With plenty to do in Quito, can hat shops end up on top?

Statue
The Spanish king on the bottom of this Ecuadoran statue on its fight for independence.
Liberty
With an ascending condor, symbol of Ecuador, and Liberty on top

Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, Quito, Ecuador — With 2.6 million people living in Quito, Ecuador, a city surrounded by volcanoes, it might seem odd that our new Alexander & Roberts guide, Maria, would make our first visit there to a hat shop, one of two we frequented while there.

She could have — and eventually did — take us around the city and tell us about its Spanish founding in 1534 when it was dubbed San Francisco de los Quito. The population that year was 254 people, but they only counted Spaniards and two Moorish slaves. Native population who had been there for thousands of years did not get on the stone tablets now displayed on the main square.

Quito is the second highest capital in the world at 9,350 feet. The highest belongs to La Paz, Bolivia, at 11,942 feet. Quito is in the middle of 16 active volcanoes and when we asked if there had been an eruption, Maria answered back, “Which one?” There was an eruption two years ago.

With 24 provinces and 16.5 million people in the country, Quito is the political capital of Ecuador. Guayaquil and its four million population is considered the economic center of Ecuador.

There are about 1.5 million Colombians living in Ecuador and right now the country is getting 5,000 to 6,000 Venezuelans crossing into the country every day — that’s about two times each day compared to Trump’s feared Central American caravan. The government statistics say the unemployment is about 12 percent. But Maria pointed out that many people are either making a living or supplementing another job by selling oranges on the streets, washing windshields at intersections or working as street vendors. The currency here is stronger, which might not be a surprise since it is the dollar. Many of the dollar coins depict James Madison, George Washington or Susan B. Anthony. Seemed odd to me. Never saw any with James Monroe on them.

The presidential palace was built on top of an Inca building (wasn’t everything?) and the Spanish rule didn’t start to crumple until Aug. 10, 1809, when Ecuadorans gathered in the main square (“Perhaps after wine,” suggested Maria) to demand freedom. Soldiers jailed them, they died but that was the beginning of the move to independence, which came in 1822. The statue in the square stacks things on top of the Spanish king. Then comes guns and battles. A condor, the symbol of the new country, breaking chains and then liberty on top.

Maria could have said all that right at the beginning of our visit, but the Humacatama Sombreros hat shop was right around the corner from our hotel (the lightly guarded presidential palace was around the other corner), and it was a ton of fun.

From the second that they pulled out the hat in the video above, I knew that it would become my winter hat. Kathy bought it for me at $35, which is a very good bargain, and it folded up in my luggage to get it home. But first it was used in demonstrating for sizing, pressing and waterproofing. Nice to witness all that goes into your purchase.

Besides witnessing how hats are made, we got to try on everything in the house, which brought out the best of us, I think.

Large hat 1
Who else could carry off this lovely hat, but Kathy?

The hat-shop tour did not end there. A couple of days later we dropped by Casa Montecristi, a shop that makes and sells what most people refer to as “Panama hats,” although most of them are made in Ecuador.

$3,000 hat
A $3,000 hat

My summer hat is a straw one that seemed expensive to me when I bought it at the John Helmer shop in Portland, Oregon, for about $100. That pales in the face of some of the hats in this shop. The price tag on the one pictured to the left  was $3,000.

Out of my price range, but perhaps understandable when you take into account the amount of work these handmade items take. First the straw to make the hats is sorted and separated into thin, thin threads. From there the threads are

Loose straw
Loose straw and the beginning of a hat

woven together to make the hat. In order to do this, Maria demonstrated the position the weavers need to get into to make sure the straw is going together in a tight fashion. From there the hat is woven, shaped, a band attached and put up for sale.

The thinness of the straw and the tightness of the weave makes the hat more expensive. In the picture below you can see the difference

Weaving position
The weaver is up close and personal with the hat being made

in the thickness and tightness of the weave between my formerly expensive hat, left, and a truly expensive hat on the right.

Straw in hats
A $100 hat, left, and a $3,000 hat, right

A couple of very interesting shops, a couple of interesting days in Ecuador’s capital and I got my winter hat. Can’t beat it.Us in hats

Kathy bought my $35 winter hat but would not let me buy this lovely fascinator for her