An August 2003 trip
to Chagres National Park by wanderluster
Quote: Step onto the banks of the Chagres River and back into time when you enter this remote jungle village of thatched huts, towering palms, and gentle Indian people who practice herbal medicine, wear native dress, eat what they catch, and create beautiful handicrafts from nature around them.
This, my friend, is the real thing. If you want an authentic cultural experience look no further.
Staying overnight with Embera Indians in a tiny village deep in the rainforest was one of my favorite experiences in Panama. Highlights included interacting with the villagers, trekking through the jungle and listening to stories told by the Medicine Man.
I felt like I had stepped back into time, surrounded by indigenous people who still today continue to live an existence altered little since Pre-Columbian times.
According to their oral history, Emberas migrated from Colombia's Amazon to Panama's Darien jungle beginning in the 16th century. Nomadic communities thrived in the Darien until the 1970's when political turmoil, Colombian guerillas and drug traffickers ran some of the villages out toward the safe, central part of the country where they settled along the Chagres River not far from the Panama Canal.
I stayed at the Drua Embera Village (population 17 families) located an hour up river by motorized piragua, a carved-out tree-trunk canoe. Okay, so they didn't have motors in the 1500s. But it did save an entire day poling our way up river!
Beware of outdated websites. Both tour companies offering overnight trips have old information about trips and payment options floating around. I followed EcoCircuitos instructions (sent money order 5 weeks prior) but was notified the eve of my departure from States that unless I wired immediately my trip would be canceled. Panic!
As of August 2003 neither company accepts credit cards or money orders. And rates in 2005 have jumped to pp.
Check out Drua's website for ways you can help their village and–if you're fluent in Spanish–stay unguided for significantly less.
I had booked the trip weeks in advance and paid double to secure the tour (fulfilling the 2 person minimum). Imagine my surprise when the jeep pulled up with three other passengers–and no offer of a refund. Our group included a 20ish male and female American duo working together in Panama, 30ish owner/guide Annie, her male friend from Chile, and me.
We traveled along the Transisthmian Highway to Cabima, and passed the Bayano Cement Factory where the pavement stopped and a deeply gouged dirt road began. (Tip: lodge your camera bag between your ankles to cushion it from the constant floor vibrations.)
After an hour, we arrived at the port of Corotu on Lake Alajuela in the Chagres National Park. Here we embarked on the second half of our journey in a hollow log traveling upstream the Chagres River winding through the jungle wilderness. (See Piragua & Waterfall entry.)
Attraction | "Piragua Transportation & Waterfall Hike"
We'd have to make do. So we threw backpacks, sleeping bags, food, tents and coolers in the bottom of the somewhat water-logged boat, and climbed past a loin-clothed Embera man at the bow. The canoe wobbled as we settled into our places, sitting on backpacks or a wooden seat depending on where we fell in the lineup. We sat low in the water, the murky river at our elbows.
The motor sputtered under the weight of our gear as we made our way upriver, and our piragua seemed to teeter side to side at the slightest ripple in the current. The gal sitting behind me clutched the sides of the canoe for stability, until I wondered aloud how fast crocs would charge if we capsized.
I'll admit it was a bit disconcerting, but my camera–which I'd forgotten to secure in plastic–concerned me more than the crocodiles. Several times I thought we were going in for an impromptu swim.
Lush green grasses and thick bushy trees bordered the banks where occasional waterfalls trickled into pale green water. Birds aplenty soared above us, landing on tall grasses or high branches–herons, toucans, kingbirds and others I could not identify. Occasional views of thatch-roofed huts of other villages peeked through the trees as we motored toward Drua an hour upstream.
Halfway there, we got out and hiked to a waterfall. We followed a trail along a small fast-moving river and must've crossed it five or six times each direction. At first we waded through barefoot, but rocks and rapids complicated each subsequent crossing necessitating shoes. (TIP: Bring another pair. It wasn't fun hiking in soggy boots later that afternoon.)
One of the two Embera Indians in our piragua accompanied us on our hike. He was sure-footed, barefoot and good-natured, always offering to carry our gear and help us across tricky terrain--a great help steadying us over slippery rocks, rushing water and muddy embankments.
I had forgotten my swimsuit in my mad rush to pack for my overnight trip, so didn't join the others swimming under the waterfall. Just as well. A huge croc suddenly lurched–just kidding. It was perfectly safe to swim there. And couldn't have been more scenic.
Within the hour we were back in the piragua. As we rounded the final bend, we could hear the welcoming drums and chanting music of the villagers who had assembled on the sandy shore to greet us.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 15, 2003
Our piragua coasted to the sandy shores of Drua Village where a small group of Embera children and adults welcomed us with music of flutes, drums and singing. Short dark-haired men were naked except for solid-colored loin-cloths in pink, orange, blue, or yellow. Beautiful women had long dark hair, boldly-patterned fabric wraparound skirts and beaded necklaces covering their breasts.
The village Noko (chief) greeted us with a handshake and gestured toward the stairs leading up to his hilltop village. I followed three adorable girls in matching printed skirts who ran up the steps holding hands and giggling. At the top, a genteel scene of perhaps ten thatched huts blended naturally among palms and flowering bushes.
Each hut was elevated 10 feet off the ground and had thick thatch roofs, but varied a bit from one another in the construction of walls, windows and doors. I liked the ladders which were niched logs propped up against the raised floor. Depending on privacy preferences, huts were spaced between fifteen feet apart to being isolated, hidden in the forest.
Our tour guide, Annie, led us to a large thatched communal house. Under the floor of the stilted hut were tables displaying their handicrafts. We ascended a wooden staircase and joined the day tour group–we'd met on the waterfall hike–who were assembled around an Embera woman. We listened to her explain how they create watertight woven plates and masks called canastas through a translator who spent the next thirty minutes translating what different people shared about their culture.
Meanwhile a woman cooked fish over an open fire on the wooden floor of another hut--the bijao leaves under a layer of sand protecting it from catching fire.
Annie brought out some fresh pineapple and trail mix while we waited for our lunch. One by one the Embera woman served us a typical meal of fried tilapia and plantains inside a folded palm leaf. Delicioso, but messy to eat. I felt like a kid with greasy, sticky hands with no where to wipe except my shorts. (TIP: bring napkins, wet wipes, something!)
Before we could wash in the river it was time to watch the villagers perform the Dance of the Bees. Men played flutes while women moved languidly around a circle with outstretched arms touching the woman in front of her. Children next squatted and jumped their interpretation, followed by the entire community who gestured tourists to join them. Together we shuffled around the circle, jumping little hops and skips to the sound of chanting, maracas, flutes and turtle drums.
Then the day tour group left. And the village became quiet.
There is no planned itinerary after the day group leaves. Guests pursue individual interests such as hiking, swimming, fishing, birding, taking nature photos or learning how to weave canastas from the Indian women.
The two other guests spent the afternoon in hammocks, and I went on a hike. But first I brought out school supplies I'd hauled from the States and gave them to the female leader, identified by her coined necklace. She distributed items equally to the women and children congregated around her–separating individual crayons, markers, pencils. Nobody bickered, they just accepted graciously. Some items caused confusion, like Silly Putty for taffy and a Frisbee for a plate!
I followed dirt trails leading past the school, huts, a creek and another hill where some animals roamed. A voice called "Gringo, gringo!"
A young girl, perhaps ten, stood in the shadows of her stilted home. She held something fuzzy. "El gato?" I asked, straining to see. The girl giggled. I thought I heard mewing. "El gato!" Still giggling, she said "Si" before disappearing.
Later that afternoon I saw her at the river swaddling her pet. She laughed at my surprise and held it out to me. Not a kitten, but a white-faced monkey!
Hot after a steamy rainforest hike I entered the water, watching the antics of a group of children burying each other in the sand. I couldn't help but laugh at the familiarity in such a far-removed corner of the world. The river felt cool, and I dawdled till dusk.
The Medicine Man came looking for me, wanting to give me a jagua tatoo before dark. Dipping a brush into the fruit-dye, he painted the symbol of his Darien home tribe–a banded VVV–around my upper arm. And I felt honored.
The night grew dark quickly and completely, clouds obliterating the brightest night of Mars. Annie led us to a thatched platform perched over the rushing river. We drank wine by candlelight and talked of politics, travel, careers and relationships as we devoured salami, cheese, tostidos and chocolate pie.
Sleepy, we stretched out in hammocks. (I could've slept there, but eventually followed others to pup tents in the communal hut. Tip: bring flashlight for finding log steps and the outhouse late at night.) The Medicine Man came by and entertained us with stories. He told us how he rescued his love from the spell of an evil Darien Medicine Man who wanted her for himself. Under the spell of black magic, she had psychotic attacks for three months until her Drua lover bathed her with a special plant (he showed me on the hike). Spirits left her body and resided in him for two weeks. They married and have lived happily seven years and three children after . . .
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 15, 2003
The 41-year-old Medicine Man, naked except for a pink loin-cloth, led us barefoot into the jungle dense with lush vegetation. We entered a luxuriant green world of ferns, banana palms, buttressed roots, towering trees, brilliant birds-of-paradise and spongy mosses. The trail was rough, steep, strewn with twisted branches, ankle-twisting roots and sharp twigs, and I couldn't imagine being barefoot.
In fact, at the end of our trek I asked to see the bottom of his feet. Laughing, he showed me. Would you believe they were soft, supple, unmarked? How were my feet calloused–cushioned by merino socks and form-fitting boots–and his unscathed after years of abuse?
The plant life was magnificent and varied. Strange walking trees to succulent orange, mango and avocado trees. We stopped frequently to learn about the medicinal values of plants along the way. I was amazed at the number of ailments each root, leaf, bark and plant seemed to remedy. One plant could potentially heal someone's arthritis, blood disease, kidney failure, liver function and poor eyesight all in one. Doctoring people is a learned practice here. Medicine Men in the Embera tribe learn their trade as an apprentice rather than being divinely appointed.
Emberas prefer botanical medicine over traditional medicine. We heard a story about a man who'd been bitten by a poisonous snake. The Medicine Man was absent, so he traveled to a hospital in Panama City. When traditional treatment wasn't working, the doctors recommended amputating his leg. He refused and demanded to go back to his village. The Medicine Man returned, selected the appropriate plant, and healed the man who is now one of the elders in the village. And he never lost his leg.
Annie pointed out a root precious to her. When she learned that she had a breast tumor, she came to Drua Village to receive treatment from this Medicine Man. He took this root and created a tea, which she drank for one month. And the tumor disappeared. Without a scalpel.
I thought of my 31-year-old tumor patient back home who had six months to live within the realm of modern medicine. He'd had a melon-sized tumor cut out of his brain, leaving him unable to speak to his wife or two young daughters. And I couldn't help him regain his speech because the tumor was growing back with gusto. For all our advances, we weren't competing at the same level as an indigenous Indian group living a disease-free existence in a remote jungle village. If I were dying from an incurable disease, I'd be awfully tempted . . .
Woven plates, masks, baskets, beaded bracelets and animal carvings range from $1 to $25 depending on the detail. The cost of the canastas is calculated by the time women spend weaving them at a charge of $1 per day.
Just bring cash in small denominations unless you're willing to accept nuts as change.
Tightly woven baskets, plates and masks are created by the Embera women. Highly constructed and watertight, each canasta will last 80-90 years. No exaggeration. One day-group guest could attest to that. The masks, woven into animal shapes, are used by the Medicine Man during healing rituals and tend to be popular with the tourists. Traditional colors are natural straw, brown and black.
Villagers go through quite a process to create these canastas. First the village men search for the trees near lakes, and extract chunga fibers from the top of certain palm trees–no easy feat! The tree trunks are covered in 5" thorns. To reach the top, men prop a felled tree against the desired palm and use it as a ladder.
Then women have to strip the spiny edges off the fibers. They secure one end between their toes, freeing their hands to peel off the outer edges and separate the fibers into thin strips.
Individual strips of chunga palm are then colored with natural dyes:
BLACK= buried in the dirt for one day.
BROWN= boiled with cocobolo wood.
RED= boiled with achiote berry.
YELLOW= boiled with a yukiya plant.
Women weave the colored fibers from the bottom center outward in concentric circles, creating geometric or animal designs. I expected to see large baskets, but most of the canastas were 10" plates.
Tourists interested in learning how to weave canastas are encouraged to learn from the enthusiastic women in this Drua Village. For those that know how to weave (bless you for having such admirable patience!), the Wounan tribe in the Darien is better suited to teach mastery of complex designs.
Men in the village create animal figures from a huge root of this tree, which is a rich reddish-brown color. Common designs are harpy eagles, frogs, turtles, birds or fish.
Animal carvings are created from a 2" palm seed nut known as vegetable ivory palm. This tagua nut was once used to make buttons in Europe. Under the dark brown exterior it has a white inner surface that resembles ivory when polished. Intricate animal and fish figures are carved and polished.
Although Emberas do not use the tagua nut to create jewelry, Panamanians do. One of my favorite necklaces is a pendant I purchased in Portobelo for a mere $8.