What a great day! Greg Homel kicked off the morning by providing insights about the little known and seldom seen birds of the Darien. After an early lunch we boarded a flotilla of local boats—modified dugouts, in fact—for an hour long ride to the coast and up the winding Mogue River. Our drivers swept from side-to-side on the broader areas to facilitate photography as we rode the incoming tide. The tide is critical to access the upper reaches. Soon it narrowed and we could hear the drums of the Chocó Emberá as we were rounding the final bend. Waiting for us were many of the villagers in traditional dress, including musicians and a gaggle of children who were shy, but curious and who quickly took us by the hand for the walk along the path to their home. They speak Spanish as a second tongue, but smiles went miles and language provided no barrier.
The village was a manicured clearing with a dozen raised houses, open at the sides with palm-thatched roofs. We were able to watch demonstrations of sugar cane pressing, corn grinding, and seed hulling; and were again welcomed and treated to music and dance performances. Our Expedition Leader, Jeff Gneiser, presented school supplies to the head of the village and we set off to explore.
The Chocó Emberá use vegetable dye body paint and were willing to apply it to anyone who wished; needless to say there are a lot of blue arms on the ship this evening. These people are noted for their wood and tagua nut carvings and basketry, but also do some beadwork and it was possible also to purchase the brightly colored print fabric from which the women make their skirts. The handicrafts are high quality and offer exceptional value for the cost and it’s a very authentic experience. We felt genuinely welcome; the children don’t beg and have no expectation of gifts; and the craftspeople are justifiably proud of their work, but do not pursue or pressure visitors. If you approach them they may be willing to barter a little on their prices and they are pleased to permit photographs. Zegrahm is one of the very few groups to visit them. Although individuals do travel there, the area is difficult to access. Pride in their heritage and interpreting their culture to visitors permits this village to maintain a more traditional lifestyle. Without these visits it is probable they would be absorbed into logging and other non-traditional industries.
The Chocó Emberá have also become guardians of the rare harpy eagle, the world’s most powerful bird of prey. While we all wanted a chance to see one, the nearest nest was two hours from the village and our tidal window was closing. As we embarked downriver, we made a quick stop at the “Le Levant Riverside Café,” otherwise known as our Cruise Director, Lynne Greig, and crew dispensing cold towels, brownies, and fruit from a Zodiac. The motorized dugouts managed to drench almost everyone heading through the choppy waters to Le Levant, but it made for a refreshing end to the day’s adventure. Shortly after, many of us watched the spectacular sunset as Le Levant set sail for Isla de Coiba.