Attending Tribal Gathering in Remote Panama

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In today’s times of climate change and social collapse, listening to leaders of indigenous communities that have maintained a close bond with the natural world seems increasingly relevant. Tribal Gathering, an event organized by a non-profit and annually held on the remote north coast of Panama, provides one of those urgently needed platforms to encourage indigenous awareness and raise human interconnectedness.

What is the Tribal Gathering?

While it is considered a somewhat transformational festival, Tribal Gathering has little to do with a ‘normal’ festival. Instead, it lives up to its name, uniting every year representatives of more than 60 different tribes from 30 countries to share their wisdom with each other and the festival attendees. For a period of 18 days around 1,500 Tribal Gatherers take over an off-the-grid beach in Panama where they camp and immerse themselves into an experience that interweaves music, arts, crafts, ecology, healing, and more. While the first 12 days are entirely devoted to ‘indigenous immersion’, with a variety of tribal ceremonies, talks, and workshops taking place, the last six days culminate in a rather psytrance-infused ‘dance celebration’.

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Photo © Jesse Dhur

My personal journey started around the end of February, at a time when I had been travelling already for three months through Central America. The prospect of returning to Panama, the initial point of my itinerary, to eventually attend Tribal Gathering, which friends and other travelers had repeatedly reported about, left me electrified. Already beforehand, I had acquired the ‘tribal dance pass’, the ticket that ought to get me the best during ten days of the festival’s both parts: tribal immersion and dance celebration. I had also reached out to the organizers previously to make sure I was on the volunteering list.

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Photo © Jesse Dhur

Journey to the remote festival

The day had come and off I was to Playa Chiquita, the remote beach venue of Tribal Gathering. However, as the remoteness of the location already suggested, it wasn’t that easy to get there without a pre-arranged transfer. Fortunately, together with two other attendees, we managed to find a cab that took us all the way from Panama City to our long-awaited destination. As we hiked the last kilometres past tropical vegetation and hilly grounds, while carrying our camping gear under the scorching midday sun, an unparalleled scenery unfolded beyond the festival gates: a vast land bathed by a sun-kissed beach and fringed by a lush jungle of palm trees. The place was dotted by huts, domes, and other shelters made of natural materials, and the shore-bordering jungle was studded with camps and tents. A veritable community had been set up in a mere paradise neverland, my enthralling refuge for the next ten days!

Enriching gatherings and intense shaman-led medicinal ceremonies are part of Tribal Gathering’s official agenda

We literally crashed into the festival, which by then had already been going on for more than a week. At our arrival, though, there were only a few people residing on the festival site, some of them deepened in meditation, others queuing up to get some lunch and yet others curiously roaming around nature. I figured that the previous days must have been packed with plenty of enriching gatherings and intense shaman-led medicinal ceremonies which are part of Tribal Gathering’s official agenda. The overall present energy was smooth, and I immediately found myself amidst a bunch of gentle, scantily dressed people that seemed to genuinely value the essentials of life. Tenderly, some of the attendees greeted us newcomers. However, little did we know back in that blissful first-impression moment about what had happened a couple of days earlier on site…

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Photo © Jesse Dhur

Tribal ceremonies, shamans,  psychedelics and a tragic incident…

Some time later, after the three of us had set up our camps, squeezing them into the remaining space between the thick palm tree maze, our new camping neighbours revealed to us the dramatic incident that had occurred at the beginning of the festival. The night of the third day someone had passed away in an iboga ritual, one of the healing ceremonies that are scheduled during the indigenous immersive part. Those ceremonies, that are led by presumedly experienced shamans and that involve medicinal plants for spiritual awakening, mental relief or physical alleviation, constitute for some of the Tribal Gatherers the very reason of attendance. Besides iboga, one of the most powerful psychedelics used in rituals of healing, as I was taught by more knowledgeable attendees, other natural substances such as peyote and bufo were offered, too. While all the ceremonies require, as prescribed by the organizers, an adequate preparation of the attendees and a proper guidance by the shamans, some unanticipated complications clearly must have occurred during the tragic iboga journey.

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Photo © Peter Nemeshazi

As a result, I was told, rather than shutting down the festival, the organizers had delicately decided to carry on and to only cancel the remaining ceremonies, while providing all the psychologically and spiritually needed help to cope with the situation. The incident and the applied measures had obviously altered the whole vibe of the event. The Tribal Gathering site, initially praised as a paradise retreat for spiritual enlightenment and indigenous healing, had been transformed into a place associated with death, covered in a veil of tragedy.

The farewell cerimony was a mix of emotional celebration of life and death, including indigenous rituals.

To some extent, once we were more or less aware of what had happened, even we newcomers got to perceive those dark facets of the festival experience, which for us back then had only started. Rather than giving in to troubling thoughts about twists of fate and on-site safety, I decided to not let my journey be affected by the negativity too much. Other than keeping the energy high and joining the people in the comforting and commemoration process, there was little to do anyways.

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Photo © Peter Nemeshazi

To find closure for everyone and appropriately remember the deceased, organizers, tribe leaders, and attendees arranged a gathering around a huge fire pit at the site’s heart the next day. The farewell ceremony was a mix between a beautifully guided collective meditation and an emotional celebration of life and death, including indigenous rituals, speeches, prayers, and chanting. With all the participants’ presence and energy, a truly intimate and yet slightly surreal atmosphere was created, solidifying unity and solidarity, even unto death. The whole experience, my first and only ‘ceremony’ I was able to attend at Tribal Gathering, left me completely flabbergasted. I had never joined such a highly moving tribe-guided funeral of someone I hadn’t even got to know before…

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Photo © Renodeyn Christophe

The psytrance-infused ‘dance celebration’

It seemed as if with that commemoration ritual, a new, revitalizing breeze came blowing over the land of Tribal Gathering. Around the same time, the festival was about to reach its transitional phase. Soon, the majority of the communities alongside with the attendees that came for the indigenous immersion part had left the site. Just before the last members of the tribes had vanished, I was able to interact with some of their representatives by participating in a bunch of stimulating crafts workshops and tribal seminaries. During the open-air weaving workshops, members of South African communities shared essential handiwork traditions with the attendees. The seminaries held in wooden domes were all about current threats to the integrity of some Latin American tribes. I also attended some more yoga sessions on the beach as well as some mind-bending ecstatic dance and rebirth breathing meditations.

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Photo © Peter Nemeshazi

The rest of the transitional days were dedicated to those multiple-kind activities and classes led by non-indigenous teachers, until the collective dance ecstasy was to entirely take over the event. The ensuing afternoons and evenings were scheduled with eclectic dance music, emitted from two intriguing jungle stages. Feeling at ease with the entire situation, I started appreciating my healthy routine every day more.

I honestly loved the part of literally dancing ourselves into trance-like states, until early morning.

After waking up in my beach-close hammock, surrounded by my friends’ camps, I went for naked swims in the sweet Caribbean waters, connected with inspiring people from all over the globe, lived into the day and relished the night’s dancing rushes. I honestly loved the part of literally dancing ourselves into trance-like states, until early morning. And, all the while, I was volunteering, too.

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Photo © Jesse Dhur

Volunteers were pretty common at Tribal Gathering and could select between different shifts at the information desks, bar, kitchen and other facilities. Although the deal didn’t provide free entry, volunteering did help reduce one’s expenses on food and drinks, and most importantly, allowed one to be part of a unique community while actively contributing to the event’s very dynamics.

I realised how simple things could help generate a profound connection between one and its immediate environment.

As an aficionado of healthy food production, I chose to volunteer at the restaurant and the Pizza place where I worked in five-hour-shifts almost every day. From the beginning on, the work behind the scenes of the festival’s culinary body left me somewhat fulfilled and delighted. I realized once again how simple things or in that case meals could help generate a profound connection between one and its immediate environment. Preparing home-made pizza, that meal of almost divine simplicity, in an outdoor kitchen amidst enthusiastic volunteers and genuinely satisfied customers, while feeling the main stage’s electrizing psytrance tunes – that was a great sensation which, day by day, added so much value to an already outstanding festival experience!

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Photo © Renodeyn Christophe

Tribal Gathering truly is an enthralling festival, and although it entails a bunch of critical points and had a dramatic turn the year I attended, it definitely is a happening of unmatched quality that has the potential to expand the minds of everyone participating. It surely provides an unparalleled platform to raise cultural awareness to enhance our each and everyone’s lives on this planet while thriving alongside with it. After staying and volunteering there for ten days, I for my part did feel like having received the message of the festival. And, even though I got a glimpse into the knowledge passed on by the indigenous communities too, I still wish I had arrived earlier on site to witness the entire tribal magic unfold…


Cover photo © Renodeyn Christophe

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