People get ready! Itâ€™s Carnival time in Panama! If youâ€™ve never participated in these festivities before, let me tell you a bit more about them!
Every February (or sometimes in March), during the 4 days leading up to Ash Wednesday (well, in all honesty they start on Friday evening), the whole country prepares itself for the wildest and most famous celebrations of the year: Carnivals, or â€śCarnavalesâ€ť as they call it here. This is probably the most anticipated celebration right after "Fiestas Patrias" in November (a bunch of parties and events around Independence and Separation Days from Spain and Colombia) and New Years.
Carnival is the time when the routine as we know it comes to an end, the whole country closes down, and everyone switches to full party mode (and most Panamanians, full drinking mode). People joke a lot over here and say that the only thing that Panamanians take seriously is a good party. And for many Panamanians it's true. People party loads over here and are always looking for any excuse to party. So being Carnivals the mother of all parties, you can just imagine how "seriously" everyone takes it. I've even seen people who don't normally party, go wild during these days. It's a very Panamanian thing as if it was part of their genes.
Carnivals are Panama's craziest and wildest party!
I once read that Panama holds the second place right after Brazil when it comes to the importance and grandeur of the celebration of Carnival. Whether that is true or not, Panamaâ€™s Carnival is definitely one of the biggest and craziest festivals I've been to, and also a superb cultural experience if you are visiting or studying Spanish in Panama. If you want to get the most out of the cultural aspect, I highly recommend also staying with a local host family, as they will without a doubt make you live the true Panamanian carnival experience.
Video that gives you an idea about what Carnivals are like during the day
Bocas del Toro may be small compared to other cities (the archipelago has a local population of about 8,000 inhabitants - which during Carnivals might double), but donâ€™t let that fool you. You don't have to go to Rio de Janeiro to experience an awesome Carnival. While the largest and most culturally rich Carnival celebrations in Panama take place in the Azuero Peninsula (Las Tablas, Pedasi, Chitre, Penonome, etc. - for guides on Carnivals in these parts of Panama click here and here), Carnivals are a huge deal here on Isla Colon, and the level of craziness and "anything goes" party vibe during these 5 days are 100% guaranteed. Most people will agree that Panama's wildest, most authentic and free spirited nightlife takes place here in Bocas del Toro, so obviously Carnivals are also very special here.
Carnivals with a bunch of party people over the waters of the Caribbean? For sure!
Like in many other places around the world, Carnival in Bocas del Toro typically involves a public parade gathering musicians and masked dancers, fomenting a lively public street party with fire works. Here in Bocas, we have the "comparsas" or groups of dancers from different parts of the archipelago, who will perform and dance in a synchronized fashion while parading one after another. The "murga" will be a band, generally accompanying the queen of the Carnaval, providing live music to the festivities. One of the traditions also consists in spraying each other with water canons in the process (better to know this beforehand and avoid surprises). The "culecos" or "mojadera", usually takes place in the central park or plaza of each town and large cistern trucks will be spraying water over everyone while they dance. I really don't know how this last tradition was born, but it totally makes sense to soak people wet otherwise how would you be able to dance all day under the sun in the tropics and then be expected to continue partying in the evening? Another great place to hang out during the day is Aqua Lounge.
People take the streets and dance all day long, while getting soaked by huge trucks throwing water
But unlike Carnival in some European countries, not everybody dresses up to parade. Here in Bocas del Toro, the men will dress up as â€śdiablitosâ€ť or little devils with whips, and dance to the afro-inspired rhythms of drums and percussion during the parade, while spectators are watching and dancing along the sidewalks. The diablos in fact, start dressing up and doing dances in the streets several weeks prior to Carnivals. You might not be prepared for what I'm going to say as it's a bit savage, but if you're a guy and get close to the diablitos before or during Carnival, you are in danger of getting whipped! Yeah, whipped! And it's totally acceptable so consider yourself warned!!! Woman are not left out of course! On the Friday prior to the celebrations, a Carnival Queen and her accompanying attendants are selected, and are featured during the dayâ€™s parade or "desfile".
If you were to ask us, the real party takes place at night. Here in Bocas there are many bars, events and clubs that you can go to. This year I started my night with friends at Tunga Bar, a small and intimate bar, who each evening had a live DJ, loads of cocktails and international beers. Then, depending on which type of music you prefered, you could go to Selina Hostels for some EDM, Iguana for lots of latin and pop music, Barco Hundido for the real Panamanian flavor, or the Reggae Party at Bocas Bambu. This year we really missed Casa Animal which is the hugest party that normally takes place in Bocas during the most popular holidays in Panama.
â€śCarnavalesâ€ť are popular, and are famous nationally as well as internationally. Panamanians in the entire country reserve their hotels several months in advance, just to make sure not to miss out. It is not uncommon to hear people ask you in September, what you will do during Carnavales. At our partner hostel, Hostal Tungara, we are receiving reservations up to 6 months in advance!
If you are coming to study Spanish with us by the beach and also like a good party, meaning that you donâ€™t mind the unavoidable noise that goes with it, then Carnivals is definitely a great time to visit Bocas del Toro.
If, on the other hand, you are more of a quiet type and prefer to avoid crowds and loud music all day long for 5 days in a row, donâ€™t worry. You donâ€™t need to change your dates. Not all the cities in Panama are celebrating carnivals as described above. You can totally enjoy the holidays in the mountains of Boquete, in the highlands of Panama, where there wonâ€™t be any parades. Boquete in fact attracts all those Panamanians who are looking to skip Carnivals. Just remember to make all your reservations far enough in advance, as you may not be the only one planning a quiet getaway during "Carnavales". Panama City also has its own Carnivals, though as mentioned above, the most authentic Carnivals take place in the Azuero Peninsula.