Centuries and centuries ago, way before Panama was an actual country, and way way before the Europeans arrived in South and Central America, the rainforests of what is now Colombia and Panama were home to a whole load of different tribes of people. One of these indigenous tribes were known as the Emberá, and in actual fact they’re still known as the Emberá because around 33,000 of them exist to this very day, continuing to live a way of life that’s very similar to the way they lived all those years ago. When I got the chance to visit a village and learn more about a culture which I’d previously had no idea about, I leapt at the chance. And when I say ‘leapt,’ I really did literally jump up and down like crazy because I was so full on excited.
The closest port city- Colón
In Panama we always docked at the port of Colón, at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. And to tell you the truth pals, Colón was a sad sight to see. The city is run down, dangerous, and dirty. On the bus out of the city, we passed a group of children splashing in a paddling pool on a street corner, surrounded by rubble, broken glass and litter, another couple of boys balancing along the roof of an abandoned concrete shell of a building, and a man slumped in the middle of an empty plot of land injecting into his leg. It was a really, really, sorry situation, and one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I also found myself struggling from a moral point of view. I felt as if I was in some kind of royal parade, observing so much poverty from an air-conditioned coach, but unable to do anything about it.
Eventually we were out of the city whizzing past slicker-looking neighbourhoods that were once exclusively American; back in the days when the Panama Canal was being built, the US occupied an area approximately twice the size of New York City, where Americans worked and played in comfort without ever having to step foot onto Panamanian soil. And the citizens of Panama couldn’t freely move through this US-occupied land, even if they wanted to. Nowadays parts of these neighbourhoods have been completely abandoned, left with peeling paint to decay in the humid air.
Related: Exploring Panama City’s Casco Viejo
A deserted hotel
It wasn’t long before we reached the Meliá Hotel, on the shores of Gatun Lake, entering its compound through a security gate and being dropped off outside the front of the building. Everything was HOT and DAMP. Inside the building everything felt COLD and DAMP, though I’m sure it wasn’t, because…air con. You know.
The Meliá is a very grand-looking place, but seemed completely silent when we entered the building. I wondered how many guests they tended to have at a time…although maybe they were all still in bed? After a bit of time hanging out in the hotel lobby, appreciating the earthy dappled walls and golden fixtures and fittings, we headed out through the grounds past a ginormous swimming pool and down a long path at the far end. Trees towered overhead, with giant green moss-speckled roots anchoring themselves to the ground. Upon closer inspection, even the bark of the trees had a layer of sweat on them. We clambered from a jetty onto a shallow-bottomed boat, and were off across the lake, under a heavy overcast sky thick with clouds.
Wildlife spotting on Gatun Lake
As an integral part of the Panama Canal, Gatun Lake is actually around 26m above sea level, and is also one of the largest man-made lakes in the entire world. It wasn’t until I came to Panama and saw the Canal with my own two eyeballs that I even really knew it’s purpose, or appreciated what a feat of engineering it is. And despite the fact that the whole thing is man-made, the flora and fauna of this area has been allowed to thrive regardless. Tightly packed rainforest lines the shores, and as we zoomed across the water my pal and I stayed at the front of the boat outside, keeping watch for wildlife. (And not only that, but the breeze was a welcome relief from the humidity)
Our boat-front location paid off big time: there is so much astounding wildlife in Panama. We saw sloths wrapped around branches, their bedraggled fur almost camouflaging them into the leaves. Turtles, caimans and lizards were bathing in the sun starting to peek out from the clouds, and toucans flapped from tree to tree. I was LOVING LIFE. Panama really is beautiful, and I felt lucky to be seeing it. And I very much appreciated that although I’m guessing the people of Panama are very much used to all this incredible wildlife surrounding them every single day, the boat driver seemed equally as excited as me every time he saw something hiding in the foliage.
The Village People. (And by that I mean, the Emberá Village People)
It was a surprisingly long time before the boat began to slow down and I could see a collection of people dressed in colourful loincloths and patterned skirts, swathed in layers of beads waiting on the shore. As we motored slowly closer, I could make out the men of the tribe on one side of the grassy slope ahead, instruments poised and ready to be played, and the women on the other side, some of them holding children or with a small lass peeking out from behind their ankles. Eventually they picked up their instruments- drums, wooden flutes and shakers- and began to play, welcoming us all one by one. After everyone in our boat had made it on to land, the lovely lads and lasses showed us up the hill to sit under the roof of a palm-covered communal structure, where they sat us down and introduced themselves and their village to us.
Although the Emberá people were never forced off of their land or discouraged from and punished for, continuing with their own traditions, they were largely ignored by the government until the 1970s. They weren’t counted in any census prior to 1975, had no right to a school education, and basically were not officially ‘Panamanian’. AWKWARD. The plus side to this is that, as they were left to their own devices, this is one of the few places in the world where the indigenous culture of a country is still prevalent. The older members of the tribe only speak their Emberá language, although most of the children and younger generations speak Spanish as well.
Many of the other Emberá tribes live in far more isolated parts of the country- namely in the Darien area deep in the rainforest. However the villagers of Emberá Puru, moved to this site around fifty or so years ago, partly to be closer to medical care and education for their children. These children travel several hours to get to school, some of them staying in the city during the week and making the journey home at weekends. But pals- let me be clear about this- this was not the desperate poverty-stricken situation I witnessed whilst driving through the port. It’s true that the Emberá haven’t got a lot in terms of money or possessions, but at face value at least, the quality of life of the villagers living here in relative isolation seemed far better than of those living in inner-city Colón.
As the area they live in is part of a National Park, the villagers are no longer allowed to hunt for animals or cut down rainforest for farmland, plus the education and medical care that they moved here for costs- so they did need to think of ways to earn an income for food and other things that you might need to purchase from time to time. (Like education) And that, pals, is where the tourism idea came in. Nowadays the villagers earn money inviting people to visit them in their village, and also from the sale of products that they hand-make. Products like the patterned fabric that they make their skirts from, carved objects and jewellery made from hand-carved beads, and woven bowls, pots and animal masks like the ones used by Emberá shamans in healing ceremonies. It’s a very resourceful idea that does a great job of earning money whilst simultaneously continuing to preserve the culture and traditions that these amazing people are rightly proud of!
Most of the Emberá have what looks like some form of tattoo, although our very friendly main villager-spokesperson explained that these aren’t permanent. The paint, which sometimes covers people’s faces as well as bodies, is a natural dye from the jagua fruit, which once on the skin lasts for about ten days. (And pals, I can confirm that it really does last this long. Although I wasn’t up for getting an actual tattoo, I did accidentally get some on my hand whilst being shown this mysterious semi-permanent dye, and for a while afterwards I got very tired of being told ‘you’ve got something on your hand!’ by well-meaning colleagues).
After being shown all the tattoos, and hearing all the songs and stories, we were invited to have a stroll around the village and it was so awesome to see. As we ventured up the hill to the palm-covered houses raised above the ground to keep the critters out, one of the smiliest lasses I’d seen in months was asking all the questions about life where we come from. All I’m saying is I wish I’d retained more of the Spanish that I spent seven whole years of my life learning, so that I’d had something more interesting to tell her. (I am so jealous of anyone who can speak more than one language fluently, you guys.)
It was a sad moment when it was time to get back on the boat across the lake. The whole tribe came down to the shore with us, again standing women and children on one side and men (and older boys) on the other, to wave goodbye and watch us sail away.
Although I’d had slight reservations about the thought of going as a tourist to see the way other people live, the experience was amazing and something that I think was really valuable. I wasn’t expecting to meet such a welcoming bunch of people who were so proud of their culture, and when this tourism is something that actively sustains their way of life, I believe it’s 100% worth it. Emberá Puru is out of the way enough that high volumes of visitors isn’t a problem, plus expensive enough to reach that only people who are genuinely interested in learning about the indigenous people of Panama would really consider coming! This village is a really special place, and I felt full on lucky to be able to visit.
- I was able to visit on an excursion arranged by the ship I was on; even with a discount the cost was EXPENSIVE. But worth every penny.
- If you visit a village, it’s worth taking cash with you- either USD or Panamanian Balboa. The products the villagers make really are beautiful, and if I’m honest I sort of wanted to buy it all. If only I’d brought more dolla.
- Like I said- the more Spanish you know, the better off you are.
- For a non-cruise ship visit to the village, head to Emberá Village Tours.
- The 4* Meliá Hotel, where we got our boat from, also offers kayaking on Gatun Lake and other outdoor activities in the area. Go here to find out more!