The History of Ecuador’s Panama Hat


The modern-day Panama hat originated in the first quarter of the 17th century. Sales of the materials for the hat transformed the economy, offering many coastal residents employment at a task for which demand was international and growing. By the 1800s, indigenous craftsmanship melded with colonial manufacturing know-how to construct the hats at a faster rate. The first Panama hat factory to be established in the Andes was in the colonial city of Cuenca in the Andean province of Azuay in 1836. Labor and materials were imported from the coast where as was the custom, villagers, starting as children, learned the Panama hat trade. Railway travel between the coast and the Andes helped turn Panama hats into a national industry.

Lightweight and protective against the penetrating sun of the tropics, the Ecuadorian straw hat was ideally suited to the country for which it was named. US workers wore them while building the Panama Canal. Prospectors who passed through Panama on their way to join the Gold Rush picked up a hat for the days they would be spending bent over streams in the California sun. One large buyer was the U. S. government, purchased to outfit its troops for the hot-weather fighting conditions of the 1898 Spanish American War.

As the 20th century progressed, the Panama hat continued to grow in popularity and became a growing source of revenue, a Godsend when the country’s other major source of income, cacao, was wiped out by fungal disease. The monopoly didn’t last. Eventually other countries got into the Panama hat game. Ecuador began exporting the straw to the neighboring countries of Colombia and Peru as well as farther afield. Since then, other countries have legitimately been able to claim the hat as their own. Most use straw though a popular paper version of the hat, called the Shantung, is made in China. It isn’t as durable as an Ecuador Panama Hat but it is attractive nonetheless.

Throughout the world, wherever the hat is manufactured, people admire it, saying, “What a beautiful Panama hat.” Visitors who travel to Ecuador who wish to purchase a Panama hat in its country of origin will have many opportunities to do so. Southern Explorations offers many Ecuador tours from which to choose. For additional information about our Ecuador tours including travel to the Amazon and Galapagos Islands tours, both land-based and cruises, please read our trip descriptions.