As Shrove Tuesday approaches, major cities in the world are gearing up for carnival. Until last year I was a carnival virgin, but decided to dip my toe in the carnival spirit - quite literally as it transpired - in the Central American country of Panama.
Like Rio in Brazil, Panama parties like there’s no tomorrow on the days surrounding Shrove Tuesday with dancing in the streets, parades of colourful floats and the crowning of beautiful leggy carnival queens dressed in sequins, fishnets and feathers.
Panama’s carnival dates back to colonial times and is celebrated in several provinces including Coclé, Herrera and Los Santos
But I was right in the thick of it in Panama City. Called la Jumbo Rumba, Carnaval de la City, the festivities began with the coronation of Queen Stephanie and her two attendant ‘princesses’ who then appeared in various changes of costume throughout the five day celebrations
Over 150,000 people flocked to the City’s coastal strip each day to dance, sing, eat drink and – get soaked. Each morning at 10 the culecos begin as hoses from giant tanker trucks were turned on the crowds.
Drenched but happy, everyone continued to cavort. Children contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by spraying bystanders with water pistols or shaving foam as the scenes became increasingly surreal.
A woman walked by with a tray of toffee apples on her head , swaying between balloon vendors and people dressed as zombies or witches on stilts. Somewhere in the crowd a man was dancing with a blow-up doll
The final night of carnival was celebrated with fireworks and live music provided by Panama’s favourite singer, Ruben Blades, whose rendition of the song Patria (Fatherland)which many Panamanians consider their second national anthem, had the crowds in tears.
The Queen and princesses reigned serene (and were among the few onlookers who kept dry) throughout the weeks’ antics
After partying till dawn revellers require a hearty breakfast. The Full Panamanian – desayunos (breakfast) is a plate groaning with cholesterol.
I stopped off at the roadside café La Hacienda on the road to Capira with my bleary eyed fellow carnival animals. First order was for coffee, which in Panama is called Panama Joe. The tortillas were a bit of a surprise, not Mexican-style but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, seem to be another common breakfast staple.
There is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called name.Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out, which describes most nights during carnival time
A visit to the historic Panama Canal, said to be one of the Wonders of the World, is a must of course. Escaping the madness of carnival, a morning spent watching majestic ships pass through this staggering feat of engineering was strangely calming. The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a ship takes about 8 to 10 hours to cross it.
Panama Canal was excavated in one of the narrowest and lowest parts of the mountainous Isthmus of Panama, linking North and South America. Open every day of the year, it is possible to see 5,000,000 ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the isthmus from one ocean to the other. The Miraflores Visitors’ Centre is only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and has interactive exhibits explaining the workings of the canal and its history.
A boat trip from the canal across Gatun Lake provided a glimpse of local flora and fauna including monkeys and crocodiles, and the opportunity to cruise out to visit some indigenous peoples who live here such as the Embera Indians who welcomed us with traditional dances and music.
Portobelo, in Colon, once the greatest Spanish port in the region, is where one can still see the remains of forts which preserve the memory of attacks from famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, whose is buried beneath the sea here.. I stepped inside the church, Iglesia San Felipe, which now houses the Black Christ statue. Nobody knows exactly how or when it arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals.
Back in the city, I gaped at the innovative Frank Gehry-designed Bio Museo, a space celebrating ecological diversity which opened last year. Panama City's new Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) creates a green stripe of waterfront paths that finishes in Casco Viejo, a stunning historic neighbourhood rebuilt after decades of neglect. The old town vies with old Havana and San Juan for authentic colonial Spanish charm and the architecture of Casco Viejo which was once left to fade and crumble is now attracting artists, writers and former ambassadors who have homes here.