By Louie Celerier
Embera Indian Village, Chagres River
Sunday, March 6 Leaving the hotel at 8 AM with the EcoCircuitos guide, we headed for the Chagres River above Madden Dam. We were headed to one of the Embera Indian villages on the shores of the Chagres River. The Chagres River and its water shed is, as you know, the key to the operation of the locks of the Canal. It feeds Gatun Lake which provides the reservoir of water that allows ships to be raised 85 feet above sea level to transit across the isthmus. But, also, much history flows through this river: First, as a route for the Spanish “Las Cruces Trail” on which gold from Peru was carried from Panama City to the banks of the upper Chagres and floated down to Fort San Lorenzo. From there it was transferred to the Portobello Customs House where it was stored until the Spanish Galleons would arrive from Spain. The other route to Portobello, the “El Camino Real”, was a land trail all the way from Panama to the Atlantic port. Later, the Chagres route was used, in reverse, by the “Forty-niners” on their way to the Pacific and the California gold fields. (How many found their resting place on its banks?) Therefore, I was very glad to be able to go up this river, in an Indian dug-out canoe (with outboard, of course), to the lower of three Embera Indian villages on the banks of the river. This area is a new National Park. Three Indian villages have been created, for the benefit of tourist, by bringing Indians from the Embera tribes to live at these settlements by the shores of the river. As their chief explained, they are mostly young people now, but in time they will be representative of a typical Indian community. They live according to their customs, providing an insight of their history and way of life to the tourist that cannot venture into the jungles of Darien. At any rate, this type of trip should be made with a group of not less that 20 as otherwise, the Indians do not get into the full spirit of their “show”. As it happened, the other two Indian villages were full for that day and we had to visit the lower village all by ourselves, just two of us. The group ahead of us, on the next village consisted of 130 and they had a ball. But we did learn much about their way of life and were able to poke out heads into their village, even helping them saw some lumber they were needing for a new “privy”. On leaving the village, we went up river for a better view of the Chagres. Being dry season, it was not easy and, running short of gasoline, we were forced to turn back. But we got to see more of this majestic river which has always played such an important part in the history of Panama. And the views were beautiful as well as menacing. Back in the city that night, we went to dinner at El Panama Hotel again and had another excellent meal. Remember how we would go there after the school dances? We would go to the ballroom at the top floor, which would also open into a terrace, and dance until midnight. The view of the bay of Panama, with the flickering lights of the fishing boats, was always beautiful and romantic. What a long time ago that was!
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