A day trip up the Upper Rio Chagres in a dugout canoe to learn about the life of the Embera Indians of Panama’s rainforest

Poling a piragua up the Rio Chagres

Expert Embera boatman Olmedo helps pole his piragua (dugout canoe) up the Rio Chagres through the Panamanian jungle.

Challenge level
Olmedo poled our piragua (dugout canoe) into the shoreline of the Upper Chagres River, leapt lightly off the prow with a muted plastic jingle from his beaded blue and yellow ambura skirt, and scampered into the Panamanian rainforest.

I had to scramble to follow my Embera Indian guide up the narrow dirt path along a small, clear stream. Luckily, every few dozen feet Olmedo would stop to indicate something interesting with his bare big toe: turning over a mushroom to show its polka-dotted dome, or nudging a tiny tree frog to make it jump.

When it came to the little red snake, however, Olmedo carefully kept his foot a respectful distance away while pointing his toe. I took this as a sign and edged around the snake with plenty of room to spare.

Olmedo and I stopped by a rock pool to wait for the other three people from our canoe to catch up. We stared at the fish darting around the water. Olmedo looked like he was sorry he left his spear at home.

I pointed to a fish with blue stripes. “Tilapia.” Olmedo identified it. “Good to eat,” he said in Spanish, the longest sentence I’d heard him say all day. Encouraged, I pointed to another fish, silvery and narrow. Olmedo thought for a moment. “I don’t know the name in Spanish,” he finally said. Then, after a pause, “Also good to eat.”

By a waterfall in Panama

Reid Bramblett and Olmedo at a waterfall in the Panamanian jungle of Chagres National Park.

Our goal was a gorgeous waterfall about 20-minutes’ hike upstream. The going was easy, but the Panamanian rainforest humidity left me feeling like we’d run a marathon. Thankfully, when we got back to the piragua, Oscar Maxwell, our guide from Gamboa Tours (www.gamboatours.com; $99 for this eight-hour trip) opened his bag and pulled out some Panama beers he’d packed.

We continued along the Rio Chagres. Olmedo stood at the prow, scrutinizing the river. He pointed left or right to tell the Embera manning the outboard motor which way to steer, thumped the bottom of the canoe once with his long pole as a signal to slow down, and thumped the boat twice for a stop, usually because Olmedo had to pole us through some shallows.

We were flanked by high walls of jungle, which fluttered with butterflies and teemed with unseen but noisy wildlife. Occasionally, we scared up a blue heron or a brightly colored kingfisher. Once, we passed an alligator sunning itself on the banks.

Home sweet hut

Huts in the Embera village

The Embera village of Tusipono on the Chagres River in the jungles of Panama.

When we arrived at the grassy embankment at Tusipono, Olmedo’s indian village, a group of bare-chested women in bright skirts came down the lawn to meet our canoe. Laughing children and several chestnut-skinned men clad only in juayuco (loincloths) trailed behind, including the chief, Antonio—you could tell he was chief, because he had his name proudly displayed on his beaded headband.

“In ancient times,” said Antonio in Spanish, “We Embera all had animal names.” I asked him when they had given up the practice. “Ancient times,” he repeated. I asked if his father had one. “No. He was Antonio,” said Antonio. How about his grandfather, did he have an animal name? “Yes,” Antonio said, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was.

We clambered up the notched ladder-log into a thatched hut on stilts—being six feet off the ground helps protect against grass insects, rainy season flooding, rodents, and jaguars. A young woman with a shy smile and a glorious beaded chest plate served us fried tilapia and patacones (fried plantains) on banana leaves.

Lunch in an Embera village

The Embera serve visitors meals of tilapia and plantains on banana leaves when you visit one of their villages on Panama's Rio Chagres.

While we ate, Antonio explained the traditional men’s tasks: fishing, of course, but also carving—wood from the coco bolo tree, richly veined in yellow, red, and black; and tagua pine nuts nicknamed “vegetable ivory.”

Men were also in charge of collecting chauga fronds from a frighteningly thorny type of palm. That’s when Guillermina, a formidable older Embera woman, took over the explanations. She expounded upon women’s duties, which included taking the chauga, preparing strips in red, green, black, and white using natural dyes, then spending months weaving them into baskets so tightly made they actually hold water.

Women also used to weave their uhua skirts and men’s juayco from palm fibers, but these days they use cheap printed fabrics from Southeast Asia bought in the city.

Later, in a communal hut where we visitors got traditional temporary tattoos in a blue-black ink made from jagua fruit, a band of flutes and turtle-shell drums started a jungle beat while the village women giggled their way through the hammock dance and the white-faced monkey dance. We tourists were invited to join in for the Embera Rhumba, which consisted of standing next to an Embera partner, holding hands, and shuffling in a circle.

Chatting with the chief

Getting an Embera tattoo

Reid Bramblett gets a temporary jagua tatoo from Devórah, a Embera woman in the village of Tusipono ("bird-flower") along the Upper Rio Chagres in the jungle of Chagres National Park, Panama.

While our little tour group browsed the baskets and carvings for sale, I sought out Antonio to ask (politely) how he felt about his people becoming tourist attractions.

“In ancient times,” he said, meaning 40 to 50 years ago, “My people moved here from Darién, ” referring to the dense jungle along the Panama/Colombia border. I asked why they moved, and he said, “The Green Embera came one day with guns and told us we had to leave.”

To Antonio, everyone who lives in the jungle is “Embera,” even if they wear green fatigues, carry automatic weapons, and are guerilla fighters, drug cartel enforcers, or any of the other heavily armed bandits that infest the Darién.

When his people arrived here, according to Antonio, they were told that the Chagres was a national park and it was illegal for them to hunt. So they (gradually) put aside their blowguns and poison-tipped arrows and began growing rice, plantains, and vegetables for food and to sell in the markets. Then, in the 1980s, the government told them that, since this was a park, the officials needed to take a percentage of the agriculture and its revenues.

The chief

Antonio, chief of the Embera village of Tusipono on the Upper Rio Chagres in Chagres National Park, Panama.

“Now we work with tourists,” said Antonio, who seemed to think it was as good a job as any for his people.

Also, as a group career for his little village of 14 families, tourism had one truly enviable and pragmatic perk.

“You come in our canoes, and we are happy to show you our ways of life. That way we survive, and so does our culture,” said Antonio.

“Too many Indians, they leave to live in the city and be poor,” he said.

“But now I see our children, they are growing up in the jungle. They learn our traditions from ancient times, and they remember to be Embera.”

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