I actually did the combo tour with the Monkey Island and the Indian Village Tour, but I split this into two submissions for those looking for info on this specific activity. I had been reading up on the Indian Village tours and the area prior, not just from our operator, but from several customer reviews of the different activities from several different operators. The overall satisfaction of the activities were high, however the experience differed between companies and clients. For this tour, it really had a lot to do with which group of Indigenous they were visiting.
In my research, I realized that there are two types of Indian Village tours, basically legitimate villages with people actually residing and making their living there, and ones that are set up for tourist purposes that are more for presentation. Though hiring indigenous from the region to come and put on a show, these are not benefiting an actual community. And I have also heard stories of people complaining that the people they just saw in the village later dressed and using the same transportation back to the mainland….I would personally find that a major disappointment and I would not want to promote that type of experience if this was your only opportunity to visit this region.
There are only a couple of truly authentic villages currently within a short journey that are accessible for day trips and welcome visitors. One is a tribe of Embera that has been opened up thanks to the help of Anne, an American who married one of the tribe members and has helped this family make the transition into tourism to help them sustain. Many private and smaller operators utilize their services and have a great response. The other which is closer yet is the San Fernando Wounaan. This is a very small community of about 40 members living in about 5 houses and a common area. Both tribes are descendants from the Darien region, and both made the migration from Columbia which shares the ‘Choco’ language; however the languages and culture have slight variations. You could almost say they are cousins in a sense. Some sources (art aficionados) claim that the Wounaan are the originators of the basket weaving that these tribes are so famous for and that the Embera adapted it later.
We arrived coming straight from the Monkey Island tour, so not the typical route which is either a 10 min journey from the Gamboa public pier, or a 5 minute boat journey from the Gamboa Resort pier which is a lunch stopping point for the combo on most weekdays. Upon arrival we were greeted by a kind man who I later found out was the community leader. We walked up the muddy banks to the main part of the village. The first thing I noticed was the houses are built up very high. This would later be explained in the history presentation given a bit later. Typically we would have been given the presentation first, however there was another guide there with a family that had already began, so we opted to follow the leader on a nature hike through the jungle first.
The leader stopped and pointed out the incredible trail of Leaf-Cutter Ants, a very unusual caterpillar, and we stopped and listened to the howler monkeys in the distance; although the monkeys were not close enough to see, they can be heard up to 6km away!! Our guide translated for us as he explained many of the trees and plants and their various uses such as medicinal and building materials. Most interesting to me was the tree that is used to make their kitchens. I was explained by the 9-year-old Luis, a curious follower who was a member of the tribe that this particular wood just did not burn, so they used it for their kitchens. And I was witness to that as all the kitchens in the houses seemed to have a small fire burning right on the floor.
After the nature hike, we went back to the covered common area as it began to rain again. Here our guide interpreted as the Leader gave us a lesson in the history and culture of the Wounaan and how they came to the region. I really do not want to spoil it here. I read a lot online previously about the general history, but I found the description of why they only celebrate a couple of holidays very comical (think the boogeyman, Talisman, and all the other things we are taught to make us behave) and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
After the history discussion, they played music and presented 3 different dances. It was not something super choreographed….in fact a little comical as well, but I think that is what made it all the more authentic. Be aware if traveling with your family, the men wear nothing but loincloths, and the woman have brightly colored skirts which are just beautiful material imported from the city, however the older woman are typically without anything on top, and the younger ones have a beaded sort of halter covering their breasts, but not much more.
Finally, we were given a bit of free-time to take a look at the hand crafts they had available for sale. Here is the thing, really a small woven basket with maybe a toucan and turtle design takes about 2 weeks to create, while some of the larger ones are works that take a month or even longer. There is not a huge selection of items, however what you do purchase there goes directly back to the family, and it is all half the cost of what you would pay in the markets.
Overall, I think the Indian Village Tour was a great experience for the whole family. I personally love to learn about indigenous cultures. The amazing part about the indigenous cultures of Panama and Columbia is that they have been able to remain so intact. My wish Is that this is a growing trend in sustainable tourism that will enable these cultures to remain true to their original beliefs and traditions so we all have the opportunity to share with our generations to come.