I recently came across an extremely well-written blog by a young Peace Corps volunteer, Jessica Rudder, who is working in the Comarca Ngabe-Bukle (more often written as Ngöbe Buglé). A Comarca is a semi-autonomous region in a country with a substantial indigenous population. There are five Comarcas in Panama, three of which are of substantial size.
The country’s first Comarca was that of the Kuna Indians of the San Blas archipelago.
The Kuna have become the symbol of the indigenous peoples of Panama through their colorful molas and they are often depicted in travel posters and brochures. They have a population of around 50,000 and are often seen in Panama City.
Then there is the Emberá-Wounaan of the Darien jungle who number around 15,000. They live more traditionally than the other tribes, it seems. They, too, have wonderful craft traditions of basket making, some of which cost hundreds of dollars
And wonderfully tagua nut carvings like this one I bought on one of my early exploratory visits.
By far the largest indigenous group is the Ngöbe Buglé who make up 63% of the nation’s Indian people with a population of well over 110,000. Their Comarca takes up a large area of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro provinces. Ngöbe women and their daughters all wear a mumu-style dress foisted upon them by the earliest religious zealots. There is rarely a time riding the bus from Potrerillos Arriba to David that there aren’t at least a couple of Ngöbe women on board though they rarely go farther down down the mountain than Dolega.
Jessica is a good writer, has some wonderful photos illustrating what life is really like in the interior of Panama from the perspective not of a tourist but of someone living in a semi-isolated community and of how things work there.
Anyone looking for a good read (I’ve spent hours fascinated with her story) should check out her blog, La Viajera Encantada. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.