Deep into Panama's remote jungle villages

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Darién, Panamá

An army of children welcomed me after sailing on a small wooden boat through the Darién jungle for a couple of hours. I was the first tourist to have ever visited this place.

The local villagers took me fishing in the morning and crocodile hunting at night... with success!

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People always look at me strangely when I tell them my most favourite place in Panamá is Darién. Although it is the largest province in the country, it is by far the least populated. Most of the province is covered by deep rainforests. And, after an incredible 18,000 kilometre stretch of road originating in Alaska, the Pan-American Highway terminates right here, in Darién, due to the impenetrable jungle bordering Colombia.

Traveling off the Pan-American Highway is considered highly off-limits and sometimes, even dangerous—as one can guess, many drug traffickers inhabit parts of the area. Although, I feel obligated to note that there are, in fact, villages inside the infamous Darién Gap, such as Boca de Cupe, which are not visible on services such as Google Maps, and which one can visit with a military permit. These permits are obtainable in Panama City. Additionally, the Colombian government signed a peace treaty with the well-feared FARC movement in 2016 (link) after FARC declared they would refrain from kidnappings in 2012 (link), which takes away part of the worry.

My first experiences in Darién were a good introduction. I stayed with a local family in Quebrada Onda, another extremely small village with just a couple-hundred inhabitants. From this location I visited La Palma, Setengatí, and Chepigana. Quebrada Onda and La Palma are so-called “black villages”. I have visited many of these, such as the more-known, (mixed) village of Puerto Obaldiá, where more creative travelers stop before heading to Colombia. The people living in these villages are descendants of African immigrants (well, essentially, former slaves) who were brought in to build the Panama Canal.

I also briefly visited the Wounaan village of Puerto Lara, where I got a Jagua tattoo drawn on my arm. The Wounaan are closely related to the Emberá tribe, and they are often grouped together as the Emberá-Wounaan. The Wounaan are yet another indigenous group mainly living in Panama’s Darién province. Just like all other indigenous groups I will talk about, they use their own language and live in small settlements inside traditional wooden houses.

Before we get to the real story, I feel the need to emphasize that the most valuable I learned about indigenous tribes are not necessarily the differences in lifestyle among these peoples; often, it is the similarities that makes one realize very vividly how we are all one species, and the most basic, yet most intense, joyful, and important experiences in our lives, such as the will to live, the craving for progeny, and the need for food and water, are shared among all species on this planet.

The real experience, however, was to visit the remote village of Mortí, where I stayed with a tribal family. My approach to actually finding such communities varies. Sometimes, I contact NGOs working in the area; sometimes, I delve into research papers; sometimes, I look at satellite photos to find villages not listed on the map; sometimes, I just ask around. And this time, I did all of the above.

I was lucky to get in touch with Benjamin Goodman, a U.S. citizen who founded an NGO known as “Village Rights International”. Thanks to Benjamin, I was invited by a very hospitable family in Mortí, a remote, rustic, indigenous Guna village. An army of children welcomed me after sailing on a small wooden boat through the Darién jungle for a couple of hours. Even reaching the actual river wasn't easy; I had to register with the Panamanian army, and after a while, the leader of the village came to visit me and gave me his approval to stay a couple of nights. Life in the village is very primitive; the village lacks electricity, phone signals, and running water.

Women of the Guna tribe are easy to recognize; they wear beautiful, traditional clothing, which remind them of their strong relationship with nature. Their chaquira (i.e., beads women wear on the lower legs) is of particularly high spiritual value to them. Children usually wear nothing at all. The average age for marriage (and having children) is 15 years old. The few Albino children I saw were called “Moon Children” and are considered special.

The difference between Guna living in Darién and Guna living on the Caribbean islands of San Blas (i.e., Guna Yala) is obvious: The latter welcomes tourists, and the former usually does not. The Guna in Darién rarely see tourists, while Guna Yala has turned into a commercial tourism destination. However, the beauty of the exotic islands surrounding the inhabited islands are beyond imagination. For anyone interested in relaxing on paradise-like islands while eating freshly-caught lobster or squid for a penny, this is definitely the place to go.

Sometimes, you just get lucky. By chance (or fate), I got invited by members of another tribe, as well. It was a true pleasure to have spent some days in yet another very remote village with people of the Ngäbe tribe. No electricity, no phone signals, just homegrown crops, livestock, and happy people. To reach the village located along the Guariviara River, I had to board a small boat from Chiriquí Grande, a few hours by bus from the city of David. The night before the journey, I stayed in Punta Peña with my newly-made Ngӓbe friends.

The traditions of the Ngäbe-Buglé go back way farther than the “discovery of America” by Columbus. An example is the ritual of staying awake for multiple nights, while singing songs in remembrance of the deceased—a tradition I unfortunately witnessed, as well. As I was the first tourist to have ever visited this place, I attracted many curious looks from both young and playful children and the elderly. The local villagers took me fishing in the morning and crocodile hunting at night... with success!

At first, I was shocked when the man who had a few hours earlier offered to take me on a “night ride on the river” steered the boat into dense vegetation and forced me to climb into the trees. I could barely see anything and wouldn't want to get bitten by a snake. From the tree, I shone light on the crocodile we had just spotted. The man, armed with a harpoon, slowly approached the reptile, waited for the best moment, and… too bad! The metres-long crocodile was too fast and escaped. This ritual repeated itself approximately five times before we went home with the consolation prize—a baby crocodile, caught with our bare hands. Although I have seen many crocodiles before (for example, when I stayed with the Iban tribe in Sarawak: please click here to read the article about my experiences), I had never actually handled a live one. I wrapped a piece of thread around its mouth to prevent it from biting and took it “home” for a night. I released the poor fellow the next day.

Apart from crocodiles, the journey brought me to wild sloths, anteaters, and many exotic birds, fish, spiders, and snakes. Crocodiles weren't the only animals being sacrificed in this little community, though; I was the lucky witness of the traditional slaughtering of a pig, as well. A younger man in the village was given the honour of cutting the pig’s throat. I watched the whole process, from the moaning while the poor beast was dragged into the river, to the skinning and beheading. The less-happy part about the happening was the lack of skill of the younger man; the pig was still alive during the skinning process. Note:
The video I attached contains images one might find disturbing.

Kogi and Arhuaca
A little farther east, in Colombia, I encountered several Indian tribes, as well, although these experiences were not as intimate as my two family-stays in Panama. During my multi-day visit to the northern part of the Sierra Nevada, I came across many Kogi families. On the southern side of the same national park, I stayed with an Arhuaco family. Although I didn't meet a single foreign person visiting the same place, such “family visits” never feel like a “true experience” to me; in my philosophy, paying for hospitality cannot really be called “hospitable”, just as doing an organised tour really cannot be called “exploring”. Nevertheless, besides all the angry and strange looks I got from the locals in the village of Nabusimake, it is a truly magical land they live in.

Both the Kogi and Arhuaco descend from the Tairona, who inhabit the mountainous rainforest region of the Sierra Nevada. They used to live (and some still do) in small huts made of mud, wood, and reeds. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the Tairona’s ancient habits is their role of leadership. According to their rituals, chosen young boys are taken away from their parents at a very young age and are forced to live in a cave for 9 years. That means 9 years without sunlight! The only people who can be with the young lads are men who went through the same ritual in their younger years. When they come out, they are considered wise and omniscient. Those special few are called “Mamus”. They will be consulted on anything from sentencing crimes to strategic decisions during wartime.

Another interesting fact is that young boys from the “common society” are forced to spend a month with a Mamu before they are considered men. After this ritual, the young boy will obtain a poporo, a device every man in these societies owns, which is used to mix coca leafs with lime powder (and believe me, those people chew on coca all day). However, before being allowed to choose a wife, which is normally a girl bout 14 years old, the boy will be assigned an older woman to spend another month with. Most of them are widows. In this month, the older lady teaches the boy all about love and sex.

Before heading south to explore the Andean regions of Latin America, known for ancient civilizations like the Incas, I spent some time with the Wayuu people. The Wayuu live on both sides of the border region between Colombia and Venezuela. Their land consists mostly of desert. The Wayuu were the only people to use rifles in their defence against the Spanish colonizers. On the Venezuelan side, I stayed with a Wayuu family at their home in Paraguaipoa. My experiences in Venezuela, including my experience with the Wayuu, are a whole different story, which you can read here. On the Colombian side, I visited the touristic sites of Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas, among others in the La Guajira peninsula. The sight of small children holding up ropes to block roads, only to let them down in exchange for candy, was particularly memorable.