Boat ride to Embera Village, Upper Chagres River, Panama

We became curious about Embera people since we read an article about them several years ago. During our trip in Panama,  a visit to an Embera village to learn more about the tribe and their culture was on top of our list.

We  visited one of the Embera villages on the banks of  the Upper Chagres River in central Panama. Our guide picked us up from our hotel in Panama City and we drove an hour and a half to the bank of the Chagres River.  From there, we took a 45-minute scenic ride on a dug out canoe, a traditional mode of transport of Embera people,  to the village.

Who are Embera people?  They are indigenous people of Panama and Colombia.  For centuries, they have lived semi-nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers and fishermen. The Embera people of Panama historically inhabit the Darien Province, a remote rainforest region that borders Colombia to the east.

Many of them left the region that they and their ancestors called home for centuries when Darien became increasingly dangerous due to the incursions of Colombian guerillas and drug traffickers. Some of them found safe haven on the banks of Chagres River.

Embera boatman, Embera Village, Upper Chagres River, Panama

Our Embera Boatman

The area of Chagres was an ideal location for their re-settlement. It has rich rainforest and rivers, which are  the essential elements they need to support and maintain their traditional way of life.

However, since they settled in their new home the government has declared the Chagres area a national park. As a result, new regulations have been imposed that changed the daily lives of the Embera people and restricted their traditional activities like hunting,  raising domestic animals (other than chicken), and for agriculture they were restricted to specific pieces of land and a few types of produce.

With  many restrictions, the Embera communities were faced with financial challenges as more food had to come from the outside. The villagers have been working with the government to find sustainable activities to support the needs of their communities and to secure their place in Panamanian society, without being assimilated and losing their cultural identity.

Some of the Embera villages have adopted tourism as a new sustainable activity to provide source of  income for their villages.  We were glad that we could help them through our visit.

There are four Embera villages in the Chagres  National Park. The village we visited was the Embera Drua village, which was established in 1975.


Embera Children playing instruments, Embera Village, Charges National Park, PanamaAs our canoe was approaching the Embera Drua village, we were greeted with this adorable scene of Embera boys having a music lesson on the river bank with one of the village elders.  We found that music is a big part of their culture.

Children and Elder in Embera Drua Village, PanamaWhen we reached the bank we were delighted by the sight of playful children that swarmed the river bank. We were also fascinated to see the traditional clothing  (or lack of it) worn by both young and adult males. It seems like a very practical outfit in a hot tropical jungle.

Women of Embera Village, PanamaWe were introduced to some of the women in  the village. The first thing we noticed was their minimal but colorful clothing. We learned that most women wear tops only when they are expecting visitors. Otherwise, they uninhibitedly walk around their village topless. We also noticed their distinct face painting.

Embera Mother and Baby and a little girl, Embera Drua Village, Upper Charges, PanamaA woman feeding her child and a lovely girl with hibiscus on her hair.

Embera Men, Embera Drua Village, PanamaWe noticed that young men were more modest than older men and young boys. They don beaded skirts over their loin cloth.

Embera woman and man with their child, Embera Drua Village, Upper Charges, Panama

We also noticed that almost everyone in the village, even the babies, had tattoos.  We learned that they are temporary and that the traditional art of body painting practiced by Emberas also has medicinal purposes. The purplish black ink they paint on their bodies is a natural insect repellant and also has anti-infection properties.

Embera men tatooing, Embera Village, Panama

Men on body painting session. Embera people use the fruit Jagua to make dye for body painting. The pigment remains on the skin for about two weeks. The jagua body painting is still in use for all celebrations and is one of the most enduring and important customs for Embera.

Embera tatoo, Embera Village, PanamaThe body painting design has its own meaning and each age group and gender are assigned specific design.

Stilted houses in Embera Drua Village, PanamaHouses are traditionally built very high on stilts to protect the house from flooding and wild animals.

Stilt house and payphone in Embera Drua Village, PanamaWe were surprised to see a phone booth in the middle of the village. It  is the only sign that this village actually exists in this day and age. The phone only receives incoming calls from the government to check on the village.

School in Embera Drua Village, Upper Charges, Panama

Nando, 9, standing by the door of the small school house where classes for elementary school are offered for free by the government. To pursue high school education, the villagers have to go to the cities at their own expense.

Embera Children, Embera Drua Village, PanamaLeft: Nando and her friend Jimmy playing wrestling.  Righ: Keith hanging out with the playful duo.

Embera Woman and Handicrafts, Embera Drua Village, Upper Charges, PanamaThis woman cut woods to make tongs for cooking and serving food. Embera people are very creative. They can make crafts from anything they see around them.  The villagers are focusing more of their efforts on art and craft production as another sustainable activity to provide source of income.

Embera woman gathering woods, Embera Village, Panama A woman gathering woods for cooking.

Embera Woman cooking, Embera Village, Upper Charges, PanamaWomen preparing meal for the villagers and guest. Fish has become the staple food in the village. Since hunting has been prohibited, fishing has been the major means of obtaining protein for the villagers.

Embera Meal, Embera Drua Village, Charges National Park, PanamaFish & chips Embera-style. We shared a lunch of fried tilapia and  plantain and fruits with the villagers.

Embera Dance and Music, Embera Drua Village, Charges National Park, PanamaWe were delighted to witness a traditional dances performed mostly by women. Dances are performed during social gatherings, ceremonies and to welcome visitors in the village. The men provided the beat. Their instruments are made of natural materials found in their surroundings.

Dancing in Embera Drua Village, Charges, National Park, PanamaMen and women started pairing up and we found ourselves in the mix.

 Children diving in river, Embera Village, Charges National Park, PanamaThe water near the village is an ideal swimming spot.  It was fascinating to watch the village kids jumping in and out of the water.

Refreshing in the river, Embera Drua Village, Upper Charger River, Panama

And we couldn’t resist taking a refreshing dip ourselves.

We were grateful to the people of Embera Drua village for opening their doors and giving us an  opportunity to get a glimpse into their way of life and beautiful culture.  We admire their commitment to preserve their cultural identity amidst the modern day challenges.

Our guide Garceth Cunampio, Embera Village Tour, Panama

Our guide Garceth Cunampio with our boatman.

How did we know that we got an authentic cultural experience and that we engaged in responsible tourism? Our wonderful guide, Garceth Cunampio, belongs to the Embera tribe. He’s very committed to the preservation of his culture. He’s an amazing man who through hardwork and determination went to school in Panama City and the US. He’s an accomplished naturalist and generously contributes part of his earnings to support the people of the village.  We knew that what we paid for the trip directly benefitted the village.


  • You many contact Garceth through his website – Embera Tours Panama.
  • Many tour companies based in Panama City offer tours to  Embera villages.  However, be aware that the tour proceeds may benefit them more than the villages.
  • Embera Village Tours is another company that we know engage in responsible tourism. It is run by Anne Gordon, an American who is married to an Embera man and lives in one of the villages. Like Garceth, she’s committed to helping  the Embera tribe meet their needs and preserve their culture.
  • If neither Garceth nor Anne are available on the tour date you wish, ask them to recommend other guides who, like them, have the best interest of the Embera people at heart.


Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Google +.


Linking to Our World TuesdayTravel Photo Thursday and Travel Photo Discovery.

About Marisol & Keith

Taking you on our journey one photo - and footstep - at a time.

71 responses to “Panama: A Visit to an Embera Tribe Village

  1. ladyfi

    Wow – wonderful shots of the Embera people and their culture.
    ladyfi recently posted..Small and simpleMy Profile

  2. Agness

    This village looks so authentic, like it has not been discovered by tourists and travelers at all. That must have been an amazing experience. Do they all speak their local language?
    Agness recently posted..First 5 Impressions of IndonesiaMy Profile

    • Hi Agness, it truly was an amazing experience. Yes, they do speak their own language as well as Spanish.

    • Hi Corinne, thanks! We’re pleased that you enjoyed it and added the place to you list. They have very fascinating traditions including the tattoos. We’re sure you will enjoy the visit to the village.

    • HI Erica, thanks! The clothes are really colorful and fascinating.

    • HI Alex, thanks! Glad we gave you a good start of the day:)

  3. What an amazing adventure, great photos, and so interesting. It’s heartwarming to know that the attempt has been made to help them preserve their culture in the modern world. Thanks for posting.
    Cynthia recently posted..Hair ArtMy Profile

  4. Fun60

    What a fabulous post. so interesting and your excellent photos to accompany the commentary. I am so pleased that you were able to find a guide whose first responsibility is to help his village.

    • Thank you. Glad you enjoy the post. Yes, we were so fortunate to have found Garceth as our guide

  5. Karen

    What a fascinating post! Thank you so much for introducing us to such amazing people. Wonderful pictures!

  6. Leigh

    What a fascinating day you spent and what a delightful set of photos.

    My husband and I have been mulling over trips for next January – since it’s been snowing for what seems like forever – and right now I’d saw it’s a toss-up between biking in Cuba and exploring Panama. This is definitely one trip I would include in an itinerary.
    Leigh recently posted..Hiking the Nokomis Trail, Lake Superior Provincial ParkMy Profile

  7. Margy

    Looks like you had a very interesting trip. It must be hard for them to be forced to change their traditional ways because of government intervention. – Margy
    Margy recently posted..Now you see him. Now you don’t.My Profile

    • It was an awesome try Margy, thanks. I’m sure it was hard for to accept the change in their traditional activities but they see to handle it well.

  8. That looks so cool! Must’ve been an amazing experience to meet people from such a different culture!

    • Hi Michelle, thanks. Yes, it truly is always amazing to be introduced to new culture.

  9. Bama

    Another great destination you went to, Marisol. It’s always so interesting to see cultures from places far away from home, and yet sometimes we are still surprised by how many similarities cultures around the world have in common, aren’t we? That phone booth looks out of place, but I guess that’s a good sign that the government is actually paying attention to them.
    Bama recently posted..An Oasis In The Concrete JungleMy Profile

    • Thank you, Bama! It is surely always interesting to learn about new cultures and people. And true even how different they may seem to be you always find some similarities – like the love for music and art, love for family and community, etc.

    • HI Ben, I agree that we these cultures must be preserved. I’m actually happy to learn that the Philippines do preserve our tribal cultures.

  10. What beautiful pictures and fascinating people. It’s good that the government is working with them to help preserve their culture (instead of working against them)! Really interested post and definitely something I would like to do in the future.

    • Thanks Kendra! It is very heartening to know that the government is working with them. I hope you get to visit it when you finally set on your world nomadic adventure:)

    • Hi Keryn, thank you. It is an amazing culture and we hope that through they can continue to preserve it with the support of the government.

    • Hi Jo, thanks. They are indeed beautiful. Cultural travels like this are really deeply rewarding.

  11. oh what an absolutely fascinating post and wonderful wonderful images. This is travel journalism at its best! I particularly love your images of the people. It must be so difficult to hold onto their traditional culture and practices in the face of “modern life”. I envy their simple but rich existence. Thank you so much for sharing with us and opening our eyes. Happy travels.

    • Hi Jill, thanks! Coming from an accomplished photographer, your comment is such a great compliment. We’re really pleased you enjoyed the images. Their commitment to hold onto their traditional is very admirable. Definitely not an easy feat considering all the challenges they have been facing.
      Marisol & Keith recently posted..Panama: A Visit to an Embera Tribe VillageMy Profile

  12. What a fabulous trip to take. With the restrictions placed on them I think it’s a great idea that they have started to organise their own tours so that it benefits everyone in the tribe as well as keeping the culture alive. Great photos as usual
    jenny@atasteoftravel recently posted..Darjeeling…it’s not just about Tea!My Profile

    • Thanks Jenny. We’re also glad that tourism has been working for them as a sustainable activity.

  13. OMG! These are the most amazing photos that show so much about the village. How spectacular are the clothes worn by both the sexes. The hibiscus crown on the little girl is the most heart melting photo I have ever seen. Since childhood I have dreamed about the Amazon River and it’s tribes. The Chagres River and it’s resettled people are even more amazing that the Amazon of my imagination. The photo of the boy diving is spectacular.
    budget jan recently posted..Traveling the world can change our OpinionsMy Profile

    • Hi jan, thanks! We’re so pleased you enjoyed the photos. We thought that it may interest you to know that the Embera people are believed to have originated from the Amazon region. We hope that you make it to both Chagres and Amazon rivers sometime soon.

    • Hi Den, they are truly beautiful people, aren’t they? Yes, we did enjoy Panama. We, of course, visited the Panama Canal. Learning the engineering of it was so amazing. We also explored Casco Viejo and the modern Panama City. I’m sure you will enjoy it, too.

  14. What a wonderful experience! Thank you for introducing me to the Embera people and the great tips about the guides. Lovely photographs too as always, such vibrant colours.
    Kathryn Burrington recently posted..Norwegian Arctic HighlightsMy Profile

    • Hi Kat, our pleasure. It was truly an amazing experience. We’re glad you enjoyed it.

    • Hi Noel, thanks! Such wonderful compliment coming from a great photog like you.

  15. One of the reasons I have always wanted to visit Panama (other than the canal) is to visit the Embera tribe. I’ve seen some TV specials on them and their tribes are fascinating. Love this post and our virtual glimpse into such interesting people. Your pictures brought them to life. Their body paintings and tattoos are fascinating. I always adore your people shots.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Our Tacky Tourist Photos CollectionMy Profile

    • Hello Mary! Glad you enjoyed the post. We hope you make it there sometime soon. It will be a wonderful trip for your family. We’re sure it will be a great and profound experience for the kids, especially if they meet the Embera kids.

  16. Urska

    Wooow, this is great! I really like different tribes and cultures and this one sounds amazing! Thank you for presenting them!
    Urska recently posted..Mount SinaiMy Profile

    • Hi Urska, thanks. It really is amazing. We’re glad you enjoyed the post.

  17. Katie

    You are such a great photographer! I am always looking for responsible tourism activities. It’s one of the reasons we didn’t partake in the tours in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I didn’t know where the money went, and didn’t want to exploit the villagers. I’m hoping to make it to Panama later this year, this is definitely going on my list!
    Katie recently posted..Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, ThailandMy Profile

    • Hi Katie, thank you! We give you credit for passing up on what you thought was exploitive. We would have done the same. I really hope you make it to Panama and get to visit this wonderful village.

  18. What a fascinating excursion. It’s like something out of the pages of National Geographic. Your photos captured village life so well, and I hope that this culture can continue on for decades without being diluted by outside civilization. Those tops that the women wear when visitors are around are so lovely, but I would think that then one with all the medallions hanging off of it would be so heavy. I was surprised to see that baby getting a bottle. I thought they would just breastfeed instead.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted..Chiang Mai Sunday MarketMy Profile

    • Hi Michelle, it truly is fascinating. We also hope with all our hearts that the Embera culture will continue to be intact. I think they gave the baby a bottle out of modesty. We’re pretty sure that she would breastfed if we were not there. They’re very considerate that way.

  19. Such a great post, Marisol. I lived in Panama as a child but never got to experience any of the indigenous cultures in their natural environment. Fortunately, my parents have agreed to have a family reunion of sorts in Panama next year, so we’ll be returning for the first time in 28 years next October! I’d love to take a tour like this. I’ve always been curious about the Kuna people, but visiting the Embera is definitely another great option. Thanks for sharing this!
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted..Where to Stay in Budapest: Estilo Fashion HotelMy Profile

    • Hi Dana, really? It’s nice to learn something new about you today! I’m sure it will make a very wonderful reunion after 28 years! That’s very exciting. I really hope you can take a cultural tour like this.

  20. Were you the only ones visiting the village that day?

    What an amazing cultural immersion experience this is and I’m glad you added the information at the end of the post. It is really helpful to know where you sign up for tours.
    Photo Cache recently posted..Putting on the RitzMy Profile

    • Hi Maria, there were few other people there when we got there who stayed there overnight. It truly was an amazing immersion and very rewarding.

    • Thanks Jess! Glad you enjoyed the photos. We really hope that you can make it to the village sometime soon.

  21. Oh! I went here back in 2006 (before I got into photography) and it’s such a pleasure to see some beautiful photos of the village. I don’t have many photos from my experience so these were a treat! I am so glad you all enjoyed your experience. The clothing (or lack of) was a bit shocking – but the colors were beautiful! Seriously great photos!
    Erica Baker recently posted..Adoption FinalizationMy Profile

    • HI Erica, really? You’re the only other person I know who has been there. I would have loved to see how you would photograph it if you visit it now. Im sure I’ll be blown away. Glad you enjoyed the photos–really wonderful compliment coming from you. – Marisol

    • Hi Nancie, thank you. We’re really glad that there are people like Garceth and Anne I hope you can make it to Panama soon and meet the wonderful Embera people.

  22. Excellent photos and interesting post about the Embera people. Sad to hear that they were displaced from their original lands.

    • Marisol

      Hi Rachel, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. Its really sad that they were displaced from the original home but they seem to take everything in stride and moving on while still clinging on to their tradition as much as they can.

  23. This is something out of an old Nat Geo magazine, the colours the moods you’ve captured are just amazing. Those portraits are so enchanting, fabulous post.
    SJ @ Chasing the Donkey recently posted..K is for…. KrapinaMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi SJ, thank you. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

  24. Kira S

    Hi guys, this is amazing! Thank you for introducing me to Embera people and virtually taking me to their village. I really enjoyed learning about new culture. Your photos are so stunning.,, so soulful.

    • Hi Kirs thanks! We’re glad you enjoyed learning about the Embera people and culture.

  25. Mayra

    If you are interested in topic: earn money work from home free – you should read about Bucksflooder first
    Mayra recently posted..MayraMy Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge