This pre-Lenten celebration takes place the same time and in the same spirit as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Four days of revelling, parties and partaking in ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ are justified due to the impending repentance 40 days before Holy Week.
The centre of attention at any Carnival celebration are the beautiful Carnival queens, dress in colourful and loud costumes that are changed twice daily. They wave, blow kisses and dance to the beat of the big brass bands that follow right behind their impressive floats.
We had heard that Panama’s most popular and well attended Carnival is in the town of Las Tablas (Pop 8,000), in the province of Los Santos. The population of this small town swells to an estimated 100,000 people who come to enjoy the decades old battle between “Calle Arriba” (Upper Street) and “Calle Abajo” (Lower Street). These two opposing bands put on an incomparable show driven by a rivalry between the two camps over who has the best queen, the best floats and the best costumes with sometimes some quite colourful exchanges between the camps.
Given the lesson we had learned re the difficulty in finding accommodation in Panama City without a reservation, we thought it would be wiser to go the day before the Sunday showdown to a neighbouring city; to be sure to find accommodation and make the day trip out to the small town.
Our guide-book explained at the city of Chitre was a 3 hour drive from the capital and so we head to the bus terminal with what we thought was plenty of time to arrive whilst it was still day light. The bus terminal in Panama City is huge with one of the biggest American style shopping malls I have ever seen attached to it. Being so modern you would have expected that the systems employed to manage the departures would be equally as modern and efficient.
We bought our ticket expecting to have a departure time, seat number and gate to which to leave from. What we got back was something entirely different; a blank ticket with simply the destination hand written! We were then told to join a queue that seemed to go along the entire perimeter of the largest bus terminal we had seen thus far!
After spending the first half an hour in the queue bitching about the stupidity of the system and generally the complete lack of service here, we decided to ask a local behind us if we were in the right place to get to Las Tablas and whether all routes had to queue in the same line?
The young girl laughed explaining that this was just the queue for Las Tablas and that there had been a queue here for the past three days! Given the popularity of the Carnival in this particular town, buses would be running for 24 hours over the 4 days to cope with the sheer number of people. When she asked if we had a reservation for a place to stay, to which we obviously replied, no, she laughed even harder explaining that she had made a reservation 6 months ago!
This is the point we both realised that we were in for a pretty rough couple of days with most likely a bus bench for a bed. Four hours later we had moved the 200m and actually boarded a bus. Of course the only road to the town was completely grid locked with traffic; resulting in us arriving to the city of Chitre (40 mins from La Tablas) at about midnight. Given our usual luck with these things the bus terminal was about 2km outside of the city in the middle of nowhere, just off the main road. We couldn’t even find a taxi driver to take us into town because without a reservation they said it would be impossible to find a place to stay.
Sitting on the curb like a homeless hippie we had both prepared ourselves for a couple of uncomfortable hours sleep on our backpacks. Before accepting defeat and curling up for the night, we asked one last driver. Finally a little bit of luck came our way; he had an annex that although was in the middle of construction had a shower and a blow up mattress that he could give us to stay for the night.
Although it was no Hilton it was better than the bus terminal, we also got a free ride back to the bus terminal in the morning.
We finally arrived in Las Tablas and must have been some of the first people there; we were definitely the only gringos! After an interesting local breakfast of hot dogs and fried stuff the party seemed to get into full swing.
The street became full to the brim with party goers of all ages that would erupt into a state of hysteria when the float passed showing off the local queens and brass bands.
Given that we are firmly in the tropics, the mid-day sun is simply unbearable, even for two sun worshipers like us! The situation was only made worse with the crush of people who simply got stuck in the streets… reminding me at times of the awful tragedy at the last Love Parade in Germany.
The only thing that made it even the slightest bit more bearable was the large trucks position on every corner of the main square that would literally hose down the crowds with chlorinated water!
After a near death experience when one of the large trucks attempting to reverse park around a corner, over the thousands of revellers that just happened to be stuck on that particular stretch of the road (of which I was one!). We decided to call it a day and head to the next major town to catch a bus up to Costa Rica and on to Nicaragua.
By the time we arrived to the border city of David we had realised that it was too late and not actually possible to catch an international bus from any other place other than Panama City.
We decided to take refuge in what has to be the strangest hostel ever; run by an overweight mid-western American that had simply substituted her trailor park for a large hostel in a foreign country. She had everything painted in differing shades of purple….the clue should have been in the name; The Purple House.
The following morning we made a last-minute decision to get in some more beach time before leaving Panama and headed to Bocas del Toro.