Carnival in Panama

The first 5 days of February was Carnival - the most important holiday in Panama. Everybody knows the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but there are big festivities as well in other countries, including Panama. Every country has their own story and has had their own evolution, and carnival in Panama is like no other.

As I mentioned, it is the most important and most anticipated festivity in the country. Some people save money for a year just for the carnival. It last for 5 days (all work-free), all days following the same routine.

The roots of the carnival here lie in the history. The way the cities were built here (by the Spaniards) followed the same model: there was a center square with a cathedral, and a matrix of streets surrounding it. The rich people lived in the upper part of the city, the poorer people in the lower part. Nowadays the division is not as clear naturally, but the concept remains. The carnival is essentially a (friendly) competition between the two: upper street (calle arriba) and the lower street (calle abajo).

The centerpiece of the carnival are the Queens (las reynas). Both, calle arriba and calle abajo have their own queen. So the competition is who has the prettier queen, which street has fancier fireworks, which queen is accompanied by a better band of musicians, who has the better party.

Every city in Panama has their own carnival with their own queens. The queens are chosen by a special committee many years in advance and they undergo a rigorous training to be ready to be the queen of the carnival one day. The queens are usually between the ages of 18-22. It is a great honour for the family if the their daughter is the queen, and therefore no money is spared. Some families save years for the day and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the carnival: for the training, for the outrageously expensive outfits, the wagons/cars (don't know how to call them) used during the carnival that carry the queen and so on. The money that could be used to educate all of their children and grandchildren is spent on the carnival.

So what happens during the carnival is pretty much this:

People gather in the central square and surrounding streets with huge quantities of beer and types of liquor already in the morning. Around the noon time the queens with their parties of princesses (other pretty chicks who walk before the queen), supporters (family, friends, fans) and a band of musicians (15-20 guys with brass instruments) start making the rounds around the square and surrounding streets. Each party has their own songs made especially for this year, and it's mostly gossip about the other queen. People cheer and watch the queens and their party. A special tradition is something called culeco - getting everybody wet. In the old days the water was carried from the river, now they use huge container trucks with water hoses for that. People really like to get soaking wet. I must admit it is useful - it's quite hot in the middle of the day in this time of year.

The queens make 4 rounds and leave. People continue drinking, chatting and mingling. Food vendors are everywhere. Every now and then there are firecrackers here and there. At the night time (10pm or so) the queens return, with much fancies outfits, cars and everything. There are huge fireworks. The queens make 4 rounds with their parties, people are ecstatic. Everybody is drinking and eating. At the night time people continue to party either at the same place, or go to clubs.

And the same stuff 5 days in a row.

Carnival is different in size and customs in every city in Panama. In the Panama City its more like the carnival in Miami (more like a concert). I personally went to a small town of Pedasi. The party was not huge there as the city is small, and the queens and their outfits and stuff were not that fancy. The bigger the city, the more money is spent. The most famous carnival takes place in the city of Las Tablas, where we also went to for 1 night. Everything was much bigger and fancier over there. The downside for me was that the crowd was so huge that you barely had room to breathe. It was much more laid back in Pedasi.

Something worth mentioning is that we made a stop at the parents house of a Panamanian friend of ours, where we had dinner. They offered me some chicken. The meat was tough and it looked kind of different, so I thought is a bit old and dried chicken meat. Later they asked if I want to see the eggs of the chicken I just ate. The eggs looked like this:

Turns out I ate the meat of ... iguana. Yes, a lot like chicken. The eggs were edible too, very salty tho. They boil the eggs, and then let them dry in the sun. And this is what they look like after being dried.

I don't have the photos and videos from the carnival in Las Tablas, but I do have it for Pedasi (you saw some above). Enjoy!

P.S. Tomorrow is my 2 year anniversary with Sarah. We're off to a paradise island. Catch you later.

1 comment:

Siim said...


The carneval looks pretty awesome! Baila baila