I linger beside one of the many white tarps that are strewn across the sidewalk. I stare intently at one of the items that lies just beside my foot before stooping down to inspect it. The vendor spots me and walks quickly to my side with a huge smile.

You like? He says as I hesitantly nod my head. No problem. He answers in broken English. I give it to you for a good price! Here, try it on. I have a mirror. He grabs the hat from my hands and places it on my head before quickly picking up a mirror. You look beautiful. He winks at me and pushes the mirror too close to my face before hastily pulling it away.

Cuanto cuesta? I ask in Spanish hoping that my proficiency in the Spanish language would tip him off that I wasn’t his typical gringa tourist.

$20 dollars. He answers. I cringe at the number and shake my head politely before starting to walk to the next tarp. He follows yelling out numbers: 19, 18, 17 … I shake my head at each offer knowing that he would never accept my price before trying my luck at the next vendor. I try all the vendors in Casco Viejo before I decide to walk home, empty handed.

searching for the perfect Panama hat
searching for the perfect Panama hat

I spent most of my time in Panama searching for the perfectly priced Panama Hat, a souvenir staple in the country. My search was fruitless, and I decided to search elsewhere for this fashionable hat. 

Why? Well first off, these hats are not native of Panama, they are in fact Ecuadorian.

The famous Panama hat was originally produced in Ecuador as early as the 17th century and were shipped to Panama before sailing to their final destinations in Asia, the Americas and Europe. The name “Panama hat” reflected their point of international sale and not their place of domestic origin. The name was further solidified during the Gold Rush when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was photographed wearing a Panama hat.

But, not only was the hat produced in Ecuador, it also is an important part of Ecuadorian history. It was used by Ecuador’s national hero, Eloy Alfaro, to help finance his liberal revolution of the country through the export of these hats in the late 19th century. 

As a result, I decided to wait until I visit Ecuador so that I could buy an authentic Panama hat.

If you ever do decide to purchase this hat in Panama or Ecuador make sure to aware of the quality. In fact, the quality of the hat varies as their production in Ecuador is dwindling, due to economic problems in Ecuador and competition from Chinese hat producers. For the finest quality Panama hats, one must travel to Montecristi, a small town in Ecuador where, to this day, the finest quality Panama hats are still woven. These “superfino” Panama Hats, also known as Montecristis, can hold water and are rolled for storage. But be prepared to pay a pretty penny as these hats are some of the rarest and most expensive Panama hats out there!

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