There's nothing staged or contrived about a tour to meet indigenous tribe the Embera – but watch out for cheeky monkeys.
After turning off the main road, we park in a small clearing and follow a dirt track down to the river. Waiting for us in a wooden dugout canoe are two men wearing small black and white beaded skirts and bright yellow loin cloths. The younger one steps out of the boat, smiles and hands me a lifejacket.
We motor up the mud-coloured Gatun River, its banks thick with fig trees, palms and rushes. Along the way we pass a three-toed sloth hanging languidly from a branch and an inquisitive capuchin monkey who climbs down from the treetops as we approach. "We'll keep our distance," says Luis, my guide from Chimu Adventures. "Last year one jumped into the boat and stole a lady's $300 Prada sunglasses."
After 10 minutes we turn into a narrow lily-choked channel that leads to a large clearing with a cluster of thatched huts. As we disembark onto a wooden pier, a group of scantily-clad young men and women perform a welcome song, then shower us with handshakes and "holas". Hanging above the pier is a simple handmade sign that reads "Embera Quera".
The Embera are one of Panama's seven indigenous tribes, which in total make up about 12 per cent of the population. Many live in towns and cities but some still choose to make a life in the jungle. This community, which calls itself Embera Quera, was started by three families in 2007 after their home in the Darien province was turned into a national park. Now, 22 families live here on a 10-hectare plot of land.
I follow Luis into a dirt-floored communal lounge and he introduces me to Alicia and Rosa, two women in their early 20s. Both are dressed in beautiful brightly-coloured skirts and tops that are decorated with silver coins that shimmer and jingle when they move. Alicia is making an intricate pendant using beads and thread, a process that will take two days. In basic English, she explains that she worked in Panama City for a while but prefers living here.
Each family in the village has their own hut on stilts, accessed by a log with steps cut into it. There's a small open-air classroom where children up to the age of 11 are taught by a teacher who commutes to the village each day. After that they have the option of attending school in Panama City or Colon.
There's no mains power, just one generator that is switched on for a few hours each day. Meals are cooked over open fires and consist mainly of corn, rice and fish caught from the river. That might not sound particularly exciting but the peacock fish and rice I have for lunch is delicious.
Next to the lounge is a playful gaggle of children. The boys, all dressed in loin cloths, chase each other, wrestle and fight with sticks. The girls sit quietly and pretend to feed their teddy bears with toy bottles of milk.
What's refreshing about this tour is that it doesn't feel staged or contrived. The village goes about its business largely unbothered by my presence. The traditional clothing most people are wearing isn't for my benefit; it's what they always wear.
Although the community receives some income from these tours and the sale of handicrafts, their priority is living the simple, largely subsistence life of their ancestors.
As the sky darkens and an afternoon rain storm moves in, we return to the lounge and I strike up conversation with a group of men in their early 20s. Many have elaborate tattoos made using the juice from the local jagua plant. Most are married and already have two or three children. Luis explains that when the Embera marry there's no elaborate ceremony or exchange of rings. "Nothing to share when you get divorced," jokes one of the men, winking.
As I stand watching the rain from under the thatched fringe of the hut, surrounded by a group of tattooed, loin cloth-clad men, it's difficult to believe the frenzy and hustle of Panama City is less than an hour away. I ask one of them whether he likes the city. "No," he replies, shaking his head. "Too much trafico."
Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Chimu Adventures.
The 50-room American Trade Hotel in Panama City oozes colonial charm with an impressive rooftop pool and an intimate jazz club. See acehotel.com/panama
Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Panama itinerary, including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 773 231; see chimuadventures.com