Carnival in Panama (¨Carnavales¨ in Spanish) consists of the four days preceding the Catholic season of Lent, a tradition originally celebrated by Roman Catholic societies that has now become a party for all races and religions. To this very day, neighborhoods spend this pre-Lenten long weekend competing in crowning queens through a series of parties, parades, floats and festive music. Panama has made Carnival its own through proudly showcasing the culture and tradition that people wait the year to see and participate.
As in other Latin American countries, Carnival has become a very popular activity in Panama, attracting visitors from all over the world, who come less for the religious themes and more for the festive environment in bars, restaurants and lounges all over the country. Some sources claim Panama’s Carnival to be the the second biggest festival in the world. Celebrated country-wide by locals, Carnival is a family-affair of national pride.
Beginning Friday night before Ash Wednesday, typically in March or April, most of the country starts to prepare for the festivities. Nearly every town and city in the republic has its own special version of Carnival. Drive on Panama City’s Cinta Costera to pass stages set up for live musical performances and streets cleaned and cleared for traditional floats with queens and princesses, along with nighttime fireworks. While some will stay in Panama City and their native towns (even Panama city’s suburbs have their own celebrations), most Panamanians and foreigners alike travel to the interior region of the country to Chitré and Las Tablas beginning Friday afternoon, leaving Panama City strangely vacant. Families and friends dine, rest and converse upon the 3+ hour ride to el interior, while generally the younger crowd heads out to enjoy the parades, music and traditional activities. ¨Pechugón¨ is Chitré’s midnight event that marks the start of Carnival. Large tanker trucks filled with water wet the crowd as they play music and hold contests, called ¨los culecos¨ or ¨la mojadera.¨ Fireworks and music play. The next four days are filled with daytime ¨culecos,¨ parades, music, food and fun, frequented by all-ages, but most especially by the younger crowd. Daytime events begin at noon.
Many families take at least one of the days to enjoy the nearby beaches and national parks for part of Carnival weekend, and good food and relaxation is plentiful. Nighttime is reserved for families to participate in a competition between the two Carnival queens, who with their crew work the entire year on elaborate floats, catchy slogans and music to entice their followers. Fireworks, newscasters and live bands make the night memorable. Most teenagers and up frequent the open-air disco called PH or X-Zone after the fireworks conclude around midnight, which feature the best national reggaeton artists among other styles and lasts till dawn. Wednesday means a return for many to Panama City: good-byes to family and friends who remain outside the capital and strict attendance to Ash Wednesday mass. Many Panamanians take the five-day long weekend as a time as a vacation and enjoy their cultural celebrations, saving up money to participate in travel and entertainment.