The Embera Indians
The Embera are one of Panama’s indigenous Indian groups, living in the Darien along the shores of the Chucunaque, Sambu and Tuira rivers. They live in small villages of five to 20 houses and have their own form of autonomous government and rules, separate from the Panamanian government. Some still live off the land hunting wild fish and game using traditional methods. While the Embera have long been known for their distinctive appearance – wearing brightly coloured skirts and painting their bodies in intricate geometric patterns – they’re just as likely to be wearing normal western clothes these days. Smartphones and satellite TV too are found in the jungle’s remotest reaches. Teammates keen to learn from a ‘host and guest’ experience when staying near villages (rather than expecting to observe contrived displays of traditional culture) will leave feeling rewarded.
Petroglyphs are rock engravings, often associated with prehistoric peoples. The ‘Yarre Mongara’ or Monkey Stone was documented by Robert Hyman (an American photographer-explorer) and Daniel Castaneda (a local Embera Indian) in 1995. Previously only known to the local Embera Indians who inhabit the area, the petroglyphs were dated to 3000-5000 BC. Hyman returned in 2005 to discover other sites though the area remains largely unexplored with more sites potentially remaining undiscovered.
Arriving in what are now the Americas, the Spanish first settled in the Darien region in 1510. Their initial efforts to colonise were torched by indigenous tribes a few years later. Later came the Scots, who founded a coastal trading colony. They ultimately failed too, with settlers perishing from disease and attack and a loss of wealth so significant that Scotland was all but bankrupted. If history had played out here as elsewhere in the world during this period, the Darien would be today one of the most populated regions in the Americas. Instead, it remains as wild today as it was during the days of the attempted conquests.
Rick Morales is one of Panama’s most respected naturalists and guides having worked there since 1998. In recent years he has been directly involved with the rediscovery of the colonial trial, Camino Real Colonial. Rick is frequently quoted in articles and literature concerning the Darien Gap and its people, flora and fauna. Feedback for Rick is consistently of the ‘embarrassingly good’ variety. His local connections and knowledge ensure that the team is kept best informed at all times, with teammates always keen to pick his brains on topics from the jungle and its inhabitants to the current or historical political situation in the region. In 2011 Rick became the first person to walk the Panama Trail, a through-hike from the Colombian border to Costa Rica. This is part of the Trans-Panama project which aims to develop and map sections of trail connecting regions and people throughout Panama.
Wildlife in the Darien
There is a staggering range of bird life in the Darien including the harpy eagle, four species of macaw, kingfishers and tropical toucans. The region is also home to jaguars, tapirs, anteaters, monkeys, iguanas, snakes, frogs and caimans. Despite its natural richesse, expedition leader Rick is keen for teammates to arrive in the Darien with sensible expectations about bird and animal spotting. This expedition is a challenging trek in a region known for its wildlife rather than a staged safari with guaranteed sightings. He’s recently seen all manner of creatures from troops of monkeys to a stealthy puma so fingers crossed the forest is on your side.