Celebrating Carnival in Panama
What is Carnaval?
Carnaval is the four-day traditional celebration that takes place immediately before Christian Lent (which starts on Ash Wednesday), and is celebrated each year from Friday night through the morning of Ash Wednesday in February or March of each year.
Each year a massive budget is spent on elaborate floats and costumes, water trucks, and security. In 2018, the ATP allocated $2.2mm to the festivities ($1.5mm PC/$700k Interior). People save up money, pawn household goods, and quit their jobs to have enough money and time to enjoy Carnival.
Most of Panama City leaves for the big festivals in the culture-rich Interior (Azuero Peninsula). The most popular festivals in Las Tablas, Chitre, and Pedasi feature massive parties and are televised nationally. All businesses shut down for the holidays. Streets get closed down. Hotels fill up a year in advance, and hotel occupancy runs100%.
Everyone wears bright colors and carry their money and phone in a plastic case that they wear around their necks, as during the day, water trucks (culecos or mojaderas) emerge on the streets with water hoses. Kids load up their water guns and buckets with ice water. Discotecas (dance halls) set up stages on the street featuring performances by national and international artists. Local music (músico típico) is played by accordions, drums. Big parades of floats carrying the queens and princesses, a brass band (murga), and fireworks (fuegos artificiales & bombitas) occur day and night, for ~3 hours starting 12pm and 12am each day. Vendors set up street stalls, where food and trinkets (hats, clothing, water guns) are sold.
The dancing, drinking, and festivities continue day and night. Kids and babies can be seen out even past midnight! On the morning of Ash Wednesday, all the remaining fireworks are burned in a massive (and extremely loud!) bonfire (quema de cohetes), after which Lent begins and meat is given up in favor of fish.
The town splits down the middle, and people are passionate in their support for Calle Arriba or Calle Abajo based on where they reside in town.
Each queen and royal court ride a big float up and down the streets (paseo), lit by fireworks and followed by a brass band (murgas) to rally supportive cries for their respective queens. A crowd of supporters (tunas) follow and dance behind the floats.
They compete in attire, floats, amount of money spent, fireworks, band, and a final mock battle. The queens are groomed from childhood having ridden the floats as princesses (Royal Court or corte real) and fundraise tens of thousands of dollars to adorn their floats. They are typically between 18 and 25 years of age. Many (if not most) study or reside in Panama City but must have ties to the village which they reign. The tunas of each queen are headquartered in different parts of the town. Calle Arriba is headquartered near the elementary school (Pedasi) and near La Bolivar Street/Banvivienda (Las Tablas). Calle Abajo is headquartered near the church square (Pedasi) and near the public library & Punta Fogon (Las Tablas).
When is it?
2018: February 9th – 14th
2019: March 1st – 6th
2020: February 21st – 26th
2021: February 12th – 17th
2022: February 25th – March 2nd
2023: February 17th – 22nd
2024: February 9th – 14th
2025: February 28th – March 5th
2026: February 13th – 18th
2027: February 5th – 10th
2028: February 25th – March 1st
2029: February 9th -14th
2030: March 1st – 6th
Carnaval with Kids
You will see plenty of families bringing their young ones. Kids love filling up their super soakers with ice water and getting hosed down by the water tanks! Kids are advised to stay away from the big drunk crowd, particularly as the music from the brass band (murga) can be pretty deafening for little ears! For infants, the crowd may be too much stimulus, but you will often see babies and toddlers out past midnight with their families (in strollers, carriages, or being carried). I highly recommend getting one of these (Baby Banz) to help protect those baby ears!
Bright colors. During the daytime, dress to get wet. Put your phone/money in plastic cases, ziplocks, or the waterproof pockets with lanyards that they sell at the stands. Sunblock, sunglasses (the cheap kind), and hats may not be a bad idea as the sun is brutal during the day! At night, people tend to dress “nice”, although in the Interior things tend to be a bit more casual.
Carnaval is a $300 million industry, and the government takes security very seriously. The National Police dispatch 19,000 units, protecting neighborhoods, tourist areas, shopping/banking/transport areas.
In Panama City, the security is much more stringent as the city has more crime. There are only 6 entrances / 7 exits for the cordoned area, with long lines at each checkpoint (separated into a men’s and women’s line). ID checks are common but they accept a paper copy of your ID (as water trucks will destroy your passport!)
In the Interior the entrances are manned with security who check your personal belongings as you walk in. But there is no long line to enter the area like in Panama City.
Where to Go
THE BIG THREE
Azuero is considered the “cultural seat” of Panama, and it’s no wonder that the top three are all within the Azuero Peninsula.
Las Tablas is generally considered the “ground zero” of Carnavales. People from all over the country flock to this destination to revel in both the tradition surrounding this centuries-old event, as well as more modern festivities like foam & water parties with loud, vibrant music, and special guest DJs and artists. A lot of money goes into the event – from the lavish floats and costumes, advertisements, security, media coverage, parties, stands and bleachers, water trucks, fireworks, etc. If you don’t mind a bit of loud music (both from speakers and trumpets), getting moshed by a big crowd, and getting absolutely drenched, then celebrating Carnavales in Las Tablas is guaranteed to be an exceptionally fun time!
Chitre has grown in popularity over recent years among Panama’s youth as the go-to party spot during Carnavales thanks to constant coverage by TV networks. What they lack in tradition, they make up in modern parties as Chitre is already a rapidly-growing city with a population of 50k (much bigger than Las Tablas or Pedasi).
Pedasi is the place to be if you prefer something a bit quieter. The festivities are very true to the rich tradition. Due to the limited accommodations in the area, the crowd size is always manageable (not overwhelming) and laid back. The festivities tend to wind down earlier in the evening as well, to allow some peace and quiet during the hectic week.
Outside of the big three, the others tend to be a lot less crowded and there’s much more of a “local” element to the celebrations. It’s a great snapshot of the culture & tradition, and a peek into how Carnival has been celebrated in these communities for centuries!
- La Villa de Los Santos
- Santo Domingo
- San Jose
- La Palma
- Panama City
Schedule of Activities
The festivities start around 12am. Fireworks will go off, the floats will start mozying down the streets, and around 12:30am or so the 2 queens will become visible.
Coronation starts ~12:30am-1am.
The floats and its entourage (band, supporters, etc) will emerge from their respective headquarters and will do two laps around the parade route which centers around the church square (see map below for details).
The official events start winding down around 2-3am at which time the discotecas turn up their music and the drinking/dancing continues until morning.
One interesting thing to note is that in Las Tablas, a third tuna called Punta Fogon, (which splintered off from Calle Abajo to form their own float & elect their own queen) will also be participating in the parade.
Parade Route: Pedasi & Las Tablas
Theme: disguise. Queens come dressed in costume.
Daytime: from 12pm the culecos (water trucks) will start spraying water (some places start as early as 9am!). Eager kids will fill up buckets and water guns with ice and head out to town where they will “attack” anyone who is still dry! Most cities host foam & water parties, and discotecas will keep the stages (featuring national and international musical artists) going all day long.
12-12:30pm: The tunas will emerge and will parade until 2:30pm. The discotecas will keep going until a bit later until people head back to rest.
From 12am the floats emerge again carrying the queens. The parade and fireworks wind down around 2am and the dancing/drinking continues until morning (5am).
Theme: coronation. Queens come out in their coronation dresses and their cars are adorned with a coronation theme.
Events same as Saturday.
Theme: luxury. Queens dress in a giant disguise and is a gala day.
Events same as Saturday.
Tuesday (Shrove/Fat Tuesday)
Daytime: same as previous days.
Nighttime (called miercoles de cenizas, or Ash Wednesday):
- 7pm (arrive at 6pm) – (Pedasi) the queens and ladies of the town will emerge in fancy polleras and men in traditional attire (straw hats, white linen shirts, black pants, leather sandals).
- 12-1am : The parades wind down (Pedasi).
- 2am : Quema de Cohetes (Pedasi). All the fireworks that did not get used will be lit in a massive bonfire. Official festivities end but discotecas continue the party until dawn.
- 5am : Quema de Cohetes (Las Tablas). Burning of the fireworks (bombitas) on each side of the park for about an hour. The tunas of Calle Arriba & Abajo battle it out on who can make the flames go higher.
- 6am: (Las Tablas) The firefighters put out the fire (takes about 30 mins) and el último Topón (the final showdown) commences between the two rival tunas. As the sun comes up, the brass band amps up the noise and the two queens meet in front of the Church of Santa Librada amid huge crowds. A mock singing battle (tonadas) will commence where the queens will “fight it out” face to face through improvised trash talking – the songs mock the members of the opposite tuna, and queens have been known to throw out props like money, gold fans, cockroaches, handcuffs, and figures of scorpions to taunt and take a personal jab at either the opposing queen or her family. For example, in 2016, the queen of Calle Abajo told Calle Arriba that she is “little and ugly,” with the insult accompanied by a tape measure. Each will declare herself the winner of Carnival.
- 7am (Las Tablas) Each tuna goes back to celebrate at its headquarters (sede).
Celebrating Carnaval in Panama City
Not everyone wants to endure the heavy traffic of course. If you do stay in Panama City, you are guaranteed to enjoy empty roads and commercial spaces as the city heads to the Interior. ATP estimates that some 800k people attend the Metro Carnival, and subsidizes a stunning $1.5mm to host the event.
The Metro Carnival festivities are located around the fish market area on Cinta Costera. The area is cordoned off with only 6 entrances / 7 exits, and a checkpoint at each (ID checks etc). Arrive early-ish to avoid the long lines (wait times to enter can be 30+ minutes). Carry a photocopy of your ID. Although security is heavy, you should still be aware of pickpockets and guard your belongings.
Schedule of Events
- 7:30-8pm: Coronation of the queen and 2 princesses.
Same as last year, Saturday will be a kids’ theme. There will be a dedicated theme park area to the northeast where children can play. They are invited to wear costumes with their families.
- 9am – 3pm: Culecos (water tanks hosing people down in the designated area)
- 4pm: Parada infantil (parade / floats)
- 5pm – 7pm: Comparsas (procession of singers, musicians, and dancers)
- 7pm – 4am: Tarimas de eventos (events on stages: live music, concerts, etc)
Sunday is folkloric day to highlight the cultures and traditions of the country.
- Schedule is basically the same with a desfile tipico (Panamanian parade) at 4pm.
Monday is a tourism theme. Officially, Monday is a workday, so the parade starts later.
- Schedule is basically the same but the parade starts at 7pm.
- 2am on Ash Wednesday: El entierro de la sardina (burial of the sardine). A New Orleans style funeral with costumes, music, dancing, and fake tears. Then party continues until dawn.
- The parade occurs only once in the evening but is a lengthy ordeal down the Cinta Costera. It starts at the Fish Market and heads north, circling the park area. Starts 4pm on Sat/Sun, 7pm on Mon.
- Music: There are 3 stages at the north, middle, and south ends, featuring artists from around the world.
- Culecos (water tanks) go from 9am to 3pm, but confined to the Calle 27 area.
- Food and Beverage Stands: (north end) Av Balboa & Calle 29. (south end) Ave 3 de Noviembre & viaducto.
- Entrances: 2 lines at each, separated into men/women. Calle 3 de Noviembre; Calles 26, 28, 33; Ave Balboa & Calle Ecuador
- Exits: Calle 3 de Noviembre; Calles 25, 27, 29, 31; Ave Balboa & Calle Ecuador
- Emergency Exits: Calle 24B; Cinta Costera in front of mirador.
- Medical attention area: in front of Mirador de Pacifico. For help dial 104 (Police) or 911 (Emergency)
- Road closures:
- (Friday AM) partial closure of Av Balboa from Cl. 29 to viaducto
- (Friday, 12pm) Complete closure of Cinta Costera 1 (Av Balboa & Cl. Ecuador) to Cinta Costera 3 (Amador Guerrero School)
- (Friday, 2pm to 6pm) Reverse lanes to ease traffic going out of the city.
- (Wednesday, 12pm) Roads reopen.
Metro Carnival Map
Click to open / use zoom on the top right to view details.
Carnival is said to have origins in the 18th century during the 3-century Spanish colonization. During this era, the festival was deeply colored by European practices of throwing water and flour, using masks, costumes, and musical instruments like violins, and Spanish items like guitars and polleras (cultural garb). From 1900-1950, the participants of each tuna would meet at beaches, ravines, or rivers to eat, drink, dance, and socialize. From the 1950s the Las Tablas Carnival established the queens of Calle Arriba/Abajo and the first street band and water trucks were introduced, and carnival became a large national event. From the 1980s, discotecas arrived to set up street parties in caged areas blasting Panamanian music (musico tipico) and modern hits.
Carnivalito is occasionally called the “anti-Carnival” as it takes place on the Friday-Sunday after Carnival. Generally there will be parades through the towns featuring a “Miss” (for example, a Senorita Pedasi in Pedasi) who is usually crowned through a committee selection and is separate from either the queens in Calle Arriba/Abajo.
In Pedasi on Sunday, a bull will run through the church square around noon.
6 weeks after Carnival, the country again closes for the Easter holidays. Business holiday starts on Thursday, and goes through Easter Sunday. Be aware as all of Panama City heads for the beaches (from Coronado to Cambutal).
Traffic jams easily cause 3-4 hour delays in and out of the city. No alcohol is sold anywhere on Good Friday.
Water: Because water tanks are such a big part of this event, occasionally there are national water outages (scheduled and impromptu) before/during Carnaval to cover the supply.
Traffic: always a big issue. Since so many people head to the Interior, expect delays on the highway lasting several hours both to/from the event. Beaches will be crowded. If your schedule allows, try to arrive a day or two early and leave a day or two late.
Labor: Of the 5 day event (Friday-Tuesday), technically only Tuesday is a national holiday. But if you are an employer, this is a frustrating time as suddenly everyone’s grandmother will fall “ill” on the Monday (or Wednesday after Carnaval). Very occasionally employees will quit their jobs abruptly to go celebrate, or “disappear” after receiving a big tip or bonus.
Hotel rates: Much higher around Carnaval. They can sometimes run double, triple. And finding availability is always difficult. I’ve even heard of tenants getting evicted so that the landlord can make an extra few $100’s by renting for Carnaval.
Police checks: If you’re driving, expect random police stops and ID checks. Car searches are rarer, but there has been a huge crackdown on drinking and driving in the past few years. If you’re in the country on a tourist visa, you can only drive with your overseas driver’s license for 3 months from date of entry.