The powerful Río Chagres supplies most of the water for the Panama Canal  and much of the drinking water for Panama City . It once flowed unimpeded across the isthmus, emptying into the Caribbean below the ruins of Fuerte San Lorenzo  near the city of Colón .
The damming of the river near Gatún Locks  created the massive Lago Gatún , and today the river disappears into the lake at Gamboa  and doesn’t resurface until it approaches the Caribbean. But the upper reaches of the Chagres still wind their way through lovely rainforest.
In the dry season, stretches of the river become little more than glorified puddles. In the rainy season, however, the Chagres can rise many meters in a single hour. Flash floods are not unknown.
The Emberá and Wounaan have been relocated from the Darién  jungle in recent years to live in communities along the banks of the river surprisingly close to Panama City. The one most visited by tourists is Parara Puru.
While these are true Emberá who cling to some of their traditional ways, visitors should note that the “village” is rather touristy and the elaborate traditional costumes the people wear are put on for their benefit. Even the concept of a village is not a traditional part of Emberá culture; historically, families lived in relative isolation from each other.
Still, the trip up the river is beautiful and encounters with Emberá and Wounaan people are always interesting. Visits to the community include dance demonstrations, a walk through a botanical garden, and a chance to buy cocobolo figurines, tagua nut carvings, woven baskets, and other handicrafts. Those inclined can have themselves painted with traditional jagua (a kind of vegetable dye) designs, but bear in mind the dye takes many days to fade and can’t be washed off.
Several tour operators offer trips up the Chagres to Parara Puru. Aventuras Panama (tel. 260-0044 or 236-5814, www.aventuraspanama.com ) offers an all-day excursion for US$110. The trip includes lunch in the community. River rafting is also possible on the Chagres.