The Pollera is the women's national costume in Panama and, for this year's parade of "Mil Polleras", over 11,000 dressed up to take part. Even the President was there.
People think of Panama as just a canal but it's far more than that. This long thin country has a spine of rain forested mountains and an archipelago of beautiful Caribbean tropical islands, not to mention the Darien Gap, one of the wildest places on Earth. I'm on my way to Los Santos province, about a 3 hour drive South West of Panama City. The lush vegetation cloaking the hills and mountains gives way to a flat arid plain, populated by fields of sugarcane and grazing cattle. This is one of the driest areas of Panama and was one of the first regions to be populated by the Conquistadores. Today the majority are of Spanish descent so it's no accident that a festival celebrating the Pollera takes place here every year.
The story goes that the Pollera derives from the Gypsy dress of southern Spain at the time of the conquest. The heavy clothing of the aristocracy, with hoops and stays, was too warm for the tropics, so they adopted and improved the clothing of their servants, adding lace and embroidery. The Spanish daily house dress of the seventeenth century was a white blouse, with a full skirt of two or three ruffles and this has evolved to become one of the most beautiful outfits in the Latin America wardrobe.
Today's Luxury Pollera is a loose, low-cut blouse, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, worn with a wide ruffled skirt with several petticoats, usually made from linen, cambric or voile. It's embroidered with designs of flowers, vines and birds, takes a year to make, and can cost up to $10,000.
Of course, for the full outfit you need all the trappings, which can bring the cost up to $50,000 depending on how much gold you wear. Head decorations are elaborate with the largest being a sort of comb decorated with gold and pearls. Essential are "Tembleques", flower ornaments, attached by silver and gold metallic wires, designed to shimmy as you walk. You'll also need large earrings, several long necklaces and rosaries, and leather slippers covered in satin. And please don't forget four wide ribbons, hanging from your waist and wool pompoms swinging from the back and front of your blouse. No wonder that it takes at least two hours to get ready.
Mil Polleras Festival
Now, of course, for such an elaborate getup, rain could prove to be a dampener, as happened last year when thousands of Polleras were ruined during a single downpour. This year the day is set fair and I arrive in the small town of Las Tablas at the same time as President Martinelli, who is here to open the parade. Surprisingly, there's little security in evidence and the place is packed with, I'm told, 11,000 women sporting their Polleras. Some of them are transported on elaborately decorated floats, depicting scenes of Panamanian life, while the rest make their way through the crowds, followed by brass and accordion bands.
Now this is a parade for all the family, and as well as Polleras for the girls, the boys and men, not to be outdone, are dressed in embroidered white shirts with decorated straw hats. Bands, floats and a long crocodile of embroidered dancers of all ages, file though the streets, accompanied by musicians playing the Tamborito, Panama's national dance. The procession gets larger as additional participants join from the side streets and when there's a traffic jam, the women pause to show off their dresses to great spectator applause.
Smoke and aromas from the barbecue stalls drift over the crowd and the atmosphere is certainly festive. In places people are genuinely dancing in the streets, young and old alike. The great thing is that I feel perfectly safe and there's not a hint of danger, not even any sign of the drunkenness which often accompanies these events. Of course everyone loves dressing up, but when you can celebrate the cultural traditions of your country at the same time, you're really onto something. All I can say is Viva Panama!
Visit Panama has tourist information.
KLM flies daily from London to Panama City via Amsterdam. Fares start at £549 return.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.