Ecuador’s treasure – the panama hat


If you were to mention 5 things that were truly Ecuador’s, the panama hat will be definitely one of them. But why are they called panama, if they’re made in Ecuador? What are they made from? And – most importantly – why are they so shockingly expensive? Let me explain…

The history and the name

Back in the history century the hats were known by the place of purchase instead of where they were produced. And in the 19th century the gold seekers were coming to California through Isthmus of Panama where they were purchasing hats imported from Ecuador. Yes, the genuine panama hat is made exclusively in Ecuador, but unfortunately Panama stole the name…

The hats gained much popularity through their exposure at the world’s fair in Paris in 1855. It was something completely new and exciting for the fashion-centered French.

But the most iconic moment in the history of panama hat is pictured in this photo:

President Roosevelt and the construction of Panama Canal (public domain)

The hat’s popularity went through the roof and by 1944 the panama hat had become Ecuador’s no. 1 export item. The stylish light-color hat would be always related with tropics ever since. But of course Panama Canal didn’t help changing the hat’s name… So, unfortunately for Ecuador, their most precious good would be always known as panama hat.

How it is made

The main material for panama hats is the straw of the plant called carludovia palmata or, more common, toquilla.

Carludovica palmata or toquilla (photo by: Jeff deLonge, Creative Commons)

The process of forming the hat is rather laborious and it can take up to 6 months! You can already have idea about the price level, right?

The hat itself comes in a number of different shapes – as the raw material is molded by a press. The most common shapes are: fedora and borsalino.

In Ecuador there are essentially two places where they made original panamas: Montecristi and Cuenca, but Montecristi’s hats are supposedly of better quality (and of higher price, of course). On the other hand, there is a really interesting panama museum in Cuenca worth visiting. In Montecristi you will find a many shops with huge variety of hats. We visited one of them to ask some questions.

First of all it seems that the local people who manually produce the hats never finish them. Instead they form the a raw shape and sell it to the shops where they finish off the hat and finally form them. Here’s an example of a raw material:

A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama

As mentioned, the whole process of forming a hat may take up to 6 months and it’s completely manual! It has to be expensive. But what does the price really depend on?

How much is it?

As always, it all depends on quality. The quality is defined by the number of weaves per square inch. The more weaves, the better quality. Generally, there are categories:

  1. Fino
  2. Extrafino
  3. Superfino

Here you have a table characteristics and prices:

Panama hats quality matrix
Panama hats quality matrix

As you can see the real panamas start from 14 weaves per inch, but they can go up to 34 which are really, really tiny and the texture is almost as fine fabric. For a $60 you can have a panama, but if you are for a real deal, prepare at least $200-$300 (I’ve heard they can cost triple the original price in US or Europe). It’s said that a high quality panama could be rolled, put in the pocket and no harm will be done. It’s that flexible and durable. Well, I haven’t tried with mine…

How do you measure the quality? The owner demonstrated a small tool for counting the weaves:

Counting the weaves with a special tool
This one is just “fino”

When you’ve chosen the quality and the model you can now add a nice color ribbon that suits you and all you have to do is… pay. Yes, it’s much, but it’s definitely worth it. A good quality panama will last for years and it’s a stylish gadget that will never be outdated. And if you need a souvenir from the equator – ironically – you don’t get anything more Ecuadorian than a panama hat. 🙂

PS. The data in this article is from December 2014. In 2015 the prices went up heavily. The sellers mention bad year for the toquilla harvest. Well, maybe. But be prepared to spend at least 50% more…