Published on January 19th, 2014 | by Mark Chesnut
PHOTOS: Beautiful Faces of Embera People of Panama — A Tour Back in Time
Panama may get lots of attention because of the expanding Panama Canal, as well as the capital city’s ever-growing skyline. But this Central American nation is also noteworthy for its cultural wealth — including the indigenous communities that live here, with many of the same traditions that predate the arrival of the Spanish, centuries ago. Visiting these communities has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable day tour experiences I’ve had during my trips to Panama.
During our most recent visit, my partner Angel and I were invited to take a tour with Rainforest Adventures by Panama Excursions, a local tour operator, to spend a day with the Embera, one of seven living pre-Hispanic indigenous groups in Panama. Although their largest populations are in a semi-autonomous region in the province of Darien, they also live in small settlements within a couple hours of Panama City, making for an easy day trip with experiences that are a world away from Panama City’s sleek skyscrapers. This is Panama culture, before the Europeans arrived.
We were picked up at Las Clementinas, an elegant boutique hotel in Panama City’s Casco Antiguo district (read my review of Las Clementinas here), for the approximate one-hour trip to the Gatun River, not far from the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. Our guide was a member of the Kuna (also spelled Guna), another of Panama’s indigenous groups, and he provided great insight into the differences between the various groups of people that call Panama home.
Once we left the van, we boarded a piragua — a very long, dugout canoe made from a single tree — piloted by a young Embera man in a loincloth. For about 30 minutes, we rode the motor-powered canoe along the river, enjoying views of unspoiled scenery along the shore, before our driver pulled the canoe up to a rocky shore at Embera Puru, a village of just over 100 residents and 26 family homes.
One of the best things about visiting Embera communities with Rainforest Adventures by Panama Excursions is that you arrive separately from large groups of cruise ship passengers. There were no foreigners at all when we stepped ashore. We had more than an hour to relax and walk around, chat with the residents (they speak Spanish as a second language), take photos and learn about the community, which makes its living from fishing, hunting, harvesting fruit and also hosting tour groups.
The village of Embera Puru is a peaceful place, dotted with homes built on stilts measuring up to eight feet and topped with tall thatched roofs. Healthcare is provided mostly by trained shamans, while elementary education for children at this village takes place at a small, relatively modern school, with a teacher from the outside Panamanian community (who, in spite of not being Embera himself, was dressed in traditional Embera clothes during our visit). Six local children were studying in high school in a larger town, and one member of the community was away at university.
The clothing is as traditional as the housing. Men generally wear a loincloth and women wear brightly colored cloth wrapped at the waist, and no top (which made it difficult to include some photos of the women for this site). Children often go naked until puberty, although all but the youngest kids wore clothes during our visit. Several children had their bodies painted with a dark dye made from a berry from the genip tree; a young mother explained to me that the dye repels insects and also protects from the sun. Some children as well as many adults also used the dye for intricate decorative body painting.
The children were especially friendly and playful during our visit, and I had a great time as they showed me some of their tiny toys — plastic motorcycles and a toy car brought by visitors. I also chatted with one man about Embera eating habits; they don’t drink soda or coffee, and don’t eat candy (although I saw some kids with sugary snacks brought by tourists, unfortunately).
We climbed into one hut — which served as something like a central kitchen — to watch the women prepare our lunch for the day: delicious, freshly caught tilapia with patacones (plantains); a folded banana leaf served as an eco-friendly plate.
After a small horde of cruise passengers arrived, we sat under a giant thatched roof for a brief music and dance show, and to hear a presentation from the village leader (through a translator) about the town. Angel paid $5 to get a temporary arm tattoo, and there were also lots of opportunities to buy local handicrafts, including baskets and masks. The work is beautiful, but it’s the smiles of the children that will stick with me for a long time.
INFO: Rainforest Adventures by Panama Excursions offers tours including Panama Canal full and partial transits, ocean-to-ocean railway excursions and “Best of Panama” tour packages. The company’s Embera tour includes roundtrip hotel pickups and transportation, a scenic boat ride to the village and the services of a bilingual guide.
MORE PANAMA TRAVEL TIPS:
• Panama Luxury: Inside Central America’s First Waldorf Astoria Hotel
• HOTEL REVIEW: Hotel El Panama — Mid-Century Gem in Panama City
• HOTEL REVIEW: Veneto Wyndham Grand — Las Vegas Flash & Fun, with Panama Style