Jorge, who we’re pretty sure is all but deaf, handed Ty a piece of paper. We’ve been eating at Mireya’s every day for a month now, and since he’s there just as often, we end up exchanging a lot of gestures and platitudes.
Nothing’s ever been important enough to write down, so we read it eagerly.
Back home we have Mardi Gras. The rest of the Americas have Carnaval. Since fun is strictly prohibited during Lent, quick-thinking folk all over the planet have arrived at the same solution… have an all-you-can-eat sin buffet in the 5 days preceding!
We read that Panama City’s celebration was one of the best in the world, right behind Rio de Janeiro and Gualeguaychú. No one mentioned Las Tablas.
But if it’s worth Jorge’s effort to let us in on it, we thought, it’s probably worth ours too. “Let’s rent a car and head down there.” “Yep.” Done.
Alex Shalman came in for the weekend too, and he was just as excited to see Panama outside the city limits.
I reserved the last car I’ll ever rent with an under-25 surcharge, but I must have been looking good when I went to pick it up. They surprised me with an upgrade to this stately chariot!
Actually, I was pretty stoked about it. This looks like the average Panamanian car, not the average gringo rental.
After a month without driving, it only took a few seconds behind the wheel to realize why people equate driving to freedom. It’s power! The only thing keeping you from anywhere you want to be is gas money. Good to have the feeling back.
So we plotted our course and drove in circles for a minute, then found our way to the Bridge of the Americas and Highway 1. Aside from the odd watermelon stand or beach/condo development, the area around the highway is pretty raw.
The road is pretty good, and you can get away with 120 Km/h (75 mph) pretty easily. When you come into populated areas, police like to sit under the walking bridges that cross the highway. With a good radar detector you could go as quickly as you wanted.
About an hour from Las Tablas, we stopped for lunch in Chitre’s town square.
Everyone that passed by our table was completely soaked, less than sober, and carrying a water gun or cooler (or both). A guy who recognized us from karaoke in Panama City also stopped by to say hi!
Hmm… they were all coming from the direction we’d head to continue to Las Tablas.
We hopped in the car and worked our way upstream to get the first taste of crazy. One of the smallest streets in the town was jam-packed with H2O-armed revelers singing, dancing, and harrassing every car that edged its way through the crowd. We got lots of smiles, laughs, and chanting.
With plenty of time before the parades started, we took a little detour to hit our first beach in Panama. Playa Rompio was definitely not a tourist destination… huge, almost empty, and absolutely beautiful.
Of course we had to get a little Crossfit in, so we ran on the beach as the sun set.
We arrived in Las Tablas to two groups dancing around the town square with flags and drummers.
Las Tablas’ Carnaval setup is pretty genius. The town has two main streets that compete with each other on every level — festival queens, parades, floats, and fireworks displays. Beef works wonders for rappers — promoting this competition is just as smart.
A few from each group would take turns bearing the flag and leading the procession while the others followed, so naturally Alex suggested Ty take the flag and direct the party. After a little debate as to whether a non-Panamanian could lead, he was in!
Then all of a sudden, all of Panama’s national police force drew their guns and started shooting into the sky! Nah, not really.. but it sounded just like it!
They put 20+ foot strands of thousands of Black Cat-type firecrackers into the street and let ‘er rip. The sound of explosion would be constant for a minute or two! We made the mistake of being downwind once and ended up covered in a fine black dust.
This was closely followed by an aerial assault. Panama must spend an amount somewhere close to its entire GDP on fireworks. In the city, tons of fireworks. In a small town, tons more fireworks! These displays bested what you’d see in an American city for 4th of July, in both quality and quantity.
I felt a hand on my shoulder as I walked back after filming some of the action.
“Hey man, I know you!”
“I’ve seen the video of you in the airport doing Crossfit, and I’ve seen your website!”
We’re 3.5 hours away from Panama City, in the middle of a thousands-strong crowd, one month into the first stop of our world tour, and we just got picked out by someone who saw LIFE NOMADIC! What a small world!
We couldn’t have chosen cooler people than Oyden and his friend Oriel. Though their families are from Las Tablas, they live in Panama City and they do Crossfit too. We’re going to get together with them for a workout sometime.
The parade started and we were fortunate to get a bird’s-eye view from the DJ area. The floats were pulled by tractors, but decorated as lavishly as anything you’d see in the US — elaborate sculpture, rich fabrics and gold, young women and girls dancing to the music (the waving dance thing is pretty weird, but anyway).
People followed the floats, especially the ones with bands, dancing and singing. Very cool that you can get up close and participate, vs back home where the
police state Homeland Security squad would be ready to pounce if you got within 15 feet.
It seemed like EVERYONE was having a blast all the way until 2:30am — parents, kids, grandparents, everyone! We watched the parade for an hour or two then started making our way back to Panama City.
Jorge was right. Las Tablas was the perfect place to celebrate Carnaval.