Las Tablas, in the Azuero Peninsula
One of the queens of Las Tablas, for Carnival time in Panama.
The capital and commercial center for the Herrera province, Las Tablas is located 282km (175 miles) from Panama City (capital of the Republic of Panama) and expands throughout approximately 12km along the Pacific coast, which houses the Mensabé Marina. There is no official story regarding the foundation of the city, but legend has it that Las Tablas was founded by Captain Jacinto Barahona on July 19th, 1671. 51 years later in 1721 construction of the Santa Librada church, national monument and epicenter of the city, was completed. In present day, the Santa Librada church is very popular tourist attraction along with the city itself, particularly during the Carnival and Easter holidays.
As it is with many cities and settlements throughout Panama, Las Tablas’ origins escape even the most well-versed among scholars. As mentioned in the paragraph above, there is no official documentation that can back up any claims in regards to the foundation of Las Tablas, but in the true spirit of folk tales, there are many theories that come from all points of the spectrum. One theory suggests that Las Tablas has been an established indigenous settlement of what is now known as the Azuero Peninsula many years before the Spanish Conquistadors even dreamed of discovering “The New World;” of course, finding any proof of this has been virtually impossible. Still, many people tend to lean towards this theory of the city’s origin. Many others (the vast majority, in fact) agree that the most likely scenario in terms of the foundation of Las Tablas throughout the course of Panamanian history is that of having been founded by Spanish conquistadors as they made their way throughout the country, looking for other routes towards the Pacific Ocean. This hypothesis is just as unfounded as the pre-Columbine one presented in this writing, but one discerning difference between the two lies in the tales that have been passed on from generation to generation, giving the modern world nothing but stories that seem to contain enough truth for them to be real in the eyes of historians.
The stories told by elders in Las Tablas vary as it is in the tradition of the folk tale, but all of them agree in terms of their broad strokes. Books that discuss the origin of Las Tablas such as “Piratas de América” and “La Gente de Allá Abajo” give credit to Spaniard ship captain Jacinto Barahona. In “Piratas de América,” or Pirates of America in English, Captain Barahona is specifically mentioned as the great Admiral of the South Sea, he whose fleet of Spanish ships defended the Bay of Panama and Panama’s territories in the year 1680 from the horde of pirate ships looking to board and loot the royal transport ships sailing to Spain, filled with gold and silver, around Perico Island. It is also said that Captain Barahona died defending the Pacific Coast from said attackers, heroically dying on the command deck of his ship. Barahona is often referred to as the head of the Spanish families that colonized and founded the district of Las Tablas sometime during the XVII century. Other things to note about this theory, facts that supporters used in their arguments, lie within the architecture and city scriptures. By word of the city’s history logs, Las Tablas was already on the same level of socio-economical importance as already-established cities in the area such as Penonomé, Santiago and Los Santos; this fact is further cemented by studying Las Tablas’ church’s history, considering that the great altar of this colonial-style Santa Librada church was finished in 1721 according to historians of the most impeccable pedigree.
Since Las Tablas is the capital for the Panamanian province of Los Santos, it enjoys one of the the biggest influx of commerce in the region. Citizens from city districts such as La Palma, Santo Domingo, Carate, La Laja, Cocal, Pedregoso, San José, Sesteadero, Vallerriquito and the other 15 do all of their shopping here. As it is with most of the towns in the Azuero region, you’ll be able to find everything you could ever want or need from supermarkets, specialty stores and the like to banks, government branches and more. Internet cafes can also be found as well as hostels and hotels. Being the province capital, Las Tablas is also the place where people wanting to find Panamanian government branches will do so. Because Las Tablas is quite possibly the most modern of all the cities in the area, it’s safe to say that Las Tablas is also the busiest one around with the arguable exception of Chitré; this somewhat breaks the tradition of tranquility found in the other cities, towns and villages that make up the Azuero Peninsula. Not that there should be any reason to compare the activity found in Las Tablas with, say, the hectic living found in Panama City because Panama’s capital city would win that race by a landslide, but the way Las Tablas has become the city that everyone knows, both locals and tourists coming from abroad, has given the city much more attention than residents feel Azuero towns can handle.
And this is Azuero we’re talking about: the unofficial cradle of Panamanian civilization and culture, where the customs of the true Panamanian are celebrated every day with the same unbridled enthusiasm sports fans display whilst talking about their favorite teams or movie buffs when they rave about their favorite movies of all time. The Azuero Fair is held in the peninsula, where the best facets of Panamanian history are in full display for thousands upon thousands of visitors each and every year. People come to Azuero when they want the best polleras, Panama’s traditional gown, and they pay good money just to have the best craftsmanship money can buy. The attention the Azuero Peninsula garners is very well-deserved and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon; still, for some inexplicable reason Azuero has always been a place to get away from it all for many residents of Panama City and abroad… a place where they can let their hair loose and relax, bask in the fresh air and be taken away by the tranquility that permeates the area. Las Tablas, then, is an arguable exception to the rule. Upon walking the streets of the city you’ll notice (if you’ve been to other towns across the Azuero Peninsula, that is) that the trademark tranquility is hidden somewhere in the city’s core, but it is very difficult to see due to the constant activity that makes the city come alive. And that’s without talking about how it is during Carnival time!
What’s probably the biggest allure of visiting Las Tablas, Carnival time in Panama is often represented by the type of fun that can be had in this city during that time. Hundreds of thousands of people swarm the city for those 4 days, turning the semi-quiet interior town to a party central almost overnight. Las Tablas is undoubtedly the most important place to be in Carnival, and even though its popularity has declined of late in favor of neighboring towns such as Los Santos and Chitré, the capital of Herrera has a firm grip on its importance. Almost every Panamanian alive has gone to Las Tablas for Carnaval at least once in their lifetimes, and even if they didn’t like it they will tell you that it is definitely a unique experience; being the place that most people say has the best Carnival celebration in the country is no small feat, and because of that it should definitely be experienced by one and all so that everyone can be able to tell the tale from first-hand experience. In comparison to the other carnival destinations across the country, it seems that Las Tablas is the place where everything is more pompous, bigger and more spectacular. Everything from the carnival queens, their dresses, their carriages, the shows and their “murgas” or orchestras, it’s all organized in such a way that it’s not fair to compare.
Las Tablas is also notorious for the craziness it seems to attract during this holiday, more so than any other destination. If it’s your first time going, take a camera because you are virtually guaranteed to see something worth taking pictures of. It can be anything, from the beauty of the parade cars to the unhinged hilarity of the milliards of drunks that troll the city streets in an alcoholic daze, to the always popular gay community parade queen. Speaking of the gay community parade queen, for some reason Las Tablas is also a magnet for the most flamboyantly gay men in the country. They’re very friendly as you would expect a flamboyantly gay man to be, but they will also most likely be drunk so if you’re straight and homophobic, I would have my back to the wall at all times. Some of the most elaborate drag queens can also be found during Carnival time around Las Tablas square, and some of them will have even the most macho among your party second guessing.
Aside from the legendary carnivals that take place in Las Tablas, the city is an excellent destination for those who want to practice eco-tourism. You can climb the Canajagua Mountain as well as trek throughout occidental mountain path of the Azuero peninsula, which ends when you reach Cambutal Peak (700m high!). If being a beach bum is more to your liking, the beaches in Las Tablas (and Azuero, for that matter) are stunning and always a short drive away.
Like many of the other cornerstones of the Azuero region, upon arriving you will notice you have the best things of the capital within arms reach: surf the internet, call your loved ones abroad, public payphones on every corner, supermarkets, pharmacies, specialty stores, hotels, restaurants and more. If you’re open to experiencing Panamanian culture in all of its aspects from the cuisine, the customs, the clothes and activities, you’ll be in luck while in Las Tablas city. Restaurants that serve traditional Panamanian food will give you a plate packed to the gills for ridiculously low prices, with the trademark homemade stamp that makes venturing out to the Panamanian interior such a delight. According to the 2000 population census, Las Tablas is the home of 24,298 people, all of them very approachable and happy to give you assistance if needed. It’s the way it should be everywhere, and when you’ve been living in Panama City long enough, you learn to appreciate towns like this one very much.
Acquiring a vehicle for this type of journey goes a long way, especially since then you’ll be able to visit the neighboring towns and further sink into the Azuero way of life. Las Tablas is the veritable “big city” of the area and, in many respects, the best hub if you want to explore the rest of the Azuero Peninsula, which is vast and sure to keep you busy for the entire duration of your vacation. Most of the big Azuero towns (by that I mean Chitré, Los Santos, Las Tablas, et al) are just a few kilometers away from each other and from said destinations you will you’re your way to doing whatever activity your heart desires. Traveling by bus is easy and cheap though, with daily routes coming to and from the Albrook bus terminal in Panama City. Once there, finding a hotel to stay will be easy as well, with variety to boot. Economy rooms will ring you up at around $15 a night, while more luxurious accommodations can cost around $40. Carnivals really flex the creative muscle for many visitors though, as the need to party hearty will make them improvise in the strangest ways imaginable when it comes to food and housing. Again, if it’s your first time, take a camera. In all seriousness though, you will find it very hard to find vacancy in hotels and inns a couple of months before Carnival time. Some Panamanians have been known to have their lives revolve around the celebration of Carnival, and because of that they will book the best accommodations their budgets can afford months in advance, leaving you without a place to stay. So, if you plan on having Las Tablas be your destination for Carnivals, plan way in advance.
If you want to know more about the foundation in which Panama is built, brush up on your history and have the distinctive Panamanian way of life rub off on you, Las Tablas is a great place to start. The architecture is beautiful, the people are very amicable and you are guaranteed a wonderful time no matter what time of year you choose to visit.