Monday, July 2, 2018

Day 5- Embera Indigenous Tribe Visit


Our day began with a drive to the Chagras River. Anne Gordon served as our guide, and shared stories about the Embera Indigenous Village we were about to visit. Anne was a story in and of herself as we learned how she met the Embera when she was working on a movie production called The Tip of the Spear, fell in love with and married an Embera man, and came to live with and help support the Embera. When asked what attracted him to her, she smiled and said, “It was the light in his eyes.” Truly a remarkable story for a modern, west coast woman to give up much of her comfortable way of life to move to Panama and live a simpler life with the tribe. You can read more about her story:

We reached a point in the journey where we needed to leave our small bus and board 4-wheel drive pickup “taxis” with bench seats in the back, that could traverse the muddy, narrow and winding terrain, which brought us to the river’s edge. 

At the river we were greeted by Embera who came to pick us up in their long, wooden canoes, carved out by hand from trees in the rainforest. Traditionally the canoes were paddled and poled but today, with tourism as a way to sustain their community, they use outboard motors. The man at the bow poles the boat when we reach shallow water. Remarkable how they read the river to avoid the rocks and fallen trees. 

After 45 minutes of motoring through pristine rainforest, we approached the Embera village, far from any road or modern town. Thatched huts along the banks of the river. We were greeted with music by several Embera villagers.

We gathered in their communal hall to meet the tribe, including the children, and had an orientation to their way of life, translated by Ann. Many of the tribe members we met were Ann’s in laws! They wore their typical dress, loin clothes for men, bare chests for women, tattoos painted from a local seed, and skin covered with a plant pigment to ward off insect bites. They also had beautiful beaded adornments. The fabrics are made in Panama City but the designs are created by Embera women. Very colorful! Everyone was so friendly and the children were so curious. Families set up tables with their handicrafts which we purchased. The Embera are especially known for their beautiful, tightly woven baskets. They also make beautiful jewelry and several bracelets and necklaces were purchased by our group.

The Embera children were adorable! Families are very close knit and you could see the love the parents had for their children. One little toddler had a meltdown while we were there. There are no cultural differences when it comes to a toddler meltdown!

Lunch was served in a communal dining hall high up on stilts where we were served fresh fish, plantains, and a type of tortilla.  Our food was served inside a folded banana leaf pouch. The women who cooked tied cloths over their breasts to avoid hot spattering cooking oil. Dessert was fresh fruit.

The Embera grow Calabash gourds, hanging from trees, which they hollow out for bowls.

Thatched homes and a large thatched communal dining area where we had to climb up a ladder

Drying their washed fabrics used as wrap around skirts

After lunch we wandered freely throughout the village and interacted with the children and families. Several of our group had tattoos painted on their arms by the Embera women that will last for a couple weeks. At one point it poured and it was fun watching the children run and play in the rain. Bathroom breaks were taken in the communal privy.

Children playing in the rain, plant-based pigment tattoos, bracelets, baskets, and dug out canoes along the river that they use for fishing and transportation

The "Outhouse"

We brought donations of clothes, supplies, books and things for the children. One book I brought was The Great Kapok Tree, translated into Spanish which the children were delighted by as they recognized many of the rainforest animals and would point and say, “Mira, mira, mira!” 

Some went to visit the local school in the village. Because it is funded by the Panamanian government, the children are required to wear uniforms. The teacher was very engaged with the students, who was teaching about time. They made a cardboard clock. Luiza, our middle school classroom teacher, said, “I loved seeing the children eating their lunches. They were very happy. “ She saw workbooks similar to ones we use in the states. The classrooms were simple but invited learning. They had a solar panel just outside the building to help power the fans in the classrooms. The teacher from Panama City was appointed by the government and lived in the village during the weekdays.

Luiza, the classroom teacher in our group, visits the school

Before we left we were treated to a performance of traditional dances - the monkey dance and the jaguar dance.  Enjoy the video!

The finale was when we all got to dance together, starting with Frank who was the first from our group to be selected as an Embera dance partner!

Upon our departure, Caroline, who had a sore throat, was treated by an Embera woman with a rich knowledge of medicinal plants. She brewed a special elixer for Caroline so she would feel better!

We said goodbye to these wonderful people who live so simply with few of the amenities of modern life yet they are truly “rich” and certainly enriched our experience in Panama.

That evening we had a lovely group dinner at the Gamboa Resort. Time for some make bonding among the group, our guide Claudio, and our driver, Daniel!

Day 4- Part 2: Summit Botanical Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary and Aerial Tram

After a morning of birding and walking the rainforest trails, we stopped for lunch alongside a lake.

After lunch we headed to the Summit Botanical Gardens and Animal Rescue Center. The Gardens were originally created by the Panama Canal Company in the early 1900's to study tropical plants. Operations were taken over by the Panamanian government, and today the gardens house over 350 species of plants. The zoo at Summit Gardens is actually a wildlife rescue center. It includes tapirs, anteaters, monkeys, jaguars, and native birds. There is a large and impressive harpy eagle compound. The harpy eagle is the most powerful bird of prey in the world, and is the national bird of Panama. We had a presentation on the harpy eagle, and also on sloths and crested eagles. Another opportunity to get up close to a sloth that was being rehabilitated and soon to be released back into the wild.

                                                                               The Harpy Eagle

More Sloth Love!

After the Summit Gardens, we took the Gamboa Rainforest Aerial Tram to get a different perspective on the rainforest. Sitting in the seats of our Swiss-engineered aerial tram car, we glided up the mountain to be eye-to-eye with the forest canopy, the birds, and animals of the rainforest. At the top, we climbed a 30-meter observation tower for a 360 degree view of the National Forest. We glided by sloths and howler monkeys, and then descended through the forest, gliding 100 meters above the shadowy floor. It felt like we were sailing through the treetops.

                                                                   Aerial tram up into the canopy

View from the tower

                                                                  Climbing up the tower

              Howler monkey


Day 4- Part 1, Birding on the Pipeline Road & Rainforest Discovery Center

Our day began at sunrise with a stop at the Pipeline Road to go birding with world renowned ornithologist, Dr. George Angehr. Dr. Angehr is a retired Smithsonian scientist who now works with the Biomuseo on their biodiversity exhibits. He is also the author of the Birds of Panama field guide.

The Pipeline Road is a world famous site for seeing tropical forest birds. The narrowness of the road allows the tree canopy to continue uninterrupted so birds are easily seen in both the forest, the margin, and overhead. Dr. Angehr said it is not unusual in the dry season to spot 75 birds in the morning with another 40 heard but not seen. We saw a lot of birds with binoculars but they were hard to photograph through the trees.

Dr. Angehr stayed with us as we hiked deeper into the forest where it is highly protected, used by researchers, and we had to sign in with a Panamanian guard.

Dr. Angehr delighted us with his vast knowledge of the tropical forest and all the interconnections in this diverse ecosystem. For example figs are a keystone species that support the entire ecosystem. 

By nesting in the figs, wasps help maintain biodiversity and population density. Figs and wasps are mutually dependent on each other. But the fig story doesn’t stop with the wasp. Other animals are also involved in dispersing the seeds such as the agouti, a type of rodent, which we spotted in the underbrush foraging for seeds.


Our hike was a panoply of biodiversity- birds, amphibians, a lizard, fungi, lichens, trees, vines, mosses, egg cases, insects, termite and ant nests, leaf cutter ants, hummingbirds, seeds, mammals. Our senses were assaulted by the sounds, smells, and sights of the rainforest.

A well camouflaged frog

We continued on to The Rainforest Discovery Center which is in the Pipeline Road area on the border of Soberania National Park. A climb up the tower at the Rainforest Discovery Center gave a view of the upper layers of the forest. 

Dr. Angehr

So many seeds that feed so many different animals.

Monkey vines


We hiked down to a lake where we saw several waterfowl.

Purple Gallinule

Tiger heron

Beetles, frogs, and frog foam

Tracing the termite trails beneath the bark up to the nest in the trees

So many varieties of fungi and lichens

Pins and Needles fungi

Beautiful patterns everywhere- even among the dead fallen leaves.

Leaving the Rainforest Discovery Center, Dr. Angehr spotted a ground cuckoo displaying an unusual behavior. How fun to watch a scientist get excited about something he had never observed before!

Quotes from Our Group:

It was extraordinary to stop for a limited amount of time and space and spot so many species of birds. We truly experienced what biodiversity is. Caroline B.

I liked how George stood in one place and turned around 360 and said, ‘look where your eyes can see and try to imagine how many species are there’. Scott C.

I was impressed by George’s quote that 90% of bird watching is listening. Scott C.

I was impressed that there’s much more to the fig story than I was aware of. For example, the role of the agouti in distributing the seeds. Page K.

They’ve actually marked the seeds and found that the agouti steal these seeds from one another - one seed can be moved 20 different times to 20 different locations. Carol C.

Dr. Angehr made us aware of the important symbiotic relationship between plants and animals and how animals help to distribute plant DNA. Plants don’t have legs but animals do! John B.

As we ascended the tower at the Rainforest Discovery Center, we appreciated the diversity at different elevations in the rainforest. Scott C.

This hike really opened my eyes to the NGSS crosscutting concept of ‘flow of matter and energy.’ There is no better place to experience this than in the rainforest. Joyce T.

I was amazed by all the different types of lichens and fungi in the rainforest. The decomposers are the critical link in the cycling of matter! Page K.