Crack That Whip! Carnival in Bocas del Toro, Panama

posted by Tamara Sikes
Click on the image to view gallery (8 pictures)

In many places all around the world, and everywhere in Latin America, people are gearing up for the best celebration of the year.  It is Carnival, the five day party before the Catholic season of lent begins. And while Bocas does not have the huge parades and floats, feathers and sparkles and millions of people like places in Brazil, they do celebrate big and uniquely like only Bocas can!

The islands do have a piece of other carnivals, with a Queen and her court, a small parade to present her, with a band officially starting the 5 day celebration on Friday.  But that is where the similarities to other celebrations end and the originality of Bocas shines through.  In fact there are only a couple of places in the world where masked diablos are the central part of the Carnival celebrations. The idea is deep in tradition of the Afro-Caribbean culture and was brought to Bocas del Toro from Portobello and the Colon province in Panama.

The legend begins with a group called the Congos who won their independence from slavery of the Spanish colonialists. It is said that they come to the streets each year to fight the “diablos” which to some people represent the slave masters with their whips.  The “devils” are seen marching and dancing through the streets early each evening during carnival in their outlandish masks and full costumes that they began creating months before.  The men and boys who portray these diablos are chosen by others to become part of the long standing tradition. 

The masks and costumes are something these people are very proud of and the colors of the costumes can tell a lot about where the person ranks and how long they have been participating. Boys as young as 7 are initiated by wearing an only red costume with a red mask.  As each year goes by the boys who turn into young men add a piece of black to the mask and costume until finally, they are dressed in all black.  The masks themselves, are something to behold, adorned with paint, feathers, fangs, and glowing eyes can be seen in these incredible masterpieces. And of course they have a very special dance and order to the ways things happen while they have invaded our sleepy little town.  They march up and down the streets daring anyone, yes anyone, to cross the line into their territory, cracking their whips in warning first.

Once in a while in Bocas’ carnival you can see some of the brave people, the Congos, waging their own war against the devil by deliberately challenging them, ready to battle the fierce whips of the devils with a stick and quick foot moves.  But the devil always gets his due, and on Ash Wednesday, the first official day of lent and sacrifice the diablos come to the center of the park with their masks in their hands to be “saved”.  All the devils have godmothers who walk with them to the church to repent.

Of course this is only a part of carnival in Bocas del Toro. The residents of Bocas welcome thousands of people from around the world to have fun and enjoy in the non-stop party.  There is dancing in the streets, wonderful music and delicious food. Tuesday is perhaps the biggest day of the festivities, with trucks loads of water being sprayed from fire hoses into the crowd of happy, beautiful people doing what they do best, enjoying life. 

Come join us for the biggest party of the year, complete with beautiful queens, dangerous devils and shiny happy people!  Viva Carnival!





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