By Margaret Winter
Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios and the Municipal Museum Casa del Sombrero warmly invite all who love the city to join in a celebration this Sunday of the 200th anniversary of Cuenca’s independence and the 20th anniversary of Cuenca’s designation as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity site.
The event, “Caminato por el Patrimonio,” is a walking tour of one of Cuenca’s most historic streets, Calle Rafael Maria Arízaga, with musical and dance performances all along the route.
Everyone participating in the walk is encouraged to wear a Panama hat — that is, a sombrero de paja toquilla.
Calle Rafael María Arízaga, the site of the event, is the street of Cuenca’s independence: Here, on November 4, 1820, patriots entered the city and did battle to liberate it from Spain. Today, one hundred ninety-nine years later, the city wants to render special homage to this historic street.
It is no wonder that the so-called Panama hat is emblematic of the city of Cuenca. The accompanying photos capture how ubiquitous the sombrero de paja toquilla has been in the daily life of the city, in civil as well as religious gatherings, for over a hundred years. It continues to this day to be a familiar sight, worn by Ecuadorians, expats and tourists alike.
Since the early 20th century, the sombrero de paja toquilla has been adopted worldwide by statesmen, movie stars, fashionistas and working people. It is treasured for its exquisite lightness, suppleness, durability, and utility as protection from the sun. For over a hundred years, Cuenca has been the principle exporter to the world of the finest sombreros de paja toquilla, and the world-renowned hat played a central economic role in Cuenca becoming the cultural heart of Ecuador.
The sombrero de paja toquilla has deep ancestral roots in Ecuador, and no one is sure exactly how the “Panama hat” misnomer for this quintessentially Ecuadorian creation took root. Some say it began to be called a “Panama” hat with the Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century, when ‘49ers on their way to California bought the hats as they passed through Panama. The hats were showcased at the 1855 World Fair in Paris. The hats were imported from Ecuador to Panama by the thousands, at the beginning of the 20th century, and worn by construction workers building the Canal. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was famously photographed wearing one while inspecting the canal’s construction site. Thereafter, North Americans invariably referred to the hat as a “Panama.”
On December 1, 2012, UNESCO added the sombrero de paja toquilla to its Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
One of the loveliest sites on Calle Rafael María Arízaga is the Municipal Museum of the Casa del Sombrero. The museum, located in a beautifully restored patrimonial house, provides a venue for artisans who hand-weave the hats on site, and where visitors can purchase high-quality, authentic sombreros de paja toquilla, directly from the artisans.
The Caminata por el Patrimonio will be one of fifty cultural events from November 28 to December 7 celebrating the UN’s designation of Cuenca as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity site.
What: Walking tour: Caminata por el Patrimonio
When: Sunday, December 1, starting at 9 a.m.
Where: Calle Rafael María Arízaga, from Avenida Huayna Cápac to Parque la Libertad, Cuenca.