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,
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
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)