Las Tablas, Panama
For all but a week of the year, Las Tablas (pop. 7,980) is a mellow and conventional Azuero Peninsula town, noted mostly for its close proximity to Chitré and Pedasí. However, Las Tablas is turned upside down in an all-out, booze-soaked party during the annual celebration of Carnaval.
Panamanians and foreigners alike travel great distances to take part in the Carnaval festivities, which unfold during the four days before Lent. Water is sprayed from massive trucks and alcohol is consumed everywhere in the streets, as people of all backgrounds join together to let loose for a few days. Those who visit at other times in the year will still find Las Tablas a convenient and pleasant place.
Officially, Carnaval begins the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and ends the next Tuesday. However, things usually get going here on Friday and can stretch as late as the following Thursday. Friday night sees the coronation of Las Tablas’ two Carnival queens, rivals representing two sections of the city – Calle Arriba (high street) and Calle Abajo (low street) – who duke it out the next few nights with elaborate parade floats, marching bands, and opulent decorative costumes. Members of each Calle fill the plaza and sing songs that praise their queen or mock their rivals. It’s mainly all taken in stride, but the showmanship that goes into some of their displays is truly awesome.
Ask any Panamanian about Carnaval and they will immediately describe how wet it can be—not from the weather, but rather from the culecos — large water trucks that spray the party-goers with hoses during the heat of the day. Children with water guns are also on the prowl, hiding behind cars and bushes before popping into view with a stream of well-aimed water. Usually, all the wetness is welcomed, playful, and surprisingly refreshing after an hour or two spent in the scorching February sun.
Throughout the thick of the day, music is blasted from large speakers into the central plaza. The songs are usually upbeat reggaetón hits, but every now and then will lapse into something slower and more traditional. The Panamanians sing emphatically to these songs, toasting their drinks to the sky and dancing as much as the close-packed streets will allow. At night, the discos get going, pumping heavy bass into the makeshift clubs that keep people dancing until sunrise. Once the dawn breaks and the town re-awakens, it all begins again.
While Carnaval is often the only time of year one will find Las Tablas in the headlines of newspapers or in the conversations of citizens, the city itself still contains some appealing features. Avenida Belisario Porras, a small street running through the heart of town, contains the most attractive areas—namely, the plaza, church and museum dedicated to Belisario Porras, the three-time president of Panama. A stroll along this street is a good way to get a sense for the town. Start by wandering around Parque Porras, the central plaza in downtown Las Tablas; join in with the locals by watching everyone else in the park, and perhaps even having a shoeshine. A Baroque-style church, Iglesia Santa Librada, stands on the corner of the park. Although much of the church was burned during a fire in 1950 and later restored, the church itself dates back to 1789. Most of the original structure was destroyed during the blaze, but portions of the initial pulpit, walls, and altar still remain standing.
Opposite the central plaza is the Museo Belisario Porras, a museum dedicated to former president Belisario Porras. Porras was a three-term president whose administration was in power during the construction of the Panama Canal. The museum is set in his former home and contains small artifacts and memorabilia from his life. Those versed in the history of Panama will find it interesting enough, as Porras is widely revered as being one of the founding fathers of Panama.
Set near the coast along the Golfo de Panama, Las Tablas is also within range of a few deserted beaches which can be reached by car or taxi from downtown. These are not tourist destinations in the least bit, so anyone who ventures out here will likely have the whole place to themselves.
Las Tablas is sandwiched on the Azuero Peninsula right between Chitré and Pedasí. Chitré is about a 30-minute drive away, while the trip to Pedasí takes about 45 minutes. From Pedasí, travelers can continue venturing down the peninsula and make their way to the surf-haven of Playa Venao or the turtle nesting site at Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla de Cañas.