Embera encounter takes you back to the past

Panama is known for its famous canal but the country’s natural attractions rival the man-made wonder.

It was an oasis at the end of an amazing but incredibly sweltering hike through the Panama jungle.

Painting using jaguar fuit juice

An Embera girl paints a design on the arm of a visitor using juice from the jaguar fruit.

After trekking through streams, over slippery rocks and a few tricky trails, we arrived at a pristine waterfall tucked away in the lush rainforest. It was refreshingly cool – the movie-set scenery making the experience even better.

It’s one of the highlights of a day tour to an Embera Indian village nestled on the riverbank in Darien Province, Panama’s largest province located in the eastern portion of the country bordering Colombia.

About an hour and a half from Panama City, the village excursion is a popular tourist attraction but it’s unlike most organized trips. Although packaged and well-presented, it also allows for some adventure and authenticity.

The Embera – one of seven indigenous cultures in Panama – live much as they did thousands of years ago. Migrating from Columbia, their small settlements are scattered along the region’s numerous river valleys.

The tribes welcome tourism as they can no longer hunt in Darien National Park (though fishing is still allowed). The park is considered one of the country’s most important natural reserves as well as the last frontier for many endangered species.

Despite contact with the outside world, the Embera maintain their simple, traditional way of life and that’s what makes the encounter so memorable.

Booked through a tour operator at our hotel (but available at a lower price via taxi drivers – also a good way to see the sights in Panama) the excursion takes you up a scenic rainforest river on a motorized dugout canoe, with a guide from the village charting the course. There were four in our group, plus our tour guide, Jose Garcia, a birding enthusiast.

Along the way, we spotted a number of tropical birds as well as the famous Blue Morpho butterfly – prized by collectors because of its shimmering, iridescent blue wings. It’s a spectacular sight.

The sound of drumming greeted us as we approached the riverbank, and we were then welcomed by the villagers. Short and slender, the women wear colorful wraps from the waist down and the men wear loincloths, many of them beaded. They’re friendly, a little shy but warm and hospitable. The village is a picturesque collection of thatched huts on short stilts, set amongst the greenery.

We then set off to the waterfall through the dense rainforest, getting up close and personal with the flora and fauna. It’s a beautiful hike, though some of the critters were a little scary such as a spider-covered rock that I was about to put my hand on to steady myself. And, picking your way through a stream with slippery rocks proved a little difficult – one in our crew lost her balance and fell in, getting completely soaked.

The heat was oppressive and unrelenting without any breeze, but it made the plunge into the waterfall all the better.

Energized, we trekked back to the canoe, arriving at the village for lunch – tilapia (a river fish, with many tiny bones) and plantain, served in a palm leaf. The women cooked it over an open flame in a communal thatched-roof upstairs kitchen.

The fish was delicious and, after a second helping, we toured the village – a neat, manicured community that is home to around 20 families. It has a makeshift schoolhouse, and even some guesthouses. (Visitors can arrange overnight stays in the village as well).

In a short presentation, a village member explained Embera customs, history and way of life, translated by our tour guide. Then it was time for traditional music and dancing in the common room. Decked out in colourful wraps and ornate beads, the men, women and children swayed and jumped to tribal rhythms, eventually inviting the guests to join in.

One of the ways the Embera Indians survive is by selling handcrafts, mostly weavings, jewelry and woodwork. It’s beautifully crafted, with natural dyes and materials used to make the colourful creations.

After around three hours, it was time to head back to civilization – an unforgettable journey ending all too soon.

If You Go

An online travel guide to Panama including booking information on Embera excursions: www.panamainfo.com

What to take

Sun screen, sunglasses, hat, sport clothing, sneakers or light boots with good soles, swimsuit and towel, camera. (A dry set of clothes is recommended since there’s a chance of getting wet even if you don’t go for a swim)


Jose Carlos Garcia, Birding Guide

Tel/Fax: (507) 230-1728

Email: Joseca_ [email protected]

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