La Chunga and Sambú
The touristy Emberá village of La Chunga (la CHOON-guh) is about an hour upriver. It’s along the banks of the Río Chunga, a sluggish but no less scenic little river that empties into the Sambú.
A chunga is a kind of black palm with sharp spines, used by the Emberá-Wounaan to make decorative baskets. Ask a villager to point one out. The village is about a 20-minute walk down a wide, flat path from where the boat lands.
You may have mixed feelings about visiting La Chunga. The village, which has a population of about 300 people, has obviously been shaped with tourists in mind. Most of the tourists come from small cruise ships that offer a taste of the Darién as part of a transcanal itinerary.
Those who slip into the village ahead of a tour group may see women taking off their blouses and bras and men kicking off their jeans to look appropriately native for their visitors. Decked out in little more than short skirts or loin coverings, they dance around as tourists snap photos. The whole thing looks as uncomfortable for the villagers as it will probably feel to you.
When a tour group is expected, Emberá and Wounaan come from nearby settlements to join the villagers in selling handicrafts at tables set up around the village. It’s possible to get some well-made souvenirs at good prices, and the money is going right to the needy source. Popular items include cocobolo (rosewood) figurines, tightly woven baskets and bowls, and tagua nuts (also known as ivory nuts) carved in the shape of forest animals.
The airstrip for the area is in the tiny, ramshackle town of Sambú, whose residents are a mixture of Afro-Colonials, Emberá, and Wounaan. There are a couple of new guesthouses in town.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition