If you need to protect your head from the Ecuadorian sun, or want a fine gift for someone back home, Cuenca Panama hats are an excellent choice.
Available for both women and men, these lightweight hats are great for travel, or for a night on the town.
Available in different colors, including multi-colored, and with wide brims or narrower brims, you'll find one that's perfect for you, or for that special someone.
These famous hats were first made in Montecristi, near the coast, at the foot of the Andes mountains, since at least the mid-1600s. But the extreme heat of mid-day sent business owners to higher elevations, including Cuenca, where hats could be made all day.
They were once known as Jipijapa (hippie-hoppa) hats, for a town near where the first ones were made. They're also known as Toquilla hats, especially in Spanish (sombreros de paja toquilla), for the straw the weavers use to make them.
There are two different stories about how they came to be named Panama hats.
Theodore Roosevelt used to tour the Panama Canal construction, and photos of Teddy wearing one of these hats made them popular. Most of the construction workers also used them as sun protection. So the country's name stuck.
The other story has it that, since all of the hats bound for Europe and the eastern half of North America had to travel across Panama to reach the Atlantic, they became known for the final shipping port.
Napoleon, King Edward VII and several other prominent Europeans helped make the Panama hat famous there. And it became the summertime hat of choice, when felt hats were just too hot to wear.
Ecuador's politics of the 1800s are tied to these hats. Their largest exporter, Eloy Alfaro, used the wealth he gained from sending the hats to Europe to become one of the country's political leaders, remembered throughout Ecuador in street names and statues for his Liberal Revolution (which began his presidency of the country).
Montecristis are considered the epitome of Panama hats. Weavers use split toquilla straw (each straw yielding several strands), which gives the hats a much tighter weave (tight enough to hold water for a short period).
A true Montecristi will run you at least $300. Anything else is not a true Montecristi hat.
The Panama hat is synonymous with the fedora, the most common type, at least in North America. In the UK, the Optimo is the more popular style.
The third style is the Teardrop, also known as the C-crown. Somewhat similar to the fedora, it doesn't have the crease down the middle that the fedora has. Its crown is shaped like a tear when viewed from above, pointed at one end and rounded at the back of the hat. This is the hat commonly worn by the indigenous women in and around Cuenca.
For women, the Breton is the common style, although there are many other styles now. Most don't look at all like a Panama hat. But, since they're made from toquilla straw, they're considered part of the family.
The two most common types of brim these days are the Plantation (or Gambler) brim, which is wide with a curled edge, and the Snap brim, which can be snapped down in front and up in the back (fedora-style), if desired.
Other less common brims are the Pork Pie (made famous by Buster Keaton), also known as the Stingy brim because it's very short, the Boater, and the Trilby.
The Trilby, however, is now considered a separate style, with a narrow brim and a tapered crown.
Many people have heard that they can roll up their Panama hat during travel, then unroll it and wear it. Unfortunately, that requires top quality straw and high-end production techniques. These hats will cost you $150 or more.
So beware any $20 or $75 hat, and especially those that come with a long narrow box. Rolling your hat so that it fits into that box will cause it to lose shape. Roll it up enough times and the straw will begin to break. And you'll have ruined your investment after the first roll. (Jeff learned that one from experience, luckily with a cheap hat!)
This short video is an introduction to how Cuenca Panama hats are made.
The Financial Times Magazine in the UK reported that there may only be another 15-20 years for this Ecuadorian industry full of tradition. Many of the finest weavers have no one to continue their work. And knock-offs from China, made from paper, are taking over the market.
If you can afford one, buy a high quality Cuenca Panama hat and support our local hatmakers.
Below is our growing list of stores and shops where you can purchase a Panama hat.
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I just want to thank you both soooo much for creating this web site. I am originally from Cuenca but moved to New York 11 years ago and have not being back since. My husband and I are planning on visiting Cuenca over the Summer and this web site has helped me a lot.
When I came to the US we still had the "sucre," the bus ride cost 1,000 sucres and a pack of trident gum would cost 3,000 sucres. I am very nervous to go back, but thanks to your web site I now know what to expect.
My husband is American and Captivating Cuenca has taught him a lot about what my great city has to offer, things that I had forgotten about myself! :)
Thank You both so much! I cannot wait to visit Cuenca!!