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Tour a Panama hat factory in Sigsig, Ecuador
First popularized by President Theadore Roosevelt and worn by countless travelers ever since, the Panama hat has become a symbol of coastal and tropical locales. Nothing screams I'm on vacation somewhere warm! quite like the straw hat, which is known for being breathable and able to return to its original shape after being folded in a suitcase. But what is not as well known is that Panama hats don't actually come from their namesake country. The hats actually originated in Ecuador, but were mistakenly called Panama hats because they were shipped through the Isthmus of Panama before making it to locations across the rest of the Americas, Europe and Asia.
Panama hats are still made throughout Ecuador, where Ecuadorians call the hats sombreros de paja toquilla (or "hats of toquilla straw"). Anyone selling the hats at markets or in shopping malls, however, is well aware that tourists often ask for them by the name "Panama hat." Several towns are famous for the production of the hats, including the small town of Sigsig in the Andes Mountains near the colonial city of Cuenca. It is possible to take an hour-long bus ride from Cuenca to Sigsig to visit a Panama hat company owned and operated by indigenous Ecuadorians who work directly with wholesalers. There, you can see women with amazingly nimble fingers as they weave the hats. Remarkably, each hat takes a single weaver several days to make. While there, you can get a good deal on a hat of your own or purchase other items made out of straw -- including bowls, boxes and coasters -- from a small company store. There's also a nice photo op in front of a giant Panama hat in the courtyard of the warehouse.
Gallery: Panama Hatmaking in Ecuador
Click through the gallery above or watch the video below to learn more about the art of creating Panama hats.