I recently travelled to Panama City to get a Colombian working visa, and used the occasion to walk around the city and visit an indigenous community.
I had the chance to visit the Embera’Puru community with Embera Village Tours, a small travel agency created and run by members of the community. We went to the village, located at a 1h drive + 1h boat drive at the north of Panama, with Anne, our American guide who is married with a member of the community.
The Embera people, who are originally from the pacific coast of Colombia, and who moved to Panama in the last century. In particular, the Embera’Puru community started in the 1970’s with 5 families, and they are now 120 people living in a small village composed by small wood-made huts. After a short introduction to the Embera history and culture, we shared a simple but delicious meal of fried fish and patacons (fried plantain), and went to a walk in the nearby forest with to discover some of the many plants used as medicine or during shamanistic rituals.
Embera people have their own language but most of the young generation speak perfect spanish, as they have access to a school, which is however at a 1 hour walk through the jungle. We had the chance to meet the first two teenagers that will go to the University, where they will study tourism. Talking with the people from the village has been a really interesting experience.
Unlike other communities that only show a staged traditional lifestyle for tourists, the men and women seemed to be happy to live as their grand-parents did, without rejecting the occidental culture. They have shown an amazing interest in our cultures and we shared a really nice moment. Sadly, time came to say good bye and to take a boat ride back to the heat and noise of Panama City.
Once back in Panama I visited the old city (Casco Viejo) which is a strange mix of perfectly renovated buildings and ruins. The majority of people living there seem humble, while prices for houses in poor state can reach 600,000 USD.
In spite of the striking contrasts between poverty and wealth, the area has a charming atmosphere, far from the oppressing modernity of the central district.
The modern Panama
Praised by many for its shopping, Panama City does not seem to have a lot more to offer. There are good restaurants and places to go out, but it is hard to find a place where you could wonder around, and although on the Pacific coast, there is no real beach. The city is somehow oppressing, with a strong smell of cement from the countless construction sites, uncomfortable heat, and high contrasts between the wealthy centre and extremely poor neighborhoods.
The general atmosphere is a surprising blend between occidental life-style and Latin culture, with American symbols such as Mc Donalds or KFCs near small food shops in a anarchic street filled with counterfeiting shops, or old school buses (diablos rojos), which are the only public bus system in the city, sharing poorly maintained streets with shiny four-wheel drives.
As a conclusion, and after 5 days in the city, I do not think I will go back to Panama City, at least not for tourism. I guess the right thing to do would be try to escape the city and head north to enjoy a more authentic atmosphere (and nice beaches). The canal of Panama can be a nice half-day trip, try to go when the tide is high to see the ships going through the locks.