It was somewhat unfortunate that the cruise ship I was on docked in San Juan of Puerto Rico at 6.30pm and was scheduled to leave at midnight. That left few hours to explore and, to make it worse, in the dark and drizzling rain. Never one to be deterred by any circumstances, I walked off the ship as fast as I could manage and, seeing, that the dock was very close to Old San Juan, I decided to walk around town and enjoy the atmosphere of street and shop lights shrouded in mist and the soothing sound of a light tropical rain. It was rather romantic and at least, it wasn’t cold.
I walked along the outer wall of the massive fortress, looked at the beautifully illuminated fountain “Los Raices” then turned right onto a cobble- stoned narrow street which leads into Old San Juan proper. I was rewarded with peeks into courtyards of the lovingly restored and well kept Spanish style houses and then came upon some shops which luckily were still open.
What caught my attention though was a small shop the display window of which was crammed with Panama hats and nothing else. I thought I could do with one of those, to protect me from rain and future sunshine alike during the rest of my voyage.
When I looked at the price tag on one of the hats I fancied, I nearly fainted. I was 4 figures, I kid you not. As I didn’t know anything about Panama hats, I asked the owner why they are so expensive and got a lesson on the history and making of Panama hats.
They are neither made in nor do they originate from Panama. In many, many hours of painstaking labor, they are woven in Ecuador, in the town of Cuenca. The creme de la creme of hats comes from the town of Montecristi located on Ecuador’s coastal plain.
When the Panama Canal was constructed, the durable hats became all the rage with the workers as well as the gold hunters who went to California. Theodore Roosevelt, on a visit to the Panama Canal, returned to the US wearing one of the hats and the press invented the term “Panama Hat” which stuck.
These hats are collectors items and given the art and craft which goes into creating each single one, the price is no longer a surprise. I thanked the owner for this enlightening lesson which gave me a ‘hat-start’ on Panama hats and left, sans hat!
Inka is German and used to be an international attorney with offices in London and Spain. Retired two years ago because I wanted to be a traveler and writer and now live between Didim/Turkey and Miami with plenty of travel in between. Next destinations: Istanbul, New York and Petra/Jordan. Inka’s first novel has just been published and can be found here
Interesting facts. I lived in Panama for 3 years and never knew that. Never was much of a hat person either, though.