The Panama hat is originally from Ecuador not Panama as the name suggests. One story suggests that the name was given to the hat when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal Construction Site in 1904. He was given one of the hats as a gift during his visit.
The actual story is that the hats were produced along the Ecuadorian Coastal province of Manabi and were shipped to the Isthmus of Panama before being shipped to destinations around the world. Workers on the Canal wore the hats made of straw as protection from the sun, the hat could also double as a bucket to hold water when it rained.
The hats are made from Toquilla Palm. The town of Montecristi in Ecuador makes the finest hat. Their artisan weavers can take any where between one and six months to complete one of their hats. UNESCO has now recognised the craft of making a Panama hat as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
We passed close by to Montecristi on our way to Guayaquil on the bus, in fact, what we should have done was spent a night in Montecristi and really get to know more about the history and to meet a few of the master weavers. Here each hat is woven by one single artisan and can take months to complete. The finest of the hats looks like silk and can cost upwards from $10,000.
Prior to arriving into Cuenca we had spoken to friends and researched what we could about Panama Hats. On our bus tour of Cuenca we visited the Homero Ortega workshop as part of the tour. We spent 30 minutes viewing the production process they had on display in their museum and looking at hats to purchase. They had a range of hats in all different colors but it was only when we asked did they have any Superfino that we understood the quality and the cost of these superior hats compared to the general quality on sale.
On our search for the best Panama hat we could afford we headed towards Museo Del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla. The Museum is also the shop of Barrancos Panama Hats where the Paredes Roldan Family has been making hats for more than 60 years.Address: Calle Larga 10-41 entre Padre Aguirre y General Torres, Cuenca.
Address: Calle Larga 10-41 entre Padre Aguirre y General Torres, Cuenca.
Apart from the price we were keen to purchase a hat that could be folded into a box for travelling that would fit into our day pack or small trolley bag. The coarser weaved hat is not suitable for folding. The staff were very helpful showing us the processes involved and discussing with us the quality of each hat we chose. At this stage we were still looking at hats from USD100 and upwards. We were still on the trail.
Heading out of the Museum we walked towards Tarqui Street, there had to be other Panama Hat shops in Cuenca.
Where we purchased our Panama Hat in Cuenca
At last we came across Casa del Sombrero located at Tarqui 6-91. It was encouraging to see some of the local country women having their hats personally made here, but will they have the quality hat that we are searching for in our price range? In a cabinet by the doorway a Montecristi hat is on display. We enquire as to whether they have more and both us of are led away up the back rickety stairs to a small room under the roof, here were our hats. Good quality, Montecristi brand, with the style and colour we wanted and for the incredible price of USD50 per hat with a wooden box thrown in so that we could roll them for travelling plus a bonus rolling lesson. If we forget how to roll there is a youtube video that we could watch.
Hats on our head we walked proudly out into the streets of Cuenca knowing that it was worth our research and that we did not rush into purchasing the first hat that we tried on.