A Panama Canal Cruise Introduces The Enchanting People of Embera

by Bob Earl

One of many colorful village structures
One of many colorful village structures

Having taught Geography for 38 years in England, it was a dream come true to visit the Panamanian tropical rainforest.  The Embera Indian village excursion, located deep in the forest, only accessible by a 45 minute journey in a dug-out canoe (albeit powered by an outboard motor), was a stunning experience.

Several of my companions were showing concern as the water lapped the edges of the canoe, but I was reassured by the thought that our Embera hosts had done this trip countless times before. True, it was raining – well it was a rain forest after all. This simply added to the ambience as we travelled below the various canopies of the forest and skated across the glittering river, the two tribesmen skillfully avoiding half-hidden logs in the water.

Wildlife was apparent along the route — birds, butterflies and fish — but perhaps most species on shore were sensibly sheltering from the rain!

The first view of the Embera encampment was exciting as the shelters on stilts appeared out of the greenery and the musical sounds of the Embera welcoming party became apparent on the breeze.  We were given a fantastically warm welcome by all the men, women and children of the community — some 21 families numbering 112 individuals.

The chief was the main host and explained via an interpreter their lifestyle in this isolated area of the rain forest. Members of the community proudly displayed their colourful clothes, jewelry and incredible body tattoos.

They provided a fish dish, cooked on open fires and served in banana leaves, followed by fresh fruit – both delicious!

Their traditional crafts (jewellery, baskets, carvings etc.), painstakingly constructed, were beautiful and the Embera music and dancing were appreciated by all. Some of our group volunteered to be tattooed by the Embera ladies – although perhaps thankfully, these tattoos would wear off in a few days!

We were free to explore this remarkable village on the edge of the river; however, all too soon we had to leave aboard our canoes once again. As we left I observed an impromptu log rolling contest in the river involving two men and three young boys, this simply added to an enduring impression of this truly magnificent group of people living in a largely sustainable way in a remote part of the rain forest. An ambition finally and unexpectantly achieved during our Panama cruise!