Panama’s Carnaval Celebrations

Mardi Gras In The Tropics: Everything You Need To Know About The Upcoming Carnavals In Panama

It’s that time of the year again… Love it or hate it, carnaval—the nearly weeklong party that brings working Panama to a standstill and fills the streets of nearly every town and city with throngs of drunken, dancing revelers—is upon us yet again.

Beginning Friday evening Feb. 5 and continuing until Ash Wednesday on Feb. 10, Panama celebrates what is locally known as los carnavales (gringos might know it better as Mardi Gras). And, while it officially lasts only four days, expect pretty much everyone to be on vacation for the entire week, as they partake in the festivities during the first part of the week and try to recover during the latter half.

The celebrations are not unlike those seen in other parts of the world where Catholic-rooted traditions have taken hold. There are the requisite parades and fireworks and concerts and scantily clad women, but Panama has some of its own unique facets. Among them is the roll-out of the so-called culecos, huge tractor trailers carrying cisterns full of water and kitted out with firehoses and men who know how to use them. At regular intervals, these men take aim at anything moving nearby (which is nearly everything) and thoroughly drench the thronging crowds.

Even if participants manage to escape the torrents of the culecos, there are almost always young men drifting through the crowds with buckets of water, squirt guns, or water balloons dousing anyone and everyone they can. No one is safe. Be certain that if you intend to take part in the celebrations, you and anything in your possession will get soaking wet. Carry vulnerable items such as cellphones, cameras and wallets in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. And, as always, be very wary of villains looking to take advantage of the distractions and separate people from any valuables they might be carrying.

Pretty much every town does something for los carnavales, but the biggest and most raucous celebrations are in the interior of the country in and around the Azuero peninsula. The most notorious party is in the normally sleepy town of Las Tablas, about 130 miles west of Panama City in the Los Santos province. Much of Panamanian carnaval lore claims that Las Tablas is the site of the second-biggest pre-Lenten party on the planet behind only Rio de Janeiro. How one measures such a superlative is beyond me, especially since Las Tablas’ party is overshadowed in terms of sheer numbers by the celebration in Panama City.

Hotels in Las Tablas fill up months ahead of time Photo by:

Hotels in Las Tablas fill up months ahead of time
Photo by:

Regardless of its status on the global stage, there is no question that the Las Tablas carnaval dominates Panama’s celebrations in terms of sheer exuberance. Hotels are booked for months, even a year, ahead of time, and getting to or from the village throughout the week is a chore in and of itself.

Las Tablas is most famous for the ancient rivalry between the so-called Upper Street neighborhood and the Lower Street neighborhoods (Calle Arriba v Calle Abajo). Every year, the two sides square off in a contest to see who can crown the most spectacular queen, who can create the most elaborate floats, and who can throw the wildest party. There are fireworks, food stands, concerts, and loud music galore. And, of course, lots of drinking.

The party in Panama City begins Friday evening with the crowning of a carnaval queen, as well as a coterie of attendants, to reign over the daily parades and other official activities. Beginning Saturday morning, police often set up roadblocks along the four-lane bayside Avenida Balboa and the adjacent Cinta Costera where most of the parades and partying takes place. A fence will go up along parts of the Cinta and everyone coming and going can expect long lines for security.

Saturday afternoon the masses will start to congregate on the Cinta and by early evening thousands of people will be crammed behind the fences listening to obscenely loud salsa, drinking copious amount of beer and seco, dancing with anyone they can get their hands on and getting sprayed by the culecos. The street party usually lasts until about midnight, at which time the nearby bars and clubs will fill with people and the party continues into the wee hours. The scene on the Cinta Costera the next morning is something akin to what Times Square in New York looks like on Jan. 1 before the clean-up crews get there.

Hotels in Las Tablas fill up months ahead of time Photo by:

Carnaval celebrations in Panama City 1946

After everyone has slept off the night before, those who can muster themselves head back to the Cinta for a parade of what are known as polleras, or women dressed in the Panamanian national costume. The pollera (we’ve all seen them in the tourist brochures) is a large one-piece handmade skirt decorated with embroidery and generally accompanied by gold and pearl jewelry. Monday tends to see a slight pause day as people steel themselves for the last day, but there are parties and concerts nonetheless.

Then comes Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday as we yanks call it. This is the last throw-down before the fasting of Lent begins, so folks tend to go all out. The largest and most elaborate parade of the week is Tuesday, with huge garishly decorated floats, the queen and her attendants in full-on smiling-and-waving mode, and drinking and dancing that tends to go on until dawn.

If you intend to partake in the partying, have fun and be safe.

Peg Fairbairn
Panama Insider

Hotels in Las Tablas fill up months ahead of time Photo by:

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P.S. We just completed our first Access Panama Property Tour and had a fantastic time. A handful of lucky In Focus: Panama readers got a chance to see firsthand why everyone is talking about Panama. If you missed the first one, don’t fret. We have just scheduled tours for March, April, May, and June and are taking reservations now. We strictly limit the number of participants and the last one sold out quickly, so hurry up and register today.