Ruben Blades was up on stage and singing his heart out. Not surprising really, as Ruben has attained almost god-like status amongst Panamanians, to the extent his song “Patria” is considered to be the second national anthem.
An acclaimed Hollywood actor, musician, singer, poet and political activist, Blades was headlining the concert climax to Panama City’s carnival week. A joyous outpouring of fun and feasting around Panama City’s streets. All Latin countries take Carnival very seriously, with planning for the next one beginning almost immediately the echo of the last salsa beat fades and Panama is no exception.
The trademark costumes, parades, music and events, perhaps more associated worldwide with Rio or New Orleans’s Mardi Gras, are just as colourful and plentiful in Panama, but on a slightly smaller scale. Having said that, there’s a better sense of collective tradition and all-round family fun in this particular part of the world. It’s called culecos mojadera, and it involves water and lots of it. Culecos is the tradition of spraying water on to the assembled throng to cool them down from the daytime tropical heat and these days the hosing is done from atop huge petrol tankers filled with purified water. Make no mistake you will get very wet, so dress accordingly.
Panama celebrates 4 days of carnival throughout the country ( in either February or March, but immediately before Lent and Ash Wednesday ) with each town or village creating their own version. Naturally, the biggest is in the capital Panama City, where floats, dancers, bands and bedecked carnival queens representing different neighbourhoods parade through the streets. It’s time when the locals let their collective hair down and party, and with beer just $1 there’s a lot of partying going on.
Penanome is 100 miles inland and was once Panama’s first capital following its Independence when Henry Morgan sacked Panama City. This small but pretty town is the home of Panama’s aquatic carnival, where instead of parading through the streets on a float, Penanome’s queen floats down the nearby Mendoza River on a decorated barge into a lake surrounded by swimmers. Talking of swimming, the Culeco tankers in Penanome are particularly brutal, lining both sides of a narrow street hosing the thousands squeezed in-between. With nowhere to escape, you just have to take the spray full on!
With the government providing funds for the staging and the celebrations, and a multitude of local and national sponsors dishing out free goodies, carnival in Panama is a wet, wild and wonderful celebration that’s much more affordable than its Brazilian counterparts.
Mind you, Ruben looked very cool up there on stage, no need for him to get anywhere near a Culeco cannon.