Even well planned itineraries run into surprises. Unexpected bank holidays, local festivals or cultural events can force a change in plan. Here is a comprehensive guide about holidays and festivals in Panama.
Almost every country celebrate those universal holidays, like New Year’s Day, Easter and Workers’ Day. However, it is the remainder of a country’s holidays, those that are unique to the country, that surprise.
On the one hand, they surprise in terms of their origin, or the way they are celebrated. On the other hand, they could surprise because they do not fit our travel plans, and we did not know about them.
This article has you covered though. We discuss all the holidays and festivals in Panama, so you won’t be caught off guard by bank holidays or a ban on the sale of alcohol!
Holidays and festivals in Panama
Employees and employers are not equally fond of the various holidays.
If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is observed as the holiday.
Employees in Panama are entitled to 13 paid public holidays. If they do work on a public holiday, their pay is double their going rate – “double time”, the locals would say!
Public holidays in Panama
Below is a quick-reference table with all the public holidays for 2019. Each public holiday will however be discussed, shedding light on its origin and how it is celebrated.
New Year’s Day – Tuesday, 1 Jan 19
Spanish: Dia de Año Nuevo
Like any other country across the world, Panama celebrates New Year’s Eve with a variety of festivities. Ask around for party spots, midnight parades and countdowns. Every city and town in Panama, big and small, have a fireworks display to welcome the new year.
If you find yourself in the rural part of Panama, you might be lucky enough to see muñecos . These are life-size dolls or scarecrows, representing unwanted memories of the last year. They are set alight at midnight, symbolizing their end. Some towns even have muñeco contests.
Martyrs’ Day – Wednesday, 9 Jan 19
Spanish: Dia del Martir
It is a public holiday in Panama, a day of national mourning, commemorating the 1964 anti-American riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone.
The riot started after a Panamanian flag was torn and Panamanian students were killed during a conflict with Canal Zone Police officers and Canal Zone residents.
Soon thereafter, US Army units became involved to suppress the violence. Three days of fighting caused the death of 22 Panamanians. The incident is a significant factor in the US decision to transfer control of the Canal Zone to Panama through the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties.
Carnival – Tuesday, 5 Mar 19
When it comes to holidays and festivals in Panama, Carnival is arguably the most popular.
Carnival has however evolved into a four-day holiday. The preceding weekend and the Monday, are now equally considered Carnival days, to form the four-day celebration.
It is a significant event on the cultural calendar of Latin America, and Panama is one of the most popular Carnival destinations.
Here are the three most prominent destinations where you can enjoy Carnival in Panama.
Las Tablas might not be the biggest town in Panama, but it likely hosts the most famous carnival celebration in Panama! Moreover, it has been a tradition since the 19th century.
The festivities are unique: keeping to tradition, two sides are formed, Calle Arriba (high street) and Calle Abajo (low street), each with a carnival queen and each trying to outdo the other with song and dance. Add to that colourful floats, music, dancing and good food, and you have a carnival atmosphere par excellence!
Not to forget the culecos, which are oversized water trucks that spray the crowd to keep them cool, and to add to the festive feel.
If you want to visit Las Tablas to enjoy carnival, keep in mind that it is just shy of 300km from Panama City. Probably a five-hour drive, possibly more, given the heavy traffic during Carnival. Plan accordingly, or go early!
After the creation of the Cinta Costera, the coastal belt park, the city realised the opportunity to upscale Carnival into a four-day celebration of note. The Tourism Authority of Panama estimates that almost three million foreign visitors arrive for the annual carnival celebrations across the country.
In recent years, the well-organised and safe celebrations have taken place in a strip of the Cinta Costera, more than a kilometre long. With bands playing, people dancing and vendors selling food and souvenirs, the atmosphere is memorable.
And what would a carnival be without a queen? Yes, there will be a parade of queens vying for the crown while the culecos will keep the crowd cool.
Bocas del Toro
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro, with its islands and calm Caribbean waters, is already a prime tourist destination in Panama. Now add a few diablos, and you have a unique experience amongst the holidays and festivals in Panama.
The diablos are “devils” in fancy and elaborate costumes, with a whip in hand to enforce its carnival “authority”. They parade the main carnival street early each evening.
It is said that the tradition comes from the Portobelo area in the province of Colón; the devils symbolising the slave masters with their whips. Young boys often challenge the diablos by fending off the whip with a stick or trying to avoid it with fancy footwork.
An interesting part of the diablo tradition is the use of colour to show seniority. When a young boy is recruited as a diablo, his costume would be completely red. Each year he would add a bit of black, to become an entirely black diablo after seven years. After another seven years, he is allowed to add pieces of white, although the costume never becomes completely white.
Remember, if you find yourself in the street with a diablo, you are fair game for a whipping around the ankles!
There is also a carnival queen, loud music, dancing, good food and cold beer to subdue the tropical heat.
Good Friday – Friday, 19 Apr 19
Spanish: Viernes Santo
When it comes to religion, Good Friday is the most important celebration in terms of holidays and festivals in Panama.
Although only Good Friday is an official public holiday, Panamanians effectively enjoy a four-day weekend with the full Easter Triduum used as holidays. The week leading up to Good Friday is a time for special masses, local processions, prayer and penance.
That is because Panama is one of the most religiously devout Roman Catholic countries in the world. More than 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and almost three-quarters of the followers attend mass frequently.
Whether you are a believer or just a keen street photographer, you will find Good Friday processions in all towns, large and small.
Labour Day – Wednesday, 1 May 19
Spanish: Dia del Trabajo
Labour Day is a low-key affair in Panama. At most, you might see a parade of sorts or a labour protest. However, most Panamanians use the day to go to the beach, or simply enjoy time with family and friends.
Presidential Inauguration Day – Monday, 1 Jul 19
2019 is an election year and the Presidential Inauguration is part of the holidays and festivals in Panama. The website of the US Embassy in Panama shows that Presidential Inauguration Day will be on 1 July 2019.
Separation Day from Colombia – Sunday, 3 Nov 19
Spanish: Dia de la Independencia de Colombia
This day is the first of a series of holidays celebrated in November, collectively known as the Fiestas Patrias.
Separation Day from Colombia should not be confused with Independence Day, celebrated on 28 November each year. The former celebrates the separation from Colombia in 1903, while the latter refers to Panama’s separation from Spain in 1821.
After independence from Spain, Panama became part of Gran Colombia, a region that included Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.
With the backing of the USA, Panama finally separated from Gran Colombia in 1903, to become a sovereign nation.
Flag Day – Monday, 4 Nov 19
Spanish: Dia de la Bandera
This is one of the most colourful days of all the holidays and festivals in Panama. The name explains why – the entire country is covered in national flags, big and small!
The flag of Panama was designed by the then First Lady, María de la Ossa de Amador, and unofficially adopted on the day after separation from Colombia. Not only is the national flag celebrated by observing a holiday, it is actively flown by people and businesses, on motor vehicles and displayed on buildings.
Remember that in 2019, Separation Day from Colombia fell on a Sunday, hence the observation of the holiday on this day.
Colon Day – Tuesday, 5 Nov 19
Spanish: Conmemoracion Patriotica en la Ciudad de Colón
Colon Day is very much part of the separation from Colombia story.
Panama declared its independence from Colombia on 3 November, after which Colombia sent troops to Panama to suppress the uprising. However, Panama’s forces stationed at Colon managed to convince the approaching Colombian forces otherwise, effectively winning a war without having to engage in battle.
This day goes by a few names. Some use the short but descriptive “Uprising of Los Santos” or “First Call for Independence”. The Office of the Presidency indicates that the full name is “First Call for Independence of the Villa de los Santos”.
Spanish: Primer Grito de Independencia or Primer Grito de Independencia de la Villa de los Santos
As the name implies, this day celebrates the beginning of the battle to gain independence from Spain and has a special place amongst the holidays and festivals in Panama.
It started in Los Santos and area on the eastern part of the Azuero Peninsula. The story goes that a young woman led a crowd to the barracks, chanting “long live liberty!” Details are sketchy, but there is no doubt that an uprising did take place.
This uprising and local declaration of independence inspired the continued efforts at independence from Spain, which ultimately succeeded.
On this day, you can expect to see parades, traditional music with matching traditional attire and dancing. There are various patriotic events across the country.
Independence Day from Spain – 28 Nov 19
Spanish: Dia de la Independencia de España
Following the uprising in Los Santos, Panama declared its independence from Spain on this day, back in 1821.
The period following this declaration was chaotic – in political terms – and Panama remained part of Gran Colombia for the next 82 years, before separation from Colombia in 1903.
Parades and traditional dances are the order of the day, but given that November is the wettest season, expect a wet celebration.
Mother’s Day – 8 & 9 Dec 19
Spanish: Dia de la Madre
Like most countries around the globe, the holidays and festivals in Panama include Mother’s Day. The unique thing about Panama’s custom is that the day coincides with the Roman Catholic Church’s observation of the Immaculate Conception.
Christmas – 25 Dec 19
The streets are decorated and some businesses participate with elaborate nativity displays. Families are equally fond of their nativity sets, some of which are generations old.
The main celebration is on Christmas Eve, with late night feasting followed by fireworks and partying late into the night, or early morning.
Christmas Day is a more subdued affair, with many families attending church and visiting relatives.
Panama religious festivals
Spanish: Corpus Christi
Panama’s most well-known celebration of Corpus Christi is in the town of La Villa de Los Santos, on the Azuero Peninsula. It involves elaborate dances and colourful costumes symbolizing both angels and devils. The dances are performed in town as well as the churches.
The festival’s dates vary from year to year, but you can plan to visit La Villa between late May and early July.
Festival of the Black Christ of Portobelo
Spanish: Festival de Cristo Negro de Portobelo
This festival takes place on 21 October each year and is Portobelo’s largest festival. It attracts many pilgrims, some walking from Panama City, some crawling the last mile to the church on hands and knees.
The festival is one of the most interesting of all the holidays and festivals in Panama. It centres around the Church of San Felipe, where the statue of the Black Christ, also called the Nazareno of Portobelo, is sheltered.
Panama cultural festivals and fairs
Holidays and festivals in Panama include a number of cultural events across the country. We have highlighted the most popular ones and it looks like there is something to do or visit every month of the year.
Chiriqui Highlands Flower and Coffee Festival – January
Each January, the western highlands town of Boquete plays host to this festival. It is a week-long festival of sights and smells. An ideal opportunity to learn more about the Boquete area.
Azuero International Fair – end of April
Towards the end of April each year, the International Fair of Azuero is celebrated, and the town of La Villa de los Santos plays host.
Although livestock takes centre stage, there are traditional dances and music of Panamanian artists on offer. If you want to see traditional Panama attire, this is the festival to attend.
San Pedro Day – 29 June
If you ever needed a reason to visit the island of Taboga, this celebration should be it. Use the opportunity to attend or observe mass in the second oldest church in the Americas.
Thereafter you can enjoy lots of fireworks, a procession of decorated fishing boats and a loud street party.
Foundation of Old Panama City – 15 August
In 2019, the oldest city built by the Spanish on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, will be 500 years old! And that honour belongs to Panama City! More precisely, it belongs to Panama Viejo, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A visit to the ruins of the old city, and the museum on the grounds is well worth it.
Festival de la Mejorana – September
Spanish: Festival de la Mejorana en Guararé
The largest and most important folklore event in Panama, this festival is all about myths and legends, tradition and local culture.
Held in September each year, in Guararé on the Azuero Peninsula, the festival transforms this small town into a colourful marvel. This should be on your Panama bucket list.
Bocas Del Toro Sea Fair – September
Spanish: Feria del Mar
The biggest event on the Bocas del Toro calendar is undoubtedly the Feria, a four-day festival celebrated in September every year.
Istmito Beach and the adjoining road from Bocas Town are transformed into a festival venue, with a music stage, food and liquor vendors and handicrafts stalls. You can expect lots of music, dancing and general revelry into the small hours of the morning.
Day of the Dead – 2 November
Spanish: Dia de los Muertos
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition, widely celebrated in other countries, including Panama. It is, however, a subdued affair in Panama, with people visiting cemeteries to tidy up the graves of loved ones, and generally remembering the passing on of friends and family.
The sale of alcohol is prohibited, even in restaurants, and loud music is frowned upon.
Sobresaltos Dance Festival – December
Watch out for this funky urban music festival, held in Casco Viejo, Panama City, each year in December. It is outdoors, it is contemporary and it is fun!
For more information about fairs across the country, you can visit the Tourism Bureau’s website – just click on the month of interest.
You can find bird watching groups, theatre groups and all kinds of other activities by searching for and joining local expat communities of Facebook.
If you care to explore the rural areas, you will find local rodeos, horse parades and even local bullfights (chill – they don’t harm the animal, they just show off their dodging skills!)
Panama music festivals
Panama Jazz Festival
Acclaimed pianist, Danilo Pérez, founded this festival in September 2003. Since then, the annual festival has grown to become one of the most important jazz events in Latin America, if not the world. It attracts global talent and is a premiere event amongst holidays and festivals in Panama. A worthwhile pilgrimage for jazz enthusiasts.
The festival is held early in the year, mostly in January; you can search “Panama Jazz Festival” to check for the date and venues of the next event.
Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival
Boquete, the picturesque mountainside town in the western highlands, plays host to this annual music festival. Since its inception, it has grown into a noteworthy event, now attracting international touring artists.
The festival follows shortly after the Panama Jazz Festival, normally towards the end of February. You can search “Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival” to check for dates and the venue.
Where to stay
Panama school calendar
The Ministry of Education publishes the annual school calendar. Although the dates are unlikely to change, it would be a good idea to check for certainty when planning anything around the school trimester dates.
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Download your free Panama Calendar 2019 with public holidays, school terms and other important events.
“I don’t need a holiday or a festival to celebrate my good fortune of being alive, or to affirm my gratitude. But I do enjoy a cold beer in the middle of a street, surrounded by revellers” – Travel Hippi
I would love to have your thoughts on holidays and festivals. What or where is your favourite celebration?
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