With a diverse and fascinating culture, there are endless ways to experience and learn more about Panama. Here are our list of Top 5 Cultural Events in Panama that you simply must try to check out when you’re in Panama!

1. Carnaval de Las Tablas
One of Panama’s most popular cultural events, this colorful and lively celebration takes place every year during the four days preceding Ash Wednesday in March. First held in the 19th century, this annual tradition began as a rivalry between two of Las Tablas‘ religious groups, the Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo, both of which wrote songs and performed dances to antagonize the other in the four days preceding the Catholic observation of Lent. Over time, this bitter feud was forgiven, and today, the carnival symbolizes harmony and togetherness. Traditional folk songs and dances are performed during the celebration in memory of this historic event’s earliest days. Most towns and cities across Panama have their own versions of Carnaval, and people come from across the world to enjoy the colorful parades that define this iconic celebration.

Throughout Carnaval, families take the opportunity to indulge in food and drink on the country’s beaches and spend time with one another. During the nighttime festivities, two groups line the city streets to represent members of the original feud. It is common for members of the opposite sex to douse one another with water as a sign of provocation (though today it’s generally made in a lighthearted manner), and two “queens” are chosen to compete for the title of overall reigning queen. Performers wearing elaborate costumes engage in traditional dances on flamboyant floats during these parades, which have come to symbolize the event.

2. Festival de la Mejorana en Guararé
Panama has a rich folkloric history, and these myths and tales are celebrated during the Festival de la Mejorana in Guararé, located in the province of Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula. This annual festival held in September each year and honors the Virgin of Mercy (la Virgen de las Mercedes), who was said to have performed a miracle for a local’s daughter in 1949. In exchange, he promised an annual festival in her honor. Today, performers come from around the country to dance, sing, eat and enjoy. Fireworks and decorations transform this small town for the week-long festivities, and today, the Festival de la Mejorana is the largest and most important folklore event in the country.

As with many other Panamanian celebrations, music and dancing are central to the Mejorana festival, but bull fights and oxcart parades are also very important. This event is not to be missed!

3. Fiestas Patrias
Arguably one of the most important cultural events on the Panamanian calendar, Fiestas Patrias celebrates the country’s separation from Colombia in 1903 as well as the nation’s Flag Day, making it a particularly patriotic event. This annual festival takes place in Panama City, so it’s a must-see for visitors spending time in the Panamanian capital.

Celebrated in November, the festival recognizes the Panamanian flag, as it was designed and first created when the country declared its formal independence. For this reason, Panama has not one, but two independence days, making the Fiestas Patrias a very important celebration.

Quintessential Panamanian culture is on full display during this event, as a large parade is often lead by a female dancer dressed in traditional Panamanian clothes, such as the cherished ¨pollera¨ (the dress females wear as seen in the photo above). Schoolchildren from across the country travel to the capital for the honor of performing in the procession’s marching bands, and the country is united in celebration not only of the nation’s independence, but also what it means to be Panamanian.

4. Panama Jazz Festival
With such a diverse cultural blend and rich history, it’s little wonder that music is such an essential part of Panama’s culture. This is particularly evident during the annual Panama Jazz Festival, the next of which will take place across a range of venues in Panama City from Jan. 13 through 18 in 2014.

One of the most important jazz festivals in the world, this event attracts musical talent from across the globe, and next year’s festival promises to be one of the biggest and best yet. More than 400 performers have been confirmed, including Herbie Hancock and national icon Rubén Blades. In addition to being the premiere destination for jazz enthusiasts visiting Panama, this festival also aims to raise awareness of social issues faced in Panama and across Central and South America.

5. Festival de Cristo Negro de Portobelo
Spirituality is a vital part of many Panamanians’ lives, and Catholicism is the primary religion of the country. For these reasons, the Festival de Cristo Negro de Portobelo, or Festival of the Black Christ of Portobelo, is such an important event that takes place Oct. 21 each year.

The primary destination for many people who make the annual pilgrimage during the festival is the Church of San Felipe, where the statue of the Black Christ sits to the left of a magnificent golden altar. This impressive dais features detailed carvings of Christ’s journey to Golgotha, where He was crucified. Many pilgrims making their way to the Church of San Felipe do so on their knees out of respect for their Lord, and some wear purple robes as a symbol of penance for their misdeeds.

At 6 p.m., a special mass is called, and two hours later, 80 men carry the statue of the Black Christ around the town of Portobelo. This procession can last for around four hours, during which music is performed, making the event feel like a parade. At the stroke of midnight, the statue is returned to its home alongside the Golden Altar in the Church of San Felipe.

The festival was first celebrated in the late 17th century. The mysterious arrival of an image of the Nazarene is at the heart of this celebration, and there are several theories on how this artifact came to arrive in Panama. One of the most enduring tales is that a cargo ship could not leave port during a particularly violent storm, despite several attempts to do so. When the vessel tried to set sail for the fifth time, the crew decided to lighten the ship’s load by casting a box overboard. When discovered on the shore, the crate was found to contain the image of the Nazarene, at which point it was transferred to the church in Portobelo.

Of course, these are just five of Panama’s most popular cultural events, but many more are held throughout the year. To experience the real Panama for yourself, contact one of our friendly local travel consultants to discover even more ways to immerse yourself in the vibrant culture of this amazing country!

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