Panama City is dead during the carnival. Banks are closed making people to line the days in advance in front to cash their checks. Shops and some restaurants are closed. Cars somehow disappeared in a city famous for a insane chaotic-aggresive-intimidating traffic. You can cross the road and stand in the middle to look for cars coming that would cruise slow like in the carnival mood. The street my hotel is located was usually packed with cars minded by a street boy making change on looking at them and maybe even washing the. In the last days the boy is gone and the only car left is an abandoned junk with flat tires. The corporate businesses are closed, the tour operators slow done or close for the days and the kids have vacation. As I was told ” anybody who has a little money go out of the city”. I left in the morning to the bus terminal to go to Los Santos where I had the lucky last moment reservation. The reception insisted that I should call a taxi because there were no taxis on the road, but like many information you get from Panamanians is not completely correct but they are very assertive and convinced to deliver it. So listen to what they say but do whatever you think is best. The bus terminal was not full as expected but almost empty I would say and got in a small bus to Los Santos, a town 30 km off Las Tablas, the closest point I was able to find a place to stay. The ride took about 4.5 house with the same loud “musica latina” blasted for the entire traffic.
Thou, the Panama roads are impeccable, built as highways but without exits, they are well maintained and guarded heavily by police who can be seen sometimes at hundred meters apart ready to fine the drivers. When I got off in Los Santos nobody had any clue where the hotel was. They knew the street but no trace of the place. Besides, the carnival that happens in every city was in full swing with trucks of water hosing the cheering crowds who were gyrating around the central square in front of the church. After walking way too much in the heat I finally was able to locate the place that was right behind the church where access was guarded by “militaries” and police who went through the movements of body checking everybody. They looked casually in my camera bags but did not give a glimpse to my huge backpack that could accommodate a bull inside. The hotel was there but it was not anymore the same and I had to stay with Expedia one hour to cancel the reservation and try fruitless to find another. I told them to give up and after one hour of tries they decided to apologize and give me a gift card. So I left my backpack in the room that I fully rented but was now shared with four other people for a small fraction of the price, but at least I had a bed for the night. Even if that bed was under an obvious leaky roof where you could see the starry sky. Poetic!
“In the carnival time you cannot sleep anyhow” I was told. However Lupe, the owner, was a charming woman who did all her best to accommodate. Her hostel is a backpacker hangout and has more rooms with AC and way better but they were sold out.
Outside it was a zoo, or better said a water park. Water cisterns were surrounding the central square and a mob was gyrating slowly around them with floats and the classical band. From bleachers on top of the cisterns people with hoses were pouring water on top of the slow moving crowd.
I left after about half hour of madness and took a bus to Las Tablas where the party just broke off and people were leaving. They were there since 11:00 am being drenched and the atmosphere was way more intense, everybody having an water gun and some foam guns shooting everybody else, a hard sell for me who carried so much equipment around. Everyday the carnival has two parts: the morning drenching between 9am – 4pm where the queen may come also around noon and the night floats procession that are changed daily. Probably at one point, on Tuesday I guess, all the floats should parade together.
The amount of filth and dirt on the street was unimaginable and sanitation crews were working frenetically to finish the job till the next arty started. I was told that people leave and the night party would start at 8:00 pm but again, this is Panamanian information so I lingered on the heated streets. Around 9:00 PM some groups started to appear and sing together moving in salsa rhythm but the real stuff started at 11:30PM.
I was shooting all these groups getting inside of them till a guy from the National TV asked me to come out because I was in all the frames they were shooting for TV and he took me and brought me to the bleachers reserved for television from where I shot all night together with all the cameramen, while producers, stage managers and local stars were going on stage right there for a live show that lasted till 11:30 PM. I was on a live stage on National TV and nobody asked even once what I am doing there. As long as I stayed out of the frame I was fine.
At 11:30PM the first fireworks started, huge demonstration that was falling right on our heads on the live stage making everybody to flee for cover followed by the first “carozzas“, the floats. In Las Tablas they play the carnival like a competition between the upper and the lower street. There are two absolutely spectacular floats followed by the band who introduces their queen, for each street. The floats are all made out of feathers with molded figures that leave out steam. The set of floats come from separate streets so you don’t see all parading together only if you stay till about 3AM..
They are presented and described on National TV by four hosts. The entire process is very slow and takes hours for anything to happen so I decided to leave around 1:45 PM after both queens were introduced, hopped in a bus that was running all night for the carnival and arrived close to 3AM in Los Santos were the party was in full swing and the thumping of the discos, two of them in the small square, were endangering my starry roof.