Our Tourism Project
History of Our Tourism
We started working in tourism in 1996. At first, we sought and received a lot of assistance from the Panama Tourism Bureau (IPAT), the World Bank, and several local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's). They helped us get organized and build relationships with local tour operators. We received training in customer service and visitor safety.
As we started out, we used an informal approach to our project, organizing a community committee for tourism. With much work and assistance, this evolved into our very own community-based NGO called Wanamera Emberama Chagres.
That means “Let's go to the Embera of the Chagres.” Chagres is the name of the river valley where we live. Almost all of the adult residents of our village are members of our NGO. We elected a board of directors, all from the village, and the board worked with local tour operators to bring visitors to our village.
Last year we restructured a bit and decided to separate the tourism activities from those of the NGO. We gave our tourism project a new name, "Tranchichi Embera Chagres." Tranchichi is our name for leaf-cutter ants. If you've ever seen these ants marching along the forest floor carrying giant chunks of leaves to their nest, you would know that they are very hardworking and organized. Like us.
In addition to working hard to learn about what our visitors enjoy, we are also working very hard to learn about accounting, marketing and computers so we can run our project more efficiently and independently.
AMPYME, the Panama Authority for Micro-, Small- and Medium-Size Businesses, is giving us training in these areas and helping us to legally register our tourism project as a community-based micro-business. This means a lot of hard work, but we will be proud to have our own registered business.
For us, tourism is a means to earn the cash our families need to buy things like cooking oil, clothing, gasoline and healthcare and to pay expenses for sending our kids outside the village for secondary-school education. Each child or adult who participates in our community tourism earns a wage. Their pay varies between $1 and $9 for each event, depending on the task they perform (such as cook, dancer, boatman, guide).
If the visiting group is small, say less that four people, we can't pay everyone their full wage, but we still split up the profit after the basic costs are paid. When there is a profit after paying wages, we put it in a fund to use for outboard-motor fuel, maintenance and other community needs.
What we offer
What we offer is usually referred to as cultural eco-tourism. The cultural part means that visitors learn about and interact with us; the ecological part means they learn about the rainforest; and, all of it goes on in way that is low-impact to our natural environment and our way of life. Visitors come here to experience nature, but they don't take the plants and animals with them when they leave. Instead, they take the memory of their unique experience, a lot of photographs and their trash!
We enjoy sharing our culture with people who visit us. We also like learning about the places and cultures that our visitors come from. We speak Spanish and our own native language, Emberá, but some of us are trying to learn some basic English. We use the tour-operator guides to translate from Spanish into the visitor’s language.
Visiting for the day
A one-day visit consists of us meeting you at "the port," a river landing under a giant Corotú tree on Lake Alajuela (also called Madden Lake) and taking you about an hour upriver in a dugout canoe we call a “piragua.” When the river is low, the trip is slightly longer and a bit more adventurous than when it is higher.
“Adventurous” means you get to watch us pole through some mild but shallow rapids, and maybe, depending on the current, you get to see us push the canoe through the shallow rapids on foot! Don't worry, you don't have to get wet!
Along the riverbank, you may see crocodiles, caiman, or river otter, and you will definitely see birds such as parrots, parakeets, toucans and kingfishers, to name a few. As the river doubles back around the last bend before you sight the village, you will hear us playing our traditional music on deerskin drums, maracas and bamboo flutes to welcome you. Our hilltop village comes into view, and the sandy riverbank below it, where we are waiting in our full ceremonial clothing to greet you.
You will immediately be invited to get out of the hot tropical sun and relax in our thatched-roof community house. Many of us will already be there, talking among ourselves, cooking the lunch we plan to serve or working on traditional handcrafts.
While you cool off, we tell you about our community, culture, history, traditional artwork and way of life. You can ask questions, and we might ask you a few as well!. While the cooks prepare lunch, we like to take you for a one-hour hike on a rainforest trail where we identify and describe the uses of medicinal and culturally significant plants.
It is a beautiful walk and not too strenuous, but for those who would prefer to stay behind, you can see many of the same plants growing right in the community. You can also sit in the shade and watch the iguanas that our elementary-school kids are raising. The children can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about protecting wild iguanas, raising them in captivity and cooking the domesticated ones up for dinner!
After lunch, you can swim in the river, wander through the village or just relax and talk. Soon we call everyone together for a traditional dance exhibition. After performing a few numbers and you have seen how we dance, we invite you to join us. Our men will invite lady visitors to dance but our women are a bit shy, so male visitors, please take the initiative and ask them.
Throughout your visit, we have our traditional artwork on display. Feel free to touch, photograph, ask about and purchase anything that might catch your eye.
Visitors who stay overnight have more time to enjoy the rainforest surrounding us. You can experience everything that is offered during the day trip, but you can also arrange to visit a waterfall in the jungle, go fishing or bird watching or hear a storyteller perform at night.
We have a built a traditional house, we like to call it the “hotel,” right into the side of the hill with the best view of the river. You can rest there in a hammock and let the sound of the rapids lull you to sleep. These are also our accommodations for overnight visitors.
Looking for something special
If you are looking for a specific experience and want to stay for one or several nights, just ask. We take requests from birdwatchers, survival trekkers, kayakers, nature photographers and people who want to fish or simply take more time to absorb our peaceful, natural environment. Those looking for a challenging trekking experience may find themselves running to catch up with our swift guides! By all means, let us know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.
Who visits and how
We get visitors from all over the world. They usually contact tour operators in Panama City. It is good to use a tour operator if you have special needs, are from another country and don't speak Spanish or don't have local transportation.
We recommend Terra Tours.
We like to work with Ingrid and Itzel at Terra Tours because they also run an NGO which has supported us in our struggles to organize and run our tourism project. We have worked out a deal with them to receive a higher percentage when a visitor contacts them and mentions our web page. So don’t forget to mention it!!
We get some tourism from Panamanians and other Spanish speakers who are either working in or visiting Panama for an extended period of time. Quite a few Panamanian student groups have visited and even spent the night.
Our local visitors come to us in two ways: through tour operators or by contacting us directly. The latter arrange their own transportation to Lake Alajuela in the Chagres National Park.
When groups contact us directly, we earn a higher rate per visitor than when they come to us through an agency, and it is less expensive for the visitors as well. But if you don't have a Spanish-speaker among you or don't have transportation to the port, then you might want to consider the use of a tour operator.
Driving directions from Panama City
Take the Transisthmian Highway to the community of Cabima.
One way to get on the Transisthmian Highway is to can take the Corredor Norte tollway to the Tinajitas exit and turn north on the Trans-isthmian Highway near Torrijos Carter.
Continue north toward Colon for 6.8 kilometers to Cabima, where you will see a Pío-Pío restaurant in a small shopping center on the right.
Turn right after the shopping center and follow the road as it curves to the left and continues for 6.5 kilometers until you reach the Bayano Cement Factory (Cemento Bayano).
Turn left at the factory’s sign marked "Ventas." Here the pavement stops and the road turns to dirt.
Continue on for 8 kilometers until you reach a green and yellow one-story building on your left.
This is the Panama National Environmental Agency (ANAM) station in Chagres National Park.
Pull in and register as a park visitor and pay a small entrance fee ($1 per person for Panamanians, $3 for others).
Exiting the station, turn left onto the dirt road and take the first right you come to. Follow this road to the lake. This is the port of Corotú. Welcome!
What to bring
When you visit us, here are some suggestions on what to bring:
Overnighters should also consider bringing:
Things you should know
El turismo es un ingreso que entra a mi aldea y nos beneficia en gran manera en los siguientes aspectos, como lo son:
El turismo para mí es muy importante porque a través del turismo recibimos el ingreso en la comunidad. O sea, en la venta de artesanía, tejido de chaquira, tejido de chunga y a través del turismo podemos mandar a estudiar a nuestros hijos.
Es muy importante el turismo para nosotros porque sin turismo en nuestra comunidad no recibiríamos ningún ingreso, y eso nos haría una falta grande.
Yo, de mi parte, estoy dispuesto para brindarle el mejor servicio en mi comunidad y seguirá adelante sin cesar a brindarle el mejor servicio al cliente.