After the Lights and Music End: The Dark Side of Carnaval in Las Tablas, Panama [Video]

Carnaval2013_1Carnaval in Las Tablas, Panama, is a huge event.

It brings around 100,000 visitors to the town — and Las Tablas’ normal population is only about 10,000.

Merchants make a big chunk of their annual sales before, during and after Carnaval. Families earn some extra income by bunking in together and renting out houses or apartments to Carnaval-goers.

Carnaval itself is a huge business, employing makers of costumes, floats and other paraphernalia at a cost well into the six figures. Fireworks don’t come cheap either — especially in the quantities used here. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people are employed temporarily to erect stands and outdoor “nightclubs” and fondas. Entrepreneurs set up stands and stalls, or push carts laden with merchandise, food, snacks and drinks amongst the throngs of partiers.

Las Tablas’ annual Carnaval brings employment to the entire area.

And that doesn’t even begin to count the beer that’s consumed. . .

But what happens after the last rocket has lit up the night sky with its arcing fingers of multicolored light, the music stops, and the floats are dismantled and trucked out of town?

It’s not a pretty sight (or smell).

I give the town big props for starting cleanup immediately and doing a good job of making the downtown area presentable again.

But all that trash has to go somewhere.

To the Dump. . . Sort Of

I’m old enough to remember visiting the town dump with my father when I was a kid.

Homeowners were responsible for hauling their own trash to the dump, so this was a regular Saturday chore for us.

The dump was an interesting place. Way back, out of the way of any traffic or dumpers, my dad set up a target and taught me to shoot a BB gun. Back then we buried the trash at the dump. I don’t recall any horrible stench, bugs or circling vultures.

As I grew older, trash disposal technology advanced. Even the smallest towns mostly stopped burning the refuse, instead relying on earth-moving equipment to bury it.

Las Tablas — and most of Panama — still relies on burning.

Back in the trash-burning days in the US, dumps burned mostly paper and food waste. Today, though, what’s in the garbage is different.

Panama’s not just burning paper and food waste, but household chemicals, plastics found in bottles, bags and other packaging materials, disposable diapers, and many other things that should never be added to the air we have to breathe.

Even with all the burning going on, though, Las Tablas can’t keep up with the trashy aftermath of Carnaval.

A couple days after Carnaval ended, my husband hopped on his bike for a regular ride, out to Port Mensabe and back. He was so shocked at what he saw that he came home to grab his GoPro camera and head back out, this time in the car.

At the Dump

Las Tablas’ dump is about halfway between the town and Uverito Beach on a heavily traveled road.

As you’ll see in the video, the entrance to the dump was completely blocked.

No, this wasn’t an Alice’s Restaurant “closed on Thanksgiving” situation. The entrance was blocked by piles of garbage.

The trucks can’t get into the dump, so they’re just dumping their loads on the road.

For about 200 yards, one entire lane is impassible because of all the garbage. Take a look at the video.

The problem will only get worse. I know this because we have a regular trash pickup twice a week. They didn’t pick up at all during Carnaval week, so when they start their rounds this week the dump will be inundated with a backlog of residential trash.

Where are they going to put it? If what’s there is any indication, it’ll go on the road.

You Call this a Solution?

And, in fact, a day later they found a solution of sorts. They shoved the garbage off the roadway and set it on fire.

Here’s what that same stretch looked like.

I’m told there’s a committee looking into finding a new, larger dumpsite for the town, someplace where they can also have a recycling center.

It can’t come soon enough.


  1. Oh that’s terrible. The manufacturers of plastics should also be accountable for educating people on their proper disposal and making provision for it in some way. If you’re going to put something toxic out into the world part of the responsibility for disposing of it rests on your shoulders.
    We were used to a good kerbside recycling system in the UK and here in Canada it’s even better – they accept a greater variety of plastics. Thanks to this the vast majority of our household waste is recycled. We generate just one black bag destined for landfill per month and we’re a family of five.
    Sadly though, even in places like this where the opportunity is made available and on your doorstep, there are those people who still can’t be bothered to recycle.

  2. Melodee Lucido says:

    Oh my gosh! I hope Mark was wearing some kind of mask riding his bike through that!!

    What can be done to solve such a huge problem? A recycling center would be great but a big undertaking.

  3. Pretty sad to see such a huge mess after the celebration. Hope it’s been resolved by now…

    • FutureExpat says:

      Yes, it is sad. The situation’s improved slightly. They’ve managed to clear a road into the dump again, and there’s not as much burning. It will be a while before it’s all cleaned up, though.

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