Panama’s legendary carnavales are approaching, and it’s one of the most looked forward to times of the year for Panamanians. There’s 1000’s of people, earsplitting music, grand parades, elaborately dressed “Carnaval Queens”, and complete chaos. Something that I think is unique is that you’re never too old to party at carnaval. Parents, grandparents, kids, and people of all ages come together to celebrate and just have fun.
The tradition of carnaval in Panama goes back to its Spanish roots. Two queens are elected in each town, and they are known as Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo. A huge rivalry takes places between the two as they try to outdo each other with fireworks, insults, and even ripping money. The below video by Dan User completely captures the tradition of Panamanian carnavals.
This carnavals usually take place towards the end of February (view calendar here), and I want everyone to have the best carnaval experience as possible so here are a few tips on how to properly do carnaval in Panama:
Get out of Panama City!
When I first moved to Panama, I was surprised to find out that the worst carnaval in the entire country takes place in Panama City. The city pretty much becomes a ghost town as everyone heads out to the interior of Panama for the real carnaval celebrations.
The past government tried to make the Panama City carnaval “cool” by spending over $3 million and bringing in international artists like Olga Tañon, Wisin y Yandel, Eddy Herrera and Gilberto Santa Rosa, but it didn’t fool anyone because everyone knows where the real carnavals are. The budget has now been reduced in the city to focus on promoting the celebrations held in the interior of the country.
Book your hotel or house in advance
As soon as the year’s carnaval celebrations end it’s time for Panamanians to begin planning the next year’s festivities, which means that rooms fill up quickly. Hotels also charge a premium for rooms during carnavales so book as far in advance as possible. If you happen to go to the carnaval in Penonome, I recommend staying at Dos Continentes. They were the only hotel I could find at the last minute with space available the week before and weren’t charging ridiculous prices. Also check booking.com for great hotel deals throughout Panama.
Be prepared to get wet!
One of the traditions that sets Panama’s carnaval apart from other celebrations around the world is the use of a water truck to spray people down during the carnaval. The first time you get sprayed might be an unpleasant experience, but you’ll be waving your arms and begging the “culecos” to hose you down as the heat intensifies throughout the day.
Be sure to wear swim trunks or a bathing suit and shoes that will still be comfortable to wear after getting wet (definitely don’t wear socks and tennis shoes). I also recommend putting your money, ID, and phone in a waterproof pouch and there will be plenty of people selling these at the carnaval.
How out of your comfort zone do you want to go?
Carnavales in Panama can be far out of the comfort zone for many people. Part of it includes grand parades with beautiful carnaval queens, but on the other end, it’s crowded, dirty, loud and full of drunk people.
For example, a few years ago I had a friend visit me in Panama City, and it happened to be during carnavales. I thought it would be perfect to bring her there so she could see a bit of the “real Panama, to” and we headed to the one in Penonome with a group of friends.
We arrived at the festivities pretty early in the day so it wasn’t very crowded and my friend was having a good time. Fast forward two hours and the place is jam packed with people, the music is blaring reggaeton, and guys from the “culecos” are spraying water on everyone. I was having an awesome time taking in my first carnaval experience but my poor friend just broke down and started crying because the entire debacle was too overwhelming for her.
Where to go
You are either going to love it or hate it (I love it!) so try to go to a carnaval celebration that will be within your comfort zone. Here are three locations to choose from going from most intense to least intense:
Las Tablas: If you want the most extreme carnaval experience then Las Tablas is where you need to go. It’s home to the most beautiful and intricate parade floats with an elaborately dressed carnaval queen on top waving down to the crowd. This carnaval is packed with thousands of people so be prepared to get out of your comfort zone! View hotels in Las Tablas >>
Pedasi: If you want to have a more tranquil carnaval experience then head over to the small town of Pedasi. You will get to see plenty of parades without the overpacked crowds of Penonome and Las Tablas. You will also be nearby to several beautiful beaches you can go to if you need a break from carnaval festivities. View hotels in Pedasi >>
I personally haven’t had any safety issues during carnavales but bad things do happen so don’t let your guard down. Pickpocketers should be your biggest concern so I usually just bring $20, my ID, and phone with me and keep them in a waterproof pouch under my shirt.
What to bring
– Cheap sunglasses (100’s of vendors will be selling these at the carnaval so just get them there if you don’t have any)
– During the day you can wear a swimsuit, tank top, shorts, and flip flops or crocs to fit in with everyone. At night it’s the same minus the swimwear and some people wear jeans.
– Passport copy or Panama cedula if you have one.
– Waterproof pouch (also frequently sold at carnavales)
– Mini cooler with neck strap (sold at carnaval). This is for filling with alcohol so you don’t have to buy individual drinks.
– Seco! You can’t experience carnavales without drinking Seco. A lot of Panamanians say they will only drink it during Carnavales because it makes them crazy.
– VIP Peskito pass: If you’re going to the carnaval in Penonome I recommend buying the pass to get into the Peskito area. This is where the best parties are held and you also get a bottle of Seco included at the party. Cost is $80 and it can be purchased at any of the Peskito restaurants in Panama City.
What to eat
Your diet during carnavales is mostly going to consist of street meat and other street food. It’s quick, cheap, abundant, and won’t delay your partying too much. If you need to eat something more substantial there will be a few restaurants around depending where you go and you can enjoy some sancocho from a local fonda in the morning to help with a lingering hangover.
Beat the traffic!
I would recommend leaving Panama City on Friday afternoon if you want to beat the traffic. Most Panamanians have to work a half day on Saturday and then they head to the interior of the country for Carnavales. By leaving on Friday afternoon you miss the morning and evening rush hours as well as Saturday traffic, which is the worst day. If you can’t leave on Friday then go as early as possible Saturday morning while the majority of people are still working.
Most people head back to Panama City from carnavales on Tuesday so DO NOT do this unless you want to sit stranded in traffic for an infinite amount of hours. My biggest tip for beating the traffic is to leave on Monday or stay a few extra days and head back to the city on Wednesday or Thursday.
Enjoy your carnaval experience! Here’s the video I put together of my experience in Penonome in 2014.