Eastern Panama Feature
Though the guardians of Panama's earliest cultures represent a mere 6% of the country's population, they are a very visible minority, which is in no small part due to their spectacular dress. Though Panama has seven indigenous ethnicities, most of the country's original peoples belong to three groups—the Guna, Emberá-Wounaan, and Ngöbe-Buglé—each of which has its distinctive clothing, language, customs, and cultures. In Panama City, you'll notice their varied handicrafts in markets and shops across the city, and photos or murals depict them on many a wall of the capital. Panama celebrates its indigenous cultures more than many nations, and the government has taken care to treat its first citizens better than the regional norm.
An important example of that treatment is the existence of comarcas—autonomous indigenous territories—that are administered by each of the major ethnic groups. These isolated territories are for the most part difficult to visit; the exception is the Comarca Guna Yala, which is served by daily flights from the capital. The comarcas retain much of their forests, which residents conserve, to extract the raw materials for their homes, utensils, tools, medicines, and food. A trip to one of these communities will take you into primeval Panama, past stretches of tropical forest and over crystalline waters that hold coral reefs.
Some 50,000 Guna are Panama's most famous indigenous people, thanks to their tradition of receiving tourists and the colorful traditional dress of Guna women, which includes beautiful hand-stitched molas (patchwork pictures). The Guna own some of the most spectacular real estate in Central America—a vast entity called Guna Yala, or Land of the Guna, from which its people eke out a living fishing, farming coconuts, and tourism. That comarca is governed by a congress of regional sahilas (administrators) who set local laws, distinct from those of Panama, and above all else, work toward the preservation of local culture.
The territory includes the Serranía de San Blas, a long mountain chain covered with jungle that has kept the Guna isolated for centuries, and approximately 365 San Blas Islands, most of which are paradises in miniature: uninhabited cays of ivory sand and coconut palms. The turquoise sea that surrounds these idyllic isles holds countless acres of coral reef—home to a wealth of marine life—so snorkeling is practically an obligatory part of any trip there. And thanks to daily flights and the existence of more than a dozen rustic lodges that offer tours of the villages, it is the easiest comarca to visit.
Panama's largest indigenous group is the Ngöbe-Buglé, consisting of two groups on the Pacific and Atlantic slopes of the Talamanca mountain range, in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. Unlike the Guna and Emberá-Wounaan, who live in relatively compact villages, the Ngöbe-Buglé tend to live on farms, which means their communities lack a town center. They are most easily visited in Bocas del Toro, which has a couple of accessible communities on Isla Bastimentos; Ngöbe families also live in the towns of Bocas and Carenero. Plenty of Ngöbe-Buglé live outside the comarca in agricultural communities such as Cerro Punta,
Boquete, and Cerro Azul. You'll find traditional Ngöbe dresses, jute bags, and bead work for sale at craft markets and stores around the country.
Also look out for the chaquiras, decorative beaded necklaces once worn by warriors during celebrations. Originally, these ornaments were made from pebbles, pieces of bone, seashells, and seeds; they are now much more ornamental and created from brightly colored beads and sold to travelers as souvenirs.
Panama's third major indigenous group consists of two related tribes, the Emberá and Wounaan, who share two comarcas in the eastern Darién province. Collectively known as the Chocó, after the region of northwest Colombia where most of their people live, these two groups have similar languages and live in villages scattered along the larger rivers of eastern Panama, where they make a living farming, fishing, and hunting. The traditional dress of both the Wounaan and Emberá is a loincloth for men and a brightly colored skirt for women, to which they add jewelry and body paint. The influence of Christian missionaries has meant that more and more Emberá and Wounaan are adopting Western dress.
Their beautiful handicrafts include baskets tightly woven from palm and chunga fibers, cocobolo wood carvings, sculpted and painted seeds of the tagua palm, and lovely rattan baskets dyed with natural colors. Because the government relocated several villages to what is now Parque Nacional Chagres in the 1970s, when their land was inundated by the Bayano hydroelectric project, it is possible to visit an Emberá village on a day trip from Panama City. Those communities, however, have had a lot of contact with modern society, so for a more authentic Emberá experience, you'll want to head to Bayano Lake or the remote jungles of the Darién.
Most Emberá villages in the Darién are not even accessible by plane; rather, you must often travel fairly long distances by boat, but some villages in the Darién do have accommodations for those few tourists who visit. These villages are also visited by small cruise ships that anchor offshore and bring their guests to the villages by inflatable zodiacs or other small craft.
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