Our first cruise together was in February of 2009, roundtrip from Colon, Panama, and visiting the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao). As we had always discussed, on any cruise we would extend our time before and after a cruise to see something more of the country we were in. So we planned three days in Panama City before the cruise departed. On one of the days, January 31, 2009, we visited an authentic tribal village in the heart of Panama’s rainforest, the Embera Tribe.
Our tour leader for the day, Anne Gordon de Barrigon, was the founder of our tour and had an interesting story to tell us. She owned a business training animals for movies and television, such as Northern Exposure, and went to Panama in 2004 to film a show. Some members of the Embera tribe were used in filming, and she got to experience this village up close. She ended up falling in love with one of the tribal members, Otniel Barrigon, married, and moved to Panama. She then started this tour company to take visitors on tours of an actual tribal village.
Anne picked us up at our hotel, and we drove along the Panama Canal for an hour or so until we reached Lake Alajuela, where we were met by the Embera and their handmade dugout canoe. It was another gorgeous hour’s ride through Panama’s rainforest until we reached their village, and the river journey was filled with birds and all sorts of howls and animal noises. You can see our arrival, and the canoes, in the second and third photos. The next photos show the tribe waiting on the hilltop with native instruments, and they sang a welcome song as we ascended along the path. As you can see after that, the village consists of several huts built off of the jungle floor for a modicum of security and privacy. There is also a photo of our lunch being made in the community pavilion, consisting of fresh fish, plantains, and fresh fruit, very simple but delicious.
We took a walk out into the rainforest with our guide and the tribe’s medicine man. Along the path, they showed us various flowers, berries, and plants used medicinally. The most interesting was bark peeled from a tree. He divided it into small pieces so that we could all chew it for a few seconds, waited for another 10 seconds, and asked how our mouths felt. Astonishingly, we were numb! He told us the tribe had long used it as a type of “novocaine” for dentistry, and anywhere on the body that it was needed for its numbing effect. We found that nature does take care of us!
After our walk, we were invited into the community pavilion, where tribal-made masks, carvings, baskets, and textiles had been arranged. Each family stood behind the items they had crafted. We wanted to buy a few items, but it was heartbreaking to walk by a family and see their disappointment if we passed by without purchasing anything. You can see the three things we did purchase, held by the person who created it: a palm leaf mask, a colored toucan made of Tagua nut, and a gorgeous Cocobolo wood toucan. Then, we play fashion models and display three other masks! Finally, the day ended with the tribe performing some ritual dances and singing, which is also depicted in the first photo. In the last photo, the village’s chief is shown on the left. Yes, we thought he was very young, also. He is in his early 30s.
All in all, a fascinating day of living history. The children were very happy and joyous. As you can see, two of the native girls made friends with the blonde daughter of a couple on the tour, and they all quickly became inseparable, even though they did not share a common language. Smiles were plentiful that day. Nobody (other than the visitors!) carried a phone, tablet, or anything electronic (as the village had no electricity), yet they were happy. A day well spent!