Those with a morning to kill and an interest in the flavor of village life in the Darién  should consider a trip up the Río Tuira from El Real. The riverbanks are dotted with small communities of Emberá and Wounaan and darienitas (descendants of African slaves).
These villages have far too much contact with the modern world to be particularly “traditional.” Their narrow streets tend to be paved, for instance, and the Emberá and Wounaan do not traditionally live in villages, period. Those who want to immerse themselves in an older era of indigenous life should consider an expedition far up the Río Sambú or Río Balsas.
This stretch of river is certainly colorful and interesting, but it’s too densely populated to be particularly pretty. The river is brown with silt, which is probably a good thing since everything gets dumped in the river.
It’s not clogged with trash, but it’s disheartening to see bottles and foam cups floating by in what used to be Eden. I once even saw a cooler bobbing along. Villagers bathe in the river, which is not something you’ll want to try.
Still, green forest lines the banks, unbroken except for the occasional little rice and plantain field. Towering cuipo trees and bizarre-looking kapoks, which can have a crown broader than the tree is tall, jut up from time to time, and majestic neotropical cormorants and other water birds fish along the banks.
Boats are welcome to put in at any community. Villages here tend to be laid-back to the point of torpor, and visitors will likely be looked upon with mild curiosity but little enthusiasm. As always, be respectful and courteous. Do not, for instance, take a photo of anyone without asking permission.
Travelers must register at every police outpost along the river. This means regularly scrambling up muddy banks to present passports and answer a few questions. This is not meant as harassment but rather as a way to tightly monitor all movement in the area. Any boatman with any sense will automatically pull in at every post. Trying to slip by without stopping would be a very, very bad idea.
Officially these guys are police, but a stranger might be forgiven for thinking they were soldiers in a combat zone. They’re big dudes with black T-shirts, khaki fatigues, and aging AK-47s, and they spend their days fighting boredom inside semicamouflaged compounds lined with sandbags.
Heading up the Tuira means getting closer and closer to the frontier with Colombia and thus to areas frequented by guerrillas, paramilitary troops, and other characters you won’t want to meet. Traveling east past Boca de Cupe about four hours upriver from El Real, is dangerous.
Pinoganá, an Afro-Colonial village about a half hour upriver from El Real by motorized piragua (long dugout canoe), is the first village. Though it has a population of only about 350, that’s apparently big enough to support three cockfighting rings, which offers pretty much the only entertainment option in town unless you arrive on a festival day. The Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, held around the end of January and beginning of February, is a big one. There’s a tiny place to eat and no official place to sleep. It’s kind of a sad little town. There’s a police checkpoint.
Vista Alegre, about an hour farther upriver, is a Wounaan village that has another police checkpoint. This is a good place to buy one of the Wounaan’s world-famous hand-woven baskets, since every girl in the village age 12 and older makes them. Expect to pay US$60–70 for one the size of a bowling ball. Before haggling too much, look around at how poor this place is and bear in mind it takes two months to weave a basket that size. Baskets are about all the place has to offer.
Union Chocó, less than half an hour farther up, is most notable for the sizable police station in the heart of the village.
Boca de Cupe (pop. 902), sometimes known as Boca de Cupé, has the last police post on the river, and thus the last semblance of law and order.
The village itself saw some serious ugliness on November 15, 1997, when a group of unidentified gunmen—some say Colombian guerrillas, others say bandits masquerading as guerrillas, no one knows for sure—attacked the police post and killed one of three officers manning it.
The area has seen more recent violence as well: In early 2010, Panamanian police on a patrol in the area came across FARC guerrillas and the ensuing firefight left three guerrillas dead.
The main reason visitors come here is to hike into or out of Cana , a two-day trek southwest. Boca de Cupe was once the supply town for the gold-mining camp in Cana, and though it’s hard to believe today, a railroad once linked the two areas.
At the height of the dry season, the river level can drop so low that boat transportation all the way to Boca de Cupe is impossible. Most day-trippers will probably be satisfied with touring the river and the villages closer to El Real.
It’s easy to distinguish Emberá and Wounaan villages from Afro-Colonial ones. The houses of the former, made either of planks or (more traditionally) cane, are built on stilts. The latter are built right on the ground. There are representative examples of each well before Boca de Cupe.
All these villages have pay telephones. Remember to bring calling cards in case of an emergency; phones tend to fill up with coins.
The trip back downriver is much faster, thanks to the current. A piragua with a 30-horsepower motor can cut trip time in half on the way back down.