Panama hats, as any Ecuadorian worth their salt will tell you, don’t come from Panama. Authentic Panamas – or sombreros de paja toquilla, as they call them locally – are only woven in the Andean country, from the straw of the toquilla plant, which grows in the swamps near Ecuador’s central coast. The origin of the misnomer comes from the hat’s widespread use by the workers who built the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914. Toquilla hats have been woven in Ecuador for at least five hundred years, but in the face of cheap Chinese competition, lower demand and the massive emigration of young Ecuadoreans, the traditionally woven Panama is now an endangered species.

It’s well worth seeking out the last few artisans who create the very best superfinos. Most tourists on the trail go to Cuenca, a weaving centre in the southern highlands. A better option is to head west to Montecristi, which is to Panama-hat lovers what Havana is to cigar aficionados. It’s no showroom: the dust-and-concrete town is an inauspicious centre for the production of some of the most expensive headgear in the world. But ask around for a local comisionista (middlemen who travel around villages and buy hats from weavers) and arrange a trip to meet the weavers in nearby villages such as Pile.

The time to arrive is just after dawn, when the light is atmospheric and the heat and humidity are perfect for weaving. The contrast between the beautiful hats – the finest of which are woven so tightly they look like off-white cotton – and the conditions in which they are produced is stark. The weavers, who spend up to four months weaving each hat, live in ragged redbrick dwellings with rusting corrugated-iron roofs, linked by degraded dirt streets patrolled by strutting chickens and shuffling pigs. Be sure to visit the straw-cutters, too, and accompany them on a hike to see the plants growing. The more you see of the hats and the weavers, the better equipped you’ll be to buy your own.

Montecristi is about 3hr by road from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city.

Share

Book your trip with Rough Guides

Tailor-made travel planned by local experts

At Rough Guides, we understand that experienced travellers want to get truly off-the-beaten-track. That’s why we’ve partnered with local experts to help you plan and book tailor-made trips that are packed with personality and stimulating adventure - at all levels of comfort. If you love planning, but find arranging the logistics exhausting, you’re in the right place.

Learn Morechevron_right

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

chevron_leftPrevious feature
Santiago out of the shadows

Santiago out of the shadows

Next featurechevron_right
Nuclear disaster: Chernobyl today

Nuclear disaster: Chernobyl today

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Mandatory - can not be deselected. Necessary cookies help make a website usable by enabling basic functions like page navigation and access to secure areas of the website. The website cannot function properly without these cookies.

PHPSESSID,aelia_cs_selected_currency,cookie_notice_accepted,RS,bp-message,bp-message-type,id,UIDR,w3tc_logged_out,__cfduid
__cfduid

Statistics

Statistic cookies help website owners to understand how visitors interact with websites by collecting and reporting information anonymously.

__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid,__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xt
__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid
__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xtc

Marketing

Marketing cookies are used to track visitors across websites. The intention is to display ads that are relevant and engaging for the individual user and thereby more valuable for publishers and third party advertisers.

__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID,__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll,c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs
__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID
__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll
c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs