Once a feared warrior culture, this small tribe of the Emberá Parara Puru of Panama now shares their customs and culture as part of an ecotourism venture within the Chagres National Park of Panama, thus permitting them to keep their traditions and way of life. The men wear traditional loin cloths and the women go topless, though many of the younger women are beginning to wear jewelry or beaded bra-like garments in accordance with the western standards of modesty.

After ceremonial dancing, they offer temporary tattoos made from the jagua fruit (it wears off in about 10 days) and beautiful wood carvings for sale depicting jungle animals along with intricate baskets that geometrically capture the flora and fauna of the region. The ecotourism venture includes a typical lunch of fried fish wrapped and served in banana leaves, and an assortment of native tropical fruits. The income they receive from the sale of their carvings and baskets allows them to retain their heritage in a sustainable way.

Dugout canoes used by the Emberá Parara Puru of Panama
The dugout canoes used by the Emberá are known as piraguas in Spanish. As with most indigenous tribes in tropical areas, the piraguas are hewn from a single large tree trunk; many have been modified with modern outboard motors.
Emberá village chief of the Parara Puru of Panama
Greeted by the second-in-command village chief, who is available to answer questions on the Emberá culture and traditions.
Young woman- member of the Emberá Parara Puru of Panama
The women are typically bare-breasted, though this is increasingly a practice confined to the more mature women, while the younger members of the tribe have generally adopted jewelry, coinage, and beaded bra-tops in an effort to reflect Western culture modesty.
Mother and child of the Emberá Parara Puru of Panama
A mother with a Mona Lisa smile and her child pose for a photograph
A young girl and member of the Emberá Parara Puru tribe of Panama
A young Emberá girl watches the world around her with an inquisitive yet shy gaze.
Elder of the Emberá Parara Puru of Panama
Flutes, drums, turtle shells and other percussion instruments set the beat for village dancers. Here, an elder plays the flute.
Cerimonial dance of the Emberá tribe
Ceremonial dancing commences under the thatched roof of an open-aired community room. The Emberá are inspired by the movements of animals and embrace dancing for ceremonies, social gatherings, and to welcome visitors.
A typical Emberá lunch in Panama
After the welcoming dances wind down, my group is invited to a “kitchen hut” on stilts, representative of their jungle abodes. Here we dine on a typical lunch of fried fish presented in rolled banana leaves, accompanied by an assortment of local fruits.
Emberá woman with flowers in her hair
Many of the Emberá women grace their hair with colorful flowers.
Items handcrafted by the the Emberá are sold to give the tribe a sustainable income
Handicraft tables encircle the community room. For sale are cocobolo wood and tagua nut carvings (vegetable ivory), parara puru (palm leaf) baskets, and a variety of ceremonial masks. My guide explains that the demand for Emberá baskets is particularly keen, and that the local women contract out some of the work to local villagers in order to keep a steady supply for visitors. The intricate baskets are beautiful yet labor-intensive, and represent value to both the buyer and seller. It is not proper to bargain as the prices are extremely reasonable and represent a sustainable income to the tribe.

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