What’s It Like To Live With An Indigenous Tribe In Panama? One Intrepid Traveler Shares Her Experience

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Erica’s room when staying with the indigenous tribe

One of the main reasons people travel is to experience something new. Culturally immersive encounters and transformative trips that take us out of our comfort zone both enlighten us about the world and help us grow. Intrepid traveler and blogger at Girl In The City, Erica Olson, shares her experience living with an indigenous tribe in Panama, how it changed her and lessons learned.

1. In Panama you had the opportunity to stay with an indigenous tribe. What was the tribe, and how did you get to stay with them?

I actually joined a non-profit organization that allowed me to travel for about six months in Central America. We spent about two weeks in Panama with the Ngabe Tribe, a diminishing indigenous tribe that has a language that is fast dying. A lot of the language is now mixed between Ngabe and Spanish.

There are a lot of efforts to try to preserve the tribe and their values; however, they are integrated with a lot of modern culture. For example, the men wear standard Panamanian clothes, but the women still wear the traditional dress. The tribe is known for wearing bright clothing in different colors. We met an interpreter that was kind enough to take our traveling group to stay with them for two weeks. We had been going back in forth with him about it for weeks. They have really only let about two other groups visit them in the past, so it was a really rare experience. They want as little exposure to the outside world as possible. The truck ride alone up the mountain takes several hours with limited supplies, and from there we had to hike several hours as well.

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2. What was your lodging like?

We had a single concrete building that we stayed in. The building had open windows and open spaces with no doors. It was the only solid structure that they had, but we were happy to have a roof over our head. The Ngabe people actually sleep in traditional huts outdoors. We had a hole in the ground for a restroom that was covered by some wood, and no running water. No electricity, no plumbing. There was a river, but it was a really far journey. We went through A LOT of baby wipes.

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One of the tribal homes. Says Erica, “Keep in mind we are also in the mountains so there are all kinds of wild animals! A little terrifying.”

3. How did you prepare for the experience?

There really was no way to prepare. When I joined the organization I had no idea what I was in for. I thought we would be staying in people’s homes and hotels; however, we ended up sleeping on the floors of churches, hostels and shelters.

I was prepared for the worst as far as equipment went, but emotionally I was not prepared at all. I am certainly a girly girl, with big hair and fake nails. If I had known, I would have prepared myself more in advance. We spent six months as a team driving through Central America in a van, and this took place at the end of the trip,  so we were all emotionally exhausted to say the least. We had a mix of several different cultures from I believe six different countries, so I’m sure you can imagine that tensions grow, relationships form, and stress with no alone time gets hard. I brought a hiking backpack with one outfit, a rain jacket, some water, some medicine, a thin blanket, a mosquito net, baby wipes and my camera.

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Erica hiking in the mountains and clouds

4. What was your biggest moment of culture shock?

I actually had a really hard time here. I was not as open-minded as I should have been, and I actually felt a little left out to be completely honest. The women gave traditional cultural dresses to a few girls in our group, and not the rest. It’s hard when you have no way to communicate except with a translator. So naturally, I spent most of my time exploring with the children. I found that with children, I could communicate simply with gestures and motions. I didn’t need to speak the language. I really bonded with the kids and a few of the little ones really took a liking to me. They would pick me fresh flowers every day, and bring me raw sugarcane that their dad chopped.

At one point, we had gone hiking to the river and to an older woman’s house. On the way back, it started down pouring rain. I had all of my camera gear with me and no more clean clothing. I was frantic because I only had two pairs of clothes, and my second outfit was already soaked so I would be spending the entire night in wet clothing. We were in a mountainous area, so the water doesn’t exactly evaporate or dry out of your clothing quickly. Oh, and my camera got wet so we had some issues — which is why some of my images were not as clear after that point. The children held my hand and helped me across the river and made sure to get me back to our shelter. The kids really stayed with me and tried to console me.

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The outside of the building where Erica stayed. The only solid foundation building they had. Notice there are no doors — which made for an interesting experience at night.

5. What was the most important lesson you learned from this group?

I really wish I had tried to bond more with the women. Now that I am older I have a lot more understanding of the women and how their lives were, but at the time I really gravitated towards the kids. I learned how to chop sugarcane, and really learned how to communicate with out words and simply by gestures.

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Some of the children in the Ngabe Tribe

6. How did you change or grow from the experience?

I was actually really moved by the stories some of the tribal members told us. They don’t have easy access to medical care and emergency services —  something that we often take for granted. They had a little girl who’s mother actually drowned in a recent flood, so the tribe had to take it upon themselves to take care of her. Everyone really tries to help each other out. They live very simply, but very happy.

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7. How can travelers wanting to interact with indigenous cultures do so responsibly and respectfully?

I would say research. Until the day before, we had no knowledge of where we were going or who we would be staying with. Certain gestures are inappropriate or mean negative things, so it’s good to learn in advance. We had a great guide who spent years bonding with the people, and established a trusted relationship which really helped us.

8. What’s your wildest/most unbelievable story from the trip?

Probably the bathroom situation. Let’s just say, as a female, not having access to restroom amenities is not exactly a fun situation. It was funny to all of us at the time, but at the same time pretty miserable. Ice cold bucket bathing is a new skill I’ve learned!

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Colorful tribal clothing

9. What was the biggest challenge for you during this trip, and how did you cope?

Definitely being exhausted from the last six months. I just had no idea where we were going until the day before, so it was hard to prepare mentally.

10. What’s your process like for planning a culture-focused trip?

I feel like I’ve experienced everything now. The biggest thing for me would be preparing for the worst, and really packing to be roughing it!

erica olson

About Erica Olson

Erica Olson is a South Florida based publicist, social media manager, and editor. She studied Art History at the Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria, while on full academic scholarship. She would later transfer to Ashford University to join the Forbes School of Business to obtain her Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Marketing studies. Erica is currently an editor for the luxury lifestyle and fashion blog, Girl In The City, and has written for several media outlets including an international design magazine. Her photography has been featured with National Geographic, and she was recently named a Style and Design Tastemaker by CBS News.

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3 Comments

  1. See, I wouldn’t have expected there to be a tribe in Panama as it seems like such a modern country compared to other place in C.A.

    You seem like you had quite an experience and I probably would have gravitated to the kids to, I love the kids… They don’t require much to have fun or fall in love with.

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