Forget New Orleans or Rio De Janero, Panama has its own party for Carnival. Although I don’t practice the 40 days of fasting known as Lent, I jumped at the opportunity to celebrate the binge that takes place beforehand. The largest celebration in the country (and the second largest in the world), los carnavales takes place over four days in a small town on the Azuero Peninsula called Las Tablas. The premise of Carnaval in Las Tablas is that two streets, the upper and lower, are battling it out, trying to outdo each other with elaborate floats, loud bands, gorgeous queens, and fireworks. A typical day at Carnaval consists of waking up around 10 a.m., frequently on an air mattress in a rented house since lodging in Las Tablas is virtually non-existent, and heading to the city’s central park, the scene of the battle. Each of the two streets have two wildly decorated floats made of painted Styrofoam, feathers, and sequins.
Each street places a queen and a cadre of other younger queens-in-training on the floats to stand and relentlessly wave in time with the music, occasionally blowing a kiss. Following the floats is a trailer filled with about 30 musicians, all percussion and horns, belting out traditional, fast-paced tunes. This display continues for several hours.
Surrounding the park are scaffolding structures that hold DJs and speakers, blaring anything from more Caribbean-style beats to modern-day dance music. After the parade, people dance in the streets while water trucks spray the crowds until everyone and everything is drenched. Around 4 p.m., you go home for a disco nap, grab some traditional sancocho (chicken soup) at a temporary restaurant and head back to the park around 10 p.m. to repeat the parade (with differently-themed floats) and enjoy the fireworks until 4 a.m. This goes on for FOUR days. Oh, and I forgot to mention the key ingredient: lots of alcohol. Although very fun, I only survived one day and two nights before deciding that I had spent sufficient time in Las Tablas to consider myself experienced in Panama Carnavales. Next year, you can find me on Isla Palenque.