On my last trip to Panama, I was heading out to meet some people in Boca Chica en route to Isla Palenque, but they were running a couple hours late. Since I had time to kill, I decided to turn up a small road that I had heard led the village of Besiko, a small Ngobe-Bugle village which began opening itself up to tourism about a year ago. This village is 45 minutes from Boca Chica, so about an hour from Isla Palenque – a perfect day jaunt from the island. I was surprised that the road was now paved, and also that I practically drove right into a stunning waterfall. About 15 miles up the road, after passing a startling amount of very young children commuting on horseback, I came upon the village of Besiko.
First, a little background: the Ngobe-Bugle are Panama’s largest indigenous group. In 1972 the Panamanian government ruled that Ngobe-Bugle tribes possess exclusive rights to a portion of land that is partially in Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. This comarca, roughly translated to “county,” is where the Ngobe-Bugle have lived for centuries. Because this agreement also gives them considerable administrative authority, they do not get much help from the government. In this region of mountainous terrain, farming is difficult because of the steep slopes and rocky soil. Only in recent years have the Ngobe-Bugle tried to integrate their traditional life in the mountainous jungle into the present-day economy. The combination of harsh farming conditions, remote location, and lack of governmental aid means that they often live in poverty without clean water, education, or job opportunities.
Besiko is one of the seven districts of the comarca. Here, as in most of the comarca, the Ngobe-Bugle still maintain many aspects of their ancient lifestyle. You might recognize the colorful dresses, or nuguas, that the women wear. These hand-embroidered frocks have become an illustrious symbol of Panamanian culture – and for good reason: one of the only ways that the Ngobe-Bugle have found to integrate their ancient lifestyle into the modern economy is to sell traditional handicrafts such as nuguas.
It was a rainy Saturday when I showed up unexpectedly so there was no big show, just life moving along at its usual (slow) pace. The people were friendly and smiling as I stopped at a small tent that was selling handmade goods. I spotted a woman who, despite wearing a nugua, looked like a Westerner, so I approached her. It turns out she is Laura Geiken, a member of the Peace Corps who was recently assigned to Besiko and will spend the next two years helping this local village establish some revenue from tourism. Right now they have a few concrete buildings in the village center dedicated to this purpose, and a sign displaying a Destino Besiko website that a group in David developed to promote tourism in the village. If you bring a group to Besiko and call ahead of time, they can have more shops set up that will sell and display traditional handicrafts and a group of young adults will perform a traditional dance.
What the Peace Corps will do is help develop these sparse and incomplete efforts into a sustainable tourism enterprise so that the Ngobe-Bugle can afford a better quality of life while still maintaining their authentic traditions. By the time our boutique hotel is realized in 2012, we will be organizing with groups like this to plan trips to Besiko to learn about and interact with the Ngobe-Bugle people.
As an architect, my visit was very enlightening. Although I usually like seeing the techniques indigenous people have been using for centuries to build their homes and communities in Panama’s wild terrain, it was a wake-up call to see the Ngobe-Bugle roofs covered with measly tarps during this rainy season, and to understand that men must feed their families by leaving them to work as migrant farmers. I believe that by bringing tourists to this area of the world we not only improve their quality of life, but ours as well by deriving inspiration from witnessing such a pure, primordial lifestyle still in existence. I commend the organizations working in these communities that bring them essential societal benefits like healthcare and education, while still allowing them to live the tradition-rich lifestyle in which children can still amble into town on horseback.