This weekend, Carnaval in Panama begins, and the whole country will be celebrating this traditional 4-day holiday. Carnaval holds a deep cultural significance for people all over Latin America and the Caribbean, and Panama is one of the biggest Carnaval destinations. Whether you live and work in Panama, are retired in Panama, or just visiting Panama, there is something for everyone during the days of Carnaval. And since it’s a national holiday, there are many places you can spend your time celebrating in, depending on your budget and needs. Here are some suggestions for things to do during Carnaval days, that each offers a unique taste and experience of Panama.
In the town of Las Tablas, they prepare for Carnaval all year long, and it’s by far Panama’s biggest Carnaval celebration. Las Tablas is famous for parades that split the town into two sides – Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo – who then compete for the attention of the crowd. This creates for an electric atmosphere of parade floats, outdoor dancing, food, music, and the famous “culecos.” Culecos are essentially giant water trucks that spray the crowd throughout the day to keep them cool, and spice up the party a bit.
You can reach Las Tablas by car or bus, but know that it’s about a 5-hour drive from Panama City. You can also fly to nearby Pedasi (45 min flight), and take a short drive to Las Tablas, but make sure to book ahead as flights are small and sell out fast.
Carnaval in Panama City:
Traditionally, Carnaval celebrations and Panama City were limited to locally organized street fairs, and neighborhood parties. In recent years, however, the city has invested millions into creating a 4-day-long, public Carnaval celebration right on the bay on the Cinta Costera (coastal belt park). Around a mile or so the coastal strip is set aside exclusively for Carnaval, open to food vendors, outdoor games, souvenir vendors, and 3-4 stages for live music. Celebrations are split between day and night, with day celebrations reserved more for floats and water spraying, and the night geared for more live music, food, and drinks.
Much like Las Tablas, Penonome is a town that is very well known for its Carnaval celebrations. It has a long history and tradition with the annual festival, and is a great choice for those who want an authentic experience, without the massive crowds of Las Tablas. Now, that’s not to say that Penonome is not a loud, crazy party, however it’s smaller than Las Tablas, and much easier to reach by road from Panama City. Penonome is most famous for its daily parades and extravagant floats, with daily food, games, and drinks available on the main parade route as well. There is limited space available in Peneonome as far as lodging goes; so if you want to make a last minute trip, it may be best to book a room in nearby Santiago, which should have much more open space.
Bocas del Toro:
Tucked away in Panama’s northwest Caribbean coast, Bocas del Toro is one of the premiere tourist destinations in Panama. This is also the case during Carnaval. In Bocas, you won’t find giant parades, culecos, or major traffic. What you will find is an Afro-Caribbean interpretation of Carnaval that’s second to none in Panama. With unique “diablico” costumes and traditional music, Carnaval in Bocas is celebrated in style. It’s laidback, but still active and fun enough to make it worth the trip for the long weekend. Your best bet is to fly from Panama City, as driving will take around 10 hours.