Thousands of Africans were brought to Panama’s Caribbean Coast where they were sold as slaves and sent to work in other parts of Central America. Some escaped, however, and their descendants now make up a self-described “Afro colonizer” population in the area. Two weeks after Carnival, communities in and around Portobelo hold the Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival which is an exaggerated re-enactment of how their African ancestors used clothing and language to communicate and an over-the-top parody of Spanish colonizers.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

A crew of angels try to stop, punish, and banish a devil (representing Spanish colonizers) during the Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Inside the Diablos y Congos festival in Panama

Some men and boys dress as congos (slaves) by wearing old clothes worn inside out and adorned with found objects like dolls in imitation of the way Africans modified the clothes they were allowed to wear in order to make them their own. They also speak “congo” by saying the opposite of what they really mean, a re-enactment of how African ancestors managed to communicate even under the watchful eye of slave traders.

Congos slaves - Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Extravagant costumes made from rags and found objects are worn by men and boys representing Congos (slaves) during the Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Congos king - Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The annual Diablos y Congos festival on the Caribbean Coast of Panama includes the crowning of a Congo King and Queen.

Female congos wear long, bright, pleated skirts, flouncy blouses that fall off the shoulder, and multiple necklaces in a costume that is a humble reflection of the pollera, the national dress of Panama.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The outfit worn by women taking part in the Diablos y Congos festival is a simpler version of the pollera which is the national dress of Panama.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

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Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

Dancing-Diablos-y-Congos-festival-Panama

Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

Other men and boys dress up as diablos (devils) to represent the Spanish colonizers who ruled the region during slave trading times, donning intricate costumes and wearing grotesque masks many of which are made in nearby Puerto Lindo.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

A group of diablos (devils) representing the Spanish colonizers on the streets of Portobelo, Panama during the annual Diablos y Congos festival.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Children take part in the Diablos y Congos festival too. Here, two kids dressed as twin devils pose with a young fan.

The devils whip the congos and even innocent bystanders and some are more vigorous about it than others. Meanwhile, a pitifully small crew of men dressed as angels try to capture, punish, and banish the whip-wielding devils/Spaniards.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

During the Diablos y Congos festival men representing the diablos (devils) play the role of the Spanish colonizers and use whips to try to punish the congos (slaves) and to fend off white-costumed angels who try to capture as many devils as they can.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The Diablos y Congos festival is a passionate, crowded, loud, and complicated re-enactment of a time of slavery and colonization on Panama’s Caribbean Coast.

It’s a chaotic, passionate, sometimes alarming spectacle involving hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. Here’s more of the madness.

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African culture and history is celebrated during the annual Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

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Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

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Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

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Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

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Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

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Some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

fireworks Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Devils and fireworks.

Here’s more about travel in Panama