Crowning the Queen(s) – 2013 Carnaval, La Villa de Los Santos & Las Tablas, Panama


This post is part 1 of 6 in the series Panama Carnival

Everyone told us the same thing: if you really want to see Carnaval (aka Carnival) in Panama (and we really, really did) you have to see it in Las Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula. Sure there are Carnaval celebrations throughout the country, including in Panama City. But Las Tablas is where the traditions and the partying have reached new heights and it all starts on the Friday before Ash Wednesday with the crowning of not one but two Carnaval queens.

Two Carnaval queens are better than one

Carnaval in Panama is reigned over by a pair of Carnaval queens, one for Calle Arriba (high street or uptown) and another for Calle Abajo (low street or downtown). Queens are chosen for each neighborhood based on which part of town the queen’s mother is from. Your mom’s hood also determines which queen residents of Las Tablas root for.

Having two queens, as you can imagine, doubles the fun. Twice the beauty! Twice the costumes! Twice the floats! Twice the music! And, as we’ll be explaining as this series of posts about 2013 Carnaval in Las Tablas continues, twice the cattiness!

Carnaval lite in La Villa de Los Santos

We’d foolishly failed to make a hotel reservation but our Carnaval Karma was in effect on Friday afternoon when we found a room at Hostal Villas de Zianit in  the town of Guararé just a few miles from Las Tablas. Our hosts provided much more than a bed, shower and A/C, however.

Part of an accomplished local family, Edgar and Nikki were full of information about Carnaval activities and traditions. They also guided us through our first brush with Carnaval when they invited us to La Villa de Los Santos to see the crowning ceremonies for the queens in their hometown.

The square in Los Santos was mellow and uncrowded as families mingled around men grilling hot dogs and stands selling beer as everyone waited for the start of the formalities which was marked by the arrival of last year’s Calle Arriba queen on a float pulled by a tractor driven by a man who, weirdly, looked like he’d rather be having root canal.

La Villa de Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle Arriba queen

Friday night Carnaval festivities in the town of La Villa de los Santos were kicked off by the appearance of the 2012 Calle Arriba Carnaval queen in a dress that mostly cut-away.

The out-going queen did a few laps of the sleepy square wearing a dress that was mostly cut-away tailed by a second tractor pulling a full horn section and rousing drums. Then a second float arrived bearing last year’s Calle Abajo queen on her own float followed by her own band.

We followed the Calle Arriba float down a residential street to an elaborate stage depicting someone’s addled interpretation of an ancient Babylonian scene with a bit of Thai temple sprinkled in. Huddled in the center of the stage was a figure wearing a huge head-dress. As the music started the figure began dancing and took off the head-dress to reveal the shaved head of a transvestite in full drag. The crowd was mesmerized as the drag queen danced and lip-synched.

La Villa de Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle Arriba coronation

A drag queen kicks off the crowning ceremony for the Calle Arriba Carnaval queen in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama. “There would be no Caranval with the gays,” we are assured by onlookers.

“There would be no Carnaval without the gays”

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the general level of acceptance for the LGBT communities throughout Mexico and Central America but the full-on performance we were watching on the stage in this tiny town in Panama would have impressed anyone in Manhattan’s west village.

Perhaps sensing our amazement, Nikki told us that there would be no Carnaval without “the gays” as everyone seems to call homosexuals. “They make the dresses, do the makeup, design the floats, everything,” she said then turned her attention back to the stage in time to see the drag queen do a back flip in gold sequined hot pants.

Meanwhile, the outgoing Calle Arriba Carnaval queen and her entourage had gotten off the float and were awaiting their turn to take the stage.

Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle Arriba queen, Elaine Malene Cortes Atencio

Elaine Malene Cortes Atencio, the 2013 Calle Arriba Carnaval queen in La Villa de los Santos moments before her crowning.

The 2013 Calle Arriba queen, Elaine Malene Cortes Atencio, was stunning and she was duly crowned. There were no tears, just copious amounts of wiggling and waving (their elbows seemed to be connected to their hips). Despite their sequins and sparkles the stage full of Carnaval queens didn’t even come close to the stage presence of their opening act.

Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle Arriba reina coronation

The 2012 Calle Arriba Carnaval queen in La Villa de los Santos and her entourage take the stage.

As the new Calle Arriba queen was being crowned Nikki pulled us away to the other end of town to see the Calle Abajo crowning. To make our completely mellow and educational Carnaval debut even more enjoyable the Calle Abajo queen was Nikki’s cousin, Joanne Vásquez!

Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle abajo queen reina Joanne Vásquez

Joanne Vásquez, 2013 Calle Abajo Carnaval queen in La Villa de los Santos, and her escorts just before her crowning.

Los Santos Panama Carnival Calle Abajo queen reina coronation

The 2013 Calle Abajo Carnaval queen, Joanne Vásquez, is officially crowned in La Villa de los Santos, Panama.

La Villa de Los Santos Panama Carnival fireworks

Post Carnaval queen crowning fireworks light up the sky over the church in the center of La Villa de los Santos, Panama.

Las Vegas, meet Las Tablas

With the Los Santos queen crowning over we were ready for the main event in Las Tablas. We arrived around midnight, found a safe parking spot on the street (much to our surprise) and followed the crowds and the noise and the Klieg lights to an enormous outdoor club set up a few blocks from the town square.

Las Tablas was buzzing as families, couples and what seemed to be every gay man within a 400 mile radius jostled to pay US$5 to enter the club area where stages had been set up for the crownings.

We soon saw why Las Tablas is the place to be. The staging, costumes, lighting, choreography and overall production values during the crownings were Vegas worthy – part Cirque de Soleil, part RuPaul, part “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Like all Carnaval events, the crownings were capped off with a massive fireworks display.  And this was just the beginning!

Las tablas Panama Carnival Calle Arriba queen reina coronation crowning

Maruquel Madelaine Gonzalez Valesquez (on the right) moments after being crowned the Calle Arriba Carnaval queen in Las Tablas, Panama during a performance and ceremony that was spectacular enough for Vegas.

The cost of being Carnaval queen

The 2012 Calle Arriba tuna (the name for the team of supporters behind each queen) spent US$382,000 to support and present their queen and we were told that the price tag for this year’s Las Tablas queens could top US$500,000 each to cover dresses, floats, hair and makeup artists, production companies, fireworks displays, bands, etc.

This explains why the main deciding criteria when it comes time to choose your queen isn’t beauty or brains. It’s “can she pay?” This year’s Calle Arriba queen, for example, is the daughter of an enormously wealthy local supermarket magnate and she actually tore up $20 bills during Carnaval. It was a low point and we’ll tell you all about it as our 2013 Carnaval in Las Tablas series continues.

Travel Tip

Get our Top 6 Tips for Surviving Carnaval In Panama in this piece we did for TravelandEscape.ca, the website for Canada’s Travel Channel.


Series Navigation:<< Party in the Streets – 2013 Carnaval, Las Tablas, Panama (Day 1)

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7 comments on “Crowning the Queen(s) – 2013 Carnaval, La Villa de Los Santos & Las Tablas, Panama

  1. very beautiful pictures of carnival in panama… that would be most famous thing after canal of panama.. canal to carnival in panama

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