The crowd was determined to squeeze every last drop of fun out of Day 4 of Carnival (aka Carnaval) in Las Tablas, Panama. The last day of Carnival always falls on Fat Tuesday and brings with it a true atmosphere of hedonism as a last hurrah before the sacrifices of Lent begin on Wednesday. “This is the last day,” many people said with a mixture of relief and regret. And that’s not all that was said during a day full of traditions and trash talking.
There are worse ways to start your day
We’d become accustomed to beginning each day with processions of brand new floats filled with gorgeous women wearing brand new costumes heralded by brain rattling fireworks and a soundtrack provided by a band lubricated with a few breakfast beers. Hey, there are worse ways to start your day.
The daytime parades on Day 4 of Carnival in Las Tablas had a somewhat soothing nature theme, though the queen’s costumes somehow managed to get even skimpier and we are still not sure what was going on with the creepy teddy bear and weird Paul Bunyan/Babe the Ox mash-up that was going on with the Calle Arriba float.
Last chance! Check out our video (below) from the daytime parades during the final day of 2013 Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama for your last chance to see the queens in their skimpy costumes.
With the daytime parades over we headed back to our room at Hostal Villas del Zianit to grab a few hours of sleep in preparation for the grand finale of the entire four-day Carnival party which would take the madness to new heights and new hours.
We were warned
So many people had warned us about the mind-blowing marathon of fireworks and face-offs that happens on the final night of Carnival that we were beginning to get worried–and a bit skeptical. Could there really be one and a half hour of fireworks? Would the queens really take the gloves off and start throwing serious verbal punches face to face? In a word, yes.
Thrown for another Carnival loop
We returned to Las Tablas around 6:30 pm, somewhat refreshed but about to be thrown for another loop. Just as we were getting acclimatized to the stripper heels, cleavage-enhancing tops, and head to toe sparkles that made up the closet full of costumes worn by Calle Abajo Carnival Queen Ana Gabriela Rodríguez Vasquez and the Calle Arriba Carnival Queen Maruquel Madelaine González Velásquez (and their entourages) they showed up for the nighttime events on Day 4 fully clothed. What?
Despite its modesty, there is something hot about the pollera, the national dress of Panama. Maybe it’s the price tag. Polleras are entirely handmade and can cost tens of thousands of dollars for the voluminous, floor-length, double-layer skirt and demure yoked top. Add in the traditional gold jewelry and Swarovski-crystal-studded hair pieces and you can easily double that price tag.
When you’re a Carnival queen you also have to pony up for a solid gold crown and, no, they don’t pass those down to the next queen (we asked). Each queen has to get her own.
Before the nighttime procession of floats began, celebrations gained steam with an on-foot procession of polleras around the square during which every woman or girl in town took to the streets wearing her finery. The Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba queens were mixed in there on foot too but, for once, they shared the spotlight as the entire community celebrated the venerated Panamanian pollera tradition.
The voluminous skirt and bobbling hair jewelry of the traditional pollera is even more elegant in motion. See for yourself in our video from the pollera-filled nighttime events of Day 4 of Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama (below).
The town, the town, the town is on fire
The fireworks displays put on by each queen’s team during processions on the previous three days of Carnival had shocked and amazed us and we figured the blowout finale on the night of Day 4 would just be a slightly larger version of those displays. How wrong we were.
After grabbing another all-to-brief disco nap we returned to Las Tablas around 5 am. At 5:30 am vans ominously pulled onto the streets around the square. The back doors flew open and box after box of firecrackers was tossed out until literally tons of explosives formed enormous mounds on the pavement.
Then they were lit. And stoked. And more fireworks were tossed on. The result was not unlike what we imagine a war zone to be like: random explosions, flames shooting more than 50 feet (16 meters) into the air, ill-equipped men running into and out of harm’s way.
You may be tempted to think that we’re exaggerating about the war-zone of fireworks on the final day of 2013 Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama. Our video, below, should shut you up.
Smoke quickly filled the air, the night sky was illuminated and you could feel the heat and the explosions from blocks away. Car alarms started going off but you could hardly hear them over the noise of the fireworks and the whooping crowd.
A sign on a small shop caught fire and melted and we were amazed that that was all that was sacrificed to the fireworks. Really, it’s best to think of what went on as explosions, not fireworks. This was not about putting on a pleasing, artful show featuring pyrotechnic skill. This was about each queen’s team trying to create more fire, smoke and noise than the other team. Period.
When it was all over, a full hour and a half later, the smoldering, debris-strewn main square in sleepy little Las Tablas, Panama looked eerily reminiscent of lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (we know because we lived there).
The word “armageddon” sprang to mind as we slowly took our ear plugs out, tentatively raised our head,s and peered at the mayhem in slack-jawed disbelief. We had survived.
What did you call me??!?!?
With the firefight over, the queens, still in their elegant polleras, inched toward each other for one final face off called a topòn. Though the topòn is meant to literally be a face-to-face confrontation on the street the Calle Arriba queen arrived on a sort of mini-float that raised her off the ground.
With the remains of unexploded fireworks going off around her and smoke levels reaching gas mask levels, the Calle Abajo queen was whisked off the smoking pavement and carried up onto the balcony of a nearby supporter’s house overlooking the square.
Here she managed to get above her rival and the pair got down to business. The Calle Arriba queen landed the first punch by waving a sign depicting a cartoony set of over-sized set of teeth above her head. Fair enough. The Calle Abajo queen did have pretty big chompers.
The Calle Abajo queen countered with a move meant to imply that the Calle Arriba queen had a face like a plate. Again, partly grounded in fact. Supporters of both queens shouted puta fea (ugly bitch) at the competition with the fervor of drunken soccer fans.
And then she lost our vote…
At some point near the apex of the name calling Calle Arriba queen Maruquel Madelaine González Velásquez was handed a massive wad of twenty dollar bills which she proceeded to toss out to the crowd around her. Then another. Then another.
This obviously created a frenzy and as the police tried to keep order Madelaine did something truly shocking: she attempted to tear through a stack of $20s. Luckily her fake nails got in the way.
This would have been a crass move even if a mainstay of Carnival wasn’t the small bands of poor Panamanians who spent the entire four-day festival picking up empty beer cans which they crushed and sold for pennies as scrap metal.
Calle Abajo queen Ana Gabriela Rodríguez Vasquez may have been outspent but she was not outclassed. Faced with a rival who was literally throwing money at it Gabriela responded by elaborately miming that Madelaine needed to buy her supporters while the Calle Abajo crew loved their queen unconditionally.
Yes, Calle Arriba had a bigger budget and superior floats and a better band and their queen had smaller teeth but she lost our vote with that one classless attempt to destroy money while her countrymen collected cans around her feet.
Looks aren’t everything, even during Carnival.
Our video, below, proves that while they may be wearing elegant traditional polleras, the rival Carnival queens in Las Tabals, Panama have mouths (and manners) like truck drivers during the topòn face-off.
Here’s more about travel in Panama