Finally the time I have waited for is here. Carnival, I waited so long for this time. – Pedrito Altamiranda – Panamanian singer-songwriter
Carnival is the quintessential party of Panama and its people. Panamanians wait for it with more excitement than Christmas or New Year. Carnival is synonymous with having fun at its best. Many people already are familiar with the Brazil, New Orleans, or Venice carnivals, however the Panamanian carnivals are very different, and each region of the country has something special to bring to the table.
Photo: Día A Día
Carnival in Panama City
Panama City made carnivals official in 1910, however its beginnings date back to the colonial era. Back then, the custom was to dress up, something that was common of carnivals in Europe. The costumes were of characters of the colony such as the king and queen of Spain, soldiers and slaves.
They would parade through the streets of the city, portraying battles amongst themselves.
Years later, carnival queens were elected to lead the celebration. These were usually high class ladies who would lead the parades and the “comparsas” a different kind of parade that included dancing.
Nowadays at the Panama City carnival, a queen is still selected, and parades and “comparsas” still take place. These each represent different neighborhoods in the city as well as the ever present Panamanian multiculturalism. In the evenings there are open-air concerts where both national as well as international artists participate.
Something that the carnivals of the city have in common with those of the interior are the “culecos”. During the day to mitigate the heat and intense sun, water is sprayed from attendees from tank trucks. All while people below dance to music and have fun.
Photo: Panama America
Carnival at the interior.
At the interior things change a bit during Carnival. Throughout the traditional carnival there are two great protagonists: the “Calle arriba” (Up-street) Queen and the “Calle abajo” (Down-street) Queen. The town becomes divided into two groups and each group, called “Tuna” (The queen’s court) prepares for a whole year for this great celebration. From practicing “tonadas” (music) to making costumes, floats, and fund-raising, among other activities prior to Carnival.
Being a carnival queen plays an important role and it carries a lot of pride in it. It is not easy to be chosen as queen. First the family must have history within the town; the matter becomes easier if a grandmother or aunt was already a queen. However that does not guarantee anything. Families should also be prepared financially to meet all the costs of being a Carnival queen. Some girls start their journey to become a Carnival queen from a very young age, becoming princesses of other queens.
Celebrations begin on Friday night, with the coronation of the queen. Then they take a ride in their luxurious allegorical float, through the main town square. Meanwhile behind each queen goes their “Tuna” (The queen’s court), to the rhythm of the “murga” (musical genre of the Panamanian carnivals) singing songs against the other queen.
The next day “culecos” are celebrated. On this occasion the queens also go out in their floats to go around the town, along with their court.
During the 4 days and nights of Carnival these types of activities are carried out. There are also day and night parties for attendees of the celebrations.
Ending the Carnival
The closing of the carnival in Panama is celebrated on Wednesday very early in the morning. This is called “el entierro de la sardina” (burying the sardine). This dish is quite common among Panamanians, especially as Lent begins on that Wednesday.
In Panama City, both the carnival queens and the general public come out crying and screaming, while a giant can of sardines goes ahead and they all act out the burial of the sardine.
In the interior, at 5:00 am the “Topon” occurs. This is when the queens of both streets meet each other at the town square. Each queen dances with their court and sings tunes against the other queen. In the midst of it all fireworks are set off, with each street competing to see who sets off the prettiest and the most fireworks. Before 7:00 am the queens parade their street again, give thanks to their courts and thus ends the Carnival.
After the Carnival
The party doesn’t end there though! The following weekend many villages celebrate what they call “carnavalitos”, a smaller version of the larger celebration. There are “culecos” and dances as well as parties throughout the night.