How to Visit an Embera Indian Village in Panama

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Do you enjoy experiencing local cultures when you travel? What if I told you that you could visit the indigenous Embera Indian tribe while you’re in Panama?

Taking a tour is a great way to help preserve Panama’s indigenous culture because it provides a living for the country’s native people.

You can either take a tour from Panama City or visit a village in the remote Darien province for something a little more off-the-beaten-path.

Our trip to the Embera village

3 people in bow of a boat on a river in Darien, Panama

In this article, I’ll tell you what to expect if you take an Embera Indian village tour in the Darien Gap. As I understand it, the tours that depart from Panama City are much the same.

Our experience began with a motorboat ride up the winding Mogue River.

The thick Darien rainforest grows right into the water around here. The jungle is so dense that the only sensible way to get from place to place is by boat.

Traditional huts on stilts in an Embera village in the Darien

Mogue (MOE-gay) is a traditional Emberá village in the Darién. I assume it was named for the river.

Well, it may be traditional, but every Embera home has electricity, thanks to free solar cells provided by the government. I don’t know if those cells can emit enough energy to power a refrigerator, but we could see satellite antennas everywhere.

We also heard radios all over the village, and they were being switched off as we entered. Perhaps the Embera were trying to give us a more “authentic” experience, ha-ha.

Yes, even though the village is isolated, it is still connected to the outside world.

Above ground huts of the Embera

Traditional Emberá dress

Our tour began with a walk through the village with some of the local women. All were dressed in traditional outfits … with a modern twist.

Their traditional bark skirts have been done away with, mostly due to external pressure to “save the rainforest.” These days, their brightly patterned skirts are made with a special $25-per-yard fabric. It’s made just for them … in China.

7 young Embera women with colorful skirts stand around while waiting for tourists

That said, most still adhere to traditional ways. Many of the older women there were comfortable topless, wearing nothing above the waist but a smile. Others sported wide necklaces or halters made of plastic beads. The outside world has influenced the younger girls, it seems, because many of the topless ones hid behind their arms and long hair.

Our best guess is that perhaps they would prefer to cover up, but their mothers won’t let them. My kudos to the girls for doing as requested.

Sorry, kids, mamas make the rules no matter where you live.

3 young Embera girls sit on the floor with their baskets

Embera handicrafts

Trips to these villages are marketed as cultural experiences, and they are. However, a great part of Embera Indian Village tours is focused toward giving them an opportunity to sell their handicrafts. This is the best way to support their tribe and the local economy.

Emberá 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—sometimes months—to create.

Darien - Embera goods for sale

An Embera basket is the perfect souvenir of Panama: it’s a local, handmade item created for practical use. Unfortunately, baskets are very expensive in Panama City because the middle-man and shop add a markup. For us, buying a basket directly from the tribe meant that we could get two for the same price as one in the city!

Even though our guide said we could negotiate, I finally chose to pay the asking price. For one thing, the two women who had woven them would keep all the money. I have no idea how much they get for baskets that are sold in Panama City.

For another, those baskets take a lot of time to make. After doing the math, I realized that they would be making pennies per hour. And yes, I did end up buying two. My makeup brushes live in one of the baskets, and other receives Dan’s spare change.

Linda buys an Embera indian basket from the woman who wove it

Tour the Embera indian village through our photos

Have you heard the saying that “getting there is half the fun?” Well, if that’s true, then these warm and friendly people must make up the other half.

Dan took a lot of photos from our trip to the Darien. You can see our photo album here. Here are a few shots from our adventure.

Dugout canoe in the Darien
Embera baby
As We Saw It travel website blogger buying a basket from an Embera indian tribeswoman in the Darien, Panama

Want to visit the Embera Indians yourself?

If you’d like to help preserve the Embera way of life, book an excursion to one of their villages and consider purchasing some hand-made items while you’re there.

You cannot visit on your own, though. The only way to visit the Embera is on a guided tour. The reason for this is that all visits are planned and evenly shared between the tribes. This helps preserve their culture and distribute the revenue from tourism fairly.

Several combination tours are available that include a stop at an Embera village. However, this tour is probably the most in-depth.

Crossing the Darien Gap: Here's How to Do It

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Four Embera women sit with their baskets during a tour of their village in Panama.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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15 thoughts on “How to Visit an Embera Indian Village in 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!

    • 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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