Your Guide to Las Tablas Carnival – Panama’s Biggest Carnaval

Most people may think of Brazil when they hear the word carnival. But you may not know one of the biggest and most colourful celebrations takes place in Las Tablas, Panama! Which has over 200,000 people come and celebrate one of the world’s best carnivals.

Saturday, 22nd February 2020

Tuesday, 25th February 2020

Days to start

What is Carnival in Las Tablas?

las tablas carnival

There’s a famous saying in Panama which goes that the only thing Panamanians take seriously is Carnival! In that sense then the local citizens of Las Tablas, who are known as tableños, are the most serious people in all of Panama! Most visitors come to Las Tablas for exactly one reason… carnival!

Las Tablas is a small town like any other with a few blocks, a church in the centre and quaint colonial architecture. For all but one week a year Las Tablas, a sleepy nondescript Peninsula town of about 10,000 people, is transformed into the wildest, party town during its annual carnival celebration! Its population swells in size to over 200,000 people, who come from all over to celebrate carnival!

To say that carnival in Las Tablas is the town’s biggest party is putting it too mildly. In fact this carnival is one of the biggest parties in the entire country! Las Tablas Carnival is Panama’s biggest and wildest carnival celebration, which is saying a lot for a country that is famous for its carnival spirit! Street parades, parties, colourful costumes, fireworks and plenty of food and drink. Las Tablas Carnival is the most anticipated event of the year!

Carnival holds a deep cultural significance for people all over Latin America and Las Tablas, Panama is one of the biggest carnival destinations in the region. Panamanians save all year so that they can escape to the beach or the “interior” (as everything beyond Panama City is called) for the four days during carnival.

People will quit their jobs or pawn their goods to be able to take part in this grand carnival. For Panamanians, there is nothing else in the world like carnival! It’s a non-stop celebration of family, friends, drinking, dancing and being happy.

A special thing about this carnival is that it sees people of all backgrounds and ages coming together to celebrate. From kids to grandparents, nobody is too old to enjoy the fun! Whether you live in Panama or are just visiting, this carnival has something for everyone and will offer you a unique experience of carnival in Panama.

When is Las Tablas Carnival?

Las Tablas Carnival is held in the four consecutive days preceding Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent. The 2020 dates for Las Tablas Carnival in Panama begin on Saturday, 22nd February 2020 and run until Tuesday, 25th February 2020. This four-day celebration is lived out both day and night in Las Tablas.

While carnival officially begins on the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday. Las Tablas Carnival usually gets going on Friday night when the coronation of the two Las Tablas Carnival Queens occurs.

Where is Las Tablas Carnival?

las tablas carnival

Las Tablas sits on the Azuero Peninsula right between Pedasí and Chitré. From Panama City to Las Tablas it is about a four-hour drive. It is located only a few kilometres inland from the Gulf of Panama. Las Tablas is recognised as being a national centre of Panamanian folk art, music, architecture, gastronomy, literature and culture.

How do they celebrate Las Tablas Carnival?

las tablas carnival

Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama is a decidedly secular celebration that has its roots with the Catholic Church and Lent. Las Tablas Carnival is essentially a huge party, where the goal seems to be make sure that everyone has something to atone for when Lent arrives! Both Panamanians and foreigners alike travel big distances to take part in the Las Tablas Carnival festivities!

In Las Tablas, over 200,000 people come here to celebrate carnival. Joy, music, colour and chaos fill the streets. Las Tablas Carnival is a full-throttle celebration with Carnival Queens, floats, parades, colourful costumes, dancing, music, food, decorations, drinks, fireworks and loads of traditional Panamanian cultural events.

While there is a lot of drinking and craziness to be seen at this carnival, neither the behaviour or costumes are as risqué as what may be seen at Rio Carnival or New Orleans Mardi Gras. Las Tablas Carnival is considered to be a family affair! It is just people of all ages and backgrounds, joining together for a few days to let loose!

During carnival the town of Las Tablas divides themselves into two rival groups called tunas. Each group elects a Carnival Queen who represents a different part of the town. The two Queens duke it out over the next few nights of carnival with parades, floats and more. After the coronation of each  Carnival Queen, the craziness begins.

Ask any Panamanian about carnival and they’ll tell you how wet it is! And not because of the hot tropical weather! In the morning of carnival there are epic water fights in the central plaza.

Throughout the day, music is blasted from large sound systems set up around central plaza, playing upbeat reggaeton hits, with occasional traditional songs. The Panamanians sing and dance along with these songs in the packed streets, toasting their drinks to the sky and enjoying life.

Food, drink and Market Vendors line the streets during carnival, selling everything from arts, crafts, shows, drums to t-shirts that have the lyrics of popular local songs.

At night, the fun doesn’t stop with some epic firework shows, festive dances and street performances that light up the night sky. There are two tuna parades that are one of the carnival highlights. After the night parades each Tuna goes back to their base and joins a large dance party that goes on until early morning. Once the dawn breaks and the town re-awakens, the celebration starts all over again.

The rivalry between the two tunas, the fun experienced at the water fight, the tamboritos and murgas are just some of the many elements to which Las Tablas Carnival owes its success. Along with the hospitality of its locals and the joy they wish to share, the beauty of their women and the splendour and security of the place where they live, makes this one very special carnival!

Carnival cross-town rivalry

las tablas carnival

One of the most distinguishing features of Las Tablas Carnival is their tradition of having two Carnival Queens! The first carnival queen was crowned in 1937, but since 1950 the town has had two rival Carnival Queens and their attendant courts or tunas as they are called. The town has an ancient “feud” to produce the most beautiful Queen and elaborate costumes and floats.

The Friday night before the official start of carnival sees the coronation of both of Las Tablas’ Carnival Queens. One Carnival Queen represents Calle Arriba, which is uptown. The other Carnival Queen represents Calle Abajo which is downtown. This cross-town rivalry plays itself out in every aspect of carnival!

Over the next few nights of carnival, the two Carnival Queens will try and outdo each other, in both splendour, beauty, opulence and ingenuity of their floats and costumes. This competition is no joke, it is taken very seriously by all involved! Each team spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to outdo the other team when it comes to costumes, floats, bands, dresses, staging, production values, fireworks and more!

The competing tunas compose songs called tonadas, that among other things will praise the grace and beauty of their chosen queen, whilst mocking the ‘ugliness’ and ‘witchiness’ of the rival Queen. The taunts are all part of the fun and are not taken too seriously. However they are pre-approved ahead of time to ensure they don’t get too personal and nasty.

Both of the tunas hit the streets every day for a giant parade. The parades each feature different jaw-dropping costumes and floats. The incredibly elaborate and flamboyant costumes are reminiscent of those seen during Rio’s Carnival. One Panamanian tradition is to see the Queens wear stunning polleras among their costumes, which is Panama’s flowing embroidered national dress.

As soon as carnival is over, plans begin to select the following year’s Queen’s. The Carnival Queens are introduced on New Year’s Eve, which sees another epic street party occur that resembles the final night of carnival. The two new Carnival Queens are introduced and the two retired Carnival Queens are sent off with a parade and fireworks.

La Mojadera

las tablas carnival

One of Panama’s most unique carnival traditions is the ‘mojaderas’, which literally means people getting soaked in water. La mojadera is a fun, popular and wet Panamanian Carnival Tradition. Whether it be with a bucket, water hose or water balloon, thousands of people gather and have one epic water fight until their soaking wet.

The Carnival festivities start in the central plaza in the morning hours. Large water trucks called culecos, spray party-goers with thousands of gallons of water. The culecos cruise down the parade route, spraying enthusiastic carnival-goers. The culecos are a much beloved part of carnival and they are officially sanctioned even during water shortages!

People run around in bathing suits with water guns or water balloons, hiding behind bushes and cars. The water fights are playful, welcomed and incredibly refreshing after a few hours in the scorching February sun. There is lots of dancing, loud music, entertainment and beer and seca to be enjoyed and the celebration goes on until the early hours of the afternoon.

Definitely don’t bring your cell phone or your camera out. Just bring a few bucks that you keep in a plastic zip-lock bag so that you have money to buy some alcohol and some of the delicious street food that is being sold around you.

The creation of these fights was clearly inspired by the hot tropical weather that Panama experiences. Carnival in Panama occurs during the dry seasons when temperatures regularly hit 32 degrees Celsius or 90 degrees Fahrenheit. No one is spared from being drenched with water, so dress accordingly when you attend.

All around you are people looking like drowned rats but laughing, singing, smiling, dancing and exuding joyous energy. There are beaming smiles for as far as you can see. After several hours, everyone goes home to rest and recuperate for the evening parades and the night time party’s.

Las Tablas Carnival Parades

las tablas carnival

In the evening the water trucks have disappeared to leave room for even bigger crowds that will come out for the evening celebrations. Night time is when the parades begin. The parades of course feature the Carnival Queen’s and their courts in their elaborate costumes and floats.

The parades also feature incredibly brass bands and drummers who serenade the Queen with rousing, unique and impossibly repetitive songs. The parades have a different theme each night of carnival. There is a lead float and then a second float which the Queen rides on.

To start the parade, the arrival of the Queen and her supporters, are introduced by insanely loud fireworks that explode marking the entrance of new floats for each Queen. The fireworks shoot off on both sides of the streets that go around the Las Tablas main square.

The procession of floats travel around Las Tablas’ main square to adoring cheering fans. The procession moves around at a snail’s pace and after several hours of lapping the square and being serenaded by the bands, the floats make their way back to their respective neighbourhoods.

There is also plenty of other excitement around the town with food, drink and market vendors lining the streets. Plenty of beer and other alcoholic beverages are consumed. Murgas, which are strolling musicians, entertain the masses.

Street Parties

las tablas carnival

After the parades is when the party gets started and the night discos begin. Panamanians typically start the party quite late and it continues on until the wee hours of the morning. Music plays at maximum volume as temporary discos sprout up around town.

You join in with the masses around you drinking and dancing the night away to the loud rhythms of reggaeton, Caribbean dancehall, merengue, reggae, electronica and pop.

The celebration climaxes on the final night of carnival, Shrove Tuesday, which is the biggest party of them all and is the last chance to party before Lent begins. The party continues on until the early hours of Ash Wednesday.

Burial of the Sardine

Burial of the Sardine

The Burial of the Sardine, which is known as El Entierro de la Sardina in Spanish, is a unique funeral procession that was imported from Spain and takes place before the sunrise on Ash Wednesday. This ritual signifies the end of carnival for another year and the beginning of the penitential period Lent, during which Catholics will fast for forty days in preparation for Easter.

A sardine effigy is carried in a tiny coffin in a procession by costumed mourners to a burial spot. People come to the parade dressed in black and mourn the sardine. Some really put on a great performances crying and screaming over the loss of the sardine.

What to eat?

There are a few restaurants in town but for the most part you will probably eat street meat and other street food. It’s quick, abundant, cheap and won’t delay your partying too much. There are loads of street vendors around during carnival.

Some delicious local food that you must try is the Sancocho which is a traditional soup that will help with the lingering hangover. Or another delicious Panamanian food is called Ropa Vieja. Carimanolas is a delicious breakfast meat pie, or try tostones a fried side dish. Or Carne Guisada which is another popular Panamanian food.

Light local beers are readily consumed like Balboa and Panamá and cost around $1 from street vendors. If you don’t feel like drinking alcohol there are also lots of delicious juices for sale which are super refreshing in the heat.

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Is Las Tablas Safe?

Las Tablas is incredibly safe! This town is mainly families and people that want to live close to where they work and a number of big companies have moved to this area. During carnival there is a huge police presence and extra security measures are taken to ensure the safety of carnival goers. The carnival is a family friend carnival so it is not as wild as the carnivals in Notting Hill, Rio etc.

The most common crime affecting tourists are pickpockets. So be aware of your valuables at all times or even leave them back at your hotel and only bring some cash with you. Or check out Amazon and invest in one of these travel safety accessories, like a fanny pack, preferably waterproof, that can be hidden under your clothing to store your essentials in.

How to get to Las Tablas?

By Flight: If you are coming from overseas your best bet is to fly into Panama City Airport (PTY) which is the main airport for international flights, and then make your way to Las Tablas via bus. 

By Bus: Buses leave from the town bus terminal that is located at the northern end of town. Located slightly after where the national highway morphs into Avenida Carlos L. Lopez. And the cross street is Avenida Emilio Castro.

  • From Panama City:The first bus leaves at 6 am daily and then continues to leave every hour on the half hour, 7:30 am – 4:30 pm. There are two early departures at 2 am & 4 am, Monday – Friday. On both Friday and Sunday there’s a final departure at 5:30 pm. The fare is around US$10 and the trip takes 4.5 hours.
  • From Pedasí:Buses run every 45 min, from 6 am –7 pm. The trip is around 45 minutes and costs about US$2.40.
  • From Tonosí: A bus leaves every hour from around 6 am –5:30 pm. The trip takes about 1.5 hours and costs around US$40.
  • There is no direct bus service from David or Santiago. Instead go to Divisa (US$3.35) or the Chitré bus terminal (US$1.50) and you can get a bus from there.

How to get around Las Tablas?

Las Tablas is easy to navigate. The town has fewer than ten thousand residents so its small size means that you can easily get around on foot.

It is super easy to find a taxi in Las Tablas, there are taxi stands all over. The taxi stand near the launderette on Calle 3 de Noviembre is open 24 hours a day (tel. 994-8532 or 994-8533). Taxi rides within town should cost around US$1.40 for two people. A taxi to Guararé is around US$3.

There is also a taxi stand at the bus terminal that is located around half a km from the town. The fare from town to the bus stop costs about US$1.40, but is worth the payment to avoid the major hike in the heat, especially when you are toting luggage.

Where to stay in Las Tablas?

Panamanians love carnival so much that as soon as it’s over, they start planning for the next year’s carnival! So that means that the rooms fill up very quickly. It is also a very small town so that means that there aren’t a lot of Hotels and during carnival the Hotels will also charge a premium during carnival, so book accommodation as soon as possible.

Check out some Las Tablas accommodation deals here.

Most of the locals will rent out rooms in their houses and you will find out that a lot of people will sleep at the park or in their car. If you can stay in either Pedasi or Chitre and then catch a taxi or a bus to carnival. Some people even do a day trip from Santiago or Panama City.

What to do and see in Las Tablas?

las tablas carnival

The history of Las Tablas is super interesting. It has been said that when Panamá Viejo was destroyed by pirates, a group of noblemen fled the city by ship and the winds blew the ship down the river towards what is known nowadays as Mensabé. They say the name of Las Tablas came from the use of the planks that were used off the ship to build the houses.

While carnival is often the only time of year you will hear about Las Tablas, the city contains some appealing features. A small street running through the heart of town, Avenida Belisario Porras, contains the most attractive areas, including the plaza, church and museum dedicated to Belisario Porras.

A walk along this street is a great way to get a good sense for the town. You can wander around the lovely Parque Porras which is the central plaza in downtown Las Tablas. This is a good way to people watch and get a sense of local life.

There is a gorgeous Baroque-style church called, Iglesia Santa Librada which dates back to 1789, that sits on the corner of the park. While a lot of the church was destroyed during a fire in 1950 it was restored and portions of the initial church still remain.

The Museo Belisario Porras, is the museum dedicated to the former three time president of Panama Belisario Porras. The museum is located in his former house and contains small memorabilia and artefacts from his life. It will interest those who are well versed in the history of Panama, as Porras is widely revered as being a founding father of Panama, born in 1856 and died in 1941.

For more information about tours, things to do, sightseeing tours, day trips and more click here.

Also we suggest purchasing a Panama Guide book to help you with top tips while travelling you can check out some here on Amazon.

Before you go!

We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance being protected on your travels is an irreplaceable peace of mind. Don’t learn the hard way about the importance of travel insurance. Never travel without coverage.

Get a quote through our recommended insurance provider, World Nomads.

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