Into the Jungle: A visit with the Emberá


Taxi ride to Chagres National Forest

On Saturday, Zach, Christine, and I were picked up at 8:30am sharp for our trip to an Emberá Village in the Chagres National Forest. The Emberá are one of the three main indigenous tribes of Panama, along with the Guna and Ngöbe-Buglé. We had booked the tour directly through the village, which meant that we were more confident that all our money was going to the village rather than a middle-man. The village we were to visit sent Evan, (pronounced Ee-vahn), and he had hired a taxi for our trip. We piled in, (without seatbelts of course), and headed out of Panama City. We only stopped once for Evan to pick up some fruit and for us to get water, but soon enough we were in the vast, rolling hills outside the city.  A concrete factory dwarfed the landscape, and a thick layer of trash covered the sides of the road. Unfortunately, there is a major littering problem in the country, and it’s quite evident anywhere you go.

Headed down the river in Chagres National Forest, Panama

The paved road soon gave way to bumpy gravel, and we approached a dock on the banks of a large river, crowded with all manner of tourists, locals, and wandering dogs. We unloaded from the taxi and Evan pointed us to our boat, saying he’d meet us later. Our boat was a long, dugout canoe, with a motor stuck on one end. Two Emberá tribesmen were there to take us, one in charge of the motor, one to stand at the front with a pole. I guessed it was for steering when we pushed off and for when we were to arrive, rightly so. One man handed us orange life jackets, and we piled in single file, as the boat was only wide enough for one person. I was reminded of the narrow racing shells I used to practically live in during my high school and college years, although the hard wood seats and thick sides were radically different from the smooth, thin fiberglass hulls I was used to.

We set off up the river. The motor pushed us along at a quick pace, but despite that the surface water remained serene. We were graced with beautiful weather, and the sun beat down on our backs. I couldn’t help but be jealous of our boatmen’s perfect skin, smooth and browned by the sun, stretched over taut muscles. I could see the faint traces of tribal tattoo art on the bowman’s back and legs as he stood on the bow, perfectly still, pole poised if needed. Jungle noises carried easily over the water, and the river spray kept us cool despite the sun. Palm leaf roofs jutted out above the thick, verdant forests along the way as we passed other Emberá villages. As I gazed over the prow, I couldn’t help but feel that I had somehow jumped into the cover of a National Geographic magazine.


Our waterfall stop in Chagres National Forest, Panama

We went quite a ways down the river, deep into Chagres National Forest. Our guides expertly guided us to a little inlet that led to a waterfall, the entrance all but hidden amongst the leaves bowing down to touch the water. We disembarked and climbed up a rocky incline to the waterfall, and encountered several people swimming in the pool beneath. Not having brought a swimsuit, Zach and I took off our shoes and waded in the water while Christine dove in. As I slid and slipped back over the rocks to return to the boat, I struck up a conversation with one of the boatmen. Like all Emberá, he had wide, high cheekbones, and his smile was open and wide. He asked where I was from, and when I told him, he looked off as if in a dream, repeating softly “so beautiful. USA, so beautiful. So big. So beautiful”. I felt humbled, feeling that I should feel more lucky to be where I am from. Many of us always yearn to be where we are not, and easily forget that our grass is also green.

We continued up the river, watching birds swoop into the waves to catch fishes, passing waterfalls tumbling down cliffs to feed the river, and navigating through quicker rapids. Finally, we arrived. The canoe pushed up onto a sandy shore, and we walked up stairs in a hillside to enter Drúa, an Emberá village.

Our greeting party at Drúa, an Emberá village in Chagres National Forest, Panama

As we climbed the steps, we were greeted by a group of Emberá children singing and playing instruments. We felt a bit uncomfortable, as we were more interested in seeing how they lived and meeting them rather than getting a fanfare, but that’s what they do for tourists. The village is populated by 25 families, one to a house. The huts were built from materials all found in the surrounding forest, harvested after a full moon since it is said that prevents termites. The sloping roofs made from palm leaves would prove extremely effective for keeping the rain off us when it started to drizzle around noon. Emberá children are educated through middle school here in the village, and are sent into the city for further education. Two teachers from Panama City come during the week to teach, only speaking Spanish, so that the children learn both their native language and Spanish. 

Joel, my kind Emberá tattoo artist, painting me with jagua juice 

Young villagers are sent to school in Panama City to further their education, most of them interested in studying tourism. Most of our tour money would go towards funding their education, which made me happy. The village’s only other main source of income is their arts and crafts, which we would peruse later. As I wandered around a bit, I approached some of the men tattooing each other with juice from the jagua fruit. This is a fruit found in the forests that, when squeezed, produces juice perfect for temporary tattooing. They draw it on with tiny, needle-like strips of palm, dipping it into little vials of the pure juice. It stains the skin and lasts for up to eight days. I was fascinated by the beautiful patterns they were creating, and Joel, (pronounced Yo-el), generously offered to give me one on my arm. I readily agreed, and he gave me a traditional Emberá tattoo on my arm that would last me the rest of my days in Panama.


Mateo giving a demonstration on traditional dress

We all gathered in the main structure for a lecture from a village tribesman, Mateo, who taught us about the Emberá way of life, dress, food, etc. He introduced us to one of the village founders, an elderly man covered in jagua tattoos. He brought up a young Emberá woman to show the woman’s dress, saying she was the queen of the village. We asked why she was the queen, and he laughingly explained that there is a different queen each day, so no one gets jealous. The Emberá’s traditional clothing is mostly a distinct printed fabric from Panama City as skirts, and thickly beaded tops.The men just wear cloths on the bottom, some of them with more extensively beaded coverings.The Emberá passed around some of their basket weaving, explaining that they can dye the “palma chunga” different colors by soaking it in sugar cane, cooking it with rosewood shavings from the men’s carvings, burying it in river mud, etc.

Our lunch, overseen by one of the village founders

Lunch was then served – fresh caught tilapia from the river, so fresh and succulent it seemed to melt in my mouth despite being fried. (I was careful to pick out the tiny bones). Smashed, fried plantains (called patacones) was our side, and our dessert consisted of the sweetest papaya, pineapple, and bananas I’ve ever had. We washed our hands in large bowls of water with torn, lemon-scented leaves floating on the top. After we ate, Mateo invited us to look through the arts and crafts the villagers had made. I purchased a beautifully woven palma chunga piece and a hammered silver bracelet, chatting directly with the ladies who made them. Finally, we gathered back in the main structure for a dance demonstration. After watching several groups dance to the pipes and drums, we were asked to join in. The tourists all seemed hesitant, so I leapt up and started dancing with an Emberá man. I felt clumsy amidst the whirl of color and music, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.

Emberá youth giving a dance demonstration, one dancer not particularly into it that day

Zach, Christine, and I meandered around the village as we waited to leave, viewing the church at the top of the hill and passing by many chickens and even a pet monkey on a leash, which made us incredibly sad to see. We found Evan down by the village entrance, almost not recognizing him as he had changed into traditional garb. We said our goodbyes and hopped back into the canoe for our return trip down the river.

My palma chunga plate purchase, and the woman who made it

After a taxi ride back to Panama City, we were all fairly exhausted. Zach and I did manage to go to the grocery store to stock up for the massive amount of driving I had ahead of me. I really enjoy going to grocery stores in other countries, seeing what is different and what is normal. I like to purchase the most bizarre things I can find, and that usually leads to new favorites. I now know I adore lime-flavored plantain chips, for example. As the night wore on, the three of us attempted to find some salsa dancing, but as no one showed up, we contented ourselves with fancy drinks and ceviche. Not a bad way to end the day.

Enjoying avocado milkshakes in Panama City

Sunday was a lazy day, much needed. Zach, Christine and I spent the morning at the pool, then had some delicious Vietnamese fare for lunch. I tried my first avocado milkshake, and it tastes exactly like it sounds. Strange, yet absolutely delicious. Our thirst for salsa dancing not sated the previous night, we trooped across town for a free salsa dancing lesson in a park. It was very well attended, and the instructor was fantastic, yelling over the crowd with clear instructions. Despite being in Spanish, I could even understand thanks to his gestures. I will say, I will never, ever forget the Spanish word for “left”, as he shouted it over and over to the music to indicate which foot we should be on. He was quite the character, and as he walked closer during the class the three of us shared a smirk as the kind of plant patterned on his pants became clear. Let’s just say, he seemed pretty carefree.

Free salsa dancing in the part, with our excellent instructor in his delightful pants

We enjoyed some well earned paletas (salsa takes energy!) and Zach and I then headed to the airport to pick up Clayton, who would be joining me for the rest of the trip.

2 thoughts on “Into the Jungle: A visit with the Emberá

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: