A night at the carnival
Let’s play a game. If I say ‘Panama’, what’s the next word that comes to mind? Odds on it’s either ‘canal’ or ‘hat’. Panama might not seem like an obvious tourist destination, unless you’re interested in cruising through the manmade waterway which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, or polishing off your ‘Man from Del Monte’ outfit.
There is, however, a lot on offer in Panama, and much to see besides the (admittedly impressive) canal – like the sparkling and competitively phallic skyscrapers of cosmopolitan Panama City, or the sun-kissed and wildlife-rich San Blas islands in the Caribbean Sea. There’s tons of history and heaps of beauty to discover along the skinny length of this Central American country.
My trip has a specific reason behind it, however. A spectacularly fun, wonderfully romantic, enjoyably alcohol-soaked reason…
An annual event, the carnival in Panama City is among the world’s biggest. It has everything you’d want from a street party, specifically flamboyant costumes, jiggling flesh, constant music and rum. It’s not as grandiose as Rio but, according to Panama’s minister of tourism – a genial, portly, middle-aged man who greets me on arrival – it’s the next best thing.
Yet at 7pm on the first evening of the four-day fiesta there are only a few punters lining the parade route. The carnival takes place across a long weekend, transforming the city’s already stunning Pacific coastline into a messy but captivating riot of colour. I’m assured by the minister that the beginning is low-key only because Panamanians prefer to arrive fashionably late. At its height, the celebration will pull in up to a million local people, with a handful of adventurous tourists thrown in. A word of warning: those who travel here should be prepared for things to get ‘hands-on’.
Dance with the devil
‘There’s a saying we have around carnival,’ the minister explains. ‘Everyone gets divorced for four days!’ His wife isn’t around to confirm this, but I take his word for it. This is, after all, the weekend just before Lent, which means that the residents of this traditionally Catholic country have some things to get out of their systems ahead of 40 days of clean living. Carnival is an opportunity to dance with the devil – literally in the case of early-arriving spectators, who are getting down with men in terrifying devil costumes.
Along the waterfront, things are starting to look significantly sexier. A number of young Panamanians are setting up stalls. Most sell $1 cans of beer out of huge ice-filled plastic vats (US dollars are common currency in Panama). Some have swirls of chorizo sausage cooking on small braziers. Many vendors are wearing lycra… or, more accurately, the girls they put out front to attract customers are wearing lycra, and so much taut fabric stretched over bulging flesh makes the already balmy nighttime air feel a few degrees hotter.
First, though, before things get any sweatier, Panama needs to crown its carnival queen, hence why a much larger crowd has now gathered in front of the stage at the top of the parade route. Behind is Casco Viejo, Panama City’s pretty, colonial old quarter. About four kilometres along the coastline is the city’s cluster of show-off skyscrapers, with Donald Trump’s massive ‘D’-shaped hotel taking pride of place. Once the coronation is over the new queen will trundle towards Donald’s ‘D’ on her regal float, trailed by half-a-dozen almost equally flamboyant carriages for her litter of princesses. The trucks will loop back on themselves, allowing the queen to wave and blow kisses to everyone along the route. Then they’ll go round again. And again. Every night.
It’s a tough gig, then, being the carnival queen. But the women who take it on are clearly well-prepared. Take Virginia, the departing queen, who now strides confidently across the stage in heels higher than a bungalow, waving demurely and grinning ear to ear. Having spent the last year travelling the world (carnival queen is also an ambassadorial role), the 23-year-old has only to crown the new queen as her final duty, before she heads back to university to complete her engineering degree.
She seems like a level-headed (if unfeasibly elevated) person, so I seek her advice after the coronation. ‘Don’t get drunk,’ she tells me. ‘Also, wear sunblock, drink water and don’t breathe in when you go into the Portaloos.’
I wasn’t planning on taking an olfactory tour of Panama’s portable conveniences, but these sound like fair points. For now, though, everything’s smelling of roses. The coronation’s a success. Virginia pops her splendid crown onto the immaculate hairdo of her successor, Maria, and the partying can begin in earnest.
Rum’s the word
The vast carnival site is free to enter, but is fenced off, with police checks at every entrance point (arrive before 10pm if you want to avoid serious queues). Inside, there are three stages, spaced along the parade route. The main stage is where the coronation takes place, and where, later on, thousands will be kept entertained by Panama’s biggest pop acts. Further along there’s a dance stage, where international DJs are due to set the younger carnival crowd pogo-ing. Lastly, there’s the samba stage – the carnival’s most civilised live arena, where bands lead hearty sing-alongs, and geriatric Panamanians shimmy their hearts (and potentially their hips) out.
I end up at the samba stage, trying to get my waist moving in a figure of eight motion, and forget that I’m a journalist from Huddersfield and not a swarthy Latin lover from a Bacardi advert. Unconvincing as I am, people seem to admire my effort. In fact, everywhere I go, the more I dance the more people seem to want to reward me with free shots of white rum.
The spirits flows liberally all night. Then, when the evening’s procession of floats begins its slow roll along the coastline, the assembled partygoers take this as their cue to go wild. Queen Maria reappears, wearing the dress of Carmen Miranda’s dreams, and spinning wildly atop a tropically themed float. Huge, semi-naked styrofoam mannequins guard each corner of the truck – their rears so bootylicious it’s indecent. Equally outrageous is the dancing going on in front of the beer stalls. Each stall has its own speaker stacks, with the DJs competing to see who can make the most noise. From the beer pedlars’ perspective it’s a simple equation: the louder and more salacious their reggaeton beats, the more booze they’ll shift. Indeed, the younger dancers are quick to decide which ear-bashing subwoofers they’re going to grind in front of.
Take the A Train
In the middle of all this rabble appears a less gaudy but still impressive float that looks like a brand new subway train. Panama City opened a new metro system in 2014, and they’re rather proud of it. The nifty float carries a live samba band, who precede to blow the bejesus out of their brass instruments in an effort to be heard over the racket. For a short while, at least, the reggaeton cuts out while the DJs stop to admire the musicians’ lung capacity.
The metro is a big deal in Panama City, and its popularity as a theme goes to show how politically savvy this whole party really is. The last 100 years of the country’s history have been turbulent. It was only in 1999 that Panama’s beloved canal was officially handed over by the Americans, who’d controlled it since 1904. Manuel Noriega – the military dictator who remained in power until 1989 – is still holed up in a prison just outside the capital. In recent years, however, Panama City has thrived as a centre for international banking and trade. The Americans are still around, but only because the Panamanians want them, and their wallets, to remain in the country.
In other words, Panama is more than happy to be a calling point, and offer hospitality to anyone passing through. And, if you’re passing through at carnival time, why not join the party! It’s this idea that the minister for tourism is keen to get across. Yet, though he started out giving me the hard sell, in the heat of the night he’s just enjoying the vibe. It’s hard to do anything remotely official amid such festivity and – as the night wears on – carnage.
My night, too, is reaching its apex. I dance my way down to the DJ stage, and join in the hand-waving, water-throwing action, adding a few more locals to my ever-expanding fan club. Everyone titters and claps at my moves. I’m not only having fun, I’m a part of it.
Soon, though, I’ve gone as far as I can go; swivelled my hips as far as they can swivel. It’s four in the morning, and I’m ready to go home. Everyone else, it seems, is prepared to celebrate until sunrise and beyond. Then they’ll do the same the next night. And the night after. And the night after that. It’s not just the carnival queen and princesses who are doing all the work – the people of Panama also have a role to play in putting the country on the map. They’re what make this city the free-wheeling, forget-everything, fun-lovin’ party capital of central America. Keep up if you can…
The carnival is held in Panama City, as well as towns and cities across the country, every year in February. Click here for more information.