Native Planet > Indigenous Cultures > Embera and Waounan

The Embera and Waounan
Indigenous People of Panama and Colombia

The Embera People live in the Darien of Panama and the department of Choco in Colombia. In Panama they inhabit the same areas as the Indigenous group Waounan with whom they share many cultural similarities. The Darien of Panama is also home to a few Kuna communities and more and more latino homesteaders in search of land for cultivation or cattle. The latinos, missionaries, the Pan-American highway which cut the Darien in half, and the growing cosmopolitan city of Panama have all influenced their lifestyles and many cultural traditions have disappeared. Today, Indigenous people work in an effort to revive their culture and traditions, to preserve their language and values and to find economic development ideas to supplement meager income from farming. These WebPages were made to assist in those efforts, to help the Embera people record some of their traditions, and to share some insights into the beauty of their culture with the outside world. We hope you enjoy and learn from this site.

Note: Waounan and Embera people have long shared the same territory and their recent history and present culture is similar, so this general information shall serve for both groups. This is not to downplay the distinctions of the two, for they speak separate languages, their traditional roles --Waounan were artists, and Embera warriors--set them apart and they are organized politically as separate groups.

Our Embera Case Study is focused on the people of Embera Drua (Upper Chagres), Embera Puru and Arimae (Darien).

Our Waounan Case Study is focused on the people of Puerto Lara (Darien).


In the following pages, we will feature various subjects such as, History, Culture and Lifestyle, Cultural Preservation Efforts (and Human Rights), assessments of Eco-Tourism and Local Guides and our Photo Gallery.

 

General Information

In the census of 1990, the population of Panama was 2,329,329 inhabitants of whom 194,166 or 11.8% were Indigenous. The republic of Panama is divided into 9 provinces and its Indigenous population is formed by 7 distinct groups which are the Kuna, Embera, Waounan, Ngobe, Bugle, Nassau, and Terribe people. The first Comarca Indigena, official Indigenous territory in Panama was created in 1938 in the San Blas archipelago by the Kuna people. In the province of Darien, the Embera and Waounan people joined forces and organized themselves politically to create the Comarca Embera-Waounan in 1983. It encompasses the districts of Cemaco and Sambu.

According to the census, in the district of Cemaco lived 5,958 Embera and Waounan people on a territory of 2,880.4 km2 with a population density of 2.1 inhabitants per km2. In the district of Sambu lived 2,012 Embera and Waounan people on a territory of 1,299.8 km2 with a population density of 1.5 inhabitants per km2. The total population of the comarca according to the census of 1990 was 14,659 Embera and 2,605 Waounan people. This total for the Comarca comprised 37% of the total for the country. The rest of the Embera and Waounan live outside the comarca as far away as Panama city.

Darien General Information

History

General Embera and Waounan History

The Pre-Colombian Waounan and Embera history remains ambiguous. Like many indigenous people with no written language and only oral histories to rely on, there is no reliable record that tracks their historical migration. The Waounan and Embera people for centuries have lived semi-nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers and fishermen. Their constant movement through the most remote parts of the rainforest and their organization into small social groups, often not larger than a couple family units and their wide dispersion throughout the jungle did not allow for accurate anthropological studies until recently.

For a long time scholars thought that the Embera and Waounan people had only recently migrated to Panama from the State of Choco, Colombia, but recently, it is believed that these people inhabited the Darien region much before the arrival of the conquistadors. This theory is reinforced by the Kuna oral history and mythology which includes numerous accounts of war with neighboring Embera and Waounan tribes. It is believed that these people moved to the Choco region of Colombia, from the Amazon sometime during the 16th century. The migration from Choco to Darien is now believed to have started before the arrival of the Spanish, but it was only from the end of the 17th century that westerners have explored the Darien and noted their presence.

Modern History and Social and Political Organization

Modern Waounan and Embera history has been influenced by various geographical and political changes. The most recent and most significant was the construction of the extension of the Pan-American highway, a dirt highway cut through the jungle towards the border of Colombia in 1979. The road opened the region to cars, and trucks and offered easy access to poor campesinos looking for virgin jungle land to clear cut and practice slash and burn farming techniques or to graze cattle. Today the road is bordered by cattle farms and plantations, and no jungle can be seen for miles on each side. The road offered Waounan and Embera communities access to the modern world, but in the process destroyed the forest effectively ending a lifestyle based primarily on hunting and gathering. The result is that Indigenous communities now must rely almost entirely on agriculture and the only method they know is slash and burn.

The water needs of the Panama canal and electrical needs of its booming capital have also modified the landscape with the construction of dams and two artificial lakes. Many communities were relocated from the basin that now forms the lake. War, drug trafficking and guerrilla activity are the other huge factors influencing the migration of Embera and Waounan communities. In the areas of the Darien bordering Colombia, Guerillas and Regular Army soldiers often cross the border into Panama. These incidents continue today and have caused large numbers of people to relocate to new communities much closer to the Panama City side of the region.

Early in the century the Kuna people organized themselves politically and formed alliances with the States to ensure the success of their revolution in 1925. As a result they gained full autonomy and control over their San Blas territory. The Waounan and Embera people until the early 1980's still lived in tiny marginalized communities and were powerless to obtain any rights or support from their government. After a small war for independence in 1983, they asked the government to recognize them politically as the Embera-Waounan group. This forced them to change their entire political structure which to that point depended entirely on a single village chief called Noko and a shaman called Aibana. They adopted a more complex structure, where the Noko remained the head of the village, but much of the decision-making responsibility was given to committees on education, health, fishing and agro-forestry, artesania, tourism, women's issues, etc., each with a president, secretary and treasurer. Decisions for the village are made after long discussions in the communal house by a majority vote from the members of all committees. But more importantly, for their national representation, villages assembled to elect a regional chief to act as a representative called the Cacique. The first Cacique was elected to represent both the Embera and Waounan people. In 1998, the smaller Waounan population felt that their culture and political agenda was not being properly represented by the larger Embera Group, and in an effort to preserve their heritage and protect their rights, they separated from their Embera neighbors. 

Influence of Religion

Religion in Latin America has strongly influenced most Indigenous groups. It was the means by which conquistadors initially made inroads into and controlled indigenous communities. Today numerous religious groups, primarily Christian, are present in the Darien. Some have tried to "civilize" Indigenous people by removing all traces of their culture, often forcing them to abandon their traditional dress, the practice of traditional medicine, dance, music and spiritual celebrations. Fundamentalists have been particularly successful in the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, but in Panama, indigenous people have kept a stronger grip on their culture, and consequently churches have had to become more tolerant of indigenous traditions, to gain more followers. This is particularly true for the Kuna people which have selected what they wanted from the church and rejected every part that didn't please them. To a lesser extent, it is also true in some of the Embera and Waounan communities where some people have decided not to attend church while others have chosen a church that is flexible and open to non-Christian celebrations and customs such as body painting and ritual dancing. Still, a few churches forbid these customs and have converted significant congregations. These same churches today are putting pressure on villages where some of the people are trying to revive their culture and develop small cultural tourism projects. Some villages have been divided along religious lines ruining any cooperative efforts.

 

Discoveries: Cultures and Lifestyles

  • Clothing and Body decoration

Loincloths and Palomas

  • Loincloth (Guayuco in Waounan, Taparabo in Spanish) and bead necklaces

    For trekking in the jungle, many indigenous men around the world choose to wear a loincloth which only covers the genitals. It's simplicity has long been likened to primitivism by missionaries and westerners when in fact it is a very practical piece of clothing for tropical jungle environments. Pants and long shirts soaked with mud and water are heavy and burdensome and they facilitate skin problems such as rashes and infections. The loincloth or taparabo as it is known in Panama, is still worn regularly by a few elders and on special occasions by most male villagers. The Waounan people call them guayuco and Embera call it anelia. Due to influence from the church and modern Latino society, most villagers have traded their loincloths for pants or shorts.

    Many people still walk barefoot in the bush but some prefer to wear sandals. Shoes or sandals are a must when leaving the village to visit neighbors to go to the Capital. In some villages, old people still wear their loincloths, and more recently villages with a desire to revive their cultures and attract tourism have restarted to wear a loincloths made of colorful cotton. Some men enjoy wearing on their bare chests bandoliers of plastic beads, but the real trademark of both Wounan and Embera culture is ebony body painting done with the juice of the jagua fruit.
  • Paloma, bead necklaces and silver coin ornaments

    Women are usually bare-chested, wearing only a skirt they call paloma (Uhua in Embera). Originally their skirt was made with palm fibers, today dyed cotton fabrics are purchased in Panama were they are usually imported from South-East Asia. Women, like men, used to cover their bodies regularly with the black dyes of jagua, a practice still used for ceremonies. They cover their chests with intricate plastic bead necklaces and ornamental collars made with dozens of coins. Women also like to add a bit of red color on their faces with the natural dye of achiote. Recently lipstick and rouge have replaced achiote.

  • Jagua Body Painting

    Jagua is an important fruit in the life of Embera and Waounan people. It is used as a black dye to paint people's skins. The pigment remains embedded in the skin until the external layer is naturally exfoliated, generally lasting between 10 to 12 days. It is indelible dark blue or black, like a two-week tattoo. The jagua body painting is still in use for all celebrations and is one of the most enduring and important customs for both Waounan and Embera people. 

    • Body Painting

    Both men and women practice body painting with the jagua fruit. Some people cover nearly their full body. Even the lower half of the face covered from a line extending back from the corners of the mouth. Some designs are solid blocks of painting with small patches of skin left open to show contrast. Others are elaborate patterns drawn with delicate lines by artists with the thin tip of a bamboo stick. Each design has its own meaning and each age group and gender are assigned specific ones.

    • Jagua Preparation

    The jagua is an inedible fruit which the Waounan and Embera people have long used as a body dye. The fruit is hard and needs to be grated. The pulp is then mixed with a very small amount of water and squeezed by hand or inside a piece of fabric to extract a liquid that darkens as it oxidizes. To make it stronger, the liquid is often heated in a pan over a fire to make it more viscous. Then the jagua juice is ready to be applied directly on dry skin. It dries in minutes and the indelible markings cannot be removed with any type of soap, detergent or chemicals. It remains in the skin until the upper layer of skin is naturally exfoliated by the body. 

  • Silver Ornaments

Waounan and Embera people make wide use of silver or gold jewelry. Most common are wide bracelets and arm and ankle bands. For special celebrations and dances women will wear heavy necklaces made from coins hung from and woven into a lattice of string. For regular use, both men and women will wear more simple necklaces crafted of metal from melted coins. 

  • Music and Dance

Flutes, drums, turtle shells and other percussion instruments guide the movement of dancers. People perform a variety of dances, most involving women only and some in which women and men dance together. Most are simple and easy to identify as they draw their inspiration from the movements of animals. Dances are performed during social gatherings, ceremonies and to welcome visitors in the village.

  • Food & Drinks

  • Hunting, Fishing and Gathering (traditional foods)

Originally semi-nomadic forest dweller the Embera and Waounan were known as hunter-gatherers. They hunted with blowpipes and poisonous darts--a technique still in practice in Colombia--bows and arrows and long spears. In addition to hunting, people also set traps for rodents and birds. The most common targets for hunters were deer, wild boar, coati-mundi, gneke, etc.

A significant part of the diet came from the collection of jungle plants, fruits, heart of palm, roots and tubers.

The rivers in Darien abound with fish and the locals have always been skilled anglers. Young people today are very talented with the long fishing harpoon (spear) they use standing from a dugout or walking in the current of the river. Some even dive with a spear. Hand lines with hooks are common as well, and when fishermen lack bait, they use the fruit of tree they call espave. The espave is type of nut which, once pealed, reveals a white flesh that lures fish as well as live bait. 

  • Modern Changes in Fishing and Agriculture

Because of serious deforestation in the vicinity of many villages, hunting yields have dropped and people have been forced to survive more from farming. Until recently agriculture was limited to a few root crops and maize. Villages have had to adapt and learn and implement new techniques, and grow new crops in order to provide enough food. They are still learning, and agricultural training projects are under way in many areas. Fishing however remains important as a means of providing protein. In addition to traditional spearing techniques they use nets and hand lines and often you will see young boys go off at night with a flashlight, harpoon and mask and dive for the big ones.

The main crops cultivated by the people in Darien are plantains, bananas, corn, sugar cane, rice, beans, and yucca root. Unfortunately, slash and burn techniques are still in wide use and soil depletion and deforestation are problems in many areas.

  • Housing, Dugout Canoes and Tools

Traditional Stilt Houses and the Communal House

Houses were traditionally built very high on stilts, up to ten feet. At those heights the house was protected from wild animals such as the feared jaguar called locally tigre (tiger), wild boar, rodents etc. It also offered protection from flooding and even from other people. Houses today are still built on stilts but not as high (the threat of invaders and jaguars is less of a concern), just a few feet of the ground to avoid the flooding of the rainy season and to prohibit the invasion of the insects that nest and congregate in the grasses. People climb into their house using a log in which they carve small steps.

Traditional houses are composed of a single room with the fire pit at one end and living space at the other. One or two sides are closed with walls of bamboo or other wood. Walls offer some privacy but by leaving half of the house open, breezes serve to cool the house and keep insects from congregating. The roofs are made of thatch. 

More recently houses have been constructed with walls on all sides, and sometimes a real set of stairs or a ladder. And villagers with money now use corrugated zinc for roofing. It's a show of wealth and requires less work to install. However it is expensive, noisy under the rain, and transforms houses into Saunas during the mid-day heat.

Schools in most villages have been built by the government and their concrete structures are a striking contrast to the thatched-roofed organic feel of the houses of the village.

Each village has its casa communal used for official meetings, to receive guests, or for ceremonies. Traditionally communal houses were crowned with large round, sloping roofs and are by far the largest structure in the village. 

Piragua, the Local Dugout Canoe

Most Indigenous groups in tropical regions of the world use a single large tree trunk to carve narrow dugout canoes. You will see all sizes, from a little fishing canoe for kids less than six feet long and barely more than a foot wide to the monster communal boats carved from a 45-foot long, four-foot wide log. Embera and Waounan people have what are called piraguas in Spanish. Some support only the weight of a child and some can carry 20 passengers and a mountain of cargo. Nearly everyone is an expert at paddling or poling their piraguas into and against strong currents. They will even do it from a standing position. The piraguas are essential for transport of cargo and people, and for fishing. Young kids learn how to read the current of a river at a very young age. 

Trapiche (the sugar cane press)

The trapiche is the traditional wooden roller press used to extract the juice from sugar cane. It is made of two heavy cylinders carved from sturdy logs and set on a vertical frame structure one on top of the other. They are cranked in opposite directions by four men while women feed the cane between the cylinders. The cylinders crush the cane and broad funnels made of banana leaves guide the juice into buckets or gourds.

The sugar cane juice can be drank as is; it is sweet and refreshing and a delight to the children. It is also boiled for a long period of time until most of the water evaporates, leaving a thick sugar syrup that people call miel (honey in Spanish). The juice can also be kept to ferment, with or without corn, to make various alcoholic drinks called chicha which are used in all religious and spiritual ceremonies and social gatherings.

  • Arts and Crafts

Waounan people are famous crafters. It is believed that they were the original basket weavers and wood carvers of the region. Today most indigenous groups produce versions of their canastas and cocobolo carvings. The Embera people have adopted the techniques and have expert artists of their own.

Canasta (Chunga fiber basket weavings)

The canasta is the famous woven basket of the Waounan. It is made out of a fiber people call chunga and is so tightly woven it can hold water. They vary in sizes and colors but all are labor intensive. Master weavers can take up to six months to finish a large piece which might sell to a collector for over a thousand dollars. Most women make smaller pieces to sell to tourists.

  • Fiber Preparation (Chunga)

The weaving fiber is extracted from a palm called chunga. It is the work of men to collect the chunga. People go into the jungle in search of palm trees. Finding them is the easy part. The difficulty lies in getting the fibers from the top of the palm. The tree trunks are protected by a thick layer of five-inch long thorns. To get at the top, they cut down a different tree, lean the log up against the palm and a designated climber scales it like a ladder to reach the palms fronds which he cuts with a machete.

Once the palms are cut, men remove the leaves from each stalk and stack them together. Women then strip the spiny edges off to extract the weaving fiber. The fibers must be peeled away in thin strips for weaving. For this they hold one end between their toes and peel off the outside edge. The fiber is then dried and later colored with natural dyes.

  • Natural Dyes (achiote, cocobolo, yukiya ...)

The most common colors used in canasta weaving are the natural straw-white color of the chunga fiber, brown and black.

The brown color is produced by boiling the fiber with pieces of cocobolo wood. 
The black is produced with the same initial technique, after which it is submerged in dark mud from which it emerges ebony black. The fibers are then washed a few times to clean off excess dye.

Some modern canastas use more colors (red, yellow, magenta, green, blue) and the traditional geometrical designs are now being supplemented with images of animals, etc. depending on the mood and creativity of the artist.

The red color is extracted from the achiote berry which is also boiled with the fiber.
The yellow color comes from the extract of a root called yukiya.

  • Weaving Techniques

Cocobolo Tree Carvings

Cocobolo is a beautiful tropical tree and a favorite carving material of the Waounan and Embera people. It a rich brown-red color. Waounan and now Embera people are master carvers and produce amazing sculptures of jungle animals.

Tagua

The tagua is a nut. It grows on a tree and is found in a grape-like cluster. Each shell yields a a few nuts two to three inch long. These nuts when dried become very hard and can be carved. The outer layer is brown, but the inside nut is white and after polishing takes on the hue of ivory. The work on tagua nuts is very recent, but carvers have mastered it and produce incredibly delicate and intricate animal figures. Some are painted with bright chemical paints which often detracts from the carved details of the work. True enthusiasts will appreciate the quality of the work on unpainted pieces.

 

Waounan and Embera, The Differences

History

 

Language

Population

Political Organization

 

Today's Life

Economic Resources

Indigenous peoples, especially in Central America, have always struggled with modernization and concepts of capitalism and market economy. The Embera and Waounan in the Darien are no different. With recent deforestation (Pan-America highway, slash and burn farming) migration of campesino farmers into Darien, the younger generations going off to school and to the city to live and work, etc., their lives have inextricably changed and they have created more financial needs. Indigenous people realize that to fight for their political and human rights, they need modern education which is not free. Costly modern medicine has replaced shamanism and natural healing practices. Some villages now have their own generators for electricity and villagers need to pay for the gasoline necessary to run them. Pure subsistence living is a thing of the past. They must now generate income. However, the obstacles are formidable. Most communities have no land titles and no authorization to exploit the land commercially. Many villages lose their young people who go work in the city. They are almost always underpaid. Yet the allure of the urban life is strong and they stay. This is how cultures die. The ideal is to create economic development solutions that give communities incentives to remain in their villages and preserve their traditions. Locally controlled eco-cultural tourism and improved marketing and distribution of artesanias are two excellent short term solutions. The Embera may lack resources and education but they have their culture and their art. Those are valuable commodities that they are learning to exploit.

Embera Population - Statistics

 

 

Eco-Tourism

Today some Embera and Waounan villages rely on tourism and sales of artesania to help revive and preserve their culture, provide a source of income to their village and secure their place in Panamanian society, without being assimilated and losing their identity. They need tourism and they have a lot to offer visitors. Visitors to a village should be aware of where their money goes and go as a responsible tourist. Too many cultures are being destroyed by so called eco-tour companies who make a quick buck at the expense of local communities.

What is real eco-tourism?
This link will take you to a short page defining responsible eco-tourism. Click on the back key to return to this page.

Know what you are looking for (multi-day, overnight or half-day, comfortable or rustic, Spanish or English?)

Before you travel to a village, know what to expect. It will make your experience and interactions with the villagers better. Indigenous people are usually very welcoming, polite and friendly. If you show interest and respect in their culture, they will open up to you and make your experience in their village one of the best you have ever had. 

Lodging and Food

If you intend to stay overnight in a village be aware that accommodations are very basic. Some villages have a house reserved for guests, others don't and may lodge you with a family instead. In most cases, you will have little privacy and few comforts. People unprepared for this or unable to adapt well may be pushed outside their comfort zone. Some families have mats they set on their wooden floors, but most sleep directly on the floor. They might not have a mosquito net, to lend you. Most villages have basic latrines, some might not (do it in the woods). Some villages have running water and outside showers, others might have water shortages. The bottom line is that you must be flexible Anything they endure regularly you can endure for a couple days.. 

Food is also very basic. If you want to stay in a village, you will eat what the people eat, usually patacones (fried plantain), rice, yucca, eggs, and sometimes fish. It's a nice gesture to bring some food and share it with the family you stay with. Don't worry about creating new needs or introducing new things from the outside, they're not ignorant and innocent, most people have seen the capitol and already know about other foods and amenities.

Price. Often prices will not be discussed up front. They may never even ask for payment, but you should always leave a donation. You might be charged $15 or nothing to stay one night in a very basic house. You might be offered meals, or charged up to $5, but we recommend that you give a minimum of $15 to $20 per day per person for lodging and food. Remember that tourism are the only sources of income to the village. If you are not charged, make a public presentation of money to the president of the tourism committee as a contribution to the village.

The Language Barrier

Most indigenous people in Panama, with the exception of a few elders, speak fluent Spanish but very few speak even the most basic English. To visit villages on your own, you should know at least basic conversational Spanish. In some villages you will find a Peace Corps volunteer who can help you translate a few things, but they aren't in the village to work as guides and translators. If you do not speak any Spanish, we recommend you use the services of a guide or a good Eco-Tour company. We recommend a few of these companies which the villagers themselves have endorsed as ones they like to work with.

Cultural Presentations, Dances and Body Painting

Most villages with tourism projects, offer a half-day program during which they first tell you about the history of their people and village. They explain some aspects of their culture, their use of jagua for body painting (in some villages, people might offer to paint your body), they will show you their artesania and explain how it was made and what plants were used. They will prepare you a typical meal, wear traditional clothing and demonstrate a few dances accompanied by the rhythms and melodies of their music. Each village offers other supplementary activities such as nature walks, jungle treks, survival skills courses, artesania instruction, bird watching, etc.

Learning Artesania

The Waounan and Embera people are skilled crafters. Their canastas (woven baskets) are intricate pieces of art as are their sculpture and carvings. If you are interested in learning, you should ask around, plan with the village tourism committee the number of days you want to stay, what you want to learn and ask them how much they would charge you. All is negotiable. Some villages are already planning such programs and will have a set price, others won't. An Embera village we recommend is Embera Drua on the Upper Chagres river, and for Waounan we recommend Puerto Lara in the Darien.

Jungle Treks and Survival Skills

Some villages (Embera Drua, Puerto Lara, etc) are located in beautiful forest land and offer wonderful trekking. Some villages are already set to take tourists on treks. They will show you plants, birds and other wildlife, take you fishing, or show you materials used for housing and artesanias.

Embera Drua is planning a basic jungle survival trek. Some outside eco-tour companies also have jungle treks which start from or finish in Indigenous villages. We highly recommend the trips from French Guide Michel Puech, a great supporter and friend of the Waounan village of Puerto Lara.

Caske 2000 Adventure (Updates)

 

Artesania

Most villages produce crafts and people will often call you to their houses to sell you some of their crafts. Prices vary with the amount of work put into a piece, and the skills of the artist. The most beautiful Canastas we've seen were in the Waounan village of Puerto Lara.

Where to Buy: Puerto Lara
Puerto Lara is a popular destination for dealers and commercial buyers. Do not be surprised to hear pieces quoted at a few hundred dollars, some take more than six months of daily work.

Where to Learn: Embera Drua
If you already have good weaving skills, Puerto Lara would be a better place to learn from the masters and refine your skills. But if you just want to learn the basics, you will find many friendly instructors in Embera Drua. This kind of variety of activities is what we love about Embera Drua. You can easily fill up your time during a multi-day stay.

 

Villages in our case-studies

We have never been to a Waounan or Embera village where the people did not greet us with warmth and respect. The people are what made each village truly special. Here are the ones on which we focused our documentaries:

Embera Drua (Upper Chagres River) - Embera

This village is already known to tourists. Less than an hour from Panama City and set among stunning rainforest it's no wonder it is becoming discovered as a destination for cultural eco-tourism. In lies on the Chagres river (main water supply to the Canal) in the Chagres National Park. To access the village you take a ride in motorized dug-out canoe through breathtaking river and jungle landscapes. The village is located high on a riverbank overlooking a turquoise pool of water between two sets of rapids. It is an ideal swimming spot. The friendly villagers have put together a tourism program and built a small cabina overlooking the river. The day trip is not enough. You will wish you planned for at least and overnight, if not a multi-day stay. Follow our link to read more about Embera Drua and view the first digital photos.

Interested in a Tour
Contact Ingrid Schriebers at:
afotur@hotmail.com

Want to send donations (school supplies or medicines) to Embera Drua.
View our Help-A-Village page

Embera Puru (Darien) - Embera

Embera Puru does not have much to offer to tourists. It is a very poor village bordering the Pan-American Highway. One look and you may wonder how people survive there. We stayed a couple nights and realized that the village relies on the strength of its family bonds and communal spirit.

To welcome us they painted the bodies of their children with jagua, performed traditional dances and fed us. It was an experience we cannot forget. If you are on your way into the Darien to visit Arimae or Puerto Lara, stop in Embera Puru and offer a donation to have the children dance.

Interested in a Tour
Contact Michel Puech at elisabpu@cwp.net.pa

Want to send donations (school supplies or medicines) to Puerto Puru.
View our Help-A-Village page

Arimae (Darien) - Embera and Wounan

In Arimae, most of the population is Embera, but they live together with a small group of Waounan as well. Culturally the village is in transition as it is located just off the Pan-American Highway. The surrounding scenery is of clear cut forest and ground brush, not scenic high-canopy forest. They put on a show of their best dances and a large percentage of the village congregated to watch. The people, like in other villages, were very friendly. There is river that passes by the village which is only navigable during the rainy season.

Interested in a Tour
Contact Michel Puech at elisabpu@cwp.net.pa

Want to send donations (school supplies or medicines) to Arimae.
View our Help-A-Village page

Puerto Lara (Darien) - Wounan

Puerto Lara is a Waounan village, the only one we documented, but we chose one of the best. It is one of our favorite villages in all of Panama. The people are very proud of their culture and more than just showing it to tourists, they continue to live it every day. There people don't paint their bodies with jagua for tourists, they do it regularly. If you are ever curious to try it out yourself the women there produce beautiful jagua designs. We sat down for a session and had our entire upper-bodies covered. In this village you will also find some of the most beautiful canastas in all of Panama. The village itself is pastoral, clean and laid out in two cozy rows of thatched roof stilt houses flanking a path down to the river. Set amidst high canopy forest, it is a perfect base for jungle treks.

Interested in a Tour
Contact Michel Puech at elisabpu@cwp.net.pa

Want to send donations (school supplies or medicines) to Puerto Lara.
View our Help-A-Village page

 

PHOTO GALLERY

We scanned 320 photos in these galleries. You can select your photos by villages (Embera Drua, Embera Puru, Arimae and Puerto Lara (Waounan village) or you will soon be able to select contact sheets by cultural subjects (Jagua Body Painting, Crafts, Traditional Dances, Jungle Survival, Preparation of Local Food and Drinks, Dugout Canoes, Children and People.)

EMBERA DRUA

Contact Sheet 1
Ceremonial Dances

Contact Sheet 2
Jagua Body Painting

Contact Sheet 3
Survival; Fishing, Dugout Canoes

Contact Sheet 4
Food & Crafts

Contact Sheet 5
Children

Contact Sheet 6
People

Contact Sheet 7
Friends from Embera Drua 

OTHER VILLAGES

Contact Sheet 8
EMBERA PURU, Body Painting

Contact Sheet 9
ARIMAE, Body Painting

Contact Sheet 10
PUERTO LARA, Waounan Life

 

MORE

In the future we hope to publish in these pages the cultural, political and education efforts produced by Indigenous communities themselves. We will also add a reference list of books and links on related material.

Recommended Readings

 

Note: Background photographs and design by Jean-Philippe Soule (c) 1997

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Visit the Central American Sea Kayak and Jungle Expedition Website: Adventure, Indigenous Culture, Wildlife, Latin Cuisine and Outdoor Cooking, Survival Skills, Photos and much more...

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