Like many countries around the world, especially in Europe and Latin-America, Panama upholds the carnival tradition. This festivity has its roots in catholicism, when remaining foods and alcohol were consumed right before the start of the 40-day lent leading to Easter. The Panama carnavales may not be as famous as the legendary carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or Baranquilla, they’re still colorful and full-on fun. Here’s everything you need to know about the Panama carnival celebrations.
Panama carnival 2020 dates
The 2020 carnival celebrations in Panama will take place from Friday 21st up to and including Wednesday 26th February. This is what the program looks like:
- Friday 21st February: Coronation of the queen followed by outdoor dancing (evening and night).
- Saturday 22nd February – Tuesday 25th February: Getting drenched by the water trucks (around 9 a.m. in the morning). Parade with dancing groups and brass bands followed by fireworks and outdoor dancing (from 4 p.m. onwards, evening and night).
- Wednesday 26th February: Burrial of the Sardine (around 2 a.m., well before sunrise).
Saturday is when the kids carnival parade is held (at least it is in Panama City). Monday tends to be the tamest day of Panama carnival. It’s when locals catch their breath between the weekend parties and Shrove Tuesday when the celebrations reach their peak and the parade is more extravagant. Make sure to arrive early enough in the afternoon to secure spot near the parade.
What to expect from carnival in Panama City
– Where the Panama City parade is being held
Carnaval in Panama City takes place on the Cinta Costera park, which connects the historic center of Casco Viejo with the skyscrapers in the modern district. The parades are mostly held between Avenida 3 de Noviembre, near the fish market (mercado de mariscos) and Calle 33 Este and loop anti-clockwise.
– Security checkpoint
The first thing you’ll notice when attending Panama carnival is the police presence. Before entering the festivity zone, you’ll need to pass a security check and pat-down. Men and women are split in two lines. Copies of a foreign pasport, either physical or digital, are usually accepted.
Do make sure to bring a waterproof holder for your phone and documents and watch them carefully to outsmart pickpockets.
– Water fun (morning)
The day parades feature giant water trucks (culecos) that keep the crowd cool by spraying water. But there are more water threats (mojaderas) to look out for: water balloons, hoses and even buckets all add to the fun. Just buy a water pistol from one of the stands and join in.
– Decorated carnival floats (late afternoon)
The Panama carnival parade features beautifully decorated floats (topones) with brass bands (tunas) and drums (tambores) playing salsa and the Carnival Queen, accompanied by two Princesses. In between the floats, you’ll see groups of dancers (called comparsas) wearing the most colorful customes and marching bands competing with those on the floats.
– Gorgeous Panama pollera dresses
The men are dressed in a montuno while the women wear a stunning Panama pollera dress, a tortoise shell comb (peineta) and sparkling, beaded hair accessories made of crystals, pearls and shells (tembleques).
Did you know that it can take around 8 months to make a Panama pollera? This gorgeous dress always features native designs such as birds, flowers and garlands on a crisp white background. The colorful wool pompons and ribbons give the pollera a festive touch. This national costume is so iconic that Panama even holds a yearly Pollera Day on 22nd July.
– Dirty devils or diablos sucios
Part of Panamanian folkore are the dirty devils (diablos sucios), with their beautifully crafted but scary masks. Centuries ago, these devils were a tool of evangelization, scaring non-Catholics into complying with Catholic religion. Back then, the devils danced until the sweat made the costume colors run off, making them look dirty. Hence, the term dirty devils. In addition, they also carried an animal bladder which served as a percussion instrument so that they smelled dirty too.
At first, our kids were too scared to even look at the diablos sucios from a distance. When she realized it was just a mask, the youngest decided that she wanted a picture with one while the eldest safely kept a distance.
Don’t expect a variety of food and drinks during Panama carnaval. You’ll find some stalls with streetfood at the north-east corner of the park, mostly selling barbecued meat such as grilled chicken, chorizo sausages and hot dogs.
– Partying until dawn
When the sun sets, you’ll notice that most families with kids start to leave (as did we). The music intensifies and the crowds head to one of the Cinta Costera stages featuring dj sets. The party continues in the Panama City’s bars and clubs.
– Burrial of the sardine
This funeral procession, during which costumed mourners carry a tiny coffin with a symbolic sardine, is part of Spanish heritage. It symbolizes the end of the celebrations and the start of Lent.
Where to stay for carnival in Panama City
If you want to experience carnival in Panama City, then we’d highly recommend staying close to the Cinta Costera. We stayed at the Intercontinental Miramar, which is located on a quiet part of this road and involved a 30-minute walk. Location-wise, this was a perfect choice.
Panama carnival is considered the most important holiday period in Panama. Most locals traditionally head to other towns in the country to celebrate carnival with their family. They make it a mini-vacation, combining the Panama carnival with a visit to the beach or a national park.
This also means that roads are congested on Friday, for the exodus, and on Wednesday, when they return home. We highly recommend avoiding out-of-town activities on these days. Also note that some excursions may not take place as scheduled. Our hotel concierge moved heaven and earth to find a Gamboa tour company to agree with transportation during the Panama carnival period. Then again, activities taking place in the city are usually less crowded than usual.
Other cities to celebrate carnival in Panama
Panama City’s carnival celebrations are relatively new. Years ago, it was more a collection of neighbourhood parties and street events. Other cities in Panama have a decades-long carnival tradition
– Las Tablas carnival
The ultimate Panama carnival takes place in the town of Las Tablas, where the battle of the queens guarantees the most intense carnival mood. Two rival streets – Calle Arriba (Up Street) and Calle Abajo (Down Street) – each crown a queen. During the entire carnival period these queens, each with her own floats and bands, give their all to wow the crowds with a marvellous show. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, the winner is announced.
– Bocas del Toro carnival
Bocas, located along the Caribbean coast, is known as the party capital of Panama. A town with this reputation takes carnival to another level. Bocas is also the place where dirty devils carry actual whips, so make sure to behave. 🙂
– Penonomé carnival
A different kind of Panamanian carnival can be found in Penonomé. Here, the parade doesn’t take place on the streets but on the water. The floating parades creates an entirely different atmosphere, a bit tamer but just as lively, colorful and fun.
Have you experienced carnival in Panama before? Or is there another carnival celebration you’d recommend in Central or South America? Let us know in the comments.
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