Panama Offers Many Unique Photo Opportunities


Photos © 2002, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

Some photographers travel to the far corners of the world to photograph interesting cultures. I've done that, taking long plane flights to Nepal, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and even to the depths of the Brazilian forest. The travel time is worth the effort, but quite honestly, I'd rather spend more time photographing.

If you feel the same way as I do, I'll let you in on a secret, one I did not learn until last year (and I've been traveling the globe photographing for 20 years).

The secret: Panama offers some unusual and truly wonderful people-picture opportunities, as well as many unique cultural experiences. What's more, this relatively small and very tourist-friendly Central American country is only 21/2 hours by plane from Miami, so you don't have to travel a long time to get there.

During my one-week trek to Panama last year, I spent time in three main photo areas, each easily accessible--if you have a knowledgeable local guide, which you can prearrange through a travel agent or arrange upon arrival in Panama City.

Each area is only a few hours from Panama City, which I used as a "home base" before and after shooting in each location. Here is a brief look at each area.

Kuna Yala--Located on Panama's beautiful Caribbean Coast, Kuna Yala is comprised of 365 islands (some smaller than a football field) nestled in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Thatched huts, tall palm trees, and azure water are beautiful backdrops for pictures of the Kuna Indians.

An Embera Village--Hidden in the dense rain forest east of Panama City, the village can only be reached by longboat. Although the village, located on the Rio Chagres River, is relatively close to Panama City, I felt as though I was deep within the Amazon rain forest (where I had photographed remote tribes the previous year). This is "the middle of nowhere" I said to myself as my boat approached the village.

A Ngabe-Bugle Community--A village in the farming area of Chiriqui Province, west of Panama City. Most tourists go to Chiriqui to shop, but I went to photograph the beautiful people and the beautiful handicrafts they produce.

During my one week in Panama I shot hundreds of pictures. Here are a few of my favorites.

Embera women intricately paint their faces with the deep purple, almost black, juice from the jagua plant. Red lipstick and red drawing on their cheeks accent the women's lovely features. Many of the women wear beautiful, heavy necklaces made of beads and coins that cover their bare breasts.

Panama's people are among the friendliest you will encounter anywhere. This young Ngabe-Bugle girl was momentarily distracted during our photo session by a friend. I snapped the picture just as she looked
off-camera, catching the girl's bright eyes and attractive smile.

Kuna Yala women take great pride in their appearance, wearing colorful bracelets on their arms and legs. This woman is sewing a mola (which literally means blouse), a popular handicraft of the area.

Photographers trekking to Panama should always have their cameras handy. I snapped this picture of two Ngabe-Bugle women and their children as they walked along a dirt path on the side of the road.

The colorful dresses that the women wear are handmade and are the trademark of these beautiful people.

Kuna Yala women ofter drape their heads with bright red scarves. They paint a single line down their nose and wear a nose ring. They are not dressed for any special occasion. This is their normal, everyday apparel.

Camera Gear Recommendations
Pack your telephoto lenses for portraits and your wide angle lenses for environmental portraits, that is, pictures that show your subjects in their environment. For people shots in the rain forest, pack your flash (it can get dark in the shade of the dense trees), and a flash diffuser to soften the lightfrom the flash.

Pack plenty of extra batteries. The power is "iffy" in Kuna Yala and almost nonexistent in the Embera village. Plenty of film and memory cards are a "must," too!

Be prepared for rain. Water-resistant camera bags and plastic bags are a good investment before the trip.

If You Go!
Overview: In Panama City you'll find many of the creature comforts you are accustomed to in the US: convenience stores, nice hotels, banks, rental agencies, and many fast-food restaurants. You can use Panama City as a home base for one-day and two-day trips into the surrounding countryside.
Getting There: Panama City is about 21/2 hours from Miami. A passport is required, but no visa is necessary.
Currency: US Dollar.
More Information: Panama Tourist Bureau, Coral Gables, FL 33134; phone: (305) 442-1892.
Also contact: IPAT (The Panama Tourist Bureau), PO Box 4421, Zone 5, The Republic of Panama; phone: (507) 226-7000 or (507) 226-3544; fax: (507) 226-3483 or (507) 226-6856; web site: Ask for Gilberto Alemancia, known as "the best guide in Panama." Gilberto can also be reached by e-mail at galemancia@

Rick Sammon is the author of "Rick Sammon's Complete Guide to Digital Imaging." For information, contact Rick at