This is what happens when the migrant caravan comes to town

As thousands of Central Americans walk through Mexico, some towns are gladly hosting, while others are getting fed up.

By Nina Strochlic
photographs by Moises Saman
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:38 BST

Around 7:30 on a Friday night in early November Aremi Balboa Victorio, mayor of a small town in southern Mexico, received a call informing her that 1,500 immigrants from El Salvador were heading toward her. The caller, a neighboring town’s mayor, had seen them pass and thought they’d likely stop for the night in Metapa, a tiny Mexican town near the border of Guatemala. Victorio hopped in her car, drove 30 minutes to the nearest city, and filled it with crates of eggs, sugar, toilet paper, and water-cooler size jugs of water. With a rhinestone-manicured hand, she paid the $300 bill from her own wallet.

During the past three weeks, two large caravans of immigrants from Central America had walked past Metapa as they made their way north to the border with the United States. No one had stopped there until November 2, when the Salvadoran caravan arrived at the town’s entrance.

Three consecutive caravans of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty at home have been trekking through Mexico on their way to the U.S., where they hope to claim asylum. At least 700 members of the first group, which departed Honduras in mid-October, has already reached Tijuana, across the border from California. Nearly 1,500 miles away, the majority of the 5,600 American troops dispatched to stop the caravan are waiting in Texas. The rest of the migrants are walking, hitchhiking, and riding buses slowly through Mexico. Along the way, they’re relying on small towns for food and a place to sleep, and hoping the hospitality doesn’t run out.

Immigrants from El Salvador walk along a highway en route to Tapachula, a city near the the southern border of Mexico. They left the small town of Metapa at 3:45 a.m. and spent five hours on the road before reaching their next destination.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, National Geographic

On October 31st, days before arriving in Metapa, this group had set out on foot from a central plaza in San Salvador, hitchhiked and walked through Guatemala, and then paused for a night before crossing into Mexico. On Friday morning they’d woken at 3 a.m. to try to cross legally through the border bridge that leads into Mexico. When it became clear authorities wouldn’t allow them in as a group they walked to the banks of the Suchiate river, which divides Guatemala and Mexico. (Read about the caravan's departure from El Salvador.)

The surface rippled gently, but currents underneath were rough. With garbage bags and baby strollers held over their heads, a line of people held each other upright and waded through the waist-high water. A row of police cars waited on the other shore, but the immigrants walked past, sopping wet, without issue and onwards for 8 hours. (Follow three best friends crossing into Mexico together.)

When the exhausted, blistered group trudged into the 5,000-person municipality of Metapa that evening, the locals waved them in. A team of 100 volunteers started frying eggs and handing out water. Members of the caravan spread out blankets and flattened cardboard boxes in a small church and adjoining plaza and laid down to sleep. But when a drizzle turned into a downpour in the middle of the night, the group was soaked.

Around the corner from the plaza, a two-story cultural center was unlocked to let them in. The director, Pilar Cigarroa, had been awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from the mayor: We need to open the cultural center. Cigarroa raced over, moved tables and supplies into storage, and opened the doors. In rooms that normally host taekwondo and folk dance classes, nearly 150 people laid down for the rest of the night. Instead of sleeping, Cigarroa began collecting clothing donations from her family and neighbors, and restocking water and toilet paper.

Salvadoran immigrants pack into trucks offering rides on the way to the Guatemala border on October 31, the day they left El Salvador.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, National Geographic

The next morning, people ate breakfast and laid their clothes out to dry as the sun baked the sidewalk. Sitting on a church pew, 20-year-old Karla from a city near the northern border of El Salvador waved a blanket to fan her 1-year-old daughter. Her boyfriend had carried Hazel the whole way so far, but they had underestimated how much walking the journey would entail and, only 270 miles in, how much of Mexico still loomed before them. She wasn’t sure if they’d be able to continue without a stroller, so her boyfriend was dispatched to a local shop to buy one. The shop owner told him to wait—and shortly after delivered a used one to them at the church. Other volunteers had donated diapers, creams, and clothes.

In an open kitchen beside the church, volunteers stirred giant pots of rice and beans. Cartons of eggs were stacked on the table and huge jugs of water lined up against the wall. “We do this today for you, tomorrow you do it for us,” said one city hall employee, sitting on the steps outside the mayor’s office. “It’s hospitality,” her colleague added. A few moments before he’d handed 21-year-old Alexandra Guzan a pair of new flip flops when she’d asked for a band aid to cover an open blister on her ankle.

Central Americans traveling on the first migrant caravan rest under a highway overpass in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, National Geographic

But more than 1,500 miles of Mexico still awaited them, and not all stops would be as hospitable as the new volunteers of Metapa.

After a second night camping in the plaza, church, and cultural center, it was time to move on. At 3:45 the next morning, hours before sunrise, the group packed up and walked onto the north-bound highway, an escort of federal police and an ambulance at their side. By 9 a.m. they were in Tapachula, the bustling hub of Mexico’s southern border. They deposited their bags in a large plaza where two previous migrant caravans had slept before. On one side, city employees handed out crackers and water. On the other, Catholic nuns gave sandwiches and sodas.

A group of immigration lawyers and advocates in bright vests roamed around, advising on the asylum process in Mexico and offering therapy sessions. They’d been working seven-day weeks and felt it was just the beginning. “We believe these caravans aren’t going to stop as long as the political and economic situations don’t improve in these countries,” said Flor Cedrella, a lawyer for the international Jesuit Refugee Service, who’s based in town. Just then, a man entered the plaza and yelled through cupped hands, “Let’s give a round of applause to all these people coming here to feed us.”

The applause was thunderous but a few hours later dinner wasn’t forthcoming. On a normal Sunday night, a troop of clowns would perform in the plaza, but tonight a lone clown lingered in the sidelines while dozens of people lay on the enclosed stage under blaring florescent lights. As the sky opened and a storm soaked the plaza, the cathedral doors stayed closed, and groups of migrants moved their blankets and cardboard slabs under an overhang across the street.

Before the sun rose over the village of Metapa, Mexico, nearly 1,500 immigrants started walking 10 miles north to their next stop: the larger city of Tapachula.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, National Geographic

A few scattered tables nursed Coca Colas and Coronas next to them at El Huacal Restaurant. When the first caravan came to town the manager had served bread, coffee, and bananas. She let them and the next caravan charge their phones in her outlets. But someone had stolen one of her customer’s phones and she had decided to stop. She sympathized with their situation, she said, but locals had become afraid to come downtown and her business had dropped 20 or 30 percent within the month. “What’s going to happen?” she asked. “Trump won’t let them in. Are we going to end up with them?”

As the rain turned into a light drizzle, people settled down for the night in the plaza. From the sidewalk, a local woman named Esmeralda peered into the crowded plaza and remarked that when the first caravan came through, just two weeks before, she’d washed her hands and started making sandwiches. She had stayed up until 3 a.m. When the second arrived, the community donated food and sheets. Now, the city’s patience was wearing thin. “The Chiapas government opened the door for this to happen,” she said, referring to how state authorities looked the other way as thousands of migrants crossed the border. “The Mexicans are not really OK with it.”

Near her, waiting by an ambulance, two members of the municipal civil protection were standing by in case of emergency. “There will always be people who are discontented, but people are also supportive,” the older of the pair commented. “Individuals are providing water and food, and more people are willing to help.” When the caravan rose to leave at the next morning 4 a.m. they’d follow alongside until it reached the next city safely, 12 hours later.


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