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Embera Community and Waterfall Hike

One of the truly incredible things about visiting a new country is meeting new people and engaging with their local cultures and traditions as a way to educate yourself on the world around you. However, I always feel a bit of trepidation entering a cultural experience in an indigenous community. Entering the Embera community I found an incredible balance struck between daily life as it is actually lived and a performance to help educate us about the local culture.

When I arrived to the river in the morning I was met by the men of the community all in the traditional dress. They would be our hosts and guide on the river. I also had my private guide with me to translate. I enjoyed a private ride up the river in a dugout canoe. The canoe is powered my motor for speed but directed in the traditional way by a long pole. Due to the water levels being low right at the beginning of the rainy season my tour started with a hike to a waterfall pool. At different times of the year the boats can navigate all the way to the waterfall but this time of year this section of the river was merely a creek. We hiked approx .5 mi over rough stones, through water - only ankle deep in most areas. The trail was slick with mud but my local guides would lend a hand as needed so anyone with reasonable mobility could navigate this trail by moving slowly. We arrived at a small waterfall and pool perfect for a swim which was incredibly refreshing after the hike. After about 20 minutes we returned to our boat, back the way we came and made our way to the community.
Chagres River
Chagres River (Jess Heuermann)

When we arrived to the community we were treated to a warm welcome with music and smiles. The leader of the community gave a short presentation about the history of the Embera and native communities throughout Panama. There was also a demonstration on how their handy crafts are made as well as a presentation of local dances.

What I appreciated about the visit to the Embera is this welcoming into their communities is completely self motivated. They cherish their traditions and way of life and in order to preserve it have found a way to monetize those traditions by welcoming tourists. Children in the community learn the local language first but the leaders of the community recognize that it is also important to learn Spanish and so all members of the community are bilingual. They also had their handy crafts for sale - a modest collection of tables - but there was no sense to pressure or the hard sell I’ve experienced in other parts of the world.
Fish and Plantains
Fish and Plantains (Jess Heuermann)

I found this experience to be enriching, informative and delicious (did I forget to mention the incredible meal they made for us!?) without feeling invasive or exploitative.

It does bear mentioning that there are several Embera communities in the area and we can never guarantee which specific one you will visit. The communities share the responsibility of hosting guests and the specific experience can vary from community to community.
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