A group of indigenous children sitting on a bench wearing traditional costumes

A visit to the Emberá Drúa village

posted in: Panama and Colombia 2023 | 0

Deep in the Panamanian jungle along the Chagres River is the Emberá Drúa village, with about 123 residents. After an hour drive north from Panama City, my guide, Miguel, and I arrived at a landing point at the point where the river empties into Lake Alajuela. There we boarded a motorized dugout canoe for a ride up the river to the village. We spent a few hours there, learning about their community, seeing the way they work on various crafts, eating lunch, and watching them play musical instruments and dance.

Here’s a little detail about the visit to this village.

Getting there

Miguel picked me up at 7:45 this morning, and we drove about an hour north. Along the way we stopped at a roadside stand to buy some fruit. He asked me if I like papaya, and since I don’t, he bought some mango instead, even though they’re not in season here and are imported from Peru. He also bought locally-grown banana and pineapple.

We entered Parque Nacional Chagres and arrived at the spot where the Chagres River empties into Lake Alajuela. Here we boarded a motorized dugout canoe big enough for five passengers (Miguel and me plus three other tourists). Two Emberá men drove the boat. One, at the back, piloted. The other stood at the front and helped the pilot navigate around shallow sections.

These canoes are each made of a single tree and are all one piece (except for trim and seats).

We headed upriver, but before we went to the Emberá Drúa village, we stopped at a waterfall in a small tributary. We had to walk over slippery rocks and through the water to get to the waterfall. It was treacherous, but I made it both directions without falling.

A lot of people from other boats went “swimming.” I did not.
This shows the route from where we started in the boat, at Puerto Corotú, to the Emberá Drúa village.

Mixed feelings

I feel a bit awkward visiting native villages like this one. I visited a Guaraní village in Argentina’s Misiones province. And I learned about the Tarahumara people in Copper Canyon, Chihuahua. Being a spectator of people who invariably are dark-skinned, speak a language that sounds strange to my ears, and walk around barefoot in skimpy outfits feels weird.

But here’s what the Emberá people say about tourism:

In 1984, our family faced a new challenge to our traditional way of life. In this year, the area where we live, the Panama Canal watershed, became the Chagres National Park. Because of the new restrictions of living in a protected park, we had to look for new alternatives to our traditional activities of agriculture and hunting.

We started working in tourism in 1996. At first, we sought and received a lot of assistance from the Panama Tourism Bureau (IPAT), the World Bank, and several local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

They helped us get organized and build relationships with local tour operators. They also provided us important trainings in tourism, customer service and visitor safety.

Today we have a very unique tourism program that is run by and supports our community. The contrast of tourists interacting in such a traditional setting may seem puzzling at first, but the program has actually strengthened our community in many ways.

Tourism is a means to earn the cash our families need to buy essential things like clothing, gasoline, and healthcare. And most importantly, it gives us the resources to send our children outside the village for secondary-school education.

Each one of us, child or adult, who participates in our community tourism earns a wage. The pay varies for each event, depending on the task (guide, cook, dancer, or boatman).


Understanding this gives me a new perspective. Meeting and talking with these friendly people was revelatory. And seeing, from the questions they asked me, that they are as interested in us as we are in them, made me realize there is something more than just a financial benefit they derive from tourism. 


The Emberá people met us at the entrance to the village and welcomed us with music.

The members of this village are among the roughly 33,000 Emberá living in Panama. Historically they have lived in villages like this one, but now about 25% of the Emberá in Panama live in urban areas in and around Panama City.


The people of the Emberá Drúa community spend a lot of time working on crafts, which they sell to tourists. The women do basket weaving using threads made from palm leaves and dyed with natural materials. They also do beadwork. The men do wood carving. They also carve the large seeds of some kind of plant (I don’t remember what kind). 

An example of basket weaving
An example of seed carving
I bought this exquisite rosewood carving of a hummingbird. (I also bought a small basket in the shape of a vase and a carving of a turtle from a seed.)

Another activity they spend a lot of time on is tattoos. These are done with a natural ink, and they last up to ten days. Men, women, and children all have tattoos, some over much of their bodies.

During our visit, the community members seemed to be constantly doing things with their hands: tattooing themselves or others, stringing beads, or weaving baskets. 

A man named Ramiro did a tattoo for me.
My finished tattoo


Most of the buildings in the Emberá Drúa village are made of wood, with grass or corrugated metal roofs. A few buildings are made of concrete block: the school, plus one set of houses I saw. The rest of the houses are on stilts, maybe to protect from snakes or termites? I’m not sure.

A classroom in the school
A house
I’m not sure whose houses these are (assuming they are houses) or why they are the only concrete houses in the village.
More houses
These bathrooms are for visitors, but I suspect they are also the Emberá Drúa village’s only facilities, shared by the residents. I didn’t see any indication of plumbing in the houses. But I could be wrong. I believe the water for these facilities is fed by gravity from a nearby creek. I don’t know what happens to the waste water. 


At lunchtime I woman came around with a tray filled with beautifully presented meals. They were fried tillapia (better than any tillapia I’ve ever had) and fried plantains. They were wrapped in banana leaves and decorated with hibiscus blossoms. The fruit we brought was cut up and presented on a large tray.

There were big bowls of water with fresh herbs for washing after lunch.

Music and dance

As a former music teacher, I am always delighted to see and hear dance and music. So I was looking forward to their performance.

The musical instruments were bamboo flutes and percussion. One man played on a turtle shell, another played a gourd, and several had homemade drums. A lot of the flute playing was hooty sounds made by blowing over the top (like blowing over a soda bottle). But one flute player had an instrument with holes and was able to play some rudimentary tunes, similar to the video above when they welcomed us to the village.

The dancing was also rudimentary. The women danced in circles, and all the steps seemed the same, with different hand gestures representing different themes (a flower dance, a bird dance). In one dance there was chanting.

After a few of the women-only circle dances, there were some more free-form dances where men and women danced together. The steps were basic. 

My impressions

I think the music and the dance of the Emberá reflect the uncomplicated lives they live. There is something appealing about the way they live. They don’t have much. No sign of luxury or creature comforts. I didn’t even see if they have electricity. (However, I did find a Wifi network. It didn’t provide internet, but I found it.) But joy seemed to pervade all that they did. I think maybe one doesn’t miss what one has never had.

It seems to me that so much contact with the outside world would generate some awareness among the Emberá people that something is lacking in their lives. I don’t have any idea whether they are aware of what’s going on in the world. How much do they understand their community’s place in the greater world order? It’s hard to say. Perhaps they get news and are fully informed about things. And perhaps they know they are better off in their isolated community with their daily visitors who tell them a little about the lives they live. Perhaps they have all the contact with outside culture that they want.

I wonder if it we who live in civilization that are missing something. 

Here are all my photos and videos from the day at the Emberá Drúa village.

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