During Semana Santa, the ‘Holy Week’ before Easter, signs go up all over Cuenca advertising fanesca, a codfish soup that accommodates the prohibition on red meat during the holiday. The base is made of pumpkin, and a dozen kinds of beans and grains representing the 12 apostles of Jesus are thrown in. Garnishes include hard-boiled eggs, fried plantains, and mini-empanadas (the latter symbolize the unbelievers: not involved in the soup's preparation but gladly accepted into the tradition). It’s so rich and delicious you won’t be hungry until the following Easter. In Cuenca, it's often complemented by a dessert of cinnamon-doused rice pudding.
It’s Not a Panama, it’s a Montecristi!
For well over a century, Ecuador has endured the world mistakenly crediting another country with its most famous export – the panama hat. To any Ecuadorian worth his or her salt, the panama hat is a sombrero de paja toquilla (toquilla-straw hat), and to the connoisseur it’s a Montecristi, named after the most famous hat-making town of all. It’s certainly not a paaa…
The origin of this misnomer – surely one of the world’s greatest – dates to the 1800s, when Spanish entrepreneurs, quick to recognize the unrivaled quality of sombreros de paja toquilla, began exporting them via Panama. During the 19th century, workers on the Panama Canal used these light and extremely durable hats to protect themselves from the tropical sun, helping to solidify the association with Panama.
Paja toquilla hats are made from the fibrous fronds of the toquilla palm (Carludovica palmata), which grows in the arid inland regions of the central Ecuadorian coast, particularly around Montecristi and Jipijapa. A few Asian and several Latin American countries have tried to grow the palm to compete with the Ecuadorian hat trade, but none could duplicate the quality of the fronds grown here.
The work that goes into these hats is astonishing. First the palms are harvested for their shoots, which are ready just before they open into leaves. Bundles of shoots are then transported by donkey and truck to coastal villages where the fibers are prepared.
The preparation process begins with beating the shoots on the ground and then splitting them by hand to remove the long, thin, flat, cream-colored leaves. The leaves are tied into bundles and boiled in huge vats of water for about 20 minutes before being hung to dry for three days. Some are soaked in sulfur for bleaching. As the split leaves dry, they shrink and roll up into the round strands that are used for weaving.
Some of the finished straw stays on the coast, but most is purchased by buyers from Cuenca and surrounding areas, where it is woven into hats. Indeed, you’ll see more panama hats in and around Cuenca than you’ll see anywhere else in Ecuador.
The weaving process itself is arduous, and the best weavers work only in the evening and early in the morning, before the heat causes their fingers to sweat. Some work only by moonlight. Weaves vary from a loose crochet (characteristic of the hats you see sold everywhere) to a tighter ‘Brisa’ weave, which is used for most quality panama hats.
Hats are then graded by the density of their weaves, which generally fall into four categories: standard, superior, fino (fine) and superfino (superfine). Most hats you see are standard or superior. If you hold a real superfino up to the light, you shouldn’t see a single hole. The best of them will hold water, and some are so finely woven and so pliable that they can supposedly be rolled up and pulled through a man’s ring!
After the hats are woven, they still need to be trimmed, bleached (if they’re to be white), blocked and banded. Then they’re ready to sell. Although standard-grade hats start at around $15 in Ecuador, a superfino can cost anywhere between $100 and $500. While it may seem expensive, the same hat will easily fetch three times that amount on shelves in North America and Europe. And considering the work that goes into a superfino, it rightly should.
Unraveling Cuenca Fashion
Most travelers will be struck by the vibrant and ornate traditional dress of indigenous women in and around Cuenca. While most men in the region have lost the custom of wearing a poncho, many women still wear their traditional garb with pride. The women’s skirts, called polleras, fall just below the knee and have a distinctive embroidered hem that can identify which community a woman comes from. Although fine polleras can cost hundreds of dollars, no part of an indigenous woman’s wardrobe is prized more than her paño, a beautiful fringed shawl made with a complicated pre-Columbian weaving technique known as ikat. Top that off with a straw hat, clunky metal earrings called zarcillas, and a pair of long braids, and you have a look that has withstood every fashion trend the past 100 years have had to offer, including jelly bracelets, acid-washed jeans and bell-bottoms… timeless!