“Chitre, Panama, founded in 1848, is known for four things,” writes Live & Invest Overseas Panama Editor Chris Powers. “It’s the commercial center for the country’s central provinces. It boasts the Rico Cedeno Stadium, where many of the country’s baseball games are played. It’s near to some of the country’s most beautiful beaches and rivers.
And it’s home to one of the best Carnavales in Panama.
“When I visited earlier this month, the traditional start of Carnaval was two days away, but apparently everyone in Chitre had misplaced his calendar.
“Carnaval celebrations take place at key points across the Panamanian isthmus, most starting late Friday night or early Saturday morning the weekend before Ash Wednesday. In Chitre, the festivities kick off a day early.
“By Thursday evening, marching bands, dancers clad in traditional Panamanian garb, and excited townsfolk were parading down the city’s main street, tooting horns and cheering on the official start of Chitre’s Carnaval. I shot a video. You can take a look at the festive crowd here.
“In fact, Chitre was in full Carnaval mode by the time I arrived late Wednesday. Stages had been built, walkways had been erected all around the central park, and open store stock room doors showed cases of beer stacked from floor to ceiling. Shop-owners in Chitre wait all year for this event, and they’re not the only ones who see and seize the business opportunity. Walking through town, you’ll see ‘Room For Rent’ signs (in Spanish) tacked up in peoples’ windows. These rooms are available during Carnaval only. Party-goers will sleep wherever they can find a sofa or a bit of floor space.
“With everyone in town focused on preparing for the imminent arrival of crowds in search of the party, my concern was whether I’d be able to get a feel for what this town is like the rest of the year. I finally gave up worrying about it. There’s no way to visit Chitre during Carnaval and get anything but a Chitre-during-Carnaval impression. This town remakes itself this time of year.
“Supermarkets were mob scenes. I’m talking lines at the cash registers that snaked back into the aisles, easily over 20 customers deep at each checkout. Most shoppers were pushing carts stuffed with six packs of beer. At only US$.45 per can, local beers are cheap. Balboa is the brand of choice.
“Outside the storefronts along the main shopping strip, shelves displayed flip-flops (as cheap as US$1 per pair), sunglasses, and swimsuits. These things will be in big demand over the coming several days. One important part of Carnaval is dancing in the culecos. People stand on the tops of gas trucks filled with water and douse the crowd-filled streets with water from fire hoses while mariachi-style bands play all around them. Most Panamanians drag beer-filled coolers out into the culecos with them and drink the day away while dancing, yelling, and having an all-around wild time.
“Peddlers carried satchels of bootlegged mixed Latin party CDs up and down the streets, and club promoters dressed in skin-tight clothing, both men and women, handed out flyers offering free bottles of Ron Abuelo (Panamanian rum) to their first hundred customers.
“One Panamanian tradition is the consumption of sancocho during drinking binges and wild parties. Sancocho is a chicken soup made with yucca or ñame. I like beer, and when I’m drinking beer I like to munch on chicken wings or maybe nachos. Guzzling chicken soup is not something I associate with drinking beer. But everywhere during Carnaval, I saw partygoers walking around with Styrofoam cups filled with the steaming hot soup and rice.
“I asked my brother-in-law about the beer and soup combination. He told me it cuts the drunkenness in half and helps prevent hangovers. Maybe Panamanians are on to something there. Sancocho is a staple in nearly all Panamanian restaurants, any time of the year, but, during Carnaval, you see signs announcing the chicken soup for sale all over the place, even in ice cream shops.
“At 11 p.m. Wednesday night, I could still hear the sound of hammers cracking away on the street below as maintenance crews were working through the night prepping the town for the wild party to come. Bass boomed from car speakers as those lucky enough to get an early start on their weekends drove into town in search of hotels with rooms still available.
“By the time we stepped out for breakfast Thursday morning, the town had been transformed…”
Editor’s Note: Chris’s live-from-the-scene coverage of Carnaval in Chitre is featured in this month’s issue of the Panama Letter. His report also includes more mundane Chitre intelligence, including a complete budget for living in this charming Panamanian country town full-time (where the cost of living can be half that in Panama City) and introductions to expats already calling it home.
This special “Carnaval In Chitre” issue of the Panama Letter is in the final stages of production now and will be in subscribers’ e-mailboxes later this week.
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