Montecristi: The home of the Panama Hat
Ecuador – a culturally diverse, lush land of (probably) the most happiest, smiling people in Latin America, if not the world. Perhaps it is to do with the tropical climate. Located at the centre-point of the globe on the equator, it is surrounded by Amazonian rainforest, and beyond, the now-sprinkled high peaks of the Andes and towering volcanoes.
Offering outdoor adventures galore, this is the gateway to the nature reserve of the spectacular Galapagos islands. A special 4 night Silversea land programme transported a small privately escorted group of guests from the port of Manta to fly out to stay in an eco-hotel in order to explore the archipelago and experience, up close the extraordinary indigenous bird and wildlife, as witnessed by Darwin by 180 years ago on his epic Voyage of the Beagle around South America. The giant tortoises here with saddle shaped shell backs give the islands their name. (galapagos is Spanish for a horse’s saddle).
This is also the habitat for green sea turtles, blue footed boobies, prehistoric iguanas and sea lions sunbathing on the rocks. Observing the varying types of finches, frigate birds and the ancient tortoises from island to island gave Darwin the scientific knowledge he required to understand the fundamental idea for evolution; the backbone for his fundamental study of life, The Origin of Species.
From Manta – a tuna fishing port – it is just a 30 minute bus ride to the charismatic country town of Montecristi. This is no ordinary local bus, but the colourful open sided Chiva bus with bench seats and a band of local Passillo folkloric musicians on the roof.!
It is an extraordinary piece of arts and craft heritage that the ( erroneously) named Panama Hat was first made here. The famous, elegant Colonial style cream Sombrero de paja Toquilla is woven carefully by hand from the local Toquilla straw. We watch a couple of women bending over a round block mould as they dexterously twist and weave the thin strands. Meanwhile in the next stage of the process. a young boy is hammering at the finished material to iron out any uneven bumps to create the smooth shape of the beautiful sun hat.
Worn around the world from Santiago, Chile to the South of France, the question is why is an artisan sombrero from Ecuador named after Panama? President Roosevelt visited the Canal during its epic construction in 1906, and while inspecting the progress, he sat on a steam shovel, posing for photographs dressed in such a smart cream hat with the black ribbon.
The quality and price varies according to the length of time it has taken to make by hand and the meticulous care in the final beating and smoothing to an almost satin finish. A market of stalls sell the “panama hats” and more formal boutiques around the central square in Montecristi, priced from $25 – $250.
Ken and I clamber back on board our musical Chiva bus with ten happy Silversea guests for the dusty journey back to Manta.In our bags are two quintessential Sombreros which we wear on deck for our sail away party, cocktails in hand for sunset.