A look at life with Panama’s Emberá tribe

This article appears on page 46 of the February 2012 issue.
A small band of Emberá men singing and playing instruments made by hand served as a welcome committee.

by Joe Phelan; Lincoln, CA

In April ’11, my wife, Rose, and I spent four days in Panama City before continuing to Chile and Costa Rica on a tour with Friendship Force. However, we had no plans for two of those days, so before we left the US I got on the Internet to look for activities. I quickly found a most intriguing option: a one-day tour to an indigenous Emberá Indian village in the jungle.

This sounded more than interesting, so I made reservations for Rose and me, but soon our whole Friendship Force group opted to go as well.

The tour cost our group $100 per person. Rates vary depending on the group size ($225 for one person or $125 per person for a couple).

Choosing a guide

Several tour operators in Panama City offer Emberá village tours. We selected Anne Gordon (phone 011 507 6662 1946) to be our guide. An American, Anne is also a member of the village we would visit, Emberá Puru.

Panama’s Emberá

Anne was an animal trainer working for the TV and movie industries when she was sent to the jungles of Panama for the shooting of the movie “The End of the Spear.” During the shooting, Anne got to know many of the Emberá people and fell in love with how warm and openhearted they were. She also fell in love with one of the men from the village, even though they had no common language at that time. As Anne told us, “The rest is history… .”

Anne met us at our hotel, where we boarded a medium-size tour bus and headed for Lake Alajuela in Chagres National Park. From there, we rode in 20-foot-long dugout canoes up the San Juan de Pequeni river to the village.

April is at the end of Panama’s dry season and the river was low, so going upstream was adventuresome. Some of the journey was done under the power of outboard motors and some with poling, and in some places the locals in each dugout had to get out and push (as did one of our guys, Jim Arnoux). It was a fun boat trip with lots of birds to watch along the way.

Soon we could see Emberá Puru on a rise overlooking the river. There were the thatched roofs of houses elevated on poles and children swimming in the river. A small group played drums and flutes to greet us as we climbed steps up the eight- to ten-foot bank to the village.

The village

In 1985, Panama created Chagres National Park, which affords a lot of protection to the Emberá people and their customs. On the other hand, the tribe can no longer farm the land commercially, eliminating an important source of income. As a result, the village is quite poor, the residents’ income coming solely from the selling of handicrafts and tours of their village.

About 110 people live in Emberá Puru. Each family has their own elevated house with stairs made out of a log with steps notched into it. Anne said that when people want privacy, they either roll the log over so the steps don’t show or they pull the log up.

Brightly colored baskets woven by the  Emberá using materials and dyes made from forest products.

The village was extremely neat and clean. While there is no electricity, a sand-filtered water system built by the Peace Corps brings water into the village. The people still wash in the river, of course, and swim.

Anne said there’s no cell phone coverage in the village, but one of the men sometimes climbs a tree on top of a high hill and is able to get a signal.

The Panamanian government requires children to attend six years of school. Two teachers are sent each week by dugout canoe to spend the week in the village teaching. As a result, many of the villagers speak Spanish, which meant that those of us who spoke some Spanish could talk and interact with them.

Education is important to the tribe, but, to continue schooling past the sixth grade, the children must leave the village, and that’s expensive. The Emberá Children’s Educational Fund was set up to help these children. At the time of our visit, kids were in high school and one young woman, who lives with Anne, was in college. Anne donates 10% of her profits to the fund.

Because of our Friendship Force backgrounds, many in our group had brought gifts, including paper and pencils, children’s books in Spanish and toys. Rose brought a few pairs of reading glasses for the older Emberás, and I brought about 300 fish hooks, which I divided among the men.

Interacting with the locals

Anne had a busy day organized for us. Erito, our boatman, is also head of tourism in the village (and is Anne’s brother-in-law as well). Speaking in Spanish, with English translation from Anne, he told the group about the village, describing how houses are built and how materials are produced to weave colorful baskets.

He also explained how each house has a fire tray made of river clay and layered banana leaves for cooking. For lunch we had crispy fried fish and plantains served in small banana-leaf baskets plus a large tray of juicy pineapples and sweet mangoes.

Our guide, Anne Gordon, is greeted by her sister-in-law, Zuleica, and Anne’s little niece.

The ladies of the village came and danced for us, in sort of a shuffling, circular walk, as five or six men played drums and sang. One of the men rapped on a turtle shell to the rhythm, later saying he had eaten the turtle just the day before.

Different families had tables of handicrafts for sale, mostly colorful Emberá patterned woven baskets and trays in addition to wood and “vegetable ivory” carvings. (Vegetable ivory is actually made from the seed of the Tagua palm tree. If left to sit for several months, the seed gets rock hard and can be carved.)

Rose bought a small basket ($90) that took Anne’s mother in-law, Agricia, three months to weave. The weaving is so tight, it can hold water.

Anne’s father-in-law, Aserot, took the group on a short jungle walk, showing us different plants and explaining in Spanish how they are used. He broke off dime-size pieces of one plant’s leaf and gave us each a piece to chew. Our mouths immediately went numb. Aserot told us the plant is used for toothaches.

Another plant, which oozed a white sap when picked, is used to heal cuts and open sores.

Busy as we were, we still had lots of free time to mix with and talk with the Emberás. Many of the ladies in our group played with the girls and younger boys. I gave my personal card to Aserot, triggering laughter from his friends, who cautioned me that Aserot would come to visit me in California now that he had my address.

We took lots of photos all day long. At first, I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of bare-breasted women, but soon it seemed like no big deal. The Emberá ladies seemed at ease with having their photos taken, posing readily when asked.

All good things…

Too soon it was time to head back. Going downriver was much easier than making the morning’s trip up. Still, Jim and I both had to get out at one point to help push the dugout across several sandbars.

Looking back, it was quite a day — like stepping back in time. It’s hard to think of a lifestyle more different from ours than is theirs, yet I was struck with how much alike we all are. Well, perhaps they are happier than most of us… .

Riding back to the city, I commented to Anne about her positive impact on life in Emberá Puru. She just laughed, saying her life had changed more than theirs.

I’d recommend Anne if you want to experience a day with the Emberá people — but, then, I would hire her for any guide services in Panama.

Our day at Emberá Puru will remain, perhaps, our most fascinating travel experience ever. If you are ever in Panama, don’t miss it!