Carnaval In Panama: The Country’s Biggest Event Of The Year

Celebrating Carnaval In Panama (Whether I Like It Or Not)

Lief and I spent the first month of this New Year on the move….

We traveled from France to Spain to Belize to Colombia to, last week, Panama…

Where we’re settling in for an extended stay. We’ll be working here in our Live and Invest Overseas HQ for the next two months.

We’re delighted, of course, to be back in our Panama City home…

Alas, the timing for this visit coincides with the one season in this country that Lief and I ordinarily avoid:

Los Carnavales.

Panama doesn’t celebrate Carnival… it celebrates multiples Carnavales… in key spots across the country from Las Tablas to Penonomé.

For Panamanians, it’s the most anticipated date on the calendar.

In truth, in all these past 10 years that we’ve been full-time residents of this country, Lief and I have never actually experienced the event.

As I said, we’ve often scheduled travel outside the country to coincide with Carnaval week. These are four or five days I’ve been very happy to avoid.

Our first driver in Panama, Alberto, was the first to try to explain to me the importance of Carnaval in this country.

“A Panamanian family will save all year for their Carnaval celebrations,” he told me.

“If Carnaval comes and they realize they don’t have enough for the party they want, they’ll sell whatever they can think of to raise more money. I’ve known people who have sold their refrigerators so they had more cash for Carnaval,” Alberto continued.

“What are you going to do after Carnaval is over?” I’ve asked them.

“They’ve just laughed. Who cares, right? Nothing gets between a Panamanian and his Carnaval…”

A Panamanian web designer who worked for me years ago put it this way:

“In November, we have our independence days,” he said.

“Then in December is Christmas,” he continued.

“That’s all just the lead up to Carnaval. Carnaval is the most important event of the year.”


Businesses close, and everyone takes off work. Do not come to Panama during Carnaval and expect to do anything but join the party.

Panama City is deserted, as everyone heads to the beach and small towns in the interior known for their Carnaval fiestas.

Panama’s most famous Carnaval is staged in Las Tablas, in the province of Los Santos. Las Tablas’ usual population of about 10,000 increases 10-fold over Carnaval week. The small town is literally awash with revelers who rent houses, rent rooms, even rent driveways and back patios. If they’re unable to organize a place to crash, they sleep where they fall.

Many don’t sleep at all. The streets of Las Tablas are bursting, bouncing, banging with drinking, singing, dancing partiers 24 hours a day for four days running. Music booms, fireworks explode, and men atop the culecos (water trucks) use fire hoses to spray down the entire scene with water from time to time.

Children buy confetti from street vendors and toss it at passers-by. They come armed with water guns and aim and fire at will. Note that the liquid in these water pistols is not always water. It pays to keep your mouth closed when walking through a crowd of Carnaval kids with water guns.

And make sure your valuables are stored in a waterproof bag. Otherwise, your passport could end up looking like it went through a cycle in the washing machine.

Sounds like fun, right?

Lief and I will be hunkered down at home.

If you’re also here in Panama this week and considering venturing out to experience the biggest party of the year, our Panama editors have prepared a Carnaval Survival Guide. Here’s everything you need to know to have a wild and crazy time… and live to tell the tale.

Take a look.

Kathleen Peddicord