By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Melquisedec
There are all manner of wonders to be seen at the fairs and festivals that take place in Panama. You might be enjoying cashew apple juice and a corn fritter, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a girl appears flipping her long skirt to the cadence of an accordion and drums. Or, you might have just given in to the urge to wander about, when your silence is abruptly broken by dueling vocal melodies known as salomas.
Panamanian festivals feature music, rides, handicrafts, and agricultural and livestock shows. Everything is for sale, from spinning tops to furniture, cars, headpieces, and black Christs. There are shouts, cotton candy, men dancing, landscapes… and let’s admit it, revelry and a touch of madness.
The summer season of tropical breezes and sunshine is the perfect time to head into the country’s interior to visit one of the regional festivals we recommend here. Put it on your calendar!
Flower and Coffee Festival
Boquete, Chiriquí Province
January 12 (Thursday) to January 22 (Sunday)
The Flower and Coffee Festival is held in Boquete, a mountain town in the Chiriquí highlands, some 300 miles from Panama City. The main attraction is the gardens, planted months ahead of time so that January visitors can enjoy the flowers that fill the air with fragrance and delight the eye with color.
Boquete is a prime coffee-growing region, so make sure to savor a cup of coffee while you stroll around town and enjoy the burbling of the Caldera River.
San Sebastián de Ocú Festival
Ocú, Herrera Province
January 18 (Wednesday) to January 23 (Sunday)
This fair is truly a joy to visit, since the trip takes you deep into the countryside to breathe fresh air and hear fascinating and unusual accents and idioms. The fair honors the patron saint of San Sebastián, and although the cattle shows and competitions are the main events, there are also exhibits and sales of regional products like tubers and melons.
Ocú, in the province of Herrera, is famous for the manito ocueño dance, performed to the sounds of the mejorana, a five-string guitar that accompanies the various rhythms or torrentes (vocal stylings) to which the manitos (country folk) show off their dance footwork. Herrera is located in the central part of the country on the Azuero Peninsula, about 166 miles from Panama City.
Churuquita Grande, Penonomé, Coclé Province
January 26 (Thursday) to January 29 (Sunday)
As the name indicates, this small fair highlights the region’s abundant citrus fruit. Twenty-eight towns from northern Penonomé participate in the event, setting up bamboo stalls with palm frond roofs (known as ranchos) where the exhibitors sell oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines, along with other agricultural products like bananas, papayas, and coconuts. The stage sometimes features true regional treasures in the form of music groups from the Coclé mountains that would otherwise be difficult to discover.
Soná, Veraguas Province
February 10 (Friday) to February 19 (Sunday)
The Soná Fair is huge: it spreads across thirty-six green acres on both sides of the San Pablo River. The fair’s main purpose is to promote local farmers and cattle ranchers, who converge here to show their products and exchange knowledge. Visitors have the opportunity to enjoy and learn about Veraguas folk dances, taste traditional foods and sweets, and buy souvenir handicrafts.
Soná is a three-hour drive from Panama City (185 miles); nearby tourist sites such as Santa Catalina beach (a favorite of surfers), Bahía Honda, and the resorts of Río Cobre and Tanislá, among others, are well worth a visit.
David International Fair
David, Chiriquí Province
March 16 (Monday) to March 26 (Thursday)
David holds another of the country’s largest fairs, famous for animal shows (not just cattle, but also smaller species such as hens, quail, and rabbits) and planting systems. The fair’s ten days include rodeos, horse shows, and folk performances, with rides and nightlife after sunset. Regular visitors claim that the country’s best meat skewers are sold here. Be sure to try them.
Tonosí Valley Fair
Tonosí, Los Santos Province
March 15 (Wednesday) to March 19 (Sunday)
The Tonosí Valley region is blessed with enchanting scenery and rich folk traditions. The local fair showcases dairy cows and rice, the area’s principal product. A cradle of deep-rooted customs, the Tonosí Fair holds competitions in drumming and poetic musical expression, as well as in the traditional Guaniqueña shirt, better known as the Tonosí shirt. There are performances of traditional dances, such as cumbia montañera, gallote, chote, and ronda de las guacamayas, along with exhibits of everyday polleras (traditional women’s national dress) and the Tonosí gala version of the pollera; each version is characterized by different fabrics and designs.
Chorrera Cumbia Festival
La Chorrera, Panamá Oeste Province
March 16 (Thursday) to March 18 (Saturday)
This is the newest of the recommended festivals. It was first held in 2007 after the death of “Ñato Califa” and his group, who exemplified Chorrera folklore. The Chorrera Cumbia Festival takes place in Libertador Park in the center of town, which is located about twenty-four miles from Panama City. The fair’s three days are filled with competitions for cumbia drummers, singers, and accordionists and a Chorrera pollerón (the local version of Panamanian national dress) contest. There is also a contest for the best masks for the Dance of the Great Devil, a dance with religious origins that is presented during Corpus Christi festivities in June.
Do not leave La Chorrera without tasting the local bollo (corn dough boiled in a banana leaf) and chicheme (sweet corn drink). You will not regret it.
Devils and Congos Festival
Portobelo, Colón Province
March 18 (Saturday)
Portobelo was an important trading center and cultural melting pot during Colonial times. Fairs lasting up to forty days were held there, with anything and everything bought and sold, from precious metals to human beings for slave labor. The Devils and Congos Festival, organized here since 1999, is renowned for the arrival of the “devils” with their colorful costumes, grunts, and whips. In Congo culture, the devils represent the white owners who subjugated the Congolese. The festival creates an excellent reason to visit this ancient Spanish fortified city and see the Church of the Black Christ in the center of town as well as the dances performed to the unmistakable beat of congo drums.
Azuero International Fair
La Villa, Los Santos Province
April 21 (Friday) to May 1 (Monday)
Located about 160 miles from Panama City, La Villa is another town on the Azuero Peninsula in the central part of the country. Like the other fairs, the Azuero Festival is an exhibition of agricultural products from a region known for its cattle industry, rice production, and gourds like melon and watermelon. Recent years have seen the addition of hydroponic farming exhibits. The drum, saloma, and singing competitions are very popular.