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Postcards from the Land Before Time

The Embera Indians were in Panama before Columbus “found” them and started the downfall of their culture. I went on a shore excursion today to Pararu Puru, the village that is the farthest downriver. It is about a two-hour bus ride over potholes with a little road in between.

The dugout canoes were waiting for us and four coach loads of guests stepped in with our Indian drivers.


The canoes are motorized and can really get up some speed. The local musicians were there to greet us and send us off downriver. Nothing like waving goodbye to a group of half-naked men in loincloths — a great start to the day!

The day was bright and the river calm as we made our way past a couple of villages to our destination. We passed children playing in the river, families fishing for dinner and several other boats heading out to get provisions.

The Embera used to be a self-sufficient nation that hunted and raised their own food. Then the government in its infinite wisdom made a national park of their lands. Suddenly, they were not permitted to hunt or grow crops. So in 1998 the Embera opened up their villages to tourists and continue to host them to lunch and offer their crafts for sale. The chief decides which village is visited on any given day — no drop-ins allowed. The chief does not permit any handouts to the children because he wants them to learn that hospitality is a way of life for the tribes, not something they rely on for freebies.

This is like visiting the pages of a “National Geographic” magazine. The men dress in beautiful beaded skirts, very short skirts, or simply a loincloth. The women wear short colorful skirts and nothing but jewelry around their neck. The little ones are simply naked.

Joanne meeting some of the locals.

A local boy has fun with some Holland America Line stickers.

Each family offers their crafts in a market setup. The men carve and the women weave baskets and do bead work. The baskets they make are stunning and so tightly woven by hand that they will last to be passed down with your estate. Depending on the size and design, the baskets/plates/bowls can take months to finish.

Of course, I contributed to the local economy and purchased a bowl for my cabin to liven things up and have a place to toss our keys and badges. I also purchased some beaded earrings (no surprise to those who know me) and a necklace for all of $8. Even Michael was impressed with the prices. That may be THE Christmas present for 2009.

I will plan to revisit the Embera before I leave the Canal route, hoping to see a second village and contribute yet again to their economy.

1 Comment
  • suekhoury

    Simply delightful! We enjoyed the same voyage and village, and were enchanted by the lovely, gentle Emberá people. And I too gave a mighty boost to their economy: our cruise included a Hallowe’en celebration for which we had not prepared. I purchased an incredible crocodile (“cocorillo”) mask woven by one of the older villagers. She beamed and stroked my arm as she whispered “Thank you” in a charming variation of American English. I fell in love with every member of the Purù tribe, and – like you – I hope to return to Panama to visit other villages.

    Thank you for sharing!

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