One of the most interesting things to do in Panama if you are curious about nature and local culture is to take a trip into the tropical rainforest to see an Embera Indian village. However, in recent years there have been mixed reviews about these visits, and about how authentic the villages are.
The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight.
The reason for the skepticism about the authenticity of the Embera villages is because some ‘model villages’ were built in the region of the Panama Canal to cater for large numbers of tourists doing day trips from cruise ships passing through the Panama Canal. These are replica villages that are staffed by Embera Indians who live in urban areas around Panama City and dress up in traditional clothes for the day for the purpose of entertaining tourists.
They don’t live in the villages and the primary focus of most tour operators who take visitors to these ‘fake’ villages is to sell as many handicrafts and souvenirs as possible to the cruise ship passengers. When there are no cruise ship visits scheduled, tour operators take groups of land-based tourists to keep the businesses operating. They are usually the ones that offer free pick-ups from hotels, take a mini-bus full of tourists at a time and have the cheapest rates.
These are the tours that usually get the bad reviews. One reviewer on TripAdvisor complained that a basket he bought from one such village still had a ‘Made in China’ sticker on it. And another said that the villagers on his tour weren’t wearing authentic Embera clothes – they were wearing Hawaiian costumes that he claimed a villager had told him they had bought online from China.
Fortunately, these sham tours are in the minority and there are many tours available to real villages where the Embera Indians live, and get very good reviews. But you’ll need to do some research before booking to ensure that you will be visiting real Embera families who live in the rainforest.
The best way to do that is to ask the tour operator, in advance of booking, the name of the village, and then google that and look for reviews. The further away from Panama City and Colón that your village is, the more likely it will be an authentic visit. If the tour operator or guide won’t give you that information in advance, that’s a red flag to start with.
When we did our Embera village visit, we did it with a private guide who had a personal connection with one of the smaller villages. The guide was actually the owner of the Airbnb in Panama where we stayed and offered an Embera village visit as an Airbnb experience. These are the best type of tours, but of course they cost more because the numbers are small. There were only three people on our visit in addition to the guide.
It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about the culture of the Embera Indians and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for an hour north of Panama City, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.
The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).
It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us. Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains which are their staple foods.
The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective. He also told us that he is alive because of one of the small trees he showed us. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.
All of the villagers seemed to be living very happy lives, except for one pretty teenage girl who participated actively in entertaining us but looked sad the whole time. I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.
The visit was so peaceful because our group was small, and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn’t want to go.
Images: Header image by Thierry Leclerc CC BY-ND 2.0. All other images © David Astley