It’s a festive time of year in Panama. Casco Viejo’s Jazz Festival and Boquete’s Flower & Coffee Fair wound down last week, and the nationwide blowout known as Carnaval is just around the corner. The Panamanian capacity for partying is a marvel (and sometimes a nuisance, when it causes delays) to US expats every November – but as you can see, it doesn’t end there.
Blessed by the warmth of the tropics, Panamanians find something to celebrate on an almost weekly basis, and they do so with flair. Meanwhile, in the contrasting climate of Chicago, it feels like we cram all of our holidays in before it gets too bitterly cold to want to leave the house.
La Candelaria Fair is a lesser-known festival held in Chiriqui, Panama, and it celebrates the very thing I am so looking forward to: the imminent end of winter. The fair takes place this week in Bugaba District, where our Director of Tours & Activities Aris Almengor grew up.
“Bugaba is like a hub for people living in Volcán, Cerro Punta, Puerto Armuelles, San Andrés, Santa Marta, Santa Rosa, Bongo, Santo Domingo – there are 13 corregimientos in total, and Bugaba is where people from these places come to buy good clothes, furniture, and household appliances. Almost everyone knows each other,” says Aris.
Candelaria, or Candlemas, is another one of those Christian holidays that was adopted from earlier (often pagan) traditions. To its preexisting significance as the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Christians added associations between the lengthening of the days and Jesus as the light of the world, as well as to the ritual purification of Mary the Virgin.
To the people of Bugaba, La Candelaria Fair is an opportunity to proudly exhibit the fruits of their labor, and something the entire community looks forward to. This annual fair invigorates the local economy to the tune of $500,000 as attendees gather to enjoy parades, performances and carnival rides while learning about Chiricano agriculture and cowboy culture, dairy operations and artisan crafts in the region. Local ranchers present their best cows and bulls to be judged by the livestock committee – with prizes and awards for winners. According to Rolando A. Miranda, an agribusiness professional in Chiriqui, preparation occurs all year long – dairy producers invest in genetics, high-quality embryos, excellent bulls, and quality feed to prime their livestock for exhibition.
Since there’s so much riding on this event, I had to ask: is the fair fair?
“I believe the judges are very well-chosen from all different associations in order to be very objective,” says Rolando.
By the time La Candelaria rolls around, local farmers have made their weather predictions for the rest of the year. While the weather in Panama remains relatively consistent throughout the dry season, slight variations can have an impact on crop health, and early January is a critical time for farmers to watch closely and plan accordingly to ensure their livelihood.
As anyone in the US knows, weather predictions around the time of Candlemas are not exclusive to Panama.
“I know the story of the groundhog very well,” Rolando said when I told him about Punxsutawney Phil and his prophetic appearance every February 2. Panamanians don’t look to rodents or shadows for their weather predictions, though – they sensibly direct their gazes skyward.
These local traditions represent the very best of Panamanian life in the interior. While still lacking in many of the things we take for granted in the US and other parts of the world, life in Bugaba is peaceful, comfortable, and full of pride. The children in this district are happy, healthy, and they go to school. Their grandmothers tend beautiful tropical gardens and wait for them on the front porch. It is because of thriving agricultural activity that citizens in Bugaba and neighboring towns are able to enjoy a middle-class existence. La Candelaria Fair is a chance to celebrate that – and I’m only too glad to shed some light on it.