Tour and Panama Cruise with CruiseWest
The Indigenous Emberá
People of Panama * Photos
and text by Jack
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Europeans first discovered the region
in 1501, and Christopher Columbus sighted Emberá on his fourth voyage
in 1503. The Spanish established the first European colony in South
America, Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in Darién
in 1510. From the town of Vasco, Núñez de Balboa made
his march to the Pacific in 1513. Some of the refugees from Santa
María went on to found Panama City in 1519.
Emberá Province was formed in
1922 from the Panama Province in eastern Panama consisting mostly of jungle
and sparsely populated areas. To this day there is no road through
the dense Darién jungle to connect Panama with neighboring Colombia.
The Emberá and Wounaan Indians of Panama there are accomplished
artisans and produce elaborate and detailed tagus carvings from seeds of
the Tagua tree. These gentle and timid people look and dress as they
did when Columbus arrived in the 1500s. Emberá Territory,
was created in 1998 from a portion of Darién Province
We swung our legs over the edge of the
rubber boats, lowered ourselves into the shallow surf, and waded to the
beach not far from the Emberá's thatched native buildings -- a typical
"wet" landing. Inside the huts, young women with layers of colorful
necklaces (partly) covering their breasts were weaving baskets. The
men gathered in the largest palapa (the community building) to prepare
for some festive music and dancing to celebrate our arrival. The
February climate is quite pleasant due to the cold Humboldt Current that
moderates the coastline temperatures.
The Emberá lifestyle is primitive
but remarkably easy for a forest-bound people. Before the Panamanian
government declared the Rio Chagres area a national park, the subsistence-level
Emberá hunted and farmed and struggled for their rights to continue
to live in their customary peaceful lifestyle. These people are generally
quite small and sinewy, but the younger generation will, in time, most
likely add an inch or two to the tribe's overall average height.
With the National Park Declaration, they had to find an alternative life
style. The Emberá instead had a Renaissance. They went
into business to sell, well, ...themselves!
CenRut Location Map
Click on the following
thumbnails for larger views
Ship's activity map.
CenRut topo map.
The village lies at the foot of a small
The main palapa and meeting room.
Its people live in a collection of neat
thatched huts on stilts to protect them from the tides.
First we meet some of their beautiful children
-all dressed up for company!
Naturalist Rudy Zamora talks to some mothers
with their babies -watched over by the chief.
The men tune up their native instruments
for a festive dance prepared for their guests.
These fellows make pretty good music.
The children dance to the beat of
a drum played by a young girl.
And around they go in varied dance
Eventually the guests are invited to dance
with the children.
Programs Coordinator, Karine Rosvold, gets
"tattooed" with the Emberá's concoction of herbal paint.
Now Gary Ratzlaff wants to try it out!
It takes several days for the paint to wear off.
An interesting characteristic of these people is that they won't accept
money as gifts. The Panamanian Government, therefore, gave them a
sidewalk! The Pacific Explorer crew collects donations from the guests,
finds out what the Emberá would find useful, such as school books
to learn Spanish, and buys it for them. The natives speak their own
language dating back at least 500 years and have to LEARN Spanish, since
it's not their native language.
Here a man demonstrates how he makes his
waterproof bowls from reeds.
A typical family dwelling.
At the end of the visit, the natives bring
out their wares to sell.