• Judith

Ideas -  PANAMA for carnival?

Where else can you see the sun rise over one ocean and set over another? With the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean on the other, Panama is a unique destination which is rapidly gaining in popularity with travellers keen to experience its Central American combination of carnivals, culture and tropical climate.

Unlike some of its more developed neighbours such as Costa Rica, Panama is still relatively unspoilt by mass tourism, and the country is ripe for exploration

Although most people think of the world famous canal when the country is mentioned, Panama is a destination of rich diversity with multiple atmospheres and cultures, making it a fascinating place for those looking for a range of adventures. With two coasts and more than a 1000 islands, Panama has beaches, rainforests, highlands and lively city life.


Like Rio in Brazil, Panama parties like there’s no tomorrow on the days surrounding Shrove Tuesday with dancing in the streets, parades of colourful floats and the crowning of beautiful leggy carnival queens dressed in sequins, fishnets and feathers.

Panama’s carnival dates back to colonial times and is celebrated in several provinces including Coclé, Herrera and Los Santos

But I was right in the thick of it in Panama City. Called la Jumbo Rumba, Carnaval de la City, the festivities began with the coronation of the Queen her two attendant ‘princesses’ who then appear in various changes of costume throughout the five day celebrations

Over 150,000 people flocked to the City’s coastal strip each day to dance, sing, eat drink and – get soaked. Each morning at 10 the culecos begin as hoses from giant tanker trucks were turned on the crowds.

Drenched but happy, everyone continued to cavort. Children contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by spraying bystanders with water pistols or shaving foam as the scenes became increasingly surreal.

A woman walked by with a tray of toffee apples on her head , swaying between balloon vendors and people dressed as zombies or witches on stilts. Somewhere in the crowd a man was dancing with a blow-up doll.

Carnival cuisine

After partying till dawn revellers require a hearty breakfast. The Full Panamanian – desayunos (breakfast) is a plate groaning with cholesterol.

I stopped off at the roadside café La Hacienda on the road to Capira with my bleary eyed fellow carnival animals. First order was for coffee, which in Panama is called Panama Joe. The tortillas were a bit of a surprise, not Mexican-style but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, seem to be another common breakfast staple.

There is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called name. Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out, which describes most nights during carnival time.


Panama Canal

A visit to the historic Panama Canal, said to be one of the Wonders of the World, is a must of course. Escaping the madness of carnival, a morning spent watching majestic ships pass through this staggering feat of engineering was strangely calming. The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a ship takes about 8 to 10 hours to cross it.

Panama Canal was excavated in one of the narrowest and lowest parts of the mountainous Isthmus of Panama, linking North and South America. Open every day of the year, it is possible to see 5,000,000 ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the isthmus from one ocean to the other. The Miraflores Visitors’ Centre is only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and has interactive exhibits explaining the workings of the canal and its history.


Portobelo, in Colon, once the greatest Spanish port in the region, is where one can still see the remains of forts which preserve the memory of attacks from famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, whose is buried beneath the sea here.. I stepped inside the church, Iglesia San Felipe, which now houses the Black Christ statue. Nobody knows exactly how or when it arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.

Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals.

KLM fly daily to Panama City from Heathrow and all UK regional airports via Amsterdam. www.klm.com 0871 231 0000

Iberia flies from Heathrow to Panama City via Madrid 5 times a week, www.iberia.com 0870 609 0500