Panama Photography Travels

Visiting the Embera Community along Río Chagres

On my last Monday in Panama, I wanted to get out of the city. Originally, I had planned to go to the San Blas Archipielago, but this plan didn’t developed outside of my mind till the last minute, so I called a few tour operators to see if anything was available. My uncle remembered he had a coworker who ran his own tour agency. So I contacted Manolo, but unfortunately, the one-day San Blas tours were all full. He gave me some other interesting options, and I chose to check out the Embera indigenous community along the Río Chagres. It was fairly close to the city, but even so, it would take us on a hike deep into the rainforest.

Here’s Manolo, proudly showing us our backyard. He says tourists are always shocked to see how isolated and deep into the rainforest you can go and still be relatively close to the city. I joked with him about starting a sailing / tourism venture down in Panama. He wants to know when I can start.

Off we go into a motorized piragua steered by our friend here

First we went on a 45-minute hike to a gorgeous waterfall. Manolo had warned me to bring shoes I didn’t mind getting muddy and wet, and that if we wanted we could go swimming. Although tourists were sparse that day — I only saw maybe 5 — there was a British couple in particular who I had to laugh at because they were wearing these hardcore hiking boots that must’ve costs a fortune, yet they’re taking baby steps throughout the hike, looking all frightened about getting them dirty and wet. That’s what those are for, ladies!

We had great time swimming around knowing there was nothing around us for miles and miles. I looked at Manolo, and incredulously asked him “And you get PAID for this!?” At one point during the hike we stopped to listen to the sounds of the rainforest. Here’s a little video just so you get an idea of our soundtrack for the day.

After the hike, we visited and learned more about the Embera Community itself. Is it a bit staged and touristy? Sure. They welcome you with drums and dance for you, but the guide also talks to you about the history of the Embera, and their struggles for independence and sustainability.

Kimchi working on a tattoo on Manolo. I got one on my wrist, and for days wondered whether I should make it permanent. Kimchi used to live in one of the more isolated Embera communities, in a different province. He got too lonely, he said, and came out to a livelier community.

Even though it is a bit awkward at times to feel like you’re invading their community, the Embera seem to embrace tourism as their more viable option for livelihood. They’re authentic and passionate about sharing their culture. In some ways tourism might keep them rooted to it, instead of deflecting to the bright lights and ‘big’ money of the city. I’m sure some people would find controversy in that, yet the Embera seemed to be the least bothered by the idea of exploitation. In fact, speaking to some of the members, I got the impression they’re rather content making a living from sharing everyday life, and having a few strangers pocking around.

Manolo’s company is called Rainforest Tours, though he mentioned they were in the process of changing the name because they also did tours to the beach and other places besides the rainforest, and the name seemed misleading.

The trip was a fantastic way to get re-acquainted with some of the indigenous cultures abundant in the country and though their histories are entwined with modern Panama and politics in complicated ways, they are reminders of the place from where we came, and to where we must one day, find our way back.

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