Visiting Las Tablas, Home to Panama’s Biggest Carnaval

A red burst of fireworks goes off in the dark sky above the simple church.
Fireworks go off above Iglesia Santa Librada, the town church. Photo &Copy; Arleen-VH, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Las Tablas, Panama
Las Tablas
Las Tablas (pop. 7,980 in town, 24,298 in the district) has more sprawl and less charm than Chitré, its sister town 30 kilometers north in Herrera province. However, Chitré has now surpassed Las Tablas in urban bustle, and I’ve reluctantly had to concede that tableños now have the more mellow, easygoing town, even if it has less to offer tourists in terms of accommodations, food, and scenic appeal.

Most visitors come here for exactly one reason: Carnaval. Las Tablas hosts Panama’s biggest, wildest celebration, which is saying a lot for a country known for the fervor of its Carnaval spirit.

Las Tablas is built up around an L formed by two roads. The first is the stretch of highway that runs north to south from Chitré to Las Tablas. It intersects in downtown Las Tablas with Avenida Belisario Porras, which runs east through town and turns back into highway outside the town limits.

Most of the restaurants, hotels, and services are along these two streets or within a block or two of them. At the base of the L is the town church, plaza, and a museum dedicated to favorite son Belisario Porras, a three-time president of Panama. A stroll from the plaza east down Avenida Belisario Porras is a good way to get a sense of town life.

As is true of every town in Panama, most streets have multiple names, none of which may appear on a road sign or be known even by those who live on the street. The only street that people may know by name is Avenida Belisario Porras, which is basically the town’s main drag.

Sights in Las Tablas

Though Las Tablas is an important provincial city, it has very little in the way of sights. After taking in the museum and church around Parque Porras in downtown Las Tablas, there’s little left to do but wander around and people-watch. A good place to start is along Avenida Belisario Porras, which begins at Parque Porras and heads east.

Museo Belisario Porras

The town museum (Avenida Belisario Porras and Calle 8 de Noviembre, tel. 994-6326, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun., US$0.50 adults, US$0.25 children), on the south side of the church plaza, contains personal effects, important documents, and memorabilia from the life of Porras, a national hero who is considered one of Panama’s founding fathers and was its president three times. He was born in Las Tablas in 1856 and died in 1942. The displays have been damaged in recent years, according to preservationists, through neglect and smoke from Carnaval fireworks.

Parque Porras and Iglesia Santa Librada

The name of the town plaza is Parque Porras, though it contains more cemento than parque. It’s at the heart of Las Tablas, where the north–south highway into town intersects Avenida Belisario Porras, which runs west–east. This is ground zero during Carnaval.

The town church, Iglesia Santa Librada, on the west side of the plaza, is more notable for the constant devotion of the worshippers inside than for the building itself. The centerpiece is a large altar covered with gold leaf.

Carnaval in Las Tablas

To say that the Carnaval celebration in Las Tablas is its biggest annual party is putting it far too mildly. It’s one of the biggest parties in the entire country. Other major Carnaval locations on the Azuero include Chitré, Parita, Ocú, and Villa de Los Santos, but none can compete with Las Tablas.

Carnaval officially lasts from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday until what we gringos call Fat Tuesday, the last hurrah before the 40 abstemious days of Lent.

In Las Tablas, though, things get started on Friday, with the coronation of the town’s two Carnaval queens. Las Tablas’s first queen was crowned in 1937, but since 1950 the town has had two rival queens and their attendant courts, or tunas: that of Calle Arriba (high street) and Calle Abajo (low street).

Throughout Carnaval, the two retinues try to outdo each other in the beauty, opulence, splendor, and ingenuity of their costumes and floats (carros alegóricos). More resources seem to go into creating these than the entire town produces in a year. The competing courts compose songs, called tonadas, that, among other things, praise the beauty and grace of their chosen queen and mock the supposed ugliness and witchiness of the rival one. These puyas (taunts) are part of the fun and usually taken in stride, but the tonadas are approved ahead of time by a censorship board to make sure they don’t get too nasty and personal.

Both tunas take to the streets every day for a huge parade, with different jaw-dropping floats and costumes for each one. These are usually incredibly flamboyant and elaborate, reminiscent of those found at Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.

Neither costumes nor behavior tends to get as risqué as that at Rio’s Carnaval or even New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Carnaval everywhere in Panama, while it certainly has a lot of booze and steaminess, is still considered a family affair.

Still, this is a decidedly secular celebration with deep pagan roots. The reigning deity is Momo, also known as Momus, the Greek god of laughter and mockery. Carnaval is a huge party, the goal of which seems to be to make sure everyone has something to atone for come Lent.

Though masks were featured in Panama’s early Carnaval celebrations, which were officially recognized nationwide in 1910, they quickly faded out and are rarely seen during Panama’s Carnaval today. One Panamanian addition is for the queens to include stunning polleras—Panama’s flowing, embroidered national dress—among their many costumes.

Another important part of the Carnaval celebration, in Las Tablas and throughout the country, is the culecos. Each morning of Carnaval, to the cry of ¡agua, agua!, large water trucks with hoses spray revelers with thousands of gallons of water, cooling them off as they dance in the heat. Some participants also flirtatiously squirt each other with water guns. The tradition is somewhere between a mild version of a wet T-shirt contest and the ritual opening of fire hydrants during a summer heat wave in a U.S. city.

The culecos are such a beloved part of the celebration they’re officially sanctioned even during water shortages, though officials urge residents to conserve water in the days leading up to the celebration.

Music played at maximum volume is an important part of the proceedings, as it is at every Panamanian festivity. Temporary discos sprout up, and murgas (strolling musicians) march in the processions. At night, fireworks light the skies—and maybe houses and partiers, too, given the drunken knuckleheads that sometimes fire off rockets in the middle of downtown.

The celebration climaxes on Tuesday night. Or rather, it climaxes at dawn on Ash Wednesday, since the final party goes all night long.

There’s a saying in Panama, kept alive by its own citizens, that the only thing Panamanians take seriously is Carnaval. In that sense tableños are the most serious people in the country.

No sooner is Carnaval over than plans begin to select the following year’s queens. These are introduced on New Year’s Eve, another huge party that resembles the last night of Carnaval. The two new queens are greeted and the two retiring queens seen off with fireworks and a parade.

Getting to and Around Las Tablas

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

A bus as far as Pedasí will probably cost at least US$20. For those who can’t afford the cab fare, buses to Guararé leave from downtown every 10 minutes (US$0.30) from early morning to evening. They can be flagged down on Avenida Carlos L. Lopez, the main road heading north out of Las Tablas.

Buses to more distant locations leave from the town bus terminal at the north end of town, shortly after the national highway morphs into Avenida Carlos L. Lopez. The cross street is Avenida Emilio Castro. There’s a taxi stand at the bus terminal. Though it’s just a half kilometer to the center of town, it can feel like a major hike in the heat when you’re toting luggage. Avoid the misery and cough up the US$1.40 cab fare.

There is no direct bus service to Santiago or David. Go to Divisa (US$3.35) or the Chitré bus terminal (US$1.50) and catch a bus from there. A few of the most important bus routes from Las Tablas include:

Panama City: The first bus leaves at 6 a.m. every day. After that, buses leave every hour on the half hour, 7:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. There are two additional early departures at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Monday–Friday. On Friday and Sunday there’s a final departure at 5:30 p.m. Got all that? Never mind—all times are more theoretical than real in any case. The fare is US$9.70 and the trip takes 4.5 hours.

Pedasí: Buses run every 45 minutes, 6 a.m.–7 p.m. The trip takes 45 minutes and costs US$2.40. These buses also stop along Avenida Belisario Porras in the heart of town.

Buses to Tonosí leave from a second terminal in downtown Las Tablas, one block south of Hotel Sol del Pacífico. They leave every hour from about 6 a.m.–5:30 p.m. The trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes and costs US$3.60. Note that this is an inland route and does not lead down the coast near Pedasí, Playa Venao, or Isla de Cañas.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Panama.