Travel deep into the dense Panama jungle by dugout canoe to visit an authentic Emberá tribe. The Panama region of Central America provides an opportunity for tourists to learn about the culture of the Emberá people. We looked for wildlife as we travelled from Chargers National Park, down the rivers near Gatun Lake to visit the authentic Emberá tribe village deep in the jungle of the Panama rainforest.
The aboriginal people living in the rainforest village we visited participate in ecotourism to share their history, culture and traditions of their lifestyle. This allows them to provide some economic growth for their families and is important culturally to help maintain traditions. They warmly welcome the chance to educate visitors and share their way of life. Tourists have a great opportunity to learn about the history, traditions, rituals, dance and daily living of the traditional tribe.
Video: A visit to an Emberá village
Migration of the Emberá people
The chieftain of the village explained why his people migrated from their ancestral home in the Chocó region of Colombia, South America. FARC (anti-government guerrillas) were kidnapping children from the villages to turn them into child soldiers. The Emberá people fled this area to help provide their families with a safe place to live. They finally settled on the lands of what is now the Chargers National Park of Panama.
In 1980, the lands where they chose to settle became a designated protected area. Once this happened, the tribe could no longer traditionally hunt or harvest the trees.
Lifestyle of the Emberá
This particular village currently houses eight families, consisting of 35 adults and children. The older children attend school during the day. The women make and sell beautiful museum-quality baskets that can take several months to complete. The men create wood carvings and other objects and also gather food supplies.
These indigenous people live in traditional housing. Houses are generally made large enough to hold more than one family. Roofs are thatched from palm leaves and homes are raised 7-20 feet off the ground on stilts. They use the area under the house as a work area or to pen their animals. The floors of their modest homes are made from palm tree bark and the walls are not protective, meaning that it is basically open air. Ladders or logs with cut-out notches are used to access the house.
Facts about the Emberá indigenous tribe
- Who are the Emberá people – One of the seven indigenous tribes recognized by the Panamanian government.
- Location – Most of the Emberá population live on the lands of Chargers National Park, Panama.
- Population – Approximately 35,000 live in Panama.
- Education – Since 1979, it is mandatory for children to attend school up to grade 12.
- Language – Emberá is the spoken language, however children attending school also speak English and Spanish.
- Health – There are two types of doctors available to a village. A shaman healer performs spiritual rituals and a botanical healer uses harvested medicinal plants from the rainforest.
- Food – A typical diet for the Emberá indigenous tribe consists of plantain, corn, fish, armadillo, wild pig, etc. Since 1980, hunting or harvesting trees is prohibited in protected areas, making it more difficult for the aboriginal people to hunt traditionally.
- Housing – Traditional homes are built 7-20 feet off the ground to help avoid encounters with dangerous animals, poisonous scorpions, snakes, lizards and river flooding. The thatched roofs are constructed of palm fronds. A notched pole made from a palm tree is used as a ladder and the walls are not very protective.
- Transportation – Dugout canoes are used to navigate rivers.
- Clothing – Traditionally, bark from the cocüa tree is beaten with a stone to create a soft fibre to use for hammocks, clothing and baby carriers. Today, the Emberá buy specially designed tribal fabrics. The fabric used by the women is changed every 30 days. Normally the women are topless, but on special occasions they will wear beads and Panamanian coins that have been handed down. The earrings and bracelets worn are made from melted five cent coins. Necklaces and other items of adornment are made with plastic beads. Teeth from monkeys and other animals were used as accessories before hunting was restricted.
- Body paint – Paint is applied to bodies for special events and the artwork will last for seven days. Dark dye is made from berries of the genip tree and the red dye is from the achiote tree. Body paint is also used as a mosquito repellent. When a baby is born, they paint the entire baby with this paint as protection. Women also dye their hair black with these dyes.
- Black Palm tree – Native to the jungles of Panama, the Black Palm tree has dangerously sharp, slender spines found on the trunk and if you brush up against the spine, it will break off under the skin and can cause serious infection. Women use the fronds of this palm tree to weave beautiful museum-quality baskets.
- Economy – Agriculturally, they grow plantain, rice and plants to sell.
We travelled to this area from Gatún Lake while cruising through the Panama Canal with Holland America Cruise Lines. We boarded the ship again in Colón, Panama on the Atlantic coast, near the entrance to the Panama Canal.
Learn more about mapping of Indigenous Lands in Darién, Panama
Interesting research mapping of Indigenous lands in Darién, Panama by Peter H. Herlihy. Read it here.
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