Cuenca and the Panama Hat

“Santa Ana of the Four Rivers of Cuenca” is commonly known as Cuenca, a city full of culture and traditions that continue year after year and the reason for which this city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on December 1st of 1999.

Cuenca is located in the South of Ecuador. A group of craftsmen descendants of the Tolita culture of the Ecuadorian coast arrived at the end of the 18th century to this area to teach the skillful techniques of making the straw hat, which in currently known worldwide as the “Panama Hat”. It is so famous around the world that on December 5th of 2012, the UNESCO declared the weaving of straw hats “intangible heritage of humanity”.

But why is it called Panama Hat if its origin is Ecuadorian? It is said that while the Panama Canal was being built, the workers started using the hat due to its lightness and protection of the sun, for which reason it became very famous internationally.

The Carludovica Palmata or better known as the “toquilla straw”, is a plant native to Ecuador and is used to elaborate this exclusive hat. Its leaves are green on the outside and have a fan shape, in the center where the straw is obtained its color is ivory.

The whole process to make the straw toquilla hat is done by hand. It starts early in the morning when the fiber is extracted and the stems are opened with only the use of the fingers of the worker. They are then cleaned, cooked and later dried off in the wind.  After this its fibers are frayed very carefully. The elaboration of a hat can last from a week to several months depending on the details of it and the thickness of the straw. Many of the artisans who make them come from families that have dedicated themselves to this great work generation after generation as a family inheritance.

At present, there is a museum in Cuenca called “La Magia del Sombrero”, created by the straw hat company Homero Ortega with the aim of sharing the history of the “Panama Hat”. It has three rooms, the first dedicated to the history of the straw hat, the second dedicated to its process and the last explaining the trajectory of the company. All this is in the company’s facilities which allows you to know first-hand the entire production process. At the end you will be able to try on some hats and give yourself the pleasure of buying a beautiful straw hat or maybe even a purse made of this same material.

Such is the fame of this hat, that famous actors, singers, politicians and others have not been able to resist its charms and with great pride have repeatedly dressed Ecuadorian straw hats of different brands. Some of them are Oscar Arias Sánchez, Former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize 1987, Brad Pitt, Joaquin Sabina, Steven Spielberg to mention only a few.

Do not forget to wear a picturesque straw hat while visiting Ecuador!

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