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Living in Panama: Expatriate Resources

Carnival in Panama

Carnival in Panama, the most anticipated event of the year, takes place during the four days prior to Ash Wednesday. For visitors or expatriates it is an adventurous way to experience the heart of Panamanian culture.

Although most people identify Panama with the canal, it is the colorful interior of the country that defines Panamanian roots and where people return in droves to celebrate Carnival. In the daytime tanker-sized trucks spray the screaming crowds in the equatorial heat. In the evenings there are fireworks, parades, and outdoor dance clubs.

Carnival is celebrated all over the interior but is most famous in Las Tablas, Pennomene, and Los Santos. You can rent a car or take a bus to go from town to town.

Pennomene is less crowded than the larger celebration in Las Tables and one of the most famous towns for water games. Giant water trucks each play different music as masses of people jump and dance calling for “agua.” The games are at their peak before noon.

In the afternoon people slowly leave the quaint town and parade down the side of the mountain to the river. Adults and children swim and hide from the sun under the trees. In the evening, floats come down the river with the Pennomene Carnival Princess.

Many people the go to private parties or drive to Las Tablas for more festivities.

Las Tablas is the center of Carnival and considered by far the best party in the country.After lively water games on all sides of the town square, the crowds disperse around 1 a.m. to sleep or to go to other towns, and then return after dark for all-night festivities.

Many visitors pay local families to sleep in their houses. You may, however, have to sleep with numerous other people, and your spot may be sold if you arrive late at night. I always sleep in a nearby town such as Sona for about $15 per night. The short drive from Las Tablas means you can sleep and shower in the afternoon and return refreshed for nighttime activities.

In the evening the Carnival Queen of Panama is readied, the floats travel around the square, and the people on top wear elaborate costumes. After the floats finish, the festivities continue with fireworks and outdoor nightclubs. The main square is a good place to have a beer and chat with new friends.

Los Santosis is skipped by many people, but its living history and tradition celebrated through clothing, music, and singing makes an enriching carnival experience.

Transportation: Rental Cars—Budget (011-507-263-9190) and National (011507-238-4144). Buses may be taken from Albrook Bus Terminal (about $10 each way).

Where to Stay Near Las Tablas: www.republicofpanama.net/accommodations provides a list of hotels and pensions near Las Tablas in the province of Los Santos or Herrera.

Security issues: The interior of the country is generally safe to drive (but not Colon and areas of Panama City). Pickpocketing is common. To avoid this you can buy a plastic tube from a street vendor that hangs around your neck (about $2) to protect you money. Women are advised not to travel alone.

Driving Directions: Exit Panama City via the Bridge of the Americas, and stay on the Panamerican Highway for three hours to Pennomene. To go to Los Santos and Las Tablas, continue on the Panamerican Highway for another hour and turn left at Divisa, Pan3, toward Pedasi. You will pass Los Santos, and then run directly into Las Tablas.