Almost two years into our life in Panama, we’re still discovering new things about our chosen home. This year we’re making an effort to branch out and explore areas we keep hearing about, but haven’t had a chance to visit yet.
A few weeks ago we got to tick another one off our Panama bucket list when we visited the Azuero Peninsula – the big land mass that sticks down into the Pacific west of Panama City. The Azuero is the true the heartland of Panama, a vast agricultural district where the pace of life moves a little slower, at least when people aren’t partying. Las Tablas is one of the biggest towns in the eastern Azuero, playing host to one festival after another throughout the year – the two biggest being Carnival (one of Panama’s largest) and the wonderous Desifile de las Mil Polleras (Parade of a Thousand Polleras).
The Thousand Polleras parade was the real reason for our trip, and it was the most over-the-top, fantastic parade we’ve ever seen. So what’s a pollera, you ask? It is the fabulous national costume of Panama, an exquisitely embroidered blouse and long, full skirt worn with an elaborate beaded hair ornament (called a tembleque) and lots of gold jewelry. The pollera is much more than a dress – it’s an important symbol of national pride, and different pollera styles are unique to specific regions in the country.
On our way to Las Tablas, we made a couple of pit stops. The first was the town of Parita, home of one of the Azuero’s most famous craftsmen, Señor Dario Lopez. He makes the sinister-looking masks worn by Diablo Sucio (Dirty Devil) dancers in parades throughout Panama, especially during Carnival. A friend of ours had told us roughly where to look for his house, and after some broken Spanish hilarity with a friendly gas station attendant, we found him.
Getting closer to Las Tablas, we made another side stop in the town of La Arena. This area is known for its ceramics and pottery, and it’s dotted with family-owned shops selling beautiful handicrafts at very reasonable prices.
After an overnight in our beach-side inn, we were ready for the main event, the Desifile de las Mil Polleras. Actually, we found out later that it was more like 20,000 polleras, a number that doesn’t surprise us in the least. In typical Panamanian fashion, the parade finally got off the ground at about 1:30 p.m., an hour and a half later than its intended start time. By 6 p.m. it was still going strong and we’d had enough of the sun and crowds, so we headed back to our inn and kept watching it on TV (this is a nationally televised event, and even President Varela was in attendance). We think it finally wound up (more or less by) by 8 or so.
One of the things we loved about the parade is its egalitarian spirit. As I mentioned, pollera is a source of national pride, and even the smallest towns and various indigenous groups had ladies swirling away with those fabulously embroidered skirts. There were dancing ladies and their dashing partners of all ages, from very small children up to octogenarians.
And the pictures just took themselves. Apologies in advance for so many – but believe me, I narrowed them down as best I could!