You had to try to grab a branch from a tree, and if the branch broke off, you could fall down the gorge.”
The jungle was teeming with snakes, spiders, jaguars and crocodiles.
“I saw the biggest ants I had ever seen in my life there,” she said. “I had to keep my eye on my son the whole time.”
Yoandra didn’t just fear the wildlife. Armed guerrilla forces and paramilitary groups control certain routes in the jungle used for the drug trade and human trafficking. Some guides couldn’t be trusted and took advantage of the migrants by robbing, abandoning or assaulting them.
Yoandra’s guide might have been one of them. He moved at such a fast clip that she, her brother and her son couldn’t keep up with the group.
“There was a moment where I couldn’t go any further,” she said.
The little boy was also showing signs that the hike was too much, so to keep his spirits up, Yoandra started to sing favorite children’s songs.
“I started to sing ‘Los pollitos dicen pio, pio, pio’ [the chicks say ‘pio pio pio’],” she said.
Singing gave the boy a little boost, she said. But they were still falling behind and eventually got lost. The three trekked through the jungle aimlessly for five days, along with a few others from their group who were also left behind.
“One night,” she said, “we used fallen palm tree branches to shelter ourselves from the rain.”
They ran out of food and had to eat whatever they could get from other migrants. They ate avocados right off the trees.
Eventually, they found and joined up with another group of Cuban migrants trekking through the jungle. It took nearly seven days total to find their way out.
They arrived in a town called Bajo Chiquito, where Panamanian humanitarian groups came to their rescue. There were many pregnant women, infants and children coming out of the Darien Gap. Some needed medical attention. They slept outdoors in makeshift shelters.
A few days later, Yoandra and her son and brother boarded a bus to the western side of Panama, to a town near the Costa Rican border where Panamanian authorities were housing Cuban migrants in a warehouse turned shelter.
But Costa Rica and other nearby Central American countries had in the meantime closed their borders to the surge of northbound Cubans, stranding thousands.
Realizing the problem wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, the Panamanian and Mexican governments agreed to an airlift — a series of flights for Cubans to get to Ciudad Juarez.
Broke and distraught, Yoandra managed to scrounge the money for the plane tickets. Once she was aboard the plane, it was the first time she felt her dream would become a reality.
“I was very grateful,” she said, “but I also knew that a lot of people were left behind who wouldn’t be as lucky as us.”
On May 14, 2016 — 13 months after she’d first left Cuba — Yoandra finally crossed the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, with her son and brother. They had traveled some 3,000 miles. They were among the more than 100,000 Cubans who entered the United States between 2014 and 2016, before President Obama announced the end of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy in January 2017.
Yoandra has since settled in Emporia, Kansas. She has steady work, six days a week, earning roughly $16 an hour. Her son is enrolled in school and making new friends.
This story is part of the “New Era in Cuban Migration” series, a collaborative project between the Miami Herald, 14ymedio and Radio Ambulante, made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.