While driving to the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca from Boca Chica, you cross over the main road that leads to Costa Rica to approach Soloy, one of very few access points to the most remote regions within the comarca. Although the village is proximal to surrounding Panama, you get a sense that it’s worlds apart in almost every cultural aspect.
As you enter the comarca, you’ll see streets flooded with multiple generations of its native people, from children heading home after school to elderly artisans proudly displaying their creations roadside.
We arrived and promptly met our hosts, who greeted us and invited us to hop aboard their trusty steeds. This allowed us to venture to parts of the community where a car simply cannot take you.
During our ride we passed many humble homes, the meeting point of two rivers, and a flat, cleared-out space used for ceremonial dances.
We galloped back to our starting point and found a woman waiting to allow us a peek at the process by which the Ngöbe-Buglé create their staple fabric – all done by hand.
It starts with the leaves of an indigenous plant, which has its fibers exposed by a firm scraping of its outer skin with a wooden rod. These fibers then get their color through boiling over open fire alongside herbs and plants, revealing brilliant reds, yellows, greens, and many other hues.
What comes next is proof that true mastery comes only from generations of techniques shared and tirelessly practiced: the individual threads are separated, and are then woven into a tapestry and pattern so intricate that it would make a spider envious.
The climax of the fabric demonstration was seeing the finished product: an over-the-shoulder carryall bag (chacara), which was sturdy and versatile enough to carry books, a young child, and even a dog (we actually witnessed all three of these uses)! I can’t help but think that some of the bag’s strength was transferred to it from its creator’s hardened resolve and spirit.
We obviously at this point were overstimulated by the natural beauty and artistry we had witnessed, and in need of some sustenance of the local variety. We were in luck: Aris (Isla Palenque staff manager) had apparently made reservations at a close-by lunch spot. A platter awaited us with fresh mango, plantains, and hollowed-out coconuts filled with rice, chicken and beans. Everything was fresh, succulent, and bursting with natural flavor that could only be coaxed out by our chef’s careful preparation.
Now we were fueled up and ready for the final chapter: the children of Ngöbe-Buglé treated us to a smattering of traditional dances. Content simply enjoying their unity and smiling faces, we were both surprised and delighted when they invited us to join them on the stage in an act that was such an important part of their heritage. We stumbled and slowly learned the steps of a few dances, but what struck me the most was the collective fun and energy I felt while dancing with the group. The smiles and laughter were infectious and genuine.
We then expressed our gratitude and reluctantly said our goodbyes as we exited the village. Although our time in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca was brief, the experiences were so unique and humbling that I don’t suspect that their vividness and impact will dim anytime soon.
Overall, I think that this excursion helped provide us a more well-rounded Panama/island experience than if we had stayed exclusively on la Isla Palenque during our trip.
Photos by Brooke Bullock.
About the comarca
The comarca Ngöbe-Buglé was established in 1997 through a 6,968 km² land grant from the Panamanian government to this largest of Panama’s indigenous groups. Soloy is one of the bigger communities within the comarca, home to 6,000 Ngäbe (the predominant of the two distinct but closely-related indigenous peoples collectively known as the Ngöbe-Buglé). People living in the comarca have long survived through the practice of small-scale subsistence farming; additional avenues for income are, for most Ngöbe-Buglé, limited to seasonal work elsewhere and community-based tourism. The latter of these is of dual importance in that it helps Ngöbe-Buglé families support themselves while valuing and preserving their traditional culture.
In 2012, The Resort at Isla Palenque organized the first official tours in Soloy as one of the Mainland Excursions available to guests of the resort. Visits to this community are also offered several times a year through Panama tourism operator Habla Ya, and some Ngäbe families living in Soloy offer homestays to travelers who seek to experience the indigenous lifestyle.
For guests of The Resort at Isla Palenque
If you are interested in visiting the Ngöbe-Buglé of Soloy during your stay at Isla Palenque, please tell us in your pre-trip correspondence with our team. We try to include visits to Soloy in our schedule of Tours & Activities for days that allow the greatest number of interested guests to participate.