The Naso People of Panama


Today the Naso people number about 3,800 and live on the forested banks of the Teribe River, subsisting on agriculture and hunting. Another few hundred live across the border in Costa Rica. Much of the Naso region is protected by La Amistad International Park and the Palo Seco National Forest. The tribe is best known as Latin America's remaining monarchy with a ruling king and for its impressive eco-tourist project in the village of Wesko for international visitors on Panama tours.

Some vestiges of the Naso culture remain. Though tribal dress is no longer worn by the men, some Naso women still dress in the traditional single bright colored skirt and print blouse. A Shaman's Apprentice Program is endeavoring to retain the traditional medicine ways of the Naso to pass on to future generations. Christianity has made more inroads into the Naso culture than elsewhere in Panama. Most of those who do not consider themselves Roman Catholic worship the indigenous God, Sbo.
Some fascinating folktales have endured. Some are about evil spirits, some of hidden cities of gold and some of ancient rivals. One is about a tribe of nocturnal striped-rabbit Indians (indios Conejos) described by the Nasos as fast and fierce and may be based on the now extinct Miskito Indians who once inhabited the Chiriqui highlands.

The current king of the Nasos, Valentin Santana, has ruled since 2004 when he ousted his brother, Tito, over a controversial hydroelectric project that would dam the Rio Bonyic, a tributary of the Rio Teribe, a fight that is on-going. Like his predecessors, he resides in the modest cinderblock Naso Palace in the village of Sieyik and rules in conjunction with a group of advisors who represent the eleven Naso communities. The village's signature architecture is stilt houses constructed of jira and palenquilla palm species. The Naso capital is an hour up the Rio Teribe beyond the tribe's Proyecto ODESEN (Organization for Naso Sustainable Ecotourism Development) eco-project.

To visit the Proyecto ODESEN for visitors on Panama tours is to glimpse life of the Naso before the conquest. The environmental organization, Conservation International, developed the project with the tribe at what used to be the Pana-Jungla military training camp under the reign of Noriega. It is where the much-feared Panamanian Defense Force was sent to learn jungle survival skills in what today is a buffer zone that surrounds La Amistad International Park. The camp closed after U.S. forces took out Noriega.

Proyecto ODESEN is reached via a picturesque forty-minute piragua boat ride from the village of El Silencio. Accommodations and food are modest at the complex. Guided nature hikes are offered to observe tropical wildlife, especially birds. Weather here is milder than in most of Panama. If planning to include this destination among one's Panama tours, the best time to go is March during the dry season.

The Naso tribe continues to negotiate for a comarca. A 320,000 acre-region has been delineated but is mired in the governmental approval process that has lasted years.