So! Like me, did you all think Panama hats came from Panama? Wrong! They come from Ecuador.
Montecristi, Ecuador. Where they have been making them, by hand, for hundreds of years. One reason why they are called Panama hats maybe because they were shipped out of Panama. And another reason maybe because President Roosevelt was wearing a Panama hat when he opened the Panama Canal in 1914. The cost of a Panama hat can run you anywhere from $50 or less, up to $25,000.00. It depends on how fine the fibers from the toquilla palm are and how tight the weave. A good Panama hat can be rolled into a tube and still retain its shape. It can hold water and it should be white. Other colours like beige or brown indicate an inferior fibre. It is really labour intensive and your back aches when you see the women bent over their work stations weaving the straw by hand. The United Nations has recognized the skill of the weavers of Montecristi Panama hats as a cultural intellectual property which allows protection for the marketing and sale of the authentic hats of Ecuador.
Our port city of Manta is a short drive away from Montecristi where they say the best Panama hats originated and are still made today. On our way to Montecristi, we stopped at a Cabuya plant weaving factory.
They make cabuya plant bags and loofas much the same way they did hundreds of years ago. They shred the cabuya plant and then use a spinning wheel-type machine which threads the fibre onto spools and then use those strands to weave the bags and loofas. All aspects of this production is done by hand. The fishermen used to use the bags for storing their fish catch on board, but today you can get a plastic bag for 50 cents whereby the woven bag costs $4.00. So their market is diminishing. Ecuador is working to eliminate plastic, so perhaps with a move away from plastic, these hardworking people will see their skills being used more again. They are trying to diversify by making the loofa scrubs and smaller bags for carrying groceries or personal items. But, sadly, this traditional art is dying out.
We also visited a Tagua plant. The nut from this palm tree, also known as the ivory plant, is very hard with a color and consistency of ivory. The nuts are fashioned into buttons. The material can be dyed. Buttons are still their main source of income, but now they also carve little animals and other small sculptures in an attempt to augment income and keep this dying art alive.
Manta is known as the tuna capital and is second only to Thailand in the supply of yellowfin tuna. In addition to tuna, they also have shrimp farming, flowers, bananas and in the 60s they used to be number one in coffee exports. They changed to growing corn, but now the government wants the farmers to go back to coffee. They also export cocoa, mostly to Germany and Switzerland, and they use US dollars here