There are 5 Comarcas, or autonomous indigenous regions, in Panama, where land has been set aside for the
three main indigenous groups: Guna Yala, Ngobe- Bugle and Embera-Wounaan.
Guna Yala Comarca (2010 population 33,109) was formerly known as San Blas and stretches 232 miles along
the Caribbean coast from Colon province to the Colombian border. The name means ‘Guna Land’ or ‘Guna Mountain’ in the Guna language. More than 360 islands comprise this area and only about 36 of these islands are inhabited by Guna communities, with a further 13 villages located on the mainland coast. These Caribbean islands are spectacular and, while the Guna’s autonomy rules out any investment possibilities, there are opportunities to enjoy the islands as a tourist. Tourism has become a major player in the Guna economy due to the revenue generated by the island lodges and the tours they offer their guests, such as eco-tours to the mainland, fishing, snorkeling and visits to neighboring villages, including cultural shows and indigenous handicraft markets. Local artisans offer the traditional Molas, panels of reverse embroidered fabric featuring geometric designs and patterns of animals and fish. Another traditional art is tagua carving – intricate and colorful renditions of local animals and fish carved from seeds of the Tagua tree, a large nut known as “vegetable ivory”.
The Ngobe-Bugle Comarca (2010 population 156,747) is located between Chiriqui, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro. It is home to the Ngobe-Bugle people (formerly called the Guaymi), Panama’s largest indigenous group. This tribe was once known as a tribe of fierce warriors, who wore an ornament called the Chaquira. The Chaquira remains a
symbol of their culture, and is a hand-beaded, jewelry collar that is a source of income for the tribe. One of the poorest of the indigenous peoples, they are struggling to balance the need for developments to improve the economy of the Comarca and provide better living and educational opportunities for their youth, with the desire to protect their environment.
The Embera-Wounaan Comarca (2010 population 10,001) is actually two non-contiguous areas within the Darien. This Comarca is extremely remote, with no roads, and is home to mostly Embera people with a Wounaan
minority. Due to their migration from the Choco province of neighboring Colombia at the end of the 18th century,
the Embera and Wounaan tribes share a cultural past that continues today, even though they speak distinctly different languages. As with the Guna, the Embera and Wounaan are accomplished artisans and produce elaborate and detailed tagua carvings. In addition, the basket weaving of the Embera and Wounaan is gaining an international reputation and these beautiful baskets are popular souvenirs, selling for high prices at North American art markets.
There are also Embera villages along the Chagres River where some of the original tribes settled after looking for more fertile hunting ground. The area around these villages is now national parkland and thus much of their hunting way of life has been curtailed. These villages now offer authentic experiential tourism with day trips and even overnight stays in their villages, where tourists can gain an insight into their centuries-old culture.
Because they are autonomous areas and the land is owned by the inhabitants, it is not possible to purchase property in the Comarcas, nor are there any investment opportunities.