Ecuador Demonstrating the tradition of making Panama hats in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Published on October 22nd, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut

Demonstrating the tradition of making Panama hats in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Touring a Panama Hat Factory — in Cuenca, Ecuador

In case you haven’t heard, Panama hats aren’t from Panama. These perennially popular fashion statements — correctly called toquilla straw hats — were born in Ecuador, probably in the 17th century. Like many goods produced in South America back then, these stylish men’s hats were shipped to the rest of the world via Panama (even before the Panama Canal opened, that Central American region was an important trade hub). As a result, over time, people started calling the creations Panama hats, and the name stuck.

The historic city of Cuenca, Ecuador — an important stop on foreign visitor’s travel itineraries in this South American nation — is the best place to learn about (and shop for) these legendary hats. During a recent visit while staying at the Hotel Oro Verde, I was invited on a tour of the headquarters of Homero Ortega, one of the nation’s largest producers of toquilla hats. It was interesting to stroll through the company’s facility, which includes an exhibit area that highlights the history and traditions of hat making. Paja toquilla — shawl straw — comes from the palm of the Carludovica Palmata plant, and is used for everything from home decor to baskets, bags, purses and, of course, so-called Panama hats. The process is rather labor intensive, so it’s no surprise that — depending on the quality and amount of time involved — these hats can easily cost hundreds of dollars.

TRAVEL PHOTOS: Top 5 Reasons to Visit Cuenca, Ecuador
HOTEL REVIEW: Hotel Oro Verde Cuenca
HOTEL REVIEW: Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve & Lodge

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About the Author

The founder and editor of, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.

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