Festival de Los Congos – Portobelo, Panama

By James Bloomfield

My first experience of the Festival de Los Congos began with a bang. Literally. As the rear axle of my compatriot’s 4×4 thudded against a rock, we knew that it was going to leave at least a couple of marks.

caribbean festival panama

A man poses with a doll’s head.

A whirling explosion of devil masks, wooden sticks, fried food and Caribbean culture, the Festival de Los Congos is unmissable. I had an amazing time watching the Caribbean culture of Panama take the centre stage for a brief time. It felt like a massive outpouring of joy and anger, as the devils whirled, the children ran through the legs of adults and smoking meat tantalized our nostrils.

panama diablos

A passionate man with a revealing perspective.

diablo rojo carribean

A close up of a Diablo.

Each costume is lovingly made and then systematically, thoroughly and brutally destroyed. It feels right. These costumes shouldn’t be preserved. They need to be sacrifical, to absorb all the manic energy and frustration of living amongst the slums on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

I couldn’t bring myself to look at another pollera after this. I love the culture of Panama but, as one of the incredibly eloquent speakers here put it, “Panama has many blacks – why don’t we have the same importance as the pollera and party dresses?”. I couldn’t help but agree; the sheer vitality of this festival and its proximity to Panama City should make it more relevant.

Nowhere have I felt more energized in Panama, as well as simultaneously saddened that this is probably likely to remain a very local event. I have had many good times in Panama but this made me feel slightly wistful – I know that lots of foreigners and Panamanians look down on the Congo culture. They really shouldn’t. There is a wealth and sense of fun here that should be more Panamanian, should spread beyond Maria Chiquita and Portobelo to knock down the complacency of the reinas and the carnavales. Perhaps it will one day….

diablo rojo panama

A Diablo stares a boy down.

diablo panama

A diablo mask.

diablo rojo panama

Diablo with lolling tongue.

James Bloomfield