In Search of the Panama Hat

It Looks Incredibly Cool, Doesn’t It?

It Looks Incredibly Cool, Doesn’t It?

When I first traveled to Yucatán in 1975, I read in the guidebooks that the peninsula was the home of the famed panama straw hat. In fact, I bought one at the municipal market in Mérida. It was okay, but it didn’t make me look like a sex object such as the guy in the above picture.

The straw hats in Yucatán were called jipijapas. That is very curious because Jipijapa is one of the two towns in Ecuador that is the source of the paja toquilla from which Panamas are manufactured around Cuenca, which is also in Ecuador. (The other town, better known, is Montecristi.) The straw hats of Yucatán are nice, but they are made in Becal in the State of Campeche; and they don’t compare with the expensive productions of the master Ecuadorian hatmakers.

Fortunately, the Ecuadorians are no longer getting the short end of the stick—at least insofar as straw hats are concerned. The hats were called Panamas because the construction workers on the Panama Canal insisted on wearing them for their protection against the tropical sun.

You can find the whole story in Tom Miller’s excellent book, The Panama Hat Trail. He manages the not inconsiderable feat of studying an entire culture from one not particularly major export. In addition to the areas involved in the manufacture of the hats, he takes us to Quito and the Oriente (near the Amazon) so that he doesn’t leave us with a too fragmented picture of the South American nation.

Will I buy a Panama hat when I go to Ecuador? Maybe, but I know it will just make me look like Sydney Greenstreet.