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Visiting an Embera Tribe in Darien, Panama

One of the highlights of our trip to Panama's Darien province had to be our ride up a winding river to visit an Embera Indian village. Mogue (MOE-gay) is a curious mixture of modern conveniences vs. chickens running wild, a concrete schoolhouse vs. open, thatched huts on stilts, and schoolchildren in logoed t-shirts and jeans versus bilingual (Embera/Spanish) adults who spend their days creating traditional handicrafts.

Darien, Panama
The easiest way to get through the Darien is by boat

Yep, even though the village is isolated, it is still connected to the outside world. Every Embera home has electricity, thanks to free solar cells courtesy of the government. I don’t know if those cells can emit enough energy to power a refrigerator, but satellite antennas were everywhere and we heard radios all over the village being switched off as we entered. (I guess they thought it would give us a more “authentic” experience, haha.)

Embera dress

Our hosts were dressed in traditional outfits with a modern twist. Their traditional bark skirts have been done away with, thanks to pressure to save the rainforest, so now they wear brightly-patterned skirts made with a special $25/yard fabric made just for them in China.

Embera People, Darien Panama
Embera welcoming committee

Many of the older women there were comfortable wearing nothing above the waist but others had a bra-like top made of beads (now made of plastic). Some of the topless younger girls, on the other hand, hid behind their arms and long hair.

Self-conscious Embera girls hiding behind their hair.

Embera handicrafts

Trips to these villages are marketed as cultural experiences, but in reality these visits are primarily focused on selling their handicrafts. This is the best way to support their economy.

The men craft detailed carvings out of cocobolo wood and the women weave beautiful baskets of palm fibers. The most intricate ones will sell for hundreds of dollars because they can take weeks—or even months—to create.

Darien - Embera goods for sale
Embera goods for sale

An Embera basket is the perfect souvenir of Panama: it's a local, handmade item created for practical use. With no middle-man to jack up the price (they cost double that in Panama City!) I was excited when I realized I could afford two. Our guide said we could barter and I considered it, but considering how much time they took to make I didn't. I paid the asking price because I was paying the two women who had woven them. One of the baskets now holds my makeup and one receives our spare change.

Linda buys a basket from the Embera woman who wove it

More photos from the Embera indian village

There is a saying that “getting there is half the fun,” but if that's true then these warm and friendly people must make up the other half. Here are a few other photos from our long journey.

Dugout canoe in the Darien
Dugout canoes line the waterways in the Darien as the main means of transportation for the Embera.
Above ground huts of the Embera
While traditional above ground huts are still used, modern technology is seen with solar panels and this phone booth along side their homes.
Embera baby
Beautiful baby taking in the marketing efforts of his mother.
AsWeSawIt in Darien with the Embera
Saying our good-byes to our friendly hostesses. These girls were not camera shy.

What’s your take on the younger Embera girls who were topless, yet hiding behind their arms and hair?

Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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15 thoughts on “Visiting an Embera Tribe in Darien, Panama

  1. This looks like such a wonderful experience. I have heard of the Emberas and saw a couple of TV specials on them. I love their colorful skirts but at $25/yard fabric, that’s pretty hefty. Those crafts are just beautiful and if I ever make it here, I’d love to own them too. I’m wondering why the younger girls not just wear some sort of top too instead of hiding behind their arms and hair? Thanks for such a great virtual tour!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Mary. I would assume that they are hiding behind their arms and hair because their parents expect them to adhere to tribal traditions (topless) when they meet with tourists. I wouldn’t be surprised if things are different when no gringos are around.

  2. Beautiful crafts and skirts (sarongs?). The village looks really wild and authentic. I’ve seen this kind of modern conveniences mixed up with straw huts and and ancient rituals in New Caledonia, where some of the islands still live like 100 years ago, but children go to school in brick buildings.

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