Bridge of the Americas: Los Carnavales en Panamá

Roughly 10 months out of the year, the Republic of Panama, which sits square in between North and South America, is a lush, green rainforest. For those couple of weeks bookending Mardi Gras, the air is dry from extreme drought, temperates hang out at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit every day, and everyone is on a full-week of holiday from work and school. Anticipation is high for the largest Carnival parade in the Western world outside of Brazil.

In Panama, the entire weekend leading up to Ash Wednesday is known as “Los Carnavales,” a national holiday filled nightly parades and parties, each building in intensity and attendance. Celebrations happen all over the country, but the two biggest take place in Panama City Itself, and a smaller village known as Las Tablas, a few hours south on the Azuero Peninsula. I spent the first half of the weekend in Panama City and the second half in Las Tablas for the biggest few days of the year in this crossroads of a country.

Panama City is in a strange place in time right now. Their downtown is a certifiable mega-city of extreme wealth. Even Donald Trump has a tower down here. In the shadows of these skyscrapers that are only a couple decades old, farther into the hills are the shacks of the city’s poor.

The view of Panama City from Ancon Hill.
The sunset along the Panama City skyline.
Stacks of colorful shacks where the city’s less fortunate reside.
One of the many nooks and crannies of Panama City. Virtually everyone is outside with family for the national holiday.
Dark corners in the cuts of Panama City’s rough edges.

A lot of Panama really feels that way — the extreme juxtaposition of future and the past, with what that means for the present changing every day. Abundance and drought clash everywhere you look. If you were blind-folded and dropped off in the streets of Panama City, you could convince yourself you were somewhere in Southern Florida on a hot summer day — except most of the rules we’ve come to associate with Western cities don’t apply.

A misshapen foosball table at an outdoor restaurant/bar in Panama City.
Way up in the back hills of Panama City, far from the sky scrapers, where the line poverty line dances.

There’s no public trash collection service, so everyone just tosses their garbage everywhere… even in front of the city’s highest government building. Nobody’s walking around with a phone in front of their face (data service isn’t as consistent as it is in the US), so everyone seems much more mentally and physically present. At 9 degrees latitude, doors and walls are more an accessory than a necessity; the line between outside and inside is blurred. Controversies about Monsanto and genetically modified foods don’t exist — most of the local soft drinks use pure sugar. In one of the most fertile nations in the world, you can watch someone grind sugar cane down to a juice and drink it for a dollar and 30 seconds of your time.

Pile of local garbage from one of the city’s biggest open markets, even in front of the seat of the country’s civilian constitutional government.
Local merchants occupy themselves during the national holiday as the markets are stocked with locally grown produce and products from around the world.
Just another day’s work, grinding raw sugar cane for immediate sale and unloading one of many massive shipments of plantains.
The weekend of Los Carnavales is a major shopping weekend for the local economy.

In many ways, Los Carnavales is older than Panama City itself. In its history, Panama has changed hands and started over a few times, including to its new center of downtown high-rises. Still, Panama City hasn’t lost touch with it’s colorful Latin American roots.

Every major parade in the country is filled with floats, historical Panamanian garb, all kinds of ghoul-and-monster costumes, graffiti-ed party buses, coolers full of Balboa Light, water guns, and music galore.

The colorful beginning to the Panama City parade.
Customary dresses for Los Carnavales.
A hesitant young onlooker not too sure of his costumed guest.

The vibrant pastels common to cities like Miami, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, are ever common here. Casco Viejo, one of Panama City’s original centers, is steeped in color as it emerged as the cultural hotspot of the city. The neighborhood feels more like a European village than Central American capital, with as many coffee shops and hotels to match. In true Panamanian form, for every front door you pass of a revived architectural beauty, the next door over is an abandoned facade down a dark hallway.

The colorful housing projects of Panama’s Casco Viejo, undergoing a bit of a Bohemian renaissance.
Waiting to add another fare to the busiest weekend of his year.
Along the coast of historic Casco Viejo.

Celebration breeds precaution — Panama during Los Carnavales feels like a police state, likely because the fact that everyone is off work, and maybe because of the semi-violent history of the region. National and local patrols armed with full military garb and submachine guns can be found on most corners of the streets, lurking in the shadows of public areas, and among the traffic stops all drivers pass through every few miles throughout any town. Cops get paid roughly minimum wage in this country, which helps explain why there’s so many, but during the festivities no locals seem to be concerned with their presence — it’s part of the tradition now.

One of many squads of local police patrolling Panama City’s Carnival, one of the largest in the country.
A common site — military gear-clad police making an impression on would-be wrongdoers.
A local policeman making his presence felt in a local grocery store in Las Tablas, Panama.

For Los Carnavales, whole restaurants change their menu to serve seasonal favorites. As a whole, the Carnival and road-side food through the country this time of year doesn’t feel particularly “Latin.” Mexican food is as exotic here as it is in the US. Fried chicken is a staple. A signature chicken soup with delicious broth and wild rice can only be found this time of year. American soda brands are likely you’re only option — Coca-Cola has had a plant here since it first went international in 1906.

You’re likely to find grills with identical options to these throughout Panama City’s Carnival festivities.
Traditional chicken-meals in the Azuero Peninsula of Panama, where American brands and fried chicken are as common as ceviche and empanadas.

The isthmus of Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise over the Pacific and set in the Atlantic. In that same way, time seems to be at the mercy of the Panamanians for the weekend of Los Carnavales — they make good use of every hour. For Panama’s largest Los Carnavales celebration in Las Tablas, Each morning is spent recovering from the previous days festivities, navigating through the winding streets to get some breakfast, and getting right back to setting up shop for the thousands that will flood the streets for food, beer, and various novelties.

Sunrise on the beach of the Pacific Ocean in Las Tablas.
Local farmacias stock up for the day, while a pair of locals prepare to face the next day of Los Carnavales, shucking corn for the popular maize rolls.

The first major rise in the action of Las Tablas’ legendary celebration happens in the afternoon, where an onslaught of Panamanians storm the village streets American-spring-break-style, each group carrying their own cooler stuffed with Balboa Light. While college-age kids make up most of this rowdy mid-day crowd (“cooler racing” down soaked streets are a common site), this part of Los Carnavales is still a full-family affair. It’s guzzling light beers, dancing, and music until dinner time, when the streets clears out completely, a true eye of the storm.

A family making their way to the festivities.
Young Panamanians aim to make each day of Los Carnavales count.

After those few hours in the evening, the night transforms the city of Las Tablas turns into a moving kaleidoscope. The heart of the action happens from 10 pm to 4 am, hence the need for that afternoon break.

Every year, the famous Las Tablas Carnival is a competition between two factions, Calle Ariba (“High Street”) and Calle Abajo (“Low Street”). Each has their own set of floats, topped by a respective queen on each side that meets every definition of a celebrity. As attendees wait for the floats to roll down the street, they’re entertained by a live TV crew, a parading drum line with singers in tow, and a wave after wave of fireworks. Floats from each faction are pulled slowly into the town square by tractors, where they make long trips around for everyone to see.

These factional alliances run deep. Mothers hug the sides of floats their young daughters are perched on as they crawl up the street, honored that their family gets to represent this tradition. That year’s queen, a young woman herself, has a blend of anxiety and bliss, holding form for entire “street” that year. Elderly women with canes march their way up blocks of angled avenues to grab a microphone and sing hundred-year-old songs. Every part of the city becomes involved. Local grocery stores set up tables in front of their shops and become full service bars. Restaurants transform their menus to make enough food to keep powering the event.

One of the night’s queens.
A parade of the dead.
Eateries work through the night and into the morning to keep powering the festivities.
Long before the floats enter the scene, a band of locals engage in call-and-response song and dance around town square. Everyone knows the words.
A glowing mother cheers on her daughter, honored to be upon one of the night’s floats. The kids don’t have a hard time smiling.
Between live DJs, floats, concerts, and fire play, attendees have plenty to look at.
The nights consist of the plastic and pyrotechnical.

In a country with such a rapidly evolving social and economic identity, Los Carnavales serve as a powerful reminder of Panama’s rich cultural heritage, and above all else, a unique opportunity to see an entire country come together for a weekend that rivals any celebration in Latin America.

For more images from Jon Schultz, check out @foundflavor.