Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. A slice of doubt entered my mind at their complete bafflement, but within moments the bus handler had hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.
Barely marked on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete. My dad found this indigenous community while researching interesting things to do in the Chiriquí area and decided that we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari. This small rural tourism organization is located at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, a demarcated area similar in function to Native American reservations in the U.S.
From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee farm Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing that interests me more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would complete my deep understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” Take a trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store and it’s a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate, behind Urari’s small tourism organization, which was self-started and runs entirely by the community. It seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.
In short, our weekend held promise. We were all intrigued by the chance to live within one of Panama’s indigenous communities … but first, I had to find the place.
I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish. Smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.
Two hours later, we had settled into modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.
Building Sustainability Within the Silico Creek Community
Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English. As guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.
Immersion was the name of the game for this trip, so we immediately learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in the 1960s. That first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.
Urari, I learned, is primarily designed as the community’s homegrown solution to a lack of tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, indigenous peoples are given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the U.S., demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system—an internal economy within the community. But the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land and money within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngäbe-Buglé.
As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues surrounding the global production of coffee are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a nearby cooperative that, while paying “fairly,” does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenues for selling cacao outside of the reservation don’t offer livable wages even within their communal living system.
Hence a new focus on tourism.
And in this case, Ana, my dad, and I took part in homegrown tourism at Silico Creek, which means the locals shaped the interactions and the amount of their culture they would offer up to tourists like us. They formed Urari to run tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngäbe-Buglé culture, as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.
Finding Grassroots Tourism in Panama
The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.
We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, and just getting situated. As dark settled over the hilltop bungalows, however, we locals offered a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.
And then we spent an hour on small pleasures—my dad and I talked on our dark balcony, looking out at moonwashed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside. At least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see a flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling, I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. It was magical. Ana and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.
We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit. The meal was hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.
And boy did we earn that breakfast! The hike was muddy but fun and gave us the chance to chat with Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goals for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past on future of Panama’s indigenous peoples.
Oh yes, and we admired gorgeous untouched forests, small villages, rushing rivers, and a beautiful waterfall too. :)
Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day: Many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions. And frankly, to look at us. Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children who had never previously seen a foreign child in person. Urari’s emphasis on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community meant we always found new friends to chat with throughout the day.
The Humble Origins of Chocolate
A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek. The wet earth created deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.
Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee. Although this was a treat for us, chocolate represents more than an occasional treat for this community, and more than simply a crop to sell. Cacao has a cultural significance to the Ngäbe-Buglé and it’s embedded in their spiritual ceremonies. It also happens to be a relatively lucrative crop, giving it even more significance to them in today’s cash-based society.
The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent visiting the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand. It’s a tale of farming, and not a particularly unique one. But farmers have a tough road. Growing such trendy commodities as coffee and chocolate mean growers continually strive to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for their commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from other parts of the the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists (and thus a win a slice of the $8.8 trillion dollars travel and tourism adds to the global economy).
We slogged through the dense overgrowth in borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo and a local farmer guided us throughout the plantation, explaining the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao. We even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—it’s syrupy-sweet like candy.
From the farm, we walked back to the village and sheltered in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.
Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao: nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative.
Again we saw how tourism was a profitable avenue for Urari. Beyond just tours, Urari planned to diversify the types of chocolate products it produced, creating more opportunities for direct sales to tourists. Their marketing message is soli: Buy high-quality organic chocolate directly from the source and support Panama’s indigenous people. (We bought two bars and my dad and I tried our hand at a delicious raw cacao dessert!)
The Realities of Sustainable Tourism
I often talk about the benefits of local, sustainable tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves. Urari is a clear illustration of the concept. Your travels are richer are when you engage responsibly with locals.
That said, my threshold for getting off the beaten path is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I was interested in his reactions. He came away wowed at how different he now understood Panama—the place he spent all of his childhood. This tourism project gave him a way chance to see an entirely different side to the country.
Silico Creek hopes expand their initiative in the coming years. Right now, school groups from the states visit en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.
And to an extent, you can tell. The community has bare basic Western amenities. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity. Mosquito nets adorn the beds and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.
It’s truly full immersion.
And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).
When you step off the path while traveling, you gain insights, stories, and interactions simply not possible ensconced in high-end hotels that bubble-wrap the raw and gritty reality of traveling. It’s these off-the-path adventures that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable social enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I uncover so much more than is offered on the tourist track around a country.
And for those with just a week or two in a region, using grassroots initiatives allows locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. From Kenya to Thailand to Panama, there are indigenous people setting the terms of how they want tourists to learn more about their cultures and customs.
I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:
Throughout three days of full immersion, we found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from our own, and my family and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by this tourism: the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love using social enterprises while traveling.
Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek
Where: On the road between David and Changuinola at kilometer 25. Follow the full directions on their site; this project is best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip since they are in that region, within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca.
How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com, then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.
When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We visited in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc). We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.
Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.
Tips: Accommodation is basic but the wooden bungalows are very clean. The bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Pack wisely. Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.
A fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture.