Panama Las Tablas carnival plus Villa de Los Santos and Chitré (update 2019).

Panama Las Tablas carnival is a big party. That’s why those who know me could be surprised to know that, in the year of Our Lord 2013, while traveling in the state of Panama, I spent 5 days at the carnival of Las Tablas, Villa de Los Santos, and Chitré. Yet, it’s absolutely true.

Now, it is difficult for me to trace back the reasons that led me to delight in alcohol, a hallucinated crowd, Latin rhythms, fried chicken and muggings. All of this happened maybe because I was still young and being the carnival the main event of the whole State, the one that hundreds of thousands of people flock to, it seemed absurd to avoid it and hiding in a cave.

In hindsight, I could add that in much of Panama, in the carnival week, you can not help but participate in the carnival, so, since one is obliged, better to do things well.

What we talk about when we talk about Panama Las Tablas carnival, Villa de Los Santos e Chitré

You should know that in the state of Panama, the Las Tablas carnival is a serious matter. The stories and tales that compare it to that of Barranquilla or Rio are undoubtedly exaggerated, however. Consider that in the entire state of Panama there are about 4 million people (I think the 4 millionth citizen was born just as I write), while only 7 million live in Rio and in Barranquilla 1,2.

Panama Las Tablas carnival. In this case, the photo shows a carnival float in the city of Villa de Los Santos.
Panama Las Tablas carnival. In this case, the photo shows a carnival float in the city of Villa de Los Santos.

Size and pure numerical strength aside, it must be admitted that the soul of this carnival beats very strongly and has its own particular dimension, made up of extremely professional (and expensive) aspects and others much more amateur, alive, true and lively.

The mix is confusing. They certainly do things that we can no longer do (nothing illegal, but if you just look where and how the fireworks start, the hairs on your arms will stand up) and the passion, the desire to have fun, the easing of tension , it must undoubtedly have thaumaturgical aspects.

Panama, the carnival of Las Tablas. Here’s what I mean when I talk about fireworks. Not the beautiful end of year choreography in Dubai but a sort of Panamanian version of Black Hawk Down. The video is from Trans American Journey. Here their YouTube channel, I suggest you to have a look at it, especially if you are passionate about South America.

A little introduction to Panama Las Tablas carnival

In the carnival there are two queens (Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo) which represent two parts of the city. They wander around the city center, fully dressed, on colorful floats from which they “challenge” each other to the rhythm of dancing and some insult, with a style halfway between our local melò and the Brazilian soap.

The supporters of the two queens support their part by shooting fireworks, singing, dancing and cheerfully teasing their opponents. Every now and then they come to hands, but you know, the Latin temperament is what it is and beer does not help to appease the souls.

Now repeat for 4 days.

Eventually, someone (it is not clear to me who, but I think it is not even too important) will decree the winner between the two queens, who will still parade and participate in the “sardine funeral”. End of the carnival and they go fasting.

Music baby!

In the midst of all this you have to put reggaeton shot at full blast, asses wiggling (I think young people call it twerking), wet T-shirts, trucks loaded with water that sprays the happy population, thefts, a little bit of harassing here and there, beer, rice and fried chicken, fireworks and broken hearts as if there was no tomorrow. Ah, I forgot, a lot of people who sleep randomly or don’t sleep at all.

In the video below, a very nice short film by Don Usher, you will be able to grasp, at least in part, the passion and commitment that go after an event of this type.

From what little I understand (forgive me but this is really not my thing) the choice of the queen is based on beauty but also on the availability of her/ her family’s money. That is because she will have to contribute to settling the bill of the whole circus (clothes, wagons, fireworks, various events, food). An account that can easily be around hundreds of thousands of dollars (3 to 5 say the well-informed but obviously I have no idea if they are bragging absurd figures).

My experience in Las Tablas

After I have explained what we are talking about when it comes to the carnival, I go back and tell you my arrival.

After a peaceful stay in the charming Boquete, my arrival in Las Tablas was in the wake of an interesting meeting. Traveling alone I had joined a group of characters that had ex-Commonwealth and English in common. There was an American boy of Italian origin who lived in Boston, an African-Chinese girl who lived in Brooklyn, two South African girls and myself.

The company was heterogeneous and we had managed to fix a bed in a beautiful house in Las Tablas in the carnival period. The room, where we all slept, was about $ 150 (expensive, I know, but it was carnival).

Panama, the carnival of Las Tablas, one of the two queens.
Panama Las Tablas carnival, one of the two queens.

The night was rather rough and not for the reasons that you can imagine. The Italian/American boy was totally wasted, the chinese/african from Brooklyn was supercharged (for reasons better to forget). And, finally, the two South Africans simply disappeared and returned home at 6 in the morning and wake everyone up.

And then, that evening, the mess on the street had a solid consistency. Masses of men and women dragged themselves shaking the ass to the rhythm of samba, reggaeton, and salsa. Each with a beer in one hand and a chicken leg in the other.

The mass waved and followed fiery the chariot of its queen and then on the basis of some event that I was absolutely unable to identify, exulted and fell silent, shot fireworks or throw water at other people.

From Las Tablas to Villa De Los Santos

In the end, I think it was a good thing that the room was rented only for one night. For the next day I had booked accommodation in a nearby hostel in Villa de Los Santos.

The animal rights activists will hate me and I am a little ashamed too, but carnival is also this. Cockfight.
Panama Las Tablas carnival. The animal rights activists will hate me and I am a little ashamed too, but carnival is also this. Cockfight.

Clearly, Villa de Los Santos was also serious about Carnival.

Now imagine the scene. I, two meters tall, I arrive with two backpacks in the central square of Villa de Los Santos, where my hostel is located. The main square (Parque Simon Bolivar) is surrounded on four sides by the police who search everyone because it is THE place of the carnival. Huge Hi-fi pump the syncopated and lewd rhythm of reggaeton and four tank trucks on the sides of the square firing water.

I am there, a big guy, dressed like an astronaut that just got off the space station, with two huge backpacks to be searched. Then I have to make my way among all the already drunk people who pull beer and try to get sprayed by cannons. I seriously thought I couldn’t crack the crowd, a real sweaty, tipsy and tanned human wall.

When they say let's have a party on the doorstep. Ahhh the Panama Las Tablas carnival...
When they say let’s have a party on the doorstep. Ahhh the Panama Las Tablas carnival…

And yet, slowly, completely drenched because of the water cannons that had an easy game to target the highest of the whole square, I managed to get to the door of my hostel.

My dear hostel

Now, two things we have to say. The hostel was in an old colonial house from the 1600s, the location was fantastic, the owner was a charming and cultured lady of 70 years old, the spectacular price, especially for being carnival.

But the only bathroom we had was broken and the remarkable position, right on the main square, meant that at any time the entrance doors of my bedroom, shared with seven other people in conditions not exactly amusing, shook as leaves with each reggaeton bass hit. After 3 AM the noise was so loud that the bed moved. I never thanked myself so much for deciding to bring earplugs on the road.

Panama, carnevale di LasTablas. Anche in questo caso alcune foto da Villa de Los Santos. Camion, acqua che arriva dall'alto e tanta birra
Panama Las Tablas carnival. Well, this is Villa De Los Santos to be honest. Trucks, water coming from above and lots of beer.

The history of the carnival of Villa De Los Santos

The history of the carnival of Villa de Los Santos is more or less similar to that of Las Tablas.

Two beauty queens, chariots, Latin American music, fun and lots of street food.

The first evening at Villa I did not lose my faith in the God of Carnival and beer, and I participated in the cheerful spree, together with a couple of guys from the hostel. On the second and third days I began to get tired of being washed by water cannons every morning, without having a functioning bathroom and in a room where the mess reigned supreme, with wet clothes hanging from all sides and unknown people who came in and went out as if we were in a train station.

It’s the carnival man!

Every morning I woke up at 3 PM in the afternoon and walked to a panaderia in Chitré (3km from the hostel) where I had breakfast. And, above all, I could use the bathroom. The second chance to use the bathroom was a McDonald’s, always on the road that connected Villa to Chitré.

After the third day, I reconnected with the ex-Commonwealth group of Las Tablas, who in the meantime had found a place to sleep on the roof of a hostel run by an American ex-pat in Chitre. So I participated in the evening/carnival of Chitre, where, again because of my height that did not make me go unnoticed, I ended up being interviewed also by Panamanian TV.

Panama Las Tablas carnival. But what after the 4th day?

I confess that on the 4th day of carnival I was pretty devastated and I would have paid gold for some rock music, an air-conditioned shopping center and a good restaurant where they didn’t serve rice and fried chicken. I didn’t find it and things got worse when the carnival ended.

In fact, I had to leave Villa and move to Panama City but, clearly, I was not the only one to do it and the buses were simply not enough. So much so that I had to take 4-5 short distance buses instead of a single one that would take me direct to Panama City. For a journey of 250 km it took about 10 hours.

However, in the end, that of the Chitré/ Villa/Las Tablas carnival remains a great and beautiful adventure. The final prize was then the arrival in Panama City. A city I fell in love with. But, as is said in certain cases, this is a whole other story.

The post Panama Las Tablas carnival is over.

Now, if you want to read something about Central America we could continue the journey to Costa Rica, perhaps in the Nicoya Peninsula.

Those who have been fascinated by Panama and want to learn more, perhaps of the capital, Panama City, can click here and see what happens …

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