Carnival in Panama

Blog by Andres Lay & Joy Huppe


It’s never too early to start planning for Carnival!

Festive colors, fireworks, parades, dancing, drinking and general merriment-making…   just another day in Panama? With the numerous celebrations that occur throughout the year, it might seem so, but Carnival is a special, much-anticipated and fully-celebrated Panamanian happening! While imagining yourself enjoying a cold Balboa and soaking in the Latin rhythms, you may pause to reflect: What are the historic origins of Carnival? How is Carnival celebrated in Panama? Where are some of the country’s biggest parties? And, what steps can you take to have a fantastic Carnival?

History of Carnival
The first Carnival of Panama took place in colonial times. Groups of individuals would don costumes as either the king or queen of Spain, conquering soldiers, Indians, or slaves. The festooned bunch would then depart from Peña Prieta Beach, Avenida Balboa to part of what is now the Santa Ana Park, simulating battles along the way. In 1910 the mayor of Panama, José Agustin Arango, passed a decree formalizing the event. It was then necessary to choose a queen to spearhead the entire affair. The first queen selected was Manuelita Vallarino, who had the honor of being one of the most beautiful woman in Panama until the day of her death. The celebration quickly spread, with different towns arranging parades, holding live concerts, lighting fireworks, and of course, selecting their own Carnival Queen.


The First Carnival Queen

When is Carnival celebrated?
Carnival always takes place 40 days before the Christian holy week. The most famous Carnival in Panama can be found in the town of Las Tablas in the province of Los Santos, located in the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama. Panama City (the capital) and Penonome (a few hours outside the city) are also places which celebrate Carnival in all it’s splendor. Basically, this celebration is a huge party. Yes, that’s exactly what it is. In fact, it is the most famous of all parties in Panama. You might be familiar with Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Well, the Carnival in Panama is celebrated on the same dates and it is celebrated in one way or another by the entire country.

Where are the most popular Carnivals in Panama?
Carnival in the Azuero Peninsula is by far the most exuberant and most popular celebration! In particular, Las Tablas, where two streets in the same town battle it out to out-do each other with parades all day and night for the 5 days that Carnival lasts. Calle Arriba (High Street) and Calle Abajo (Low Street) put on excellent shows with very expensive thrones and dresses for each of their queens, rivaling those in Rio de Janeiro. This Carnival is one you will never forget if you attend. Other towns in the area — Chitre, Guarare, and La Villa de Los Santos, are also known for celebrations but cannot compare to the one in Las Tablas.

Parade competition brings out spectacular sights

Spectacular parades are an everyday occurrence during Carnival.

The Las Tablas carnival days are organized in the following way
Friday night kicks off the party with the formal presentation and crowning of the queens, with a parade to follow. Everyone is dressed in their best, and all attend the crowning and parade celebration. After the parade there is a fireworks show which lasts for about 30 minutes.  Afterwards, everyone is free to either hang out at the park or go to various organized parties around town. Drinking is allowed on the streets, but drunks disturbing the peace are quickly rounded up by police and detained until the end of carnival.  (Government courts are shut down during this time.)  The party doesn’t wind down until about 5 am.

Saturday morning comes with the start of the “mojadera” at 10 am. By that time, eighteen-wheelers with are lined up around the town’s central park and crowds are already showing up. The attire for today: shorts or pants, a shirt you won’t mind not being able to wear again, cheap sneakers, sunglasses and a hat/cap. You don’t need to worry about how clean you look after the party because everyone will be wet, and quite possibly colored with dye which some use to color people’s clothes, among other things. Dancing, drinking, and hanging out while you get wet pretty much sums up the day’s activities until 5 pm. At that time, everyone (except the drunks!) start heading home to change into nice clothes, to have dinner and then go back to the central park to enjoy the night parade, followed by more of what happened on Friday night. This basic formula is more or less repeated through Tuesday.


Be sure to wear your “play clothes” for Mojadera!

Want to see a little mo’ Mojadera? Check out this link:

Every day in Carnival has a theme, which proceeds as follows. Friday is the Opening, Saturday is International Day, Sunday is Pollera day, Monday is Costume day, Tuesday is Queens day and in the early morning hours before 5 am on Wednesday is “entierro de la sardina” (the sardine burial) which signifies the end of Carnival until next year.

How do I have the best carnival?  And where should I stay?
Well, in two short words: Plan ahead.  If you would like to attend Carnival, you need to understand that the whole country is participating and all hotels are going to be booked to capacity, as you might expect any city in the world preparing for any carnival. Reserve lodging months in advance to be sure you have a reservation during this busy time!

Keep in mind, although there are numerous hotels in Panama City, your options become more limited in the smaller towns, such as Las Tablas and Boquete.  It is recommended that you gather your friends (or make new friends in Panama!) and enjoy the celebration as a group, thus assuring that you’ll have a blast, while staying safe. The closest Carnival to Boquete is just 15 minutes away in Dolega, where the activities are similar to those in Las Tablas. Boquete area lodging fills up quickly, so you should start making your reservations at Casa de Montaña Bed & Breakfast as soon as possible, as it is common for guests to book far in advance.

Now that you know a little bit more about Carnival in Panama, you can start planning for next year’s celebration.  We look forward to sharing this fun-filled, five-day festival with you!


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