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Panama's Past and Present

To meet the indigenous peoples of Panama it’s better to travel on a small ship or fly into the country and hook up with a local tour operator. I visited Panama as one of only 28 passengers on the Grande Caribe, a ship that provided lodging and transportation in places where both can be hard to find.

On the Pacific side of Panama the Embera and Wounaan Indians make their living in the waters adjacent to the Darien Province, west of Colombia. The relative inaccessibility of the villages and their status as a comarca (tribal reserve) help to preserve their cultural traditions. Tributaries thread into the rainforest to provide transportation for the local people, but even these routes are navigable only at high tide.

No roads disturb the ecosystem, a dense virgin rainforest and World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, which is the only break in the 29,280-mile-long Pan American Highway. When our chance came, we climbed into dugout cayucas and motored 15 miles up the Sambu River.

At Chonga, an Embera Indian village on a side stream deep in the jungle, the Embera and their neighbors, the Wounaan, welcomed us.

A visit here is a chance for visitors to appreciate the music, dancing, and craftwork and for the local inhabitants a chance to socialize.

Passing on through the canal, we arrived on Panama’s Caribbean side and sailed to the islands of Achuatupu, Chichime, Carti, and a host of tiny atolls that are a part of the San Blas archipelago, a 200-mile string of tiny, palm-covered oases on a vast blue desert. Most are unnamed and only 30 are large enough to be called islands; all are home to the Kuna Indians, Panama’s largest indigenous group.

In 1933 the Kuna gained relative independence from mainland Panama and formed a semi-autonomous territory, the Comarca de Kuna Yala. They have retained the uniqueness of their culture while making necessary adaptations to the world changing around them

One thing that has not changed is the richness of the Kuna clothing. The women wear strings of orange, blue, and maroon beads wrapped around forearms and lower legs.

Calf-length saboretes of navy blue cotton printed with huge turtles, flowers, plants, and geometric designs are wrapped around their waists and topped by elaborate mola (blouses) in many hues and patterns. The women’s elegant dress makes the men’s simple white guayabera shirts and dark pants pale by comparison.

Creating traditional blouses is the art of the Kuna women. The designs evoke traditional beliefs and superstitions, images from the sea and sky, as well as modern themes of ships and airplanes. Martina, a local woman, explained that patterns unique to each family are taught to each girl.

When I asked Braulio, our Kuna deck hand, what was the greatest change he had seen in the last 10 years, he said that more and more often men choose to leave the mainland to work in the city in Panama.

Although Panama’s canal is the country’s most recognizable feature, the indigenous populations surely are its greatest strength and its most fragile resource.

Tour Operators

Ancon Expeditions of Panama, affiliated with Panama’s National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), says, “We ensure that our lodges comply with environmental standards of conservation and our tours respect nature, local traditions and cultural practices.” Visits to the Embera and Wounaan Indians range from a simple 3-day trip to the rigorous 2-week Trans-Darien Expedition that includes extensive hiking and cayuca excursions. Three- to 10-day trips include visits to the Kuna Indians in the San Blas. P.O. Box 0832-1509 (WTC), Panama, Rep. of Panama; 011-507-269-9415, fax 011-507-264-3713;

The American Canadian Caribbean Line, Inc. offers 12-day cruises to the Pacific and Atlantic sides of Panama with visits to the indigenous populations. P.O. Box 368, Warren, RI 02885; 800-556-7450;

Lost World Adventures offers tours to the Darien and San Blas for small groups or individually customized itineraries. Contact the North American office at 112 Church St., Decatur, GA 30030; 800-999-0558, fax 404-377-1902;

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