By Christy Lavoie
Destination Manager, Natural Habitat Adventures

Panama’s Bocas del Toro is a little-known collection of rocky islands in the far northwest of the country on the Caribbean Sea, esteemed for its lush tropical vegetation and rich biodiversity, including fauna found nowhere else in the world. But Bocas del Toro is also rich in indigenous culture, as I discovered during a recent visit to the village of Salt Creek, near Bastimentos National Park, a highlight on Natural Habitat’s Wild Panama adventure.

Salt Creek

Arriving at Salt Creek on Bastimentos Island. Photo: Christy Lavoie.

On the boat ride to Salt Creek, as we navigated the channels through the mangrove forest to reach the dock, my guide, Rick Morales, explained to me that the Ngobe people who call this community home are quite shy, having just opened their doors to tourism in 2000.  At that time, a village resident named Salino and his brother, being familiar with the behavior patterns of the wildlife on their land, built a trail and began offering guided nature walks. The rest of the community was initially resistant to the idea, but over time they came up with ways to collaborate and get everyone involved, to the mutual benefit of all.

They even created an organized tourism board, appointed a tourism coordinator, put together several guided tour options, built a visitors center and started a small gift shop where a few locally made items can be purchased.  Each tour option is guided and managed by a different person in the village.  As a community, Salt Creek limits the number of visitors they host, so as not to overrun their land or diminish the quality of the experience, and they consistently look for ways to allow all community members to contribute to and benefit from tourism on their land.

Salt Creek jungle casa.

Salt Creek jungle casa. Photo by Aldo Mata [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rick was so impressed with Salino and the success of Salt Creek’s organization that he invited him to collaborate with two other indigenous community leaders —  Mateo Mecha from Embera Drua, in Chagres National Park, and Igua Jimenez, of the Kuna culture from Eastern Panama.  Rick, Salino, Mateo and Igua traveled together to each other’s communities to experience first-hand how each village operates and to discuss the challenges and successes each one has had.

Together they assessed and discussed ideas, reviewing and comparing systems, concepts, challenges, problems, solutions and goals, in hopes of learning from each other and working to improve their own communities and practices.  Afterward, they brought their findings and ideas to the International Conference of the National Association for Interpretation where they presented them to attendees.

The entire endeavor was an exciting and educational experience. The most powerful result of their actions, though, is that these men have created a vital link between their communities. They are keeping that link alive on their own now—staying in touch, offering advice and support.  Every day, each faces the unique challenges how to balance the impacts of tourism and development with indigenous village life.  Until now, they faced these challenges in isolation. Today, back at home in their respective villages, they have not only gained new insight and perspective, but have developed a network of support from which to draw for the future.

Did you know that Panama is on Travel + Leisure’s list of Hot Destinations for 2012?  Visit Salt Creek and Bastimentos Marine National Park with Natural Habitat Adventures on our Wild Panama trip!