The Embera Indians live a pure and natural life on the pristine Chagres River.
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“Beautiful photos…they really make you want to get up and plan a trip. When people come here, to Panama, and tell me it seems to not have “any culture” (this almost always after a two-day pit stop in Panama City with no visits to the provincial areas) I tell them about the indigenous cultures. Seven tribes with their own language, art, traditions, and so much more. Visitors to the city are often completely unaware of this “other side” of Panama. Thank you for this post!”
Moving to Panama –
Sometimes you just have to scramble things up to stay vibrant; create paradigm shifts, so to speak. You have to give yourself a new experience to restore vitality and give yourself a new perspective. I am privileged to live a tranquil and happy life in the mountains of Panama, Central America. Panama is a great place to get an injection of life’s gift of inspiration, for it is a land that marries the old with the new. With that in mind, my friend Sally Foulke and I decided to search out what many would call the most primitive of the various Indian tribes of Panama, the Embera Indians. I’ll bet you didn’t know this, but all of our U.S. astronauts and other groups train in jungle survival skills with the Embera Indidans. Panama, to this day, is one of the major jungle survival training destinations.
We started our journey up the Chagres River in a “piragua” (a hand carved long boat)
It was a clear balmy day when we started our journey down the road less traveled. Out of Panama City, we headed toward the Chagres River. Our destination was the last Embera village up the river called Embera Drua. We picked this village because they were the most authentic tribe living in the old ways of the Embera. Our tour guide was named Archie and we lucked out. Archie loves his work and has taken the time and energy to become highly informed, so I was able to learn a lot.
We were excited with anticipation as we headed up the Chagres river towards the Embera village.
At river’s edge and filled with excitement and anticipation, we piled into a “piragua”, which is a narrow long boat hand carved out of hard wood. On either side of the river the jungle canopy was dense and high. It resonated with mysterious animal sounds. Blue skies and puffy white clouds framed a perfectly shimmering and crystal clear river. Oh yes! The road less traveled was really the road to nowhere. The piragula sliced through the water, making a clean waterfall and delicious sound as the dug-out promised a day of adventure. It made its way up river and deeper into the mysterious jungle.
The feast for our ears and eyes included a lazy otter sunbathing on a rock, kingfish, caymen, and an occasional Embera Indian fishing for dinner. Objecting to our invasion of their private sanctuary, howler monkeys shouted their presence from the dark jungle canopy.
The first Embera village
The lives of the Embera Indians changed dramatically when five national parks surrounding the Panama Canal were created to produce a water reservoir to fill the canal during the dry season. There are eighteen rivers flowing into the canal and the Embera Indians, who migrated to this region in search of a better life, became the protectors of this ecosystem. To this day,they report the spilling of water so the canal doesn’t flood.
Their intuitiveness about natural systems exceeds the ability of machines, and the government of Panama relies on the Embera reporting of when and where to spill out the water. They do, however, check the meteorological stations and report in by an old (out of place) pay phone in the village. For this, they are not paid but are allowed to live beside the Chagres River
The second Embera village
Finally, upon arriving at the village, we were welcomed with joyful song and percussive musical instruments.
And finally we arrived at the third Embera village. We were greeted by percussive instruments and happy singing by these gentle and pure spirits.
The village had come out to greet us and what a sight it was! These wonderful people were handsome, dignified, and physically beautiful. Short in stature, the men were well muscled from living a natural outdoor life. The women looked almost Polynesian, with waist length shiny black hair.
The Embera women are quite beautiful, almost Polynesian looking.
Each village member shook our hands in greeting. They were genuinely friendly and anxious to share information about their lives. These people were leading a stress-free life and it showed in natural, joyful smiles.
The men are dignified, handsome, and strong.
The village we were visiting was called Embera Drua (community) and was founded in 1975 by two families, the Kaitamo family and the Ruiz family. All in all, there were eight people who migrated from the Darien (the province down by the border with Colombia). Today, the village population is one hundred and eight people.
And the children? Well what can I say? Who can’t love this beautiful little girl?
Embera Drua has two tribal leaders. Enerdo, the primary leader and the man who first greeted us when we arrived at the village with a friendly hand shake. He was the principal leader and in his absence, Andrea replaces him. More hand shakes followed and I thought how well- mannered and civilized they were.
The Embera are true crafts people. The baskets they weave are so well made that they hold water.
Since hunting and agriculture is now restricted, the Embera rely on selling their beautiful intricate artisan basket weaving, wood carvings, and other crafts. Tourism is another source of income as they now have to go into town to buy other supplies. The Embera speak two languages, Spanish and Embera. and are committed to preserving their culture and traditions. I inwardly celebrated the strength of their beliefs in their heritage.
This unique primitive tribe’s religion was nature worship. Christian evangelical missionaries converted many from their natural worship to Christianity. Their medicinal practices also come from nature. The village had a medicine man by the name of Jaibana.
The Embera village of Embera Drua. Yes, that’s a basketball court you see there!
As we walked into their village, we learned that they build their Tambo (houses) in the old ways. They wait for the full moon and three days later they’ll harvest and collect the wood and palm fronds to avoid termite infestations. In the jungle, they look for the best Espave (wild cashew). They also use Teca (teak), and the wood from the Caimito, and Nispero trees. The elders of the village are then consulted and give instructions on how to build their houses. The roofing palms are from the Uagara and the Palma Real. However, the Uagara lasts longer than the Palma Real. It has a life span of twelve to fourteen years.
The government of Panama mandates that all children from the age of six attend school and the one building in the village was the schoolhouse. The children have to wear uniforms as all Panamanian children do but jump right out of them and into their traditional dress, or less, when school is over.
We were served a delicious meal of fresh water snapper and plantains with a platter of beautifully arranged and colorful fruit.
The men’s loincloths are called Cucua and at one time they used the bark of a tree, dipped it into the river and pounded it with stone and rocks. However, they are no longer allowed to use the bark and so, with their earnings, go to market and buy special designs made especially for them.
Now, the men dress in loin clothes but also favor beaded short skirts. Their tattoos are from the ink of a fruit called Kipara, which interestingly enough, is also a natural insect repellant.
We were served a delicious fresh fish lunch with patacones (plantains) and a plate of wonderful fresh fruit for dessert. Maybe that’s why I didn’t see very many fillings or extra weight on their frames. No sugar!
The hummingbird dance conjures up healing spirits before a visit to the village medicine man.
After lunch the dancing began. The first dance was called the Hummingbird dance and typically was danced before they go to the medicine man. The purpose was to pull in the spirit of the hummingbird to help heal. Sweet! Then came the fun. Many dances followed and joyful faces abounded as they and we danced around the center pole.
The weather had been perfect. We didn’t even get our usual afternoon downpour so we all headed down to the river and dove right in. Oh, that was really nice!
Then the fun began in earnest with festive dance by all.
Refreshed, we piled into our Piragua and, since we were headed down river, our two Embera boat guides decided to get a little adventurous. I will admit there were several times when I let out the breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. But it was adventurous and exhilarating.
Oh, for the simple life…
I have to tell you, I fell in love with these extraordinary people. While the interventions and restrictions on this wonderful Indian tribe saddened me, I came to admire them in their determination to hold on to their tribal customs. It was a good day in heaven and the smile I wore reached my heart. I left them reluctantly with the thoughts and questions as to who was more “civilized”? We with our big houses, maids, the Internet, our 54″ flat panel TVs, and all our other stuff or they, leading joyful and dignified lives in harmony with nature. The Embera live lives of purpose and with few wants. Their TV is nature’s magnificent panorama. I think you know the answer! This adventure is a “must do” on your Panama holiday or ex-pat bucket list!
And what a life it is! The Embera Indians are the protectors of this extraordinary eco-system.