Nobody gets in the way of the Carnival celebrations which are a country-wide party that lasts a week here in Panama. It’s way more extreme than the Calgary Stampede! Businesses close, Panama City is abandoned, and music is everywhere as the worlds largest collection of sound systems comes together all over the country to blast pop, reggae and pop music to the masses
As with many festivals, Carnival stems from a Christian tradition and takes place 40 days before the Christian holy week. The name Carnival means “feast of the flesh” and is celebrated before the abstinence ordered by the Christian church. Carnival dates back to the 19th century and is the most celebrated festival in the country. All business and work stops while the streets are filled with masks, floats, parades, costumes, confetti, music and water.
It all begins with the selection of the Carnival Queen and her attendants who reign over the daily parades and official activities of the festival. People are dancing and water trucks stand by spraying the active dancers down with cool water so the party is not disturbed by the tropical sun. This is a practical Carnival tradition called mojaderas which means getting drenched. Water is a big part of Carnival where many people come armed with water balloons, small bags of water and squirt guns. It’s like the worlds largest water fight! Even the fire department gets in the act.
Each province carries out its own Carnival celebrations, trying to offer the public different attractions each year to draw people to their festival. The most popular place to party is in the small inland city of Las Tablas on the Azuero peninsula.
It is estimated that less than half of the population of Panama City remains in the city during Carnival, with most people opting for an extra long weekend at one of the smaller cities inland where the partying goes on pretty much 24 seven. As you drive through these smaller centers, you can hear the ear shattering pounding of base from massive speaker systems amplifying the music of some of the best bands in the country. It’s an amazing party!
As a tourist, information about where specific events are and their start times are somewhat difficult to come by. Staff at hotels should be a good source of information but we found varying stories of where to go and what time things happen. This would be a great opportunity for the tourism industry to pull together to get guests in the country out and exposed to Carnival in a controlled way. We followed some advice we were given about timings and a place only to find that the site was pretty much empty. There was a strong police presence (a good thing) and you get a complementary frisking before you are allowed into the fenced festival area. We walked around for a while and experienced the music and some of the dancing. We were even approached by a young boy with a devilish smile and a squirt gun which he sparingly used on us.
This is also a great time to explore Panama City. We found ourselves driving down empty streets that are normally heavily bogged down with traffic. It is easy to get around while everyone is out-of-town but the downside is that many things are closed for the festivities.
Let me apologize for not having more pictures of Carnival. In the interior, traffic is heavy so you can’t stop and I was trying to shoot from a moving car. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You just never know when you will run across something so you need to be ready all the time. When we got to the festivities in Panama City, there really wasn’t anything happening. Also, I was reluctant about hauling my camera around to a place where there was a high likelihood of getting nailed with large amounts of water. We did take in a Panama show at one of the hotels that gave us lots of examples of what some of the characters and costumes of Carnival look like, so I have included them here.