Visiting the Embera Indians in the Panamanian Jungle

The Embera Indians waiting for us with their dug-out canoes in the rain.
The Embera Indians waiting for us with their dug-out canoes in the rain.
Putting on our rain gear and life jackets.
Putting on our rain gear and life jackets.
Gingerly climbing into the dug-out canoe, one at a time.
Gingerly climbing into the dug-out canoe, one at a time.
Finding a dry seat and getting comfortable for a 40 minute ride.
Finding a dry seat and getting comfortable for a 40 minute ride.
Embera Indians bringing in water bottles for our lunch.
Embera Indians bringing in water bottles for our lunch.
Our 40 minute journey up the Chagres River into the Panamanian jungle begins.
Our 40 minute journey up the Chagres River into the Panamanian jungle begins.
Unclothed Embera Indians taking fully clothed tourists up the Chagres River in a light rain.
Unclothed Embera Indians taking fully clothed tourists up the Chagres River in a light rain.
We pass by other native Indians paddling and fishing on the Chagres River.
We pass by other native Indians paddling and fishing on the Chagres River.
Egrets resting on the swollen river at the end of the rainy season.
Egrets resting on the swollen river at the end of the rainy season.
A turtle resting on a log on the Chagres River.
A turtle resting on a log on the Chagres River.
A waterfall along the river.
A waterfall along the river.
The Embera Indian Village on the Chagres River.
The Embera Indian Village on the Chagres River.
Embera Indian band welcoming us to their village.
Embera Indian band welcoming us to their village.
Marilyn trying out an Embera Indian drum.
Marilyn trying out an Embera Indian drum.
The main assembly hall of the Embera Indians.
The main assembly hall of the Embera Indians.
The seats which we will use shortly for eating and the question and answer session afterwards.
The seats which we will use shortly for eating and the question and answer session afterwards.
One of the craft tables of the Embera Indians.
One of the craft tables of the Embera Indians.
Embera women, partly topless, preparing lunch for us in the village cooking hut.
Embera women, partly topless, preparing lunch for us in the village cooking hut.
Our lunch - Fried Tilapia fish and fried plantain, served in a funnel shaped plantain leaf and pinned with a twig.
Our lunch - Fried Tilapia fish and fried plantain, served in a funnel shaped plantain leaf and pinned with a twig.
The men's toilet - need I say no more.
The men's toilet - need I say no more.
A topless Embera mother checking on her child in a hammock under one of the craft tables.
A topless Embera mother checking on her child in a hammock under one of the craft tables.
Embera Indian Chief, left side, and person responsible for all the building construction in their village, on right side, answering our questions.
Embera Indian Chief, left side, and person responsible for all the building construction in their village, on right side, answering our questions.
Embera Indian explaining how some of the crafts are made.
Embera Indian explaining how some of the crafts are made.
Embera Indians all dancing together.
Embera Indians all dancing together.
Embera Indian homes with new one under construction on left side.
Embera Indian homes with new one under construction on left side.
An Embera Indian home with notched log as ladder to climb into it. Notice the crocks left outside by the children who just returned from school.
An Embera Indian home with notched log as ladder to climb into it. Notice the crocks left outside by the children who just returned from school.
A pet budgie raoming free inside an open walled Embera house.
A pet budgie raoming free inside an open walled Embera house.
An Embera Indian lady taking a shower in their outdoor shower hut with only cold water coming from the stream up the mountain through a metal pipe.
An Embera Indian lady taking a shower in their outdoor shower hut with only cold water coming from the stream up the mountain through a metal pipe.
Typical Embera Indian boys playing.
Typical Embera Indian boys playing.
Embera Indians watching as we leave.
Embera Indians watching as we leave.
Arriving back at civilization where our buses are waiting for us. Also just up this road is where the Embera Indian children go to school.
Arriving back at civilization where our buses are waiting for us. Also just up this road is where the Embera Indian children go to school.

Jungle People of Panama - The Embera Indians


We were fortunate to be able to take a cruise on the Celebrity Infinity in October 2011 from Fort Lauderdale Florida, to Cartagena Columbia and then to Colon Panama before passing through the Panama Canal the following day to the Pacific Ocean followed by numerous stops afterwards. This Hub describes our shore excursion while our ship was docked in Colon Panama on the Atlantic Ocean side.


We chose the shore excursion to visit the Embera Indians in their native village in the heart of the Panamanian jungle. There was a maximum weight restriction of 230 pounds for this excursion as you have to travel in a dug-out canoe for 40 minutes. We had our fears and doubts of going into the jungle in a dug-out canoe but believed that we may never get another opportunity to experience a truly native jungle culture.


There were two buses to take about 75 passengers from the 2,000 passenger Celebrity Infinity cruise ship for an hour drive into Panama to the Chagres River to meet our Embera Indian guides and hosts. Our tour guide was able to speak English, Spanish and the native language of the Embera Indians, thus communication was no problem.


It was a rainy and misty day as our buses approached our transfer point at the Chagres River. On the banks of the Chagres River were nine dug-out canoes with several Embera Indians in nothing else but brief coverings around their waist eagerly waiting to take their prey into the jungle, or so it seemed!


All of us were given lifejackets which we put over our rain gear, and then we had to gingerly climb into the canoe one at a time (canoes are only one person wide) and sit on wet boards. Then many of us put up our umbrellas to stay dry as the Embera Indians brought coolers of drinking water onto the canoes for our lunch later.


Each canoe had two Embera Indians on it, one with a pole to watch out for logs, crocodiles and other obstructions, while the other started the outboard motor and drove us up the Chagres River for a 40 minute ride into the heart of the Panamanian jungle.


If you look at the pictures, you will see us tourists on the canoe with umbrellas, rain gear, and lifejackets while our hosts have nothing on except the covering around their waists! We wondered what they thought of us! We wondered what are we in for!


The ride up the Chagres River was the beginning of a truly wonderful and amazing experience! Being the end of the rainy season, it was raining, but only lightly and it actually stopped by the time we reached the village. We passed by cloud covered mountains, swollen riverbanks, other Embera Indians paddling and fishing, birds, turtles, waterfalls, numerous floating logs and deadheads but luckily no crocodiles!


At their village the canoes were beached and again we had to climb off one at a time to shore. As we approached the main building used for gatherings, we were treated to a small band playing their native music. Marilyn, my wife even tried one of their drums as she has a similar drum at home.


Once inside the main hall, made only of native material from the jungle, we could inspect the crafts made by these Indians which were on display and for sale around the building. I instead asked for the washroom and it was located two huts away, just past the kitchen hut where the women were cooking our lunch. I stopped in to see them as they prepared our lunch of Tilapia fish they had caught that morning and fried plantain. Some of the women were topless, but apparently the majority covers up when the tourists arrive (as other tourists in the past had been offended) and then disrobe after we leave!


There were two bathrooms, one for women and one for men. The washroom huts were straw covered huts with a wooden floor and a hole in the floor. Outside there was a tap connected to the stream up the hill which provided sufficient pressure for slow running cold water to wash our hands!


Back in the main hut, our lunch was served in plantain leaf, wrapped into a funnel shape and pinned with a twig. We ate with our fingers and to drink we had bottled water which they had brought from the bus. We were told that all the empty plastic water bottles would be taken back to the bus when we returned, thus no garbage in the village.


After lunch, we had a question and answer session with the Embera Chief, through a translator, and were told many things. There are about 72 people living in this one village however there are many similar villages along the river. All the villages are protected by the government as this area is a national park where only the Embera Indians can live and no other development is allowed.

After this session the Embera Indians put on several native dances and music for us, even inviting us to dance with them. During this entertainment, I actually left and walked up the rain soaked hill to their homes as I wanted to see how they actually live.


There is no electricity. All the homes have straw thatched roofs built on stilts above the ground to allow for the water to flow under and to have level floors as most of the land was not level. To climb into their homes, they had a log notched out which served as a ladder.


I really wanted to see the inside of one of these huts, thus when I passed one hut, I asked in a loud voice: “Does anyone speak English?” and to my surprise one teenager replied Yes! I asked if I could come in and he replied that I could. Gingerly I climbed up the slippery notched log (wet from the rain), and to my surprise a green pet budgie was walking on the floor in front of me. This is surprising as these huts have open walls and the budgie could easily fly away, but they do not. The hammocks I saw in the hut are used by the Embera Indians for sleeping.


These children had just returned from school by the same 40 minute dug-out canoe ride that we had taken, thus they do go to school where they can learn Spanish, English and all the other things taught in the Panamanian schools. They dress up in normal school clothes when at school, but as soon as they arrived home, they changed into the native Embera Indian clothes. Their shoes (crocks) were left outside at the bottom of the notched log. They all go bare feet in the village.


The Embera Indians are very friendly, eager to show and explain their culture to outsiders and amazing hosts! They have retained much of their culture and lifestyle but have accepted some modern improvements such as attending school and using outboard motors on their large passenger canoes.


It was time to leave and sadly we had to say goodbye to our native hosts, take the 40 minute dug-out canoe ride back to our buses and return to civilization. We all agreed that this was one of the most memorable shore excursions that we had ever experienced!












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