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 or nothing to stay one night in a very basic house. You might be offered meals, or charged up to , but we recommend that you give a minimum of to 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.
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.