If you’re planning a trip to Panama, you may have heard of Embera Indian village tours. The Embera people are an indigenous group in Panama. Today, many of them live in villages by rivers in the rainforest. Travelers can visit these villages on day and overnight tours to see how the Embera people live and learn about their customs.

But how authentic are these Embera Indian village tours, really? Browsing online reviews, some visitors rave about these types of experiences, while others label them as tourist traps. What makes the difference? The reality is that there are a number of different villages and a variety of tour operators, each with their own characteristics.

Read on to learn more about the Embera people, the tours that visit their villages, and implications for travelers like you. With this information, you will be able to make an informed decision about visiting an Embera Indian village and make sure you have a quality experience.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

The Embera Tribe

Where They Live
The Embera indigenous people, also known as Choco or Katio, mostly live in the Darien province of eastern Panama and the Choco region of western Colombia. About 33,000 people in Panama and 50,000 in Colombia identify as Embera.

In the past, the Embera lived in the rainforest, dispersing family settlements along the river and only rarely forming villages. Since the 1960s, the Embera have congregated more into villages and some have moved to Panamanian cities, giving up their traditional ways of life. According to the 2010 Panama National Census, a third of the Embera people live in central Panama and 25% of Panama Embera live in the urban areas around Panama City.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Embera Lifestyle and Culture
Rivers are essential to the traditional Embera way of life for food and transportation. Their diet centers around fish and plantains, both of which are plentiful in river environments. To get around, they use dugout canoes, although today’s canoes are powered by outboard motors.

Ancient traditions of handicrafts, dance, music, cooking, hiking, fishing, and body painting are all part of the rich cultural heritage of the Embera. In particular, they are famous for their distinctive houses and clothing. Traditional Embera houses are raised high on stilts and have a roof and floor, but no walls. Embera people have colorful, patterned clothing. Women wear skirts and often go topless. Men wear long loincloths or pants/shorts.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Other Indigenous Groups of Panama
Of Panama’s 3 million inhabitants, about 420,000 are indigenous, from seven different ethnicities. More than half of these indigenous people are a part of the Ngobe-Bugle ethnicity, who live both in Panama and Costa Rica.

In eastern Panama, the Embera people share a semi-autonomous region, Comarca Embera-Wounaan, with the Wounaan. The Wounaan people are a different indigenous group, but share some cultural elements with the Embera.

For more information about the indigenous groups of Panama check out our blog post on Panama Culture: A Breakdown by Province and Ethnic Group.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Avoiding Tourist Traps

With their unique culture and customs, the Embera Indian village tours have attracted the travel industry. Unfortunately, not every tour of an Embera Indian village delivers a positive experience. The quality of the tour depends on multiple factors, such as the tour operator and the location of the village.

Villages accepting visitors often work with more than one tour operator. Each operator has their own standards for guides and items included in the tour price. Make sure to check reviews of operators before booking.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Things to avoid if you are looking for a quality experience:

Villages Close to Major Cities
The farther you go from the nearest Panamanian town, the less crowded it will be and the better your experience will be. Avoid Embera villages very near to major cities such as Panama City and Colon. These villages will be more touristy and have more influence from modern society. Go off the beaten path to truly share experiences with locals.

Cruise Ship Tours with Large Groups
Between November and February, the rivers are high enough to accommodate large groups of people. This is when the cruise ships take their tourists to an Embera Indian village. Avoid these large groups and favor small, personalized tours instead.

“Demonstration” Villages
There are some mock villages associated with resorts. These so-called villages basically scam tourists into buying “Made in China” crafts by faking an indigenous lifestyle. The Embera people do not actually live there. When you book tours to indigenous villages, make sure to read reviews, have detailed information about the trip, and trust reliable tour operators such as the ones we work with at Keteka.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Visiting an Authentic Embera Indian Village

What to Expect from an Embera Indian Village Tour
Visiting an Embera Indian village can be a fantastic experience. Depending on the village and the tour operator, tours can range from a couple of hours to a multi-day stay.

During that time, an authentic tour will take you to a village where the Embera actually live and still practice indigenous traditions in their daily lives. You’ll not only get to learn about their culture, but experience it first-hand as you walk around the village and talk to locals.

Typically, travelers navigate a river by motor-powered dugout canoe to reach the village. In addition to witnessing a demonstration of traditional music and dance, visitors enjoy a typical meal such as fish and plantains on a palm leaf. There are also opportunities to buy Embera handicrafts. Tours may also include information about the history of the village, native plants and animals, and nearby natural attractions such as waterfalls.

Ella Drua is a small, 100-person village that accepts visitors for day trips or multi-day stays. Also, check out two day trips Keteka offers; one to a Gatun River village and another to the Parara Puru village.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Get Ready for an Adventure
Whichever village you visit, don’t expect luxury, electricity, or modern technologies.  The dugout canoe ride may be uncomfortable (bring a poncho to protect from water spray). The latrine bathroom facilities may not be what you are used to.

But you’re an adventurer! Enjoy the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and experience a completely different way of life. Only bring what you really need and keep your phone in your pocket to fully enjoy your experience.

Also, recognize that you are entering a different culture. In addition to their way of dress, you may notice other cultural differences. For example, some Embera people do not smile for pictures.

If you have about a week in Panama, stay in an Embera village and explore the fantastic landscapes of Chagres National Park and the San Blas Islands on this 7-day tour or this 8-day tour.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Responsible Travel

How does the travel industry influence the Embera people?
The relationship between the travel industry and the Embera people is complicated. Each indigenous village took a slightly different path, possibly linked with their proximity to the closest Panamanian town.

Some people argue that tourism and modern society have the power to damage the cultural assets of the Embera over time. Outside technologies and ideas can permanently alter indigenous communities. When you can only access the village with a canoe or by hiking through the forest, the threat of modern society seems negligible, but you would be surprised how quickly and easily modern technologies and ideas spread.

Others point out that receiving visitors is necessary for the survival of the villages. The Embera people that live in national parks cannot move around freely, hunt, and grow crops in their traditional ways. They also have to pay a fee to the park to harvest materials for their homes and canoes.

Visitors can provide the income that allows the villagers to maintain their lifestyle. What’s more, tourism to the villages may provide an incentive for the Embera to preserve their traditional customs.

Authentic or Touristy: Is an Embera Indian Village Worth a Visit?

Implications for Travelers
There’s good news. You, as a traveler, have the power to choose between different ways of traveling. Are you doing this trip to take some good pictures for your Instagram? Or to see those landscapes everybody talks about? If so, planning your trip will be very easy and you will probably enjoy it a lot.

But what about if you are traveling to really get to know the culture of a place? To take risks and experience a totally different environment from your daily life? If that type of travel interests you, you’ll have to investigate a little more to be fully satisfied. That includes researching and booking with responsible tour operators that are just as concerned as you about contributing positively to the Embera community.

The Bottom Line: Is It Worth Visiting an Embera Village?

Yes! As long as you take the time and care to choose a good operator. A visit to an Embera village can be a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the rich cultural traditions within Panama. Make sure to do your homework on the tour operator ahead of time, then enjoy an incredible cultural learning experience.