Many of the North American and European expatriates who move to Chiriqui leave their homes in the developed world to pursue a simpler, quieter lifestyle. They appreciate Panama for its country roads, its small communities, and its friendly people. They find joy in simple pleasures like gardening, cooking, and fishing. But expatriates were not the first people to pursue a life of simplicity and purity in Panama. The Ngobe-Bugle have been pursuing such a lifestyle for centuries, and they continue to live in relative harmony with nature even today.
The Ngobe-Bugle represent the largest indigenous group in Panama. They belong to two distinct, but closely-related tribes: the Guaymi and the Bokota. The Guaymi people are also occasionally known as the Ngobe, and the Bokota people are often known as the Bugle. Therefore, most people know them collectively as the Ngobe-Bugle.
The Guaymi and the Bokota maintain their own languages, but they share many cultural similarities, and live together in the Highlands of Chiriqui. Here they continue to live and work the same way they have for generations.
Some members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe work for a wage in the farms and factories throughout Chiriqui, but many of them choose to live as their ancestors have lived for generations, without real money and without a rigidly defined “job.” Many of the Ngobe-Bugle men who choose to live this way maintain small farms of their own, while many Ngobe-Bugle women make dresses, baskets, and handicrafts to sell to the tourists who visit their villages.
Their lives are simple, but rewarding, and they seem content to trade worldly wealth for spiritual fulfillment.
The History of the Ngobe-Bugle
Five hundred years ago, seven indigenous groups coexisted peacefully in the province of Chiriqui. These groups were the Boquerones, Bugabas, Buricas, Changuinas, Doraces, Gualacas, and Zurias.
Each of these groups lived in harmony with the others until a group of Spanish explorers arrived in the province in the late fifteenth century, intent upon establishing settlements in the area. The Spanish explorers made contact with the natives shortly after they came to Chiriqui, and they unwittingly introduced the tribes to a variety of diseases, including measles.
The indigenous population of Chiriqui was ill-prepared to deal with an outbreak of measles, and more than half of the natives died shortly after being exposed to the Spanish explorers.
The natives who managed to survive contact with the explorers grew weary of the Spanish settlers, and many of them fled to the relative safety and security of the Chiriqui Highlands.
Two of these tribes, the Guaymi and the Bokota, came to live in close proximity to each other, and they began to share much of their culture and many of their customs with each other. They never came to speak the same language, though, and even today, the Guaymi language and the Bokota language share few similarities.
The modern-day Ngobe-Bugle can still be found in many small settlements and villages throughout the Highlands of Chiriqui, and travelers passing through their territory ought to pay them a visit. They always welcome visitors, and they are often happy to talk about their culture and their unique way of life.