However you spell it, Carnival or Carnaval, it is not just a Brazilian holiday or only celebrated in Rio. Carnival 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, Carnival is a joyous, festive event.
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 they revived Carnival in the early 1900s, they added royal attendants, held a parade, and shot off 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 already been in Bocas del Toro for Carnaval, so the following year we asked our Panamanian friends where we should celebrate it. We had read that some of the biggest parties are in the interior (a.k.a. center of the country), 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 reserved our hotel months ahead of time, we finally ruled out that idea and decided to just stay in town.
We're not heavy drinkers, so we decided to go early while the crowds were thinner and more self-controlled. We could leave when we decided we'd seen enough.
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 security lines get REALLY long by late afternoon.
We arrived in mid-afternoon, and although the schedule said it should be in full swing, things were just getting started. That's typical of Panama. Still, we could feel an air of anticipation and excitement among the participants who were already there.
ANOTHER 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, and we were glad the water was there to cool us off!
We were ready to leave after a few hours and left as the sun was setting.
Tip: If you are there the first night of Carnival, 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!
Dancing in the streets
One thing about Latinos, they like their music. Where there's music—and in Latin America that means practically everywhere—there will be dancing.
And the kids liked to get in the act as well.
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!
People dress up for Carnaval
Some people who attend Carnaval like to dress up in colorful and creative costumes.
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.
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!