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.
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.
As 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.
When 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
This 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.
Women 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.
We 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.
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.
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.