Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trip Review: Embera Village Panama

A really amazing and unique experience in Panama is visiting an Embera Village.  There are many options for getting to them and most hotels can arrange it for you.  Note that you need a guide, you can not go on your own.  Getting to the villages is an amazing journey in and of itself.  From Panama City we took a two hour bus ride and then boarded a canoe on the Chagres River, which is the river that leads into the Panama Canal.  Your guide will arrange for dug out canoes to pick you up at a spot along the river where you will be taken on another two hour trip, but this time in the canoe along the river with beautiful sites to see.
On the river ride look out for beautiful birds and turtles in the water and the occasional donkey or mule on the river banks.
The villages are protected in a national park and can only be reached by the canoe. Try to do your research and make sure you don't go to one that is being visited by a huge tour group. I went with the tour group that I was on, which consisted of 9 people and I would have much rather been there alone or with a small group for a more meaningful experience. I don't speak much Spanish, and the Embera's actually speak a dialect of Spanish so we were not able to have long conversations without the translator, but I found that with simple gestures and a smile I was able to communicate just fine, especially with the children. The Embera Indians are a very old culture, dressing the same as they did 500 years ago. They are struggling with some of the same issues that the Kuna Yala Indians are- trying to connect ancient traditions with modern living. The village we visited had under 100 people living there in about 20 thatched dwellings and one large thatched covering for meetings and shelter when it rains (which it does a lot).  They sleep mostly in hammocks strung up inside the huts.  The village had just gotten their first generator and the village chief's hut had just gotten the village's very first light bulb.  While every hut may not have electricity, every hut has a giant stick in the middle of it to scare bats away at night.  It must be a strange culture shock for them to leave for school.  The older kids go to boarding school in Panama City and some are even heading off to colleges in the states.
They are very gifted craft, musical instrument and jewelery makers, traditions that have been passed on through the generations. The men wear only a red loin cloth and then women wear a sarong on their bottom halves and elaborate jewelry and nothing else. They cover their bodies in tattoos made from the Jagua nut. They are similar to henna tattoos in the application. The Embera's use the Jagua nut for many things, it can be prepared in many ways and has amazing abilities. The tattoo that they apply to their bodies repels mosquitoes (it actually does they are naked and un-bitten while I was covered head to toe and left looking like I had the chicken pox). It also can be used as shampoo/conditioner and keeps their hair silky and a beautiful dark brown. We were given a demonstration of how they prepare the nut for tattooing, but how to prepare the nut for its most astonishing ability is kept a secret.
The Jagua nut's other use is its application to newborn babies to all of their bodies except their scalps and eyebrows, which stops the growth of hair follicles. This means they have absolutely no body or facial hair- both men and women. I told them it needs to be marketed in America! Imagine never shaving or waxing again, unfortunately it only works on infants. I made friends with two little girls at the village who showed me around and introduced me to their family. I introduced them to my dad who was with me and they were amazed by his beard and kept trying to pull it out, not believing it was growing from his face.
The girls were adorable and showed me around the village, introducing me to their pet kinkajou that had been injured in the rain forest and nursed back to health and then adopted by the village. They also showed me the villages dogs, chickens, ducks and parrots. They didn't have to show me the rooster I discovered him all on my own at 4am when the sun came up and he started crowing. I suggest ear plugs for a good nights sleep if you stay overnight in the village!
It is an amazing experience when done right that I highly recommend. Remember that you are a guest in the village and act appropriately and culturally sensitive. Remember that these are people just like you and do not treat them like an exhibit in a natural history museum as many tours in remote villages tend to do. Find common bonds and have an amazing cultural exchange you will never forget.
The chief's daughter sitting in my lap compares her bare feet to my father's feet in expensive walking shoes and mosquito repelling socks and pants.  The best kind of travel opens your mind to new experiences and allows you to connect in even the smallest way with different cultures.


Anonymous said...

“Joined a local tour and paid to enter a National Park to get ourselves robbed by bandits.”
This is not a bad review to the Embera Indian Village, but to a part of the Embera Indian Village local day tour. My boyfriend and I joined a day tour with on Jul 2. We hiked into the natural pool with waterfall with a villager and a tour guide (same as the waterfall where photos were taken and posted online by other happy tourists). However, it became a disaster on ours. We placed our bags and dry clothes on the rocks near the pool and we entered the pool with our swim suits. After 30sec going into the pool, 2 bandits fully covered with black coloured clothing, black masks, and a machete on each of them, appeared in front of us. Unarmed villager and the tour guide quickly tried to move away from the bandits as they were on the ground. The bandits then picked up our belongings, that we left on the bank before we entered the water, and escaped into the jungle. Some of my clothings were gone too. We were terrified and none of us could do anything about it. Basically...speechless. Our Hassels then began….visiting Police Station @ Casco Viejo....DIJ in Ancon….Embassy... delayed our Bocas flight for 4 days…cancelled our Contadora flight..and still hope that we could get a refund on that flight.. etc.. The tour company, “” did not take care of us except helping me to translate my English incident report into Spanish through email. Tour manager who booked my tour, Natassha, said she had to go on a business trip and nobody else could help…so we ended up going to DIJ (Police main office) OURSELVES while we barely spoke any Spanish. We were grateful that we were not injured….but however we lost our passports, phone, and camera with photos taken in Panama City…and $500cash that we needed to pay up front to get our passports replacements. We were left with frustration and disappointment with this tour company and part of our trip. This was the only day we joined a local tour in Panama and it turned out to be the worst day. Probably we were the first unlucky one (according to the locals)….but who knows would there be 10-20 bandits showing up in front of other tourists in the future. Safety is really an issue. I do not know how other local tour companies would react with these incidents, but definitely don’t go with “”. They do not show any responsibilities to their customers.

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