During my drives to Isla Palenque, I try to fit in a stop or two along the way to sample a new Panamanian treat or find an undiscovered nook of the Chiriqui region. During one such adventure, I pulled over to the side of the Interamericana Highway to get a closer look at some strikingly beautiful and wildly colorful woven goods for sale. I was immediately drawn to a ubiquitous satchel that I had seen carried by many Ngobe-Bugle tribespeople; the vendor told me that it was a chacara. My curiosity immediately sparked, I spent the next few days asking around about what they were used for and why they seemed to be everywhere.
Chiriqui artisans weave chacara bags from the fiber of wild pineapple plants and other natural materials. They harvest the fibers year-round, then hang them high in the rafters of their homes or tree branches to dry and become tractable. After the curing process is complete, the prepared fibers are then submerged in vibrantly-hued dyes and used to weave these colorful and practical works of art. Like Mary Poppins’ purse, these bags can stretch to accommodate almost anything. The secret lies in the way they are woven with natural, stretchy fibers, making them amazingly strong and amazingly flexible at the same time.
The Ngobe-Bugle use these bags to carry out their most important daily tasks – anything from transporting firewood to hanging supplies from the rafters of their open-air lodges to keep them dry. They are a vital tool of day-to-day life, especially since the primary mode of transportation is walking. Weather in the Chiriqui highlands can change at a moment’s notice, and a day-long trip on the mountain trails requires adequate preparation and supplies. Not to mention, Ngobe-Bugle women frequently tote their small children in addition to their necessities, and chacara bags are used to transport both.
If you’re passing through Chiriqui, keep your eyes open for roadside stands manned by Ngobe-Bugle tribesmen selling their goods. These makeshift shops are a family affair – you’ll often see children helping their fathers keep track of inventory and Ngobe-Bugle women crafting bracelets and weaving vendibles as they care for smaller children.
Chacara bags make for an eco-friendly carry-all, beach tote, or even reusable grocery bag. They also take up little to no space, so they’re easy to fit in your suitcase as souvenirs. If you’re thinking about a trip to the Chiriqui highlands, make sure to plan a stop along the way to see the enterprising spirit of indigenous families and pick up a couple bags. Your friends back home will be asking where you found such an intricate and unique holdall, and you’ll be amazed by how often it comes in handy.