My First Carnival Experience in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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"My First Carnival Experience in Bocas del Toro, Panama".

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My First Carnival Experience in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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As I rode my bike around town the Thursday and Friday before Carnival celebrations began, the young men of Bocas are sporting the freshest haircuts, elaborate designs neatly cut into their hair. Women sat on their porches getting their hair pressed just to dodge the water cannon trucks (culecos) and water gun fights in the street. Young men gathered together to put the final touches on their “diablo” costumes, practicing swinging their whips at unsuspecting passersby. Music and laughter spilled from every corner.

Bocas Town getting ready for Carnival. Diablo passing by.
Bocas Town getting ready for Carnival. Diablo passing by.

Finally, the distinct sound of drumming took over the streets for the four days of festivities leading up to Ash Wednesday. I couldn’t help getting swept up in the festivities myself.

During the day, people hit the streets to dance and get soaked by water trucks.
During the day, people hit the streets to dance and get soaked by water trucks.

I was struck y the fact that Carnival in Bocas is distinctly communal. Unlike Carnival in other places, participation in the festivities isn’t limited to those who have money to buy the costumes- or even those who know the words to the songs or the choreography to the dances. I found myself slowly moving from the sidelines to the drum line on more than one occasion this weekend to dance in the parade. Parents, children, grandparents, and tourists alike could be found dancing with complete abandon in the streets at any point during the four-day celebration.

Old and young party in Bocas del Toro's Carnivals.
Old and young party in Bocas del Toro's Carnivals.

The music was never limited to just the stage either. Each and every stand was also equipped with their own DJ, sound system, and someone's aunt winding to the music with a can of Balboa beer in hand. The cacophony of noise made the scene even more chaotic as people travel from one stand to the next, drinking, eating, grinding, and laughing.

Feel the drums!! #carnavalpa #carnival #hablaya #learnspanish #travel #visitpanama #panama

A video posted by Habla Ya Spanish Schools (@hablaya) on

Each night, my friends and I ventured from BarCo to Summer to Iguana’s before finally ending up in the roped off area in the street where a DJ mixed soca, kompa, dancehall, and reggaeton, keeping the crowd on it’s feet until the wee hours of the morning.

We danced and we danced...
We danced and we danced...

Carnival is Bocas is also distinctly reaped in a celebration of the African traditions that survived the Middle Passage and now thrives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Because enslaved African were forbidden from celebrating their Gods, speaking their languages, and singing their songs, they used the Catholic traditions of their slave masters to camouflage the celebration of their African culture- they literally and figuratively masked African traditions in Catholic celebrations.

Although the celebration of Carnival isn’t limited to people of Afrodescent, it was immediately obvious to me that the honoring of African culture and ancestors was central to the music, costumes, and food in Bocas. Bocas didn’t have the big floats and women in traditional colonial-era polleras like other parts of the country. Instead, it had red and black devils running through the streets, cracking whips at unsuspecting revelers and young men beating African rhythms into drums as women danced in jubilation. For weeks, I watched the select few men and boys in my neighborhood who had the honor of being “diablos” prepare the elaborate costumes that would transform them into devils. Each year, their costumes become darker and more elaborate until it’s finally all black. These “diablos” are more central to Carnival in Bocas than even the Carnival Queens themselves.

Red and black devils in Bocas Town's Carnival.
Red and black devils in Bocas Town's Carnival.

It’s said that this tradition stems from a group of slaves called the Congos who won their independence from the Spaniards yet would still descend upon the slave masters each year to challenge their whips. Throughout the days leading up to Carnival and during the celebrations I watched the diablos dance and march through the streets invoking both fear and awe in bystanders. An occasional brave “Congo” would challenge them, but I stayed clear of their whips.

Whip it real good! #diablo #visitpanama #panama #carnavalPA #carnival

A photo posted by Habla Ya Spanish Schools (@hablaya) on

On the last night of Carnival, I again joined in on the dancing in the street when a light shower suddenly turned into a torrential downpour. Everyone looked around for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Slowly, the drummers began beating their drums again to the sound of the rain drops. Without missing a beat, everyone poured into the streets, threw their head back and hands up, and danced in the rain, washing away our sins ahead of Ash Wednesday.

Partying while it rains during Carnivals in Bocas Town
Partying while it rains during Carnivals in Bocas Town.

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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