There are some life experiences you can only understand by experiencing them. Participating in Carnival in Panama is one of those. No matter how many people describe what Carnival in Panama is like, you can’t fully appreciate it until you’ve lived it yourself.
If you’re new to Panama and will be here for the first week of March, you’re in for a treat. While Rio de Janeiro often gets all of the credit for their Carnival, the holiday is celebrated all across Latin America. The second largest celebration outside of Brazil? Panama, of course. In fact, many people who’ve attended Carnival in both countries prefer Panama’s celebrations as they are less crowded (and much more affordable) to enjoy. Not only is this a celebration that is packed with history and culture, it’s also a lot of fun. That said, there are some definite dos and don’ts for living your best Carnival life.
Read on for a bit of history on the traditions associated with Carnival as well as some ideas about how to make the most of the holiday. Whether you choose to spend it in the city or elsewhere you’re sure to experience a one-of-a-kind cultural tradition that you have to see to believe.
Traditions of Carnival
While the official day of Carnival (or Mardi Gras as it’s known in the United States) is the day before Ash Wednesday, in Panama the celebrations start well before that. Carnival in Panama is spread out over the four days before Ash Wednesday. Carnival is most often in February but since it is determined using a lunar calendar the dates change every year.
This year, Carnival is later than it typically falls. The festivities will begin on Saturday, March 2 and will end on Tuesday, March 5. Technically, these days are not federal holidays, but many employers give them as holidays or let employees leave early from work. There are also plenty of businesses that will close during Carnival which is worth noting if you’re expecting to carry out business as usual. Everything from bank visits to dinner reservations can be complicated as the country essentially goes on a mini holiday.
For these four days, Panama City is filled with parades, music, dancing, costumes, and non-stop celebration. Even though Carnival technically starts on Saturday, the festivities really kick off on Friday with the coronation of the Carnival queen and winds down late Tuesday night as the Carnival queen leads the last parade, known as the Burial of the Sardine (“Entierro de la Sardina” in Spanish).
This parade is considered a funeral procession as a symbolic sardine is carried in a tiny coffin by costumed mourners. Once the sardine is set in its burial spot, Carnival has officially come to an end. The partying and celebrations are done until the next year, and on Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent.
Carnival in Panama City
When it comes to spending Carnival in Panama City, you can immerse yourself in the celebrations as much or as little as you choose. For those looking to be a part of the action, there is more than enough to see and do. For those who would prefer to avoid the crowds, it’s easy if you steer clear of certain parts of the city.
On Saturday morning things kick off with a small parade for the Carnival queen and her court. The parade runs down Via España and then goes along the Cinta Costera along the bay. Like most parades, this features tons of music, dancing, and costumes. It’s best to get to the parade route early before things get too crowded. When you’re ready for a break from cheering and dancing, grab yourself some street food from the colorful street vendors. There are plenty of delicious and affordable dishes to enjoy, so come hungry.
For the four days of Carnival, the celebrations don’t end when the sun goes down. During Carnival, tons of bars, cantinas, hotels, and clubs keep their doors open late for people to dance the night away. If you’re looking to make the most of Carnival, though, you’ll want to rally on Sunday because there are more parades, including the “pollera” parade where women and children dance in Panama’s national costume.
Monday features more parades, but this is typically the tamest of the celebrations as people recover from the weekend of partying and gear up for Tuesday which is the largest and most important day of Carnival. Tuesday boasts the biggest and best parades as well as a fireworks show to cap off the night.
Another unique tradition to watch out for is the “culecos” which use fire hoses to spray water on the crowds from trucks and balconies. It’s the perfect way to cool down the crowd but means that you shouldn’t bring anything out that you wouldn’t want to get wet. Given the chaos of Carnival, it’s best to leave valuables like your fancy camera and expensive jewelry at home. You’ll also want to wear comfortable shoes as you’ll likely spend most of the day on your feet.
While it might seem counterintuitive, Carnival is actually a great time to appreciate Panama City at its most quiet state. As many of the city’s inhabitants make a beeline for the parades, the rest of the city is left almost empty. You can drive around with almost no traffic and there is a palpable peace in the air (away from the parade routes, that is). Additionally, as many employers give Monday and Tuesday off from work, plenty of people use the long weekend as an excuse to travel outside the city.
Carnival Outside Panama City
Depending on your work schedule, Carnival can be a great time to get out of the city and do some exploring in Panama’s interior. That said, there are plenty of people who think the same way. If you try to leave the city on Friday afternoon, you may get stuck in a major traffic jam. If you have your heart set on a trip, it’s best to try to leave early or at least prepare yourself for a serious delay.
There are plenty of spots that are worth the trip, though. One spot that’s especially popular during Carnival is Las Tablas. The small town of Las Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula hosts the biggest Carnival celebration in all of Panama, even bigger than the nation’s capital.
On a normal day, Las Tablas is about a four-hour drive from Panama City, but considering the traffic on Carnival weekend, it could take much longer. That said, many say it’s well worth the drive. While some people in Panama City will pick or choose what parts of Carnival they want to participate in, Carnival in Las Tablas is a non-stop party and everyone goes.
In the morning, people go to colakos where Panamanians of all ages dance in the street while they eat and drink and are sprayed by the hoses. Many people will then squeeze in a quick nap in order to prepare for the night’s festivities before heading back out in the evening to continue dancing and partying under the fireworks. A Carnival spent in Las Tablas is not for the faint of heart but if you’re looking for one of the best parties in the country, this is a weekend trip that’s well worth it.
If you’d like to celebrate Carnival but in a less intense way, there are plenty of places that still have parades and tons of local tradition but with fewer crowds and debauchery. Pedasi, for example, is a small town with a definite Carnival spirit –just on a smaller, more manageable scale. Pedasi is also a great option for Carnival weekend as it’s close to several fantastic beaches. You can kill two birds with one stone: Take in the sights and sounds of Carnival and also enjoy a mini beach vacation.
Another popular option to squeeze the most out of Carnival weekend in Panama is to do a day trip from Panama City and head to a river or a beach on the Caribbean side of the country. You can get away for a day or two and still make it back to the city to catch the end of the celebrations there on Tuesday. Playa Langosta, for example, is only about an hour and a half from Panama City (again plan for traffic) but is a great escape from the metropolis.
Nearby beaches tend to be a bit more crowded than normal during Carnival, but not so much that they aren’t enjoyable. Other popular choices that aren’t too far include the Pearl Islands or San Blas Islands.
Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Carnival in Panama, you can’t escape the energy in the air as the country gears up for this unique annual tradition that you won’t want to miss.