This post is about a recent travel adventure of mine, in Panama in early March 2014. I was going there to visit a friend, and my trip serendipitously happened to coincide with Carnaval. Our initial research quickly turned up a small town called Las Tablas, which we quickly learned is known by all Panamanians as being the epicenter of Carnaval festivities–and only for the brave of heart and strong of liver.
Naturally, our decision was already made.
Las Tablas appears to be a small pueblito like any other. A few blocks square, church in the center, quaint colonial architecture. I have no idea why this otherwise nondescript town on the eastern coast of the rural Azuero Peninsula has become the craziest party destination in Panama for Carnaval, but the thousands of people packing the streets leave no doubt in my mind.
Vendors line the streets, selling everything from sandals to drums to t-shirts with the lyrics of popular local songs. All the children under the age of 12 are armed with water guns and are apparently given free reign to run around the streets and spray strangers (as fun as Carnaval is for adults, it seriously has to be the best day of the year for kids). And it is so damn hot out that getting water-sniped by devious 6-year-olds is actually surprisingly refreshing.
Spraying water is a theme at Carnaval in Panama. In the main plaza and the streets around it, there are the famous culecos: giant water trucks that spray the crowd down with giant hoses all day long. We’re not talking a gentle spray every now and then; we are talking about a constant soakdown that will leave you looking like you went swimming in your clothes. Don’t bring your cell phone. Don’t bring a camera. Do bring a few bucks in a ziploc bag. You’ll want it for booze. You’ll also want it for chorizo and carne asada off the street, but your intestinal tract will thank you for sticking with booze.
Light local beers like Panamá and Balboa are $1 from the street vendors, and that’s what most people are drinking. Pay $8 to get access to the slightly more exclusive (but equal in shitshowmanship) Pub Herrerano area, known colloquially as PH (“pe ache“). Inside PH, an outdoor stage with a DJ is flanked by two raised stands, one of which is “VIP” and the other is not (they’ll let you up if you’re cute and they’re not at capacity). The floor is made of AstroTurf and only smells of piss in one small corner.
If you’re lucky, your friends opted for the all-inclusive VIP PH passes and will each receive one free liter of seco. Seco is a popular Panamanian hard alcohol, made from sugar cane, and similar to Costa Rica’s guaro (which is basically to say that it’s pretty much the same as any other cheap, clear, rough-tasting, high-alcohol-content liquor). Anyway this means that suddenly you are in a crowd of thousands of people, soaking wet, pouring seco into plastic cups with pineapple juice. The sun is shining and you feel pretty happy–and, despite what you’re thinking right now, dear reader, I swear it’s not just the seco talking.
Seriously though, I’m not just here to talk about the alcohol. Though it is available and consumed in large amounts, what is truly special about Carnaval in Las Tablas is something else.
A large crowd of tightly packed people typically sets off at least a couple red flags for any reasonably seasoned traveler. Lots of opportunity for pickpocketing, drunken brawls, and other unpleasantries. Last time I was in DR for Dominican Independence Day, my friend got straight up BITTEN by a dude that tried to steal her camera. Seriously, like with his teeth. Shit was real.
But here, it’s different. Due to the culecos, you have zero possessions on you, so your fear of getting pickpocketed is also basically zero. All around you are other human beings smiling, laughing, singing, dancing, and exuding joyous energy that is unavoidably infectious. Caribbean rays glint off of sunkissed skin and beaming smiles for as far as you can see; wet t-shirts cling to rolling hips; crooked sunglasses tilt on grinning cheeks. You bump into someone–“Perdón, perdón“–and rather than “WHAT THE HELL, MAN!”, you are met with a giant smile and a laugh–“Tá bien, tá bien!” Your body joins the masses around you, pulsating like one giant sexy organism, swaying–nay, GRINDING like there’s no tomorrow to the rhythms of Caribbean dancehall, reggaeton, merengue, electronica, reggae, and pop. Someone squeezes your ass once or twice, which would usually infuriate you but you’re finding it uncharacteristically hard to get upset about anything at all today.
You have no idea what time it is, just a vague notion of how high the sun is in the sky. You have no idea what you look like, though you have only a fleeting thought that in another life, this drowned-rat-ponytail situation would probably require immediate rectification. None of it matters though. You are dancing however the hell you want to dance, and the Panameña next to you screams “Dale, Boston, dale!”