Carnaval in Las Tablas, Panama (and yes, that’s the correct Spanish spelling for Carnival) is a big deal here. A very big deal.
Every year the town of Las Tablas swells to more than 10 times its normal population.
This normally quiet town — residents describe it as muy tranquilo — jumps from about 10,000 people to over 100,000 for four days of round-the-clock partying and competitiveness.
There are two queens: Arriba and Abajo (think uptown and downtown). You support one or the other. Fiercely. The queens go out of their way to diss each other, and it’s gotten so bad that the Mayor stepped in to force them to tone it down.
On each of the four days there are two parades, one in the afternoon and one at night. They feature extravagant floats and costumes — different for every parade, of course. Building the Carnaval floats is a major undertaking.
Each parade also features fireworks.
And of course there are two of everything: two queens, two bands, two sets of fireworks two times a day.
Part of the fun is being hosed down by giant water cannons. If you’re in the Carnaval crowd, you can expect to get wet.
Stores run out of supplies and restaurants run out of food. People rent houses and cram 20 people into three bedrooms, or they camp out on the beach or sleep in their cars. That’s if they bother to sleep at all.
People started trickling into town this past weekend. Today I hit the grocery store to make sure I’m stocked up on everything I’ll need for the next two weeks. It was a zoo.
When I arrived at the meat counter I pulled number 66 off the machine just as they called number 23. . . I did half my shopping, looked and saw they were calling 63, so I hung around and got served within a few minutes.
Supplies of a lot of things were already low, although there was plenty of beer left. Someone told me that 10% of all the beer sold here in a year is sold during the four days of Carnaval. I’m not surprised.
Within the next couple days temporary Fondas (open-air cafeteria style restaurants) and vendors will pop up all over town. Open-air nightclubs are being created on vacant lots, with towers of speakers that will blast nearby residents all night long. Roads will become impassable.
I’m not a big fan of closely packed crowds, so I confess I have not attended Carnaval. After the festivities are over and the crowds have left, though, there’s a Carnavalito or “little Carnaval.” I did go to that last year, and captured some of it on film.
If you want to experience Carnaval here, best make your plans a long time in advance.