There are approximately 33,000 people in Panama who identify as Emberá, and many of these communities continue to uphold their traditional culture and language. Though the Emberá historically lived in the rainforest and in family settlements along the Chagres river, they began to congregate in villages beginning in the 1960’s, with some members of the community leaving behind the traditional lifestyle to move to the city. Today, the community is well known for its handmade crafts such as baskets and carved statues, as well as temporary tattoos made from the black dye of Jagua fruit. The Emberá women expertly craft baskets from the leaves of Chunga (black palm), often adorning them with geometrical patterns or animal iconography. Some of the baskets are black and white, while others use vivid natural dyes, and the highest quality baskets are so tightly woven they can hold water. The Emberá women are also known for their animal carvings, which they make out of both Tagua nuts and Cocobolo. These intricately carved statues make for wonderful souvenirs and gifts. Rivers are integral to the Emberá lifestyle, since their food comes from fish and plantains—both of which are plentiful in river environments. The Emberá carry a strong mission of environmental conservationism and they work hard to provide tours that minimally impact their surrounding environment, while allowing visitors to hear their oral history and learn about their lifestyle and cosmogenic beliefs, which is based on the idea that everything, both animate and inanimate, is imbued with spirit. When you visit, you’ll likely get to travel in a traditional dug-out canoe, like the ones that the Emberá use. You may also experience the traditional Emberá dance and music, or perhaps try the traditional Jagua body painting.
Most of the Emberá villages are in the province of Darien, while a few villages are not far from Panama City. A boat ride on the Chagres River will lead you to one of the Emberá indigenous villages at the water’s edge, and can be arranged with a local tour operator. When you go, visitors are encouraged to book an eco-tour offered by the Emberá community themselves.