PANAMA CITY – Elaborate floats, Mardi Gras beads, costume parties in the street and five days of nonstop partying in Panama. The celebration, which is four days prior to Lent and known as Carnaval, is almost as highly anticipated and celebrated as the renowned festivities in Rio de Janeiro.
Year-round fund-raising and planning culminate today through Tuesday in exuberant celebrations throughout country.
Traffic on the Transísmica highway, a main artery leading out of Panama City stands still, and the overwhelming majority of businesses close down, as everyone is on their way to the party.
The most popular celebration takes place not in a booming urban center, but in Las Tablas, a tiny agricultural town of 10,000 people located in the Azuero Peninsula three hours southwest of Panama City.
During Carnaval the population swells to over 100,000 people who cram between the two main streets called Calle Arriba (High Street) and Calle Abajo (Low Street) for the occasion.
The streets compete annually to see who makes the most noise, has the best fireworks, prettiest queen and overall most excessive five-day party.
Day one of Carnaval is reserved for the crowning of Carnaval Queens, who are elected representatives of their communities.
The daytime Carnaval celebrations are typically characterized by culecos, or dance parties in the street that last until early evening.
There is a slight lull in the party as everyone breaks for dinner, but by sunset everyone returns for the evening “International” parade.
Sunday is known as the Pollera day, when queens and some attendees don the traditional elaborate handmade white dress. It has been said that the dress, with its flowing pleats and peasant blouse, is inherited from the Spanish ancestry of the Andalucía province.
After the afternoon culecos on Monday, the most elaborate costume-themed parade takes place.
The parade on Fat Tuesday is traditionally dedicated to national folklore and traditions, with emphasis on the Carnaval Queens.
The entire celebration ends at 5 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, in a ceremony known as the Topón.