Devils & Drag Queens: The Secrets of Corpus Christi – La Villa de Los Santos, Panama

La Villa de Los Santos is the center of many of Panama’s annual festivals including much of the madness of the country’s best Carnival celebration. We traveled back to La Villa de Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula to uncover some of the secrets of Corpus Christi which, it turns out, include devils and drag queens.

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A posse of “white devils” during Corpus Christi festivities in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

 The Texas of Panama

The Azuero Peninsula is the Texas of Panama, hotter, drier and ranchier than the rest of the nation. Like Texas, the Azuero is also fiercely independent. Residents of La Villa de Los Santos were among the early fighters for independence from Spain.

In 1821 they wrote to Simon Bolívar with a request to join his revolutionary forces and there is, of course, an annual festival in La Villa de Los Santos to mark the beginning of Panama’s independence movement. The building in which an early declaration of independence was written is now the Museo de la Nacionalidad (Museum of Nationality).

Corpus Christi numbskulls

We admit to knowing very little about Corpus Christi when we arrived in for the celebration in La Villa de Los Santos. We just like festivals. We have since become slightly more enlightened and we can tell you that Corpus Christi is a Catholic festival dating from the 1200s which celebrates the Eucharist which is the part about the “body and blood of Christ.”

Corpus Christi is celebrated all over the world on a changing date that falls between the end of May and early July. In Rome there are solemn, stately processions. In Latin America, things get slightly more animated.

Not surprisingly, the town’s church, Iglesia de San Atanasio, is central to Corpus Christi. Its elaborate wooden altar, covered in gold and blue, dates to 1733 though the final construction date of the church is 1773. The church was declared a national monument in 1938 and the altar is said to be too heavy for any number of men to lift. However, even the grandeur of this church was overshadowed by the pageant unfolding around it.

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A white devil confronts an angel in front of the historic Iglesia de San Atanasio in one of many struggles between good and evil which are played out during Corpus Christi celebrations in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

Our Corpus Christi savior

We missed the first weekend of Corpus Christi celebrations, which we were told are the biggest, but we arrived in town on the final Friday to take in the final weekend. That’s when Salvador, a local, found us in the small town’s central plaza and appointed himself our personal Corpus Christi savior, patiently explaining what was going on and making sure we saw the best of it.

Basically, what we saw was a Latin re-enactment of the struggle between good and evil. There were men and boys dressed as diablos sucios (dirty devils) wearing red and black striped jumpsuits with bells sewn to their bums (Salvador never quite explained that one) and gruesome paper mache masks on their heads which are proudly made in town and can cost up to US$600 each.

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A group of menacing “dirty devils” roams from house to house in La Villa de Los Santos during Corpus Christi celebrations.

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These paper mache masks, many of which are made by artists in La Villa de Los Santos, can go for up to US600.

Other men and boys were dressed as diablos limpios (clean devils), wearing white costumes festooned with multi-colored ribbons.

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This parade of imposing “clean devils” went right past our truck.

Unlike most Latin festivals which take place in the streets, most of the Corpus Christi activities we saw on Friday were happening inside or in front of private homes. That’s where the “dirty devils” and the “clean devils” danced it out for dominance, leather sandals and wooden castanets slapping out a beat and those mysterious bells clanking away to a repetitive ditty played on guitar or flute.

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Many of Corpus Christi spectacles took place in private homes.

The “dirty devils” performed a particularly elaborate and aerobic dance and most were soon sweaty and exhausted.

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A group of young “dirty devils” takes a well-earned break during Corpus Christi events in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

There were female characters involved in some processions as well, but for some reason (more secrets!) those were portrayed by men clumsily dressed as women.

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Female characters were portrayed by men clumsily dressed as women during Corpus Christi in La Villa de Los Santos.

 

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One of the most energetic groups of “white devils” struts their stuff in front of the historic church in La Villa de Los Santos.

As the weekend wore on, different performers playing different roles in different costumes appeared. We never quite figured out what these dudes wearing hoop skirts, fluffy balls of yarn and mirrors on their heads were all about but they were fun to watch.

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Hoop skirts, mirrors on their heads, fluffy balls of yarn…we don’t know what these Corpus Christi performers were all about but they were fun to watch.

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Hoop-skirt wearing performers take a break to confer about their next mysterious moves during Corpus Christi in Panama.

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Corpus Christi festivities in La Villa de Los Santos go well into the night.

It’s not a festival until the trannies arrive

Speaking of men dressed as women, Saturday’s Corpus Christi events were filled with trannies of various degrees of finesse. During Corpus Christi they pranced around on rickety stages set up around the main square, took part in beauty contests and generally confounded us. What did cross-dressing (and mostly terrible cross-dressing at that) have to do with Corpus Christi?

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Queens and queens! Reigning carnival queens from the area lead a procession of drag queens during Corpus Christi celebrations in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

Drag queens played a major role in Panama’s Carnival celebrations too as performers, choreographers, costume designers and makeup artists but that made sense given the fact that Carnival is essentially one big drag show anyway.

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God and gaudiness collide during Corpus Christi celebrations in Panama.

Our savior Salvador was nowhere in sight and we didn’t know the Spanish word for “transvestite” so our questions about what the heck cross dressers had to do with the body of Christ went unanswered. We had another beer and waited for the next pageant to start, grateful that the performers were getting a much warmer reception than they’d get in most parts of Texas where they actually have a city named Corpus Christi.

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And that about sums up religious festivals in Latin America: a transvestite performing her heart out in front of a church.

Read more about travel in Panama

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Western Beaches of Panama – Isla Boca Brava & Playa Las Lajas

While not exactly untouched, Isla Boca Brava and Playa Las Lajas are not nearly as visited as Panama’s more well-known beach destinations like the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and that’s part of the charm of traveling to the western beaches of Panama.

Isla Boca Brava Hotels

To get to the 30 square mile (77 square km) island of Boca Brava you have to first get to the fishing village of Boca Chica. After leaving our truck under an avocado tree on the property of a family that’s decided to use part of their land as an informal parking service, we got into a water taxi for the ten minute ride to Cala Mia Pacific Hotel for a dose of secluded romance.

Cala Mia Hotel, Boco Brava, Panama

Plunge pool with a view at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in northern Panama.

Cala Mia’s 11 thatch-roof accommodations, private horseshoe bay beach and cliff side location make you feel like you’ve got the island to yourself. Rooms have all the mod cons including A/C and private patios with ocean views, especially nice from August through November when humpback whales migrate through.

Private Beach Cala Mia , Boca Brava, Panama

A shady perch on the private beach at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava, Panama.

When we were at Cala Mia a new owner had just taken over and we believe there’s been a new owner since then. Hopefully one of them upgraded Cala Mia’s dramatic Spa Cielo which is accessed via a swinging bridge which connect the mainland of the island to a nearby rocky outcrop but needed some serious TLC.

On the other end of the accommodation spectrum (and the other end of the island) is Hotel Boca Brava with 17 rooms ranging from privates (around US$30 double) to dorms. The food in the open air restaurant is almost as good as the view of the Pacific. Room #10 was our favorite with curved walls, a small private patio with chairs and a water view. Water can be scarce on the island in the dry season and the hotel’s gregarious owner, Brad, keeps occupancy to just half  in order to make sure everyone has enough water. Still, conserve as much as you can.

Boca Brava Office of the Day

Karen’s office of the day on the patio of or room at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in Panama, though we still don’t fully understand why hammock seats exist…

What to do around Boca Brava

Boca Brava, and more than 20 other islands, are all protected within the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so it’s not surprising that most of the things to do around Boca Brava involve getting wet.

As we already mentioned, August through November is whale watching season in northern Panama with migrating humpbacks crowding the water and plenty of tour companies waiting to take you out to see them. Isla Ladrones, 27 miles (43 km) from Boca Brava, is a SCUBA diving hot spot all year round with the chance to see sharks, rays and more. Our plans to dive around Ladrones were thwarted, however, by bad weather which created rough conditions and very limited visibility in the water so our trip was cancelled. The deep-sea fishing is said to be terrific around Boca Brava as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Local resident on Panama’s Isla Boca Brava.

Exploring Playa Las Lajas

Playa Las Lajas is most famous for its 12 mile (20 km) long stretch of beach. You can walk for ages and you’re likely to have the place to yourself except on weekends. Just don’t have your heart set on a funky beach bar or awesome seaside seafood shack. Playa Las Lajas was eerily free of any sort of service like that.

Las Lajas beach

Playa Las Lajas is 20 miles (12 km) long and at low tide this beach is incredibly wide as well.

If you ask us, the town of Las Lajas, inland from the beach, should also be equally famous for is flamboyant, sculpture-filled bus stops, each depicting a different marine scene. You almost hope the bus never comes.

Mermaid bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

This is a bus stop, Las Lajas style.

Swordfish bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

Another impressive bus top in Las Lajas. The roof reads “Looking for Paradise? It’s in Las Lajas.”

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened in Las Lajas in 2013, is not on the beach but it’s close enough and you can’t beat it for its style bungalows and small pool. The real reason to visit Naturalmente, however, is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage.

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A bungalow at Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows near Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

If you’re making the very long haul on the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and David, Boquete, Cerro Punta or the border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas or Sixaola, Playa Las Lajas makes a great place to break your journey.

Geographical note about the screwy compass in Panama

Countries in Central and South America unfurl in a tidy north-to-south trajectory except for Panama which takes a sharp turn and ends up sitting perpendicular to its neighbors.This means that, in Panama, “north” refers to the long Atlantic/Caribbean coast and “south” indicates the long Pacific coast of the country. If you want to talk about the end of the country nearest the city of David and the border with Costa Rica, as we do within this post, you’re really talking about the west end of the country.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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Get Our Favorite Sunscreen for FREE

We’ve used KINeSYS sunscreen since day one of our little road trip (that’s nearly eight years and counting) and except for a handful of times when we’ve neglected to apply it, this sunscreen has kept us sunburn free as we’ve traveled through and explored the (very sunny) Americas. Now you can get our favorite sunscreen for free in our latest tried and true travel product giveaway, just in time for winter escapes and daydreaming about summer.

We’re a tough crowd when it comes to sunscreen

The thing about sunscreen is that it only works if you use it and you’ll only use it if you want to use it. For us, that rules out goopy, oily, globby creams that sting our eyes or cake up on our skin or stay sticky all day long. Ick. It also rules out anything that’s got harmful stuff in it or dumps harmful stuff into the environment.

Kinesys sunscreens

 

When we discovered KINeSYS, the company with the funny name and the serious sunscreen, we were sold.

  • PABA free (PABA can cause allergic reactions and may increase cellular UV damage)
  • paraben free (some studies have shown that paraben can irritate skin, raise the risk of breast cancer, wreak havoc on estrogen levels and maybe even increase skin aging due to sun exposure)
  • oil free and totally non-greasy
  • preservative free
  • alcohol free
  • super water-and-sweat-resistant
  • fast-absorbing
  • super even coverage, even on hairy skin, thanks to the micro-mist pump spray
  • some are fragrance free so Eric doesn’t end up smelling like a Hawaiian Tropic girl
  • the non-aerosol pump spray doesn’t harm the environment with fluorocarbons or waste a lot of product in an aerosol mega mist or explode in your checked luggage
  • ergonomically designed bottles are easy to hold and allow you to use the bottle upside down in order to cover hard-to-reach areas like the backs of your knees
  • the gentle formula doesn’t sting Karen’s sensitive eyes
  • the company’s Earth Kind policies include bottles that are totally recyclable, no ingredients that accumulate in the body or the environment, vegetable-based ink used for printed materials and they get 100% of their electricity from wind power
  • their products are not tested on animals

We’ve relied on our KINeSYS sunscreen to keep us safe in the sun every single day but especially when we’re doing stuff like snorkeling with whale sharks in Mexico, hiking through the jungle to El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala, diving in Belize or exploring the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador where we’re returning in December, armed to the teeth with KINeSYS.

Asing Kinesys sunscreen ion the Galapagos Islands

During our first Galapagos trip we were the only people on the boat who actually liked their sunscreen (that’s Karen, above, re-applying in the Galapagos next to some new friends who were cooling off in a tidal pool). Not surprisingly, we were also among the few people on the boat who didn’t get sunburned during island hikes and snorkeling trips.

Enter to win our favorite sunscreen for FREE

We’re giving away 12 four-ounce bottles of KINeSYS fragrance-free SPF 30 sunscreen spray (a US$18.99 value each). To get yours, input your email in the entry form below so we can notify you if you win.

Start by liking the Trans-Americas Journey Facebook page and the KINeSYS Facebook page, then earn a separate entry for each of the following actions done through the entry form below:

  • Send out a pre-written Tweet about the giveaway
  • Follow the Trans-Americas Journey on Twitter
  • Follow KINeSYS on Twitter
  • Share and like this travel blog post

Some entries can be repeated once every day, so come back for more chances to win.

The contest ends on December 26, 2014 at 5:00 pm eastern time and winners will be chosen at random. Winners will be notified via email shortly after that. Entries of each winner will be confirmed before prizes are awarded.
NOTE: Anyone can enter, but bottles can ONLY be shipped to winners with addresses within the continental USA (sorry Alaska and Hawaii).

 

If the entry form is not loading properly you can also ENTER HERE.

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