Panama is home to the second largest Carnival celebration in the world. Businesses shut down while people hit the streets for five days of drinking, culecos (tanker trucks spraying the crowds with water), gluttonous amounts of food, and scantily clad women adorned floats. Thousands of cars and busses line the main highway in a traffic jam as far as the eye can see from Panama City to the interior for all the major parties; the largest event being in Las Tablas, Panama where the festivities begin the Friday before Ash Wednesday.
Although carnival stretches over five days, only one day is a national holiday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The banks are closed for a week. Restaurants are unattended for days. Small mom and pop shops remain unopened only during the one national holiday in hopes of making a few sales throughout carnival. Not everybody is free from work though the cities are near empty. What are those people doing?Work on expanding the canal hummed along as normal. Clinics, pharmacies, and grocers still had customers even though there weren’t the normal throngs of people waiting in lines. There are smaller carnival celebrations that the smaller towns provided to these locals.
Driving through our current town of La Chorrera, we saw dozens of small celebrations. Neighbors got together to make small carnival parties including floats, alcohol, loud music, and thrashing each other with water, the perfect recipe for any carnival celebration!
Capira, about 45 minutes from Panama City, was the largest carnival celebration before heading into the interior. After a quick drive over to check out their celebrations, we entered the fenced off celebrations for free, although the payment was getting frisked by the local police officers. You could take your own coolers full of food and drink (even alcohol) if you so desired.
The streets were lined with booths full of freshly grilled chorizo, ice cold beer, and Seco Herrerano (Panama’s locally made liquor) for those that only brought themselves and their wallets.
As night falls on carnival, the culecos finish spraying the people, police officers nudge partygoers out of the fenced off area and everyone heads home to prepare for the nighttime carnival. A completely different atmosphere with locals dressed to the nines and the heat of the sun out of the way, you can start partying in the cool night breeze without fear of being soaked. It’s also the least feared time to break out your camera!
We were amazed by the elaborate costumes and floats. Not only were there new floats each day, but new ones for the day and then for the night. If you can’t make it to Rio de Janeiro, or even Las Tablas, Panama, know that you’re not missing out one bit on partying where the locals do!
Stephanie Angulo became an American expat in Panama at 30. She didn’t go to Panama to retire. She writes about her experiences starting a restaurant, exploring her new country, traveling, and assimilating into Panamanian culture at Xpat Escape. You can also follow her journey on Twitter.