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Celebrating Carnaval in Panama

However you spell it, Carnival or Carnaval, it is not just a Brazilian holiday or only celebrated in Rio de Janeiro. Carnaval is a mega-holiday throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and it's even celebrated in Europe. No matter where you go or which country you find it in, Carnaval is a joyous, festive event.

Golden carvings of women on a floats for Panama Carnival with Panama City skyline in the background

As elsewhere, in Panama Carnaval always takes place over the four to five days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Even though it's not an official holiday for the country, many businesses in Panama shut down for the entire time, and the the entire country lets loose to party hearty. People all over Panama gather to drink, eat, and party until the sun comes up for 4 days.

The word chaos comes to mind. The only thing in America that's even slightly similar is in New Orleans, where it's called Mardi Gras.

The first Carnaval in Panama took place in colonial times, when individuals dressed as king and queen of Spain, conquering soldiers, slaves and Indians and then proceeded along a road while simulating battles. When it was revived in the early 1900s, they chose a king and queen, complete with attendants, held a parade, and had fireworks. Or so I've read. That doesn't explain why it's done that way everywhere in Latin America … does it?

Where to party for Carnaval in Panama

We'd been in Bocas del Toro for Carnaval the year before, so in 2013 we asked our Panamanian friends where we should celebrate it. Some of the biggest parties are in the interior (center of the country) we had read, and we had no clue where to go.

Everyone seemed to agree that the town of Las Tablas is the country's top Carnaval destination, which sounded exciting … but when we tried to get more details about going they would follow that up with phrases like “but it's so big,” “it's only for Panamanians who are used to that sort of thing,” or “but you need to be careful.” Between the crowds, potential pickpockets, heavy drinking, 4- to 5-hour drive and not having already made our hotel reservations months ahead of time, we finally ruled out that idea and decided to just stay in town.

Not being heavy drinkers, we decided to go early while the crowds were thinner and more self-controlled. We could leave when we decided we'd seen enough.

Public safety is a major concern. The police were out in force.

Highlights of Panama Carnaval and what to expect

Every year in Panama City the police set up traffic blockades along Avenida Balboa, the large, 4-lane road that runs along the waterfront, and set up a tall perimeter fence around the festival area. As with most places these days, there are security lines with pat down (male and female) to ensure no one is carrying weapons.

Tip: Get there early; the lines get reeeeeally long by late afternoon.

Panama Carnaval crowds
The street started filling up with people early in the day.

We arrived in mid-afternoon and though the schedule said it should be in full swing, things were just getting started. That's typical of Panama. Still, there was an air of anticipation and excitement among the participants who were already there.

Tip: Wear comfortable walking shoes that will protect your toes; some people don't pay attention to where they step.

Inside the fence we found amusement park-style rides, food booths, drink booths, live music, games, vendors selling souvenirs and culecos, water-filled trucks which shoot streams of water out at the dancing and sweating hordes of people. Don't think that avoiding the trucks will keep you nice and dry, though; we saw a number of people carrying loaded water guns. So be prepared to get wet. We did!

We were ready to leave after a few hours and left as the sun was setting. 

Tip: If you are there on Carnival's final night, you will be treated to a very nice fireworks display after dark. To avoid the press of people at the end, leave early and find a bar, hotel or restaurant that offers a nice view of the water. You'll be able to sit and enjoy the fireworks in relative peace and quiet. Check the schedule first to ensure you're not missing anything else, though!

Musicians performing on stage for Carnaval partiers
Musicians performing on stage for Carnaval crowds

One thing about Latinos, they like their music. Where there's music—and in Latin America that means practically everywhere—there will be dancing.

Kuna Yala dancing during Panama Carnaval
Indigenous Kuna Yala dancing during Panama Carnaval

And the kids liked to get in the act as well.

Face painting at 2013 Panama City Carnaval

This little guy has obviously had too much fun already.

 

Selling items at Carnaval in Panama City 2013
Lots of things are available for sale while partying … this young man is helping his parents at their table.

Carnaval Parade Floats

The full-blown parade begins after sunset, but they don't wait until then to parade around. So that everyone gets a chance to see the floats, they drive around the grounds while it's still daylight as well. 

The better to photograph you with, my dear!

Colorful Carnaval float in Panama CityCarnaval float in Panama City 2013 Detail from a Carnaval float in Panama City, 2013

People dress up for Carnaval

Some people who attend Carnaval like to dress up in colorful and creative costumes.

Woman at Panama Carnival wearing a tree costume
       

Others prefer the costumes of the very traditional diablos. These devil costumes vary by region. While they may have carried—and used—real whips in Bocas del Toro, here at Panama City's Carnaval, the whips they carry are mostly just used as props.

Our Dutch friend Farieda, posing with a Carnaval devil in Panama. She's a sport; she helped us plan our one-day Amsterdam itinerary.

And then there's the food …

Besides the soda, water, local rum and cerveza, there's a huge variety of really delicious food. You can eat and drink to your heart's delight. Grilled chicken, chorizo (sausage), hamburgers, hot dogs, plantains, you-name-it.

Tip: Find out where the toilets are as soon as you arrive; you'll need them!

Locals sell foods all along the street during Carnaval
This person is grilling and selling beef skewers and hamburgers.

 

Snow cones for sale from a street vendor during Panama Carnaval
Raspados are Panama's own, special version of a sno-cone

Inspired?

When is it? If you're planning a trip to Panama during Carnaval, here are the upcoming dates:

  • 2016: February 6-9
  • 2017: February 23-26
  • 2018: February 10-13
  • 2019: March 2-5
  • 2020: February 22-25

Where to stay

For Panama Carnaval, we recommend hotels near Avenida Balboa, the road that runs along Panama's waterfront. They will be within easy walking distance of all the action. The activity is on Cinta Costera, between Mercado de Mariscos and Multicentro (use the map tab).

Written by Linda

I’m a happily married mom with an insatiable love for food, travel and languages. I hope our photos and stories will encourage you to travel, or at least offer a brief escape to another land. Let me know what you’d enjoy reading more about, and please consider subscribing to our newsletter.

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25 thoughts on “Celebrating Carnaval in Panama

  1. We are planning a family vacation to Panama City over Carnival in Feb 2015. It will be myself, my husband and our 12 yr old son and we are staying with Panamanian friends. As this is our first visit to Panama, we want to see lots of the major attractions also. If you participate in one or two days of Carnival, which would you recommend? Will the canal and other businesses be open on Ash Wednesday? If we choose to spend a night on the Pearl Islands or in El Valle, will there also be Carnival crowds? Thanks for any advice!

    1. Hi, Kristin! You don’t need to be concerned about Ash Wednesday. It isn’t a holiday; I didn’t even notice a difference except that people were walking around with ashes on their foreheads. As for the canal, it is going to be open. It’s open every day of the year. (You might enjoy reading my Definitive Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal, by the way.)

      In any event, you won’t find Carnival crowds in either El Valle or the Pearl Islands; that’s where you’d go to get away from the madness. On the other hand, if you’re looking for madness, Las Tablas is the place to go, though all my Panamanian friends think it’s too wild and avoid it. We experienced Carnival twice, once in Bocas del Toro and once in Panama City. Panama City was a lot more interesting: better floats, food and ambiance. While Bocas is a great destination at other times of the year, it gets totally trashed with beer cans and is only enjoyable for people who like to wander around under the influence. Just go on Tuesday; that’ll be enough to get a taste of it (arrive before it starts to avoid long security lines). There are so many other sights in Panama that you shouldn’t miss while you’re there.

      By the way, we enjoyed both Pearl Islands and El Valle. Where else do you plan to go?

      1. Hi Linda,
        Thanks for the quick response! We are planning 7-10 days in Panama. We will book our flights later this month (I’m waiting for some airline miles to be issued). We will stay with our friends at their beach house in Bijao for part of the time , but we haven’t discussed which days yet. Do you think there be Carnival activities and crowds in that area? We also want to explore PC (canal, casco viejo, etc), spend a night in El Valle (zip line, hiking, mud bath), and 2 nights probably on the Pearl Islands (snorkeling, island tours). I want to visit an indigenous tribe but I don’t know if we will have time. I would love a day tour to San Blas but to be honest I’m terrified about having motion sickness the entire time from the truck ride there and then the boat ride to the islands. Have you done that? Anything else you recommend? Have you done the luxury train to Colon or been to Portobello? Thanks for all the great advice!

        1. Hi Kristin,
          If you’re talking about the Sheraton Bijao resort, we’ve been there twice. There’s not much going on there. If you want Carnival activities and crowds, I’d suggest you be in PC then.
          Are you planning to fly to the Pearl Islands? Because if not, I’d think you should be more concerned about getting sick on that boat ride than on the one to San Blas. it can get pretty bumpy. (I detest medications but whenever I take a boat trip I still take a Bonine (meclizine) tablet before I leave to avoid any problems.)
          We drive out to the little port in San Blas one Sunday and I didn’t find it difficult at all. Thought about going out to the islands but we hadn’t brought enough cash and they don’t have a cash machine, so that was out. Anyway, if you do go there you can get your fix of indigenous and island life at the same time!
          Or just go to Casco Viejo in PC and you’ll see plenty of Kuna women selling their crafts. You should DEFINITELY not miss Casco. And for real local flavor there’s a fish market right there that we always shopped at. The fish ceviche is really cheap and a delicious cold dish you should try.
          Never took the luxury train. We drove to Portobello and couldn’t figure out the appeal. Isla Grande was nice, but I don’t think it’s worth the time. Better to drive over to Gatun Locks and then to San Lorenzo fort.
          Ask your friends about Soberania for nice walks in the rainforest or Summit (the closest thing Panama has to a zoo). We enjoyed both.
          You know what, you should check out our Panama photo galleries and follow our Travel: Panama board on Pinterest for more inspiration. 🙂

          1. Thanks for all the great info! I am now following your Pinterest boards and checked out all your amazing photography. Our friends said their beach house is in Bijao. Is that an area or beach town? Where do you recommend for lodging in El Valle and the Pearl Islands? Thanks for the info about the bumpy ferry ride! I will definitely visit Casco Viejo! I can’t wait!

          2. When you mention Bijao (bee-how) I only know of the Sheraton resort because that’s all I noticed on the way to it. I’d guess that it’s probably a beach town though because Panama is full of beach towns around there and the people who work there have to come from somewhere. 🙂
            For El Valle, we loved Cabanas Potosí. And our favorite place to stay on Contadora (Pearl Islands) was Villa Romantica.

  2. The carnival looks incredibly gorgeous and vibrant! Love your photos! You know what? I am yet to witness such a jamboree in real. I have always seen photos on blogs and TV.

    1. I think we feel the same as you about Holi. I’ve seen photos on blogs and TV but we have yet to experience it ourselves. Thank you for the compliment on Dan’s photos. I think he did a great job. Not sure how he’ll protect his camera from all the colourful dust when we get to Holi, though!

  3. I am a little scared of big crowds, but I have to say the Carnival in Panama looks very colorful. It must have been quite an experience to mingle with the crowd and join in the excitement. It reminds me of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans (although the crowds didn’t seem so big there).

    1. You’re not alone, Anda. I’m not a fan of big crowds either, which is one of the reasons we chose to visit earlier in the day. The lines were shorter and there was a lot more room to move around and see everything.

    1. It has become a favorite memory, though I wasn’t as prepared for the crowds as I’d expected. They were a bit overwhelming and between the revelers and the activities there’s almost too much to take in at once.

  4. I have a question, I am doing a report in the 8th grade, Spanish on the panama carnival, what do yall drink and eat their. I need what the adults drink and what the kids drink?

    1. Hi, Cheyenne. A lot of the Carnival drinks are the same as what you would get at fairs in the US, which is not surprising because the US was in charge of the Panama Canal for almost 100 years so it has had a huge influence on the country. It’s pretty hot there so there are lots of people at Carnival selling cold drinks, which are called bebidas), bottles of water and sodas like Coca-Cola. Adults can buy Panamanian beers as well, and they drink a LOT of beer during the party. Panama has a couple of hard liquors, Seco and Abuelo, but I don’t know if they sell them at Carnival or not.

      We have an entire photo gallery of Carnival in Panama City and it includes some photos of people grilling food, which is typical because it is convenient and easy to set up a grill on the street. They will grill everything from sausages to skewers of spiral-cut hot dogs or sliced meat (kind of like beef satay, if you’ve had that) to grilled chicken. We were at Carnival in Bocas del Toro the year before. Our Bocas del Toro photo gallery has a few good shots from Carnival as well. You can also buy cups of cut up tropical fresh fruit.

      Also you’ll usually find bags of snacks like potato chips, same as in the US. We don’t have raspado vendors in America, though. They have a hand card with a big block of ice that they quickly hand-shave into a styrofoam cup, then top with a sweet, fruit-flavored syrup and condensed milk. Pretty fun to watch.

      Does that help?

  5. I’m a carnival baby. I love all types of carnival
    I just came back from Colombia and they had a carnival as well

    I’m excited to visit Panama for the first especially during its carnival season.

    When will the itinerary and places to go be up?

    1. Please forgive me, Anikqua, I just found your message. It was diverted to a folder I rarely access. hangs head in shame

      Guess what, I’m in the process of writing a more detailed article about Carnival in Panama as we speak, and it should be up in the next few weeks. If you are considering going this year, you need to know that the hotels fill up fast … it’s best to book a room NOW and then cancel later if you have to.

  6. I plan on visiting Panama for Carnaval in Feb 2016. I have loads of questions. My family moved from Panama when I was an infant and I don’t know anyone there. Which Carnaval do you suggest I go to? I’m interested in Las Tablas’ crazy scene, but I think I want to start off with something less wild so I don’t have to watch my back as much because I’m traveling with one other girl. Which hotel should I stay at and how much cash should i bring? I don’t want to bring too much, as I only plan on going to Carnaval and possibly zip lining, but I also don’t want to bring too little, as I hope to find souvenirs& some light shopping at Carnaval. Any advice will help. Thanks in advance

    1. Thanks for asking, Zarina. Based on the advice we got from locals, you can only fully appreciate the wild Las Tablas scene after you have experienced other Panamanian Carnavals. The one in Panama City is Panama’s second-largest celebration. If you’re traveling with one other girl and concerned about safety (smart move, always) you’ll be happy to know that there is a good police presence.

      Speaking of money, you’ll be happy to know that Panama uses the U.S. dollar. Budgets vary, but keep in mind that a couple hundred dollars will go far there, especially if you eat at local places and avoid the more touristy restaurants. That said, I don’t recommend ANY traveler to carry lots of cash, anywhere. Things happen. It’s better to withdraw your money as needed from an ATM. Plan to pay about $35-$40 for getting into the city (taxi, shuttle) from the airport.

      I’ve just added a hotel search to the article, along with suggestions of where to stay. This is the best search engine I know of, because it compares rates from all the other top travel sites, at a wide range of prices. I hope it will be a helpful time- and money-saver. Please let me know if it is.

  7. “Raspados are Panama’s own, special version of a sno-cone”

    You got it wrong, bro. Sno-cones are your version of OUR raspados.

    1. Lol … yeah, but I wrote this for gringos and didn’t want to confuse things. 🙂 Truth to tell, Panamanians took a good thing and made it better with the addition of that sweetened condensed milk. Heaven! Plus, you guys have some crazy flavors! We Norte Americanos are missing out, that’s for sure.

      How was Carnival this year?

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