Cubans flood Panamanian jungle in desperate overland push to the United States

(Part IV in Fusion’s special series on Cubans’ 5,000-mile trek to freedom. Full series at the bottom)

PUERTO OBALDIA, Panama—At first blush, this remote jungle outpost near the Colombian border looks like a bustling tourist town.

A Cuban family in Puerto Obaldia enjoy a laugh as their daughter poses for the cameraTim Rogers

A Cuban family in Puerto Obaldia enjoys a laugh as their daughter poses for the camera

Small planes fly in and out of the airport all day, families wheel suitcases down the street to inquire about room vacancies, and friends joke with one another as they cast fishing lines off the pier. But things aren’t as cheerful as they appear. No one here is on vacation, and everybody is desperate to get out of town as fast as they can.

Cubans gather around to listen for their name as a Panamanian boarder guard reads from a list of those who will be allowed to leave town that day by plane or boat.Tim Rogers

Cubans gather around to listen for their name as a Panamanian boarder guard reads from a list of those who will be allowed to leave town that day by plane or boat.

Welcome to Puerto Obaldia, a once-sleepy border town that’s now overrun by hundreds of Cuban emigrants trying to get to the United States. More than 14,000 Cubans passed through this town of 400 people during the first nine months of this year, according to Panamanian immigration numbers. And the rate of Cuban arrivals is accelerating, from an average of 600 per month at the beginning of the year to more than 3,000 in October.

On any given day in Puerto Obaldia, Cuban emigrants outnumber Panamanian residents by more than 2:1

Surrounded by 4,600 square miles of dense, malarial jungle, this Caribbean border hamlet has become a strange bottleneck for Cubans making the harrowing 5,000-mile overland trek from Havana to Miami—a journey that usually starts by flying 1,600 miles in the wrong direction to Ecuador.

FSN_ARMILA MAP_3Omar Bustamante

Puerto Obaldia is not an easy place to get to, and it’s even tougher to leave. There are no roads out of town (The Darién Gap is the only spot in the hemisphere where there’s a break in the Inter-American Highway) and it’s a three-day death march through dense jungle to reach the nearest town. The only way to leave Puerto Obaldia is by chartering a small airplane, at $275 a seat, or reserving a $200 spot in a small boat that departs several times a week to chug up the coast to the nearest road, six hours away. Needless to say, either way out of town requires a hefty jungle-exit fee—especially for a family of impoverished Cubans who have just been robbed of their life savings by rapacious Colombian cops and bandits.

A boatload of Cubans leave Puerto Obaldia to go up the jungle coast to the first road to Panama City. This stretch of boat ride alone is nearly twice the distance of the Florida Strait separating Cuba and Key WestTim Rogers

A boatload of Cubans leave Puerto Obaldia to go up the jungle coast to the first road beyond the Darien Gap. The boat ride up this stretch of coast is nearly twice as long as the distance separating Cuba and Key West

“This has been the worst experience of my life,” says José, a 35-year-old Cuban hairstylist who says he was robbed of $1,600 passing through Colombia. “I saved money for two years to make this trip, and they stole it all in Colombia. Now I don’t have enough to continue.”

“We were even robbed by police; we’ve never experienced anything like that before in Cuba,” adds his friend and travel mate, who wished to remain nameless for fear that the Cuban government would target his family back on the island.

A Cuban man rests in the grass in La Miel, exhausted after crossing over the jungle ridge from ColombiaTim Rogers

A Cuban man rests in the grass in La Miel, exhausted after crossing over the jungle ridge from Colombia

When I met José and his friend, they were sprawled on the grass under a palm tree on Playa La Miel, the southernmost tip of Panama. The two men were muddy, bloody and sweat-drenched after crossing over the ominously named Cape Shark Ridge, a perilously steep rock outcropping that separates the jungle between Colombia and Panama. Locals say numerous Cuban immigrants have fallen into the rough waves and drown here while trying to cross the border in recent months.

Cape Shark Ridge is a harrowing part of the journeyTim Rogers

Cape Shark Ridge is a harrowing part of the journey

The men’s tale is harrowing, but it’s not unique. Cubans are spread out all along this sandy spit of beach, catching their breath, washing mud and blood off their shins, and hanging their hand-washed clothes on ropes strung between palm trees.

Two Cuban women and a child wash the mud off after making the trek over Shark RidgeTim Rogers

Two Cuban women and a child wash the mud off after making the trek over Shark Ridge

One cove north, in Puerto Obaldia, the scene is even more desperate. Here, depending on the day, there can be upwards of 1,000 stranded Cubans trying to make their way north. Dozens—sometimes hundreds—of new arrivals show up every day.

A stack of Cuban passports at the Panamanian Immigration outpost at La Miel, where more than 100 new Cubans arrive each dayTim Rogers

A stack of Cuban passports at the Panamanian Immigration outpost at La Miel, where more than 100 new Cubans arrive each day

The Cuban trail through Panama is already starting to show signs of an emerging refugee crisis—a condition that becomes full blown by the time the weary travelers make it to the Nicaraguan border. But no stage of the journey is easy for the Cubans.

By the time the wandering islanders make it to Panama, which is only one-third of the way into their nine-country odyssey, many are already broke. But economic hardship is nothing new for the Cubans; it doesn’t break their resolve to make it to the United States.

Forms outside immigration office show Cubans how to fill out their paperwork to request safe-passage visaTim Rogers

Forms outside immigration office show Cubans how to fill out their paperwork to request safe-passage visa

“The only way I’m going back to Cuba is in a coffin,” says Paulo Manuel Garcia, who left Camagüey a month earlier and was traveling with six family members, including three small children. When I caught up with him, he was lying in a hammock suspended across a pile of construction materials in a dirt-floor shed that he was renting for $3 a night to shelter his family. It was all he could afford after Colombians robbed him of $3,400—all the money he made from selling his house in Cuba.

Paulo Manuel Garcia and his youngest son are on their way to Kentucky, but lost all their money to bandits in ColombiaTim Rogers

Paulo Manuel Garcia and his youngest son are on their way to Kentucky, but lost all their money to bandits in Colombia

Garcia said he’s taking his family to go live with relatives in Kentucky, but can’t remember the name of the city. In any event, he didn’t have enough money to leave Puerto Obaldia and didn’t know if his relatives could wire all the money he needed. “Two hundred and seventy-five dollars per person to fly out of town, times six people in my family…imagine that! I used to earn $10 a month in Cuba. You can never save long enough to make this trip.”

While the Colombians rob the Cubans at gunpoint, Panama does it a little more subtly through what could be described as “forced tourism.”

Cubans hang out with nothing to do but wait in Puerto ObaldiaTim Rogers

Cubans hang out with nothing to do but wait in Puerto Obaldia

Each of the 3,000-plus Cubans passing through Puerto Obaldia every month must spend 4 or 5 days in town while immigration officers process their passports and issue a safe-passage visa so they can begin to arrange transportation out of town. That means every Cuban who passes through town has to spend a substantial chunk of money on lodging, food, water and Internet, before shelling out hundreds of dollars more to get a lift out of town.

“All these new houses you see going up around town are being built on the backs of Cubans,” said José (a different José), who told me he’d been stuck in town for 20 days waiting for friends in the U.S. to wire him money.

Cubans crowd a ticket agent for Air Panama to try to get on a flight out of townTim Rogers

Cubans crowd a ticket agent for Air Panama to try to get on a flight out of town

Some locals acknowledge that their neighbors are getting too greedy with the situation.

Candalera Mesa, a septuagenarian Panamanian woman who’s been running the modest Conde Inn since 1983, says she’s never seen anything like it before in Puerto Obaldia. Ten years ago Mesa ran the only lodge in town, but now all her neighbors are renting out rooms and mattresses to homeless Cubans, and selling food by the plate.

Throughout Puerto Obaldia, Panamanians are turning their homes into flophouses to make a buck from desperate travelers.Tim Rogers

Throughout Puerto Obaldia, Panamanians are turning their homes into flophouses to make a buck from desperate travelers.

“Our whole town has become a giant hostel,” she told me. “Cuba is going to be empty if this keeps up.”

Mesa says she takes pity on the desperate Cubans; she says she doesn’t price-gouge the weary travelers, and gives them odd jobs when they’re totally broke and stuck. “They help me and I help them,” she says.

Candelara Mesa says she's good to the Cubans because the Cubans are good to her. She offers many of them work, like the Cuban man painting her porch railingTim Rogers

Candelara Mesa says she's good to the Cubans because the Cubans are good to her. She offers many of them work, like the Cuban man painting her porch railing

But the sudden influx of money is causing jealousy and suspicion too. The indigenous community in the nearby town of Armila say they’re upset that all the economic benefits are going to the boat captains of Puerto Obaldia and the city executives of Air Panama. The indigenous community that controls this section of the country, known as the Kuna Yala, is getting shut out of the new Cuban “tourist” economy, they say.

“We’re going to issue an ultimatum to Puerto Obaldia: Let have equal economic rights to transport the Cubans by boat, or we’ll shut down the whole coastline,” Kuna indigenous leader Nacho Crespo told me. “This situation could go on for many years, so we need to set clear guidelines now.”

Kuna kids in the indigenous village of Armila. Kuna leaders say their community is being cut out of the economy brought by CubansTim Rogers

Kuna kids in the indigenous village of Armila. Kuna leaders say their community is being cut out of the economy brought by Cubans

Others worry the situation could end quickly if improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba brings an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a cold-war immigration measure that basically allows any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil to stay in the country.

“The people in this town who are building new houses are going to suffer when the Cubans stop coming,” says Mesa, the innkeeper.

Panamanian authorities are also concerned about what will happen. “People are happy right now; they’re earning $300 a day, compared to $20 a day, which is what they used to earn before the Cubans came,” said Javier Rudas, deputy chief of Immigration for the Darien and Kuna Yala. “I’m worried about what will happen if the Cubans stop coming and the town returns to its slow economy. People aren’t prepared for that.”

For now, the numbers are still on the rise and there’s no indication that the wave of Cubans will stop anytime soon.

“I don’t recommend that people make this trip, but that’s not going to stop anyone from doing it,” says José, the hairdresser from Havana. “Behind us, there’s a whole hurricane of people coming.”

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