How to buy a panama hat

"Do not buy a superfino," says my guide, Ramiro, one moment twisting  his hands together, the next wagging his finger. I have been warned. Ramiro is my guide on a walking tour of the old city of Quito in Ecuador, and I just asked him where I should go to buy a panama hat. A superfino is the highest grade of panama hat, so flexible that it can be rolled and passed through a man's wedding ring.

"Sure you can roll it," says Ramiro, "but how many times? It's straw, and sooner or later you keep rolling and" – he bends his hands like a hinge – "it breaks. What you need is this," and he taps the slightly more sturdy version that is his own headwear.

"Another thing.We do not call it a panama hat because these hats have nothing to do with Panama. All panama hats are made in Ecuador. Here they are known as sombreros de paja toquilla, but as a foreigner we permit you to call them Montecristis."

It seems a cruel twist of fate that deprived Ecuador of its naming rights, but when they were building the Panama canal, workers used these fine, light hats to shield them from the tropical sun. When foreigners passing through the canal admired the workers' handsome headgear, they assumed they were a local product and forever after, the world has known them as panama hats.

Panama hats have graced the craniums of Humphrey Bogart, Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt and, you have to admit, Madonna, Katie Holmes and Catherine Deneuve look just peachy under one.

Panama hats are woven from the plaited leaves of the toquilla palm that grows on the coast of Ecuador, the secret of the hat's light weight, flexibility and durability. The main centre for hat manufacture is the city of Cuenaca, but the finest items are made in the hat's traditional home of Montecristi, by small family workshops that might only turn out a dozen in  a year. Such a hat is wildly expensive. A fine-quality item costs several hundred dollars even in Ecuador. Buy that same hat in London or the USA and it will set you back $700 at least, but for a top quality panama hat, you're well into four figures.

All the big hat makers in Ecuador use grade numbers to describe the quality of their hats. The higher the grade the better, but the system is not uniform. What one maker calls a grade 10 will be a grade 14 to another. If a seller in the market tells you a particular hat is fantastic because it's a grade 20, and for you senor, only $25, they're pulling the straw over your eyes.

Importers in the Western world have further clouded the issue, devising their own names designed to convey exclusivity and the very pinnacle of workmanship, such as the Napa Valley outlet that sells a "Montecristi Supremo Fino" – yours for $5000.

The Montecristi Foundation uses a grading system known as the Montecristi Cuenta. Measure a square section of a hat 25 millimetres by by 25 millimetres, count the number of horizontal weaves, multiply that by the number of vertical weaves and you have the Montecristi Cuenta. Any hat with a Montecristi Cuenta of 550-plus is a fine hat. A figure of 900 would signify a super quality item. A hat with a reading of 2000-plus costs as much as a small car.

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 Hats and I have an ephemeral relationship. They blow off or get left in taxis and I'm not about to invest more than I'm prepared to lose.

I enter Homero Ortega, a family-owned business that has been making panama hats since 1899. There are two walls of hats, men's on one side, women's on the other.  I try on several but I keep coming back to the fedora-style Cavalier. It's natty but restrained, a classical panama hat. Best of all is the price - $35.  The saleswoman shows me finer models that cost three times as much, then she holds a $300 model up to the light to show me the tightness and symmetry of the weave. It's lighter and finer, even I get that, but the Cavalier has my heart. 

Ramiro is waiting when I come out of the shop wearing my new hat.  He approves. "Everyone looks good in a panama hat," he says. "Even you. Now you look like a real man."

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

southamericatourism.com

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward flights to Quito.

STAYING THERE

Casa Gangotena is a glorious boutique hotel created from an art nouveau mansion on Quito's San Francisco Square. Rooms from  $580 a night; see casagangotena.com. The Casa Joaquin is a great choice for budget travellers. Rooms  from $77; see hotelcasajoaquin.com.

The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines and the South America Tourism Office.

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