There are some life experiences you can only understand by experiencing them. Participating in Panama Carnival 2019 is one of those.
Many people try to describe what Carnival in Panama is like. Truth is, 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 the credit for their Carnival, the holiday is celebrated all across Latin America.
Where is the second largest celebration outside of Brazil? Panama, of course.
In fact, many people who have attended Carnival in both countries prefer Panama’s celebrations. Why? Because they are less crowded (and much more affordable) to enjoy. Not only is this a celebration full of history and culture, but 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. One you have to see to believe.
Traditions of Carnival
The official day of Carnival (or Mardi Gras as it’s known in the US) 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.
For these four days, Panama City is filled with parades, music, dancing, and costumes. Carnival technically starts on Saturday, but the festivities kick off on Friday with the coronation of the Carnival queen. It then 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. 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. On Ash Wednesday then begins the forty days of Lent.
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, go grab 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 do not end when the sun goes down. During Carnival, tons of bars, cantinas, hotels, and clubs keep their doors open late for people. So you can 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.
Culecos in Panama Carnival 2019
Another unique tradition to watch out for is the “culecos”. These 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 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 almost empty. And many employers give Monday and Tuesday off from work. Meaning plenty of people will be using the long weekend as an excuse to travel outside the city.
You can drive around with almost no traffic and there is peace in the air (away from the parade routes, that is).
Carnival Outside Panama City
Panama Carnival 2o19 In Las Tablas
Carnival can be a great time to get out of the city and do some exploring in Panama’s interior. Depending on your work schedule.
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 Panama. That’s right, even bigger than the nation’s capital.
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 the City will choose how they celebrate, Carnival in Las Tablas is a non-stop party.
In the morning, people go to colakos where Panamanians of all ages dance in the street. All 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. All before heading back out to continue dancing and partying under the fireworks.
A Carnival spent in Las Tablas is not for the faint of hearted. But if you’re looking for one of the best parties in the country, this is a weekend trip that’s well worth it.
Panama Carnival 2019 In Pedasi
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.
Kill two birds with one stone: Take in the sights and sounds of Carnival and also enjoy a mini beach vacation.
Panama Carnival 2019 In The Caribbean
Another popular option for a Carnival weekend in Panama is to do a day trip from Panama City.
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 this beach a great escape from the metropolis.
Nearby beaches tend to be a bit more crowded than normal during Carnival. But this won’t make the experience unenjoyable. 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. You won’t want to miss it.
Have we missed anything? Be sure to let us know!
Question: does Las Tablas still host a follow on smaller celebration the weekend after Ash Wednesday? I was there once and it was great. And they still had the floats.