Before I arrived in Panama, the Thousand Polleras Parade (Desfile de las Mil Polleras) was not on my list of things to see or do. I hadn’t even heard of the event. I didn’t know what a pollera was! I read about the festival, which takes place annually on a Saturday in mid-January in the town of Las Tablas, shortly after my husband and I arrived in Panama City.
Las Tablas is located in Panama’s Los Santos Province on the Azuero Peninsula. It is a 4-hour drive from Panama City. We were about to begin a monthlong stay in the town of Pedasi on the tip of the Azuero Peninsula. Since Las Tablas is just a 45-minute bus ride from Pedasi, I added the Thousand Polleras Parade to our itinerary.
I’m so glad I did! I have since recommended the event to other travelers and would love to return and take in the festival again myself.
What Is A Pollera?
But first things first: What is a pollera?
The pollera is Panama’s national dress. It consists of a handmade skirt and blouse with layered frills running from the bodice down the full length of the skirt.
There are many variations in color and design. The pollera montuna has a flowered skirt. The pollera gala is the most elaborate version and is worn on special occasions and holidays. Made of expensive white fabric, such as fine linen, cambric, or voile, it is decorated with hand-embroidered designs. The wedding pollera is all white.
A single pollera can take months to make and may be passed down from generation to generation. Although the dress is showy enough on its own, it is accessorized with further ornamentation to create a stunning effect. The women wear large earrings, several long gold necklaces, and headpieces adorned with floral designs.
The montuna, the men's traditional outfit, is a long-sleeved embroidered white shirt worn over simple black trousers. The men also wear straw hats decorated with black designs and cross-body cotton-knit coin bags called chacaras.
Las Tablas is known as a center of folklore, traditions, and street celebrations and is an especially fitting place for the Thousand Polleras Parade.
Why I Can’t Wait To Go Back
The Atmosphere Is Wonderfully Festive, And The Excitement Is Contagious
The Thousand Polleras Parade is more than just a parade. It is a celebration of tradition and a fantastic party.
When we arrived in Las Tablas shortly after 11 a.m., the festive atmosphere had already permeated the town. The bus didn’t go as far into the town as it normally would because the main street was blocked to vehicular traffic. A large tent had been erected across the street from the bus stop. Sound equipment was being set up for an evening party after the parade. Empty chairs lined the streets, and people were saving their spots. Barbecue stands were being set up on every corner. Vendors in the town square at the other end of the main street offered plastic toys, trinkets, crafts, and food. There were meat and sausage skewers and chicken and rice. Music -- both live and recorded -- could be heard everywhere.
After walking through town, checking out the booths, and having something to eat, we found a spot with partial shade along the curb from which to watch the parade. As we waited, more and more people filled the streets, including some in traditional dress. Some of them were hurrying to a meeting place, and others were carrying garment bags. Vendors walked down the street selling water, sodas, ice cream, and sunglasses. The music became louder.
The woman beside us, with whom we’d conversed as best we could with our limited Spanish, bought us raspados from a passing vendor. Raspados are paper cones filled with shaved ice and flavored with sweet syrup and condensed milk. Ordinarily, I might have found this too sweet, but in the afternoon heat and amidst the fiesta spirit, it was refreshing.
In typical Latin American fashion, the parade was late in starting -- it didn’t get underway until well after 3 p.m. I didn’t mind, though, since the wait itself felt like a party!
The Dresses Are Exquisite
Each dress was a delight to see. The bands of embroidered decoration on each dress were usually of the same color, but the colors varied from dress to dress. Red was particularly popular, but I also saw blue, purple, orange, and black.
I marveled not only at the work that clearly went into each dress, but at the effort it took for each woman to dress up for the event. Their hair was carefully pulled back to hold the elaborate floral headpieces, and their makeup was flawless.
Women of all ages, from small girls about two years old to elderly grandmothers, wore the pollera. Even some of the spectators who weren’t participating in the parade donned their polleras.
As the women passed by, they readily stopped to say hello and to pose and smile for photographs, holding the sides of their skirts out to fully show off the dress. There were yards and yards of material in each pollera.
The Parade Showcases The Best Of Panamanian Culture
At last, the parade started. Women and men in traditional dress paraded and danced past us accompanied by brass, percussion, and accordion bands. The sight of the colorful dresses twirling together en masse was simply enchanting. I couldn’t help but smile.
Visitors and locals danced alongside the parade participants. Some of the pollera-clad women were transported on elaborately decorated floats depicting scenes from Panamanian life or folklore. Men with long poles accompanied the floats. They used the poles to raise the electrical wires running across the street so that the floats could pass underneath.
The parade continued for hours. There weren’t just a thousand polleras -- there were many thousands of polleras. It was after 6 p.m. when we decided we needed to head back to Pedasi. The parade was still going strong. I read another person’s report of their visit to the parade, and they said that the event lasted well into the evening and ended with a fireworks display.
It was an amazing day, and I will remember it fondly for the rest of my life.
If you attend the Thousand Polleras Parade, remember to bring a hat, sunscreen, and water. It will be hot! You may also want to bring a portable chair.