By Irene Edwards & Kelly Galaski
Our venture into indigenous culture began when our guide picked us up from our hotel in Panama City and it took about 30 minutes to get to the dock on the Chagres river in order to take a boat to the Embera village.
Men dressed in loincloths waited in canoes to take people across the river to the village.Â The boat ride takes about 20 minutes â€“ depending if you are in a motorized canoe called a â€œpiragua,â€ or more traditional one.Â
The women were waiting in the village, where there were people playing drums and other instruments. The area has several small villages, with about six families each.Â There are small artisan shops to buy the colorful fabrics and jewelry made by the women. Their food comes from the surrounding river and forests and their own farms, such as fresh fish, plantains, and yucca (yummy!).Â Â
Their houses are small thatched-roof open huts. The men were in charge of the music while the women performed a traditional dance.Â The delicious lunch was fried tilapia and â€œPataconesâ€ which are fried flattened plantains, all served on banana leaves.Â Tourism here is managed by a community association that works with tour operators to bring visitors to the community to boost their income. Sometimes travelers stay with villagers for a night or two to really get the experience.Â Â Â
The website for the community association, Embera Drua describes the history of how they began inviting people to their community, how they first received assistance from the Panama Tourism Board, the World Bank and local NGOs with training and to be connected with tour operators. Most of the adult members of the village are part of the association/NGO and they have elected a board of directors to work with the tour operators. They speak of the benefits tourism brings so that they can send their children to secondary school, pay for healthcare, and purchase cooking equipment and supplies.Â
It has become pretty popular with lots of buses around at the docks. Some people argue that this type of tourism is exploitative, and others argue that it supports the communities. Depending on how the association manages the income and how the village residents feel, both sides could have some truth. We would like to pose the question to our readers.Â Do you think that communities such as the Embera Drua are benefiting from having visitors to their villages and homes?