Want to do as millions of undocumented immigrants have done and illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border? That will be $18.
In the small town of El Alberto, Mexico, tourists can get the 'illegal' experience without being in any real danger, aside from some cuts and bruises. More than 100 residents -- an estimated one-eighth of the town's population -- are employed by the Caminata Nocturna, a simulated experience that allows tourists to act as migrants attempting to cross the border. During the four-hour Saturday night trek, participants must evade immigration officials and border patrol agents, while trying not to trip and fall in the dark wilderness.
Since it's inception in 2004, the border-crossing 'theme park' has catered to thousands of people who want to live the immigrant experience without the harsh realities. Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer documented the hike in his film "La Caminata," (Spanish for 'the hike') speaking to El Alberto residents who act as border patrol guards or coyotes (smuggglers) and tourists who pay for the experience.
"Most people come out of curiosity. We tell them that we don't want it to be an adventure but a way to raise consciousness," one of the guides says in Spanish in the film clip. "The idea is to put them into this situation to truly experience what a migrant experiences."
The 7 1/2-mile hike starts with border patrol agents in pickup trucks with sirens and flashing lights in hot pursuit of the "immigrants." Caminata participants must climb under fences, run through the brush, dodge low-hanging tree limbs and, most importantly, hit the ground if they see a flashlight.
"This way. Don't screw around!" coyotes in masks yell at the group.
Although the experience is family-friendly, it's not for the lackadaisical.
"I'm stressed because we've been running so much. You have to watch yourself with all these cactus spines and plants," one young tourist says to the camera in the clip. "It's intense," she quietly whispers.
"Keeping in mind that [immigrants] experience this a thousand times worse, because they have to worry for their lives," another explains, "then this is easy."
For the residents of El Alberto, a town which is composed almost entirely of migrants, the Caminata has served as crucial source of revenue, allowing many to stay and build houses, rather than being forced to cross the border to the U.S. to look for work. According to Census data, El Alberto's population drastically dropped from 1,235 in 2000 to 540 in 2005. The population has since grown to 834 in 2010.
Poncho, a tour guide who wears a mask to hide his face in the video, estimates that about 90 percent of the community was migrating when they started the Caminata. El Alberto was virtually a ghost town filled with half-finished houses; residents unable to make up the funds necessary to finish the structures moved on. But now, the population is on the rise with about 35 percent of the community living in the desolate town, Poncho said.
It takes a team effort, but the residents of El Alberto gather every week to put on the Caminata for anyone interested in living the 'illegal' experience. While some have remarked that the Caminata is like a training camp for those seeking to actually cross the border, the night hike is anything but that.
Tour guide Julian Garcia, who admits he crossed the real U.S.-Mexico border four or five times, explains the simulated border crossing is meant to discourage migration, so people will realize how much suffering is involved.
"Some people think we are training people," he said. "If we were training them, we'd make it much harder!"
Watch a clip from Meltzer's film in the video above, and click over to OddityCentral.com to see first-hand photos from the Caminata.