A man, a plan, a canal, and a hat named after entirely the wrong country...

A display cabinet in the Homero Ortega 'factory' shop. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Imagine if Swiss Rolls actually came from Croatia or Turkish baths from France. Well it irks Ecuadorians that their most famous contribution to the world of hatmaking is associated with an entirely different country - Panama. In fact the Paja Toquilla, as it is known locally, is made in Ecuador by Ecuadorians from a plant indigenous to Ecuador's coastal areas.

So how did the traditional straw hat of Ecuador become the eponymous headwear of Panama? Well the most colourful story I heard on this was that early photographs showing the digging of the Panama Canal showed workers (likely to have been of Ecuadorian origin) wearing and waving them. But it's more likely that the necessity of transhipping most Latin American goods in former times, through to the better sea routes from Panama, lead to the hats being named after the last port they were shipped from rather than their town, region or country of manufacture.

Theodore Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal construction in 1906 and wears a 'Panama Hat'

Lightweight, light in colour, flexible, durable and breathable, Panama hats were popular in Ecuador as early as the 1600's, and then their use grew more widespread via the North American gold rush of 1848, when may prospectors headed from the east of the USA to the west via what was then the safest and cheapest way, the Panama Canal. In 1855 at the Paris World Fair they were introduced as 'Panama Hats' - and Ecuador wasn't a participant country at the fair - and then in 1906 US president Theodore Roosevelt sealed the misconception when he visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was frequently pictured wearing a 'Panama Hat' (above).

Another Roosevelt (this time Franklin Delanor), but the same canal and the same type of hat, in 1932 

Hollywood popularised the hats further still, and they appeared as influential wardrobe for Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mocking Bid and Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. Indeed in the late 1940's it is said that the hats were Ecuador's most important export by value. And yet even with the 'fabrique en Ecuador' inside every hat, the misnomer was beyond correcting. 

And the winner of the best Panama hat in a starring role might go to the hat worn by Dirk Bogard in Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice. The ageing composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, and his young obsession, the Polish boy Tadzio, both wore the Panama in the film. It's no spoiler to say that when Mahler's 5th symphony soars and Bogard's make-up runs at the film's finale, he's wearing a Panama. 

There are many places to buy Panama hats across Ecuador, but an important historical manufacturing centre is the city of Cuenca, at the southern end of the Route of the Volcanos, about 440 kilometres south from Quito.

Homero Ortega has a good little museum and an excellent shop. If you are lucky, as I was, your tour will be given by the charming and urbane xxx xxxx, who's family the business has been in since xxxx.

Raw hats are stacked before being finished in the Cuenca factory. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The hats are still woven in the coastal areas, done as a cottage industry before being shipped to highland towns like Cuenca for finishing. The Toquilla plant grows up to six metres tall, but the best leaves are picked from around the base in monthly cycles. As each hat is handwoven - usually taking a couple of days to make - it means that each Panama hat is unique.

Actually the finest woven and poshest hats can take several months to weave, and originate from the small town of Montecristi.

The hat weaving process, often done by moolight. Photo Homero Ortega

Apparently the weaving process is best done when the air is at its most humid, and so the weavers generally avoid working in the heat of the day and instead plait their fronds in the early morning, during cloudy skies, or by moonlight.

As well as seeing how the hat is woven and shaped, you'll pass a wall of fame showing some of the famous people who have visited the 'factory. The list of the great and good runs from Prince Charles to Geoff Goldbloom, via Peter Falk and Judith Chalmers. But the one that caught my eye was a certain Councillor Dolling from Luton, who passed this way in 2005.

The Homero Ortega wall of fame. Jeff Goldblum, Julian Sands, Peter Falk, and friends. Photo My Bathroom Wall


Further information: see Homero Ortega for information on how and when to visit the hat factory. Serrano Hat also makes Panama's in Cuenca. For general tourist information see Visit Cuenca and Ecuador Travel



Getting there: the small airport of Cuenca has Avianca Ecuador flights to Quito, LATAM Ecuador flights to Quito, and TAME flights to Guayaquil and Quito.



Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.