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November 18th, 2009 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

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Carnaval Captures Panama’s Colorful Culture

Normally a laid-back rural town, Las Tablas, capital of Panama’s Los Santos province, awakened with the vengeance of a true fiestero this year. Massive floats the size of coast guard cutters, carrying trumpeting bands and towering, brightly colored paper-maché figures, maneuvered through the throng of carnival-goers. The stunning local Las Tablas queens, adorned in painstakingly hand-stitched pollera gowns, feather headdresses and golden crowns, rhythmically gyrated their hips to the beat of the bongos. Fire hoses from second-story balconies sprayed down on the dancing crowd of Calle Abajo, while everyone excitedly chanted “Get up, get up, Calle Abajo!”.

Whether you were rooting for Calle Abajo (downtown) or Calle Arriba (uptown), it seemed as though costumes, feathers, and fluorescent lights were the only things one needed to keep going strong through the night.

Las Tablas is arguably the best town in which to experience Panama’s infamous Carnival celebration, though every town in Los Santos has its own unique celebration. Indeed, it is the region’s strong cultural identity and rich folkloric tradition that have marked it as Panama’s next hotspot.

“We chose this area in large part because of its wonderful heritage and authentic character,” marks Daniel Rudasevski of Andromeda Ocean Estates, a luxury Panama beachfront real estate development in Pedasí, Los Santos.  “Our proximity to Las Tablas and the exuberant celebrations there are a very important part of the appeal to our clients.  In fact, Pedasí is also known for its outstanding fiestas, which though they are on a smaller scale than Las Tablas, have a special flavor all their own.”

Las Tablas becomes the focal point of the country mainly because it’s so exciting to watch the annual “battle” between the Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba sections of town. This past February 16, the two zones once again became steeped in the more than 50-year tradition of trying to outdo one another.

This rich history of gibes and one-upmanship began in the early 1900s, with two distinct religious denominations: La Ermita de la Santa Cruz and Calidonia. Because Spanish colonization was so strong in the region, the Los Santos province was and still is strongly Christian – so much so, that when the religious denominations disagreed about which patron saint to celebrate, the riff divided the town into those from Calle Arriba and those from Calle Abajo.

The La Placita region of Los Tablas soon became the headquarters for Calle Arriba; and Barrio de Punta Fogon, Calle Abajo’s. The two sections of town began gathering the prettiest girls, parading them, while singing their insults to the opposing group. Finally priests intervened, calling their latter-day verbal slams blasphemous under the banner of religious celebrations. Still, Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba kept up their rivalry, having their festivities coincide with those of the European carnival.

The calles began officially electing their respective queens around 1950, setting the stage for the modern-day Carnival, celebrations filled with such pride a rule about families had to be created. It states that if the mother of the family is from Calle Arriba and the father, from Calle Abajo, their children are considered from Calle Arriba, and vice versa. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

Nowadays, floats traversing the massive crowd of the Las Tablas Carnival sport professional sponsorship, fireworks rival those of the US Super Bowl, Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba have their own websites, government agencies and banks close, traditional sancocho (chicken soup with yucca or nyame) is served, and hotels and hostels fill up months in advance. Queens are elected on Friday and Carnival celebrations don’t end until the following Tuesday.

This year’s chosen queens were Noris Edith Vasquez for Calle Abajo, and Mileydis Vargas for Calle Arriba. Carnival days begin with culecos (outdoor dances constantly refreshed by fire hoses) and chanted praise or ridicule of the calles. Nights are filled with wild parties that run until the early morning.

This colorful splash of culture is an integral part of Los Santos’ appeal, and one of the most authentic celebrations in Panama.

About the Author

C Keogan is a journalist and writer living in Central America.  Find out more about Panama Real Estate and Pedasi Real Estate.

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