There are approximately 33,000 people in Panama who identify as Emberá, and many of these communities continue to maintain their traditional culture and language. Although the Emberá historically lived in small family settlements along the Chagres River, they began to live in villages beginning in the 1960s, when some members left behind the traditional lifestyle and moved to the city.
The rivers are an integral part of the Emberá lifestyle. The Emberá diet consists mainly of fish and bananas, both found in abundance in river environments.
Visiting an Emberá Village is a massive contrast to the downtown life of Panama City. Discovering their lifestyle and cosmogonic beliefs, which are based on the idea that everything, both animal and human, has a spirit, is an extraordinary experience. Be sure to go on a traditional canoe ride and also take the opportunity to witness their traditional dance and music when you visit. You might even want to try traditional jagua body painting.
Today, the community is known for its handmade crafts such as carved baskets, statues, and temporary tattoos made with the black ink of the jagua fruit (Genipa Americana).
Emberá women masterfully craft baskets from chunga (black palm) leaves. They often adorn the baskets with geometric patterns or animal iconography. Some of the baskets are black and white, while others use vivid natural dyes; the highest quality baskets are woven so tightly that they can hold water. The Emberá women are also known for their carved sculptures of animals made from tagua and cocobolo nuts.
Most Emberás have tattooed their bodies entirely with jagua ink. Adults prefer geometric tattoos such as lines and triangles, while children often display tattoos of animals such as a snake or butterfly.
Because the Jagua tree is very tall, picking jagua is a job reserved for the men, while women are responsible for the ink preparation.
Jagua is native to South America, Panama, and southern Mexico. It is abundant in the tropical forests of South America. When ripe, the fruit can be eaten and served as a drink.
Emberás use the juice from the unripe jagua fruit for the ink. The women blend in essential oils and other additives to turn the juice into the gel used for tattooing. The Emberá use long bamboo sticks to draw tattoos on their bodies. The tattooed painting stays on the body for 1-2 weeks.
The Emberá villages, most of which are located in the province of Darién, west of Panama City, can be reached on a day trip from the city. A boat ride on the Chagres River carries you slowly out of the modern western world into the traditional Emberá habitat. To get the most out of your visit, I recommend visiting the Emberá community with a local tour operator who works closely with the Emberá communities.
We visit an Emberá community on our tour of Coffee & Rum in Colombia and Panama.