TULCAN (Ecuador) • During his two-week trek through the bitterly cold Andean mountains, penniless Venezuelan Jesus Mendoza has eaten better than he has for months in his impoverished homeland.
"In Venezuela, I'd eat two meals a day if I was lucky," said the 25-year-old migrant, walking along the Pan-American Highway with a tattered backpack. He had illegally crossed an unguarded border into Ecuador from Colombia.
"Along the way, Colombians have been generous. They have given us food and water," the carpenter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I've even been eating chicken, which is a luxury back home."
An economic meltdown, growing poverty and medical shortages have forced more than 1.6 million Venezuelans to abandon the oil-rich nation since 2015, one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history, the United Nations said.
Venezuela's rich, skilled and university-educated left years ago to find oil jobs and set up businesses overseas.
Today's wave of migrants are Venezuela's poor and most desperate. Without money for airfare, bus tickets or even a passport, thousands, some carrying babies in their arms, are on foot, walking to find what they hope will be better lives in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
Ms Karina Mendez, 38, and her husband left Venezuela last month for Peru, where they hope to earn money for antibiotics and other medicine for their sick daughter.
Stop cleaning toilets abroad and come live in the fatherland.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, promising jobs to Venezuelans at a ceremony last month in which he signed agreements with foreign oil firms to boost oil production by a million barrels a day.
HOPING TO LEAVE
Everyone around me is saying: 'You've got to go.'
GENESIS, a 27-year-old lawyer who hopes to soon cross with her husband and three-year-old daughter into Colombia where she has been promised work as a waitress.
"When you can actually find the medicine you need, it's too expensive to buy," Ms Mendez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as they waited hours to hitch a ride with truck drivers.
With rampant hyperinflation - the International Monetary Fund forecasts Venezuela's inflation could reach one million per cent by year's end - the monthly minimum wage barely covers the cost of a kilogram of rice or flour.
Money has become so worthless that bills are used to make trinkets and souvenirs.
"With what you earn in a month, you can't even afford to buy the basic things you need to survive. Food prices can rise 40 per cent overnight," said another migrant, Mr Rafael Barboza, walking along the windy highway.
In the region, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are the countries receiving the highest numbers of migrants.
Colombia has taken in the highest number of Venezuelans, about 870,000, and growing numbers are spreading across South America.
More than 4,000 Venezuelans poured into Ecuador every day during a record peak in the middle of last month.
The UN's International Organisation for Migration said last week a "crisis moment" is building in the region, comparable to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
"We need a regional response plan," said Mr Christian Visnes, country director in Colombia for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
"As the exodus grows in scale and breadth, any unilateral action will have numerous consequences for other nations in the region."
Ecuador is hosting a 13-nation regional summit this month to discuss the crisis.
Brazil last week sent troops to the border after violent clashes between residents and the migrants.
Like Brazil, Peru has seen outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan xenophobia. Peru last month tightened entry rules for Venezuelans, requiring passports instead of just national identity cards.
Hours before Lima's new restrictions on entry went into effect, Ecuador on Aug 24 opened a "humanitarian corridor" to allow masses of migrants to stream towards the Peruvian border.
Ms Yolanda Montenegro, who runs a private migrant shelter called Casa Hogar Jesus del Migrante in the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, said controls will fuel the numbers crossing illegally.
"Behind every migrant is a family waiting to be fed. It's only logical that people will carry on regardless of any restrictions placed," she said.
"Those benefiting are the human smugglers who use the desperation of people to gain profit."
More and more migrants have their hearts set on Peru, one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Some 350,000 Venezuelans have settled in Peru this year, up from 2,350 in 2015.
Peru is seen as having fewer work visa curbs and offering the best chance of jobs as builders, cleaners, waiters and farm labourers.
"I've heard Peru has a good economy. My son found construction work there within weeks," said 52-year-old Daniel Segura, a migrant and lorry driver, who hopes to join his son.
Migrants are also drawn to Ecuador where they can earn in US dollars. It has become home to about 40,000 Venezuelans.
Many have made a new home in picturesque Ibarra, a two-hour drive from Ecuador's mountainous border with Colombia, washing car windscreens at traffic lights, peddling sweets or working as cheap labour for local businesses.
Mr Angel Mejia, 35, who came to Ibarra in March, works as a hotel cleaner and gets tips from guarding parked cars at night. The former supermarket manager earns less than half the nation's monthly legal minimum wage.
"I'm just grateful to have work that allows me to send US$40 (S$55) a month to my wife and baby in Venezuela for their basic survival," he said.
On the highway heading to Peru, 21-year-old Javier Caballero dragged a wheeled suitcase stuffed with blankets and a large cross, unfazed by measures to deter migrants. "We're not afraid of anything anymore. We'll keep going. We've seen catastrophic things in Venezuela, people dying of hunger," he said.
"We have no passports but returning to Venezuela isn't an option," he said. "It would be going back to misery."
THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
5 QUESTIONS ABOUT THE VENEZUELAN MIGRATION CRISIS
1 WHAT IS THE SCALE OF VENEZUELAN MIGRATION?
According to the United Nations, 1.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced in the region since 2015 as the fallout from the country’s economic crisis took hold.
It says 2.3 million Venezuelans are now living abroad but others put the figure much higher.
Venezuela has a population of 30.6 million. Venezuelan sociologist Tomas Paez Bravo says between 10 per cent and 12 per cent of Venezuelans are living abroad in more than 90 countries.
2 WHEN AND WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
It all began when Mr Hugo Chavez became president in 1999, according to Dr Paez, but the crisis has accelerated since President Nicolas Maduro took office in 2013.
Venezuela’s over-reliance on its vast oil reserves – 96 per cent of its earnings come from crude – caused a problem when the price plummeted in 2014, causing shortages of foreign capital.
The government’s response was to print more money, but that only pushed up inflation, ushering in four years of recession. Venezuela has also drastically devalued the bolivar, and issued banknotes stripped of five zeroes in new “sovereign bolivars”.
The economic plan includes a 3,400 per cent rise in the minimum wage and a hike in petrol taxes, which for years were the world’s cheapest.
3 HOW DOES IT AFFECT VENEZUELA?
Initially the country was hit by a brain drain and an exodus of capital.
“At first the immigration was by people with capital and a university education,” says Mr Alfonzo Iannucci, who runs a website that runs testimonies from the Venezuelan diaspora around the world.
Dr Perez Bravo, of the Central University of Venezuela diaspora think-tank, says now there is only one type of person leaving the country. “The poor are leaving because now everyone is poor.”
He adds that they are fleeing on foot “not because they’re not chemists, sociologists or engineers” but because “it would take 30 years to save up for an airplane ticket”.
4 HOW DOES IT AFFECT THE REGION?
Mr Iannucci says “the avalanche of Venezuelans” has “collapsed” border towns of neighbouring countries ill-prepared for such an influx.
Venezuelan migrants were blamed for a rise in petty crime and competition for jobs and hospital beds there, leading a band of local vigilantes to torch migrant camps and chase them back over the border.
“We’re close to breaking point,” says Brazil’s Roraima state government secretary Marcelo Lopes.
Mr Iannucci thinks things are going to get worse, saying: “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” The impact is not entirely negative, though, Dr Perez Bravo says.
“In Argentina they say that those arriving are young, entrepreneurial and well-qualified.”
5 HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO OTHER MIGRATIONS?
In terms of numbers, it has already surpassed the Cuban exodus following late Cuban president Fidel Castro’s revolution that toppled the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.
Around 1.4 million Cubans fled to the US, with a further 300,000 heading for other parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute think-tank.
But that was over six decades, not four years.
The UN has said the exodus of Venezuelans to other South American countries is building towards a “crisis moment” comparable to events involving refugees in the Mediterranean.
Mr Carlos Malamud of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank in Madrid says: “Given the distances covered, this phenomenon could be compared to the refugee crisis in Syria.”
According to the UN, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country while a further 6.6 million are internally displaced as a result of civil war.