Chasing Down Panama Hats in Old San Juan

© Vanessa Query

I heard about these $6,000 Panama hats in San Juan, Puerto Rico -- hand-woven, of course (I’d certainly hope so). This, I had to see, even if actually buying one was a mere flight of fancy. 

Olé Curiosidades on Calle Fortaleza (Fortaleza St.) in Old San Juan is a small shop, with a narrow entrance on a narrow street. But its humble entrance defies the treasures inside: along with a range of one-of-a-kind knick-knacks and collectibles (as the moniker curiosidades would have you guess), this shop specializes in hand-fitted, customized Panama hats.

Despite its name, Panama hats are Ecuadorian in origin. When they began to be exported in the nineteenth century, they were shipped to Panama before sailing for their final destinations around the world. So the rest of the world started calling them Panama hats.

The Panama hats in Olé are traditionally hand-woven in Ecuador. In 2012, this traditional art of weaving was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, created to acknowledge and protect the significance of “intangible”—or non-material—pieces of a culture. While a Panama hat is material, the method of its creation, the traditional weaving process (which dates back to the 17th century) is not.

A Panama hat is the perfect summer cover: light-colored, lightweight, and made with breathable straw. But unlike the summer hats stateside Americans are most familiar with, Panama hats are classy, easily dressy, and elegant. They’re like tropical fedoras.

Sadly, Olé had sold out of the $6,000 hats, as well as the $4,000 and $5,000 ones. However, still remaining —under lock and key, within a glass display—were two $3,000 Panama hats.

“Why would anyone pay $3,000 for a hat?” I whispered to my friend. “You’ll find out when you touch it,” she said.

The shopkeeper carefully brought out one of the hats for us to touch. That was nice of her, since it was probably obvious we weren’t going to buy one. None of our party tried it on, but we did all touch. It was incredible: smooth and velvety under the fingers. The hat had a nice wide brim, weighed next to nothing, but was clearly strong and durable.

If I’d had a spare $3,000, I totally would have bought that hat.

Instead, I bought a $60 hat, which is economical in comparison, but quite extravagant for me. It began as a harmless joke. Three of those in our party all claimed to have the largest heads. We had a showdown.

The shopkeeper took one look at me, scooped up a hat on display, and placed it on my head. She nailed it: at 59 centimeters (American hat size 7½), it was a perfect fit. It sat on my head firmly yet smoothly, and was perfect for a sunny, 80-degree day. I admired myself in a mirror; I looked sharp. I was sold.

Then I found out that I could customize it by choosing from more than a dozen hatbands and a selection of stylish fasteners. I chose a high-contract, black-and-white plaid pattern and a simple cinch fastening.

By the time we stepped outside the shop, the wind had picked up so of course within roughly 60 seconds of buying this gorgeous, coveted, indulgent hat, it flew off my head and into the streets of Old San Juan. I gasped audibly and gave chase. The hat rambled down the road, out of my reach, until it was pulled under a car that had just stopped at an intersection.

Prepared for the worst, I skidded around the car to where, thankfully, my beautiful hat had flitted back into the road. It paused to rest in the gutter, and I grabbed it.

I protected my hat with my life for the remainder of the day. And I did not let go of it while traveling home.

I look forward to the summertime, when I can wear my hat with pride, the envy of my neighbors, regaling them with the story of how I nearly lost a $60 Panama hat, and how grateful I was to not have spent $3,000 on a hat that flew into a gutter.

(For those of you waiting with bated breath for the results of the biggest head showdown: shamefully, my head was the smallest; Charlotte was a 60 while Sarah rocked a whopping 62.)