Río Teribe and the Naso
A trip up the Río Teribe is one of the most memorable experiences Bocas del Toro has to offer, and it makes for a nice change of scene for those getting island fever in the archipelago. This is the homeland of the Naso, an indigenous people who live near the river in 11 communities surrounded by beautiful forest.
It’s a reasonable and accessible trip for those with the slightest sense of adventure, an interest in indigenous cultures, and a desire to explore a bit of tropical forest in rustic but relatively comfortable conditions.
The climate is quite different from that on the islands and doesn’t fit preconceived notions of a tropical rainforest. It can be rather mild and pleasantly breezy upriver.
About the Naso
The Naso are better known in Panama as the Teribe or Naso-Teribe. Some Naso say that “Teribe” is a mispronunciation of tjer di, which means “river of the Grandmother,” the ancestral guiding spirit of the people. They are also sometimes known as the Térraba.
The Naso are proud to be the last people in the Americas to still have a monarch.
Spanish records suggest that in the 16th century the Naso were already well-established in the region, including Almirante Bay as far north as Isla Colón, and may in fact have been the dominant power of the time.
The Naso were gradually squeezed out of the area and by the latter half of the 19th century had retreated far up the Río Teribe in the highlands near the Costa Rican border, to communities that came to be known as palenques (Spanish for “palisade” or “stockade,” the name given by the Spaniards to hidden villages). These villages have long been abandoned and are considered a kind of interim ancestral homeland, a connection with the Naso’s ancient past.
By their own account, the Naso have fought just about all the indigenous people in the region at one time or another. By the 17th century their numbers had declined. A tuberculosis epidemic in the early 20th century killed many, including the king.
Today the Naso are among the most beleaguered of Panama’s eight surviving indigenous peoples. The cultural identity of the few Naso who remain is being eroded on all sides: by the dominant Latin culture, by missionaries, by intermarriage with other indigenous peoples, and so on.
There are about 3,800 Naso left in Panama. As a Naso man once said to me with a sad smile, “Estamos en peligro de extinción” (“We are in danger of extinction”).
They are working hard to cling to their traditions and land, however. They still speak their ancestral language, along with Spanish. The men tend to wear nondescript white shirts and black slacks, but many women still wear distinctive dresses. These are cotton-print outfits in a single bright, bold color such as blue or yellow. They have puffy blouses and a tiny floral pattern that from a distance can look like polka dots.
The Naso still do not have comarca (reservation) status for their land. This is in stark contrast to their far more populous neighbors, the Ngöbe-Buglé, who now have a comarca that covers a huge chunk of western Panama. The Naso continue to tangle with them and others over land ownership, and they are also threatened by a plan to dam the Teribe and a tributary river for a hydroelectric project.
Environmentalists and indigenous-rights activists say the Bonyik dam (sometimes spelled Bonyic) would create a lake that would displace thousands and cause serious environmental damage. A bill to create a 130,000-hectare comarca for the Naso has been moving through the Panamanian national assembly at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, as do Panama’s other indigenous people, the Naso struggle with widespread poverty.
Getting to Naso Country
Just getting to Naso country is a fun little adventure. In the days of the jungle-warfare school there was a forest road that led as far as the Pana-Jungla, but it has disappeared back into the forest and the ever-shifting river. Today visitors come mainly by boat up the Río Teribe, though some areas can be reached on horseback or on foot on rough, narrow trails.
The departure point for the river journey is El Silencio, a tiny community about 10 kilometers from Changuinola, where the Río Teribe meets the Río Changuinola. River transport is by motorized piragua (dugout canoe). It’s a beautiful trip. Small rapids ripple the river, and the air feels incredibly fresh and clean after the humidity of the towns and coast. Farm country at the beginning gives way to lush countryside and a view of the Talamanca Mountains in the distance.
The trip downriver is twice as fast. Tour operators sometimes let guests return the old-fashioned way: on “disposable” balsa-wood rafts that follow the current and are abandoned once the destination is reached.
As all this suggests, getting up the Río Teribe and exploring the area requires a fair amount of planning and is usually done through a tour operator or directly through one of two Naso groups, Soposo Rainforest Adventures or ODESEN. Both groups offer single- and multiple-day trips that include transportation, food, accommodations, and guided walks.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition