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    South & Central America Travel

    The Hat That is a Work of Art – The Panama Hat

    Location: Monticristi Ecuador

    Right off the top(hat) let’s clear one thing up.  The Panama Hat is NOT from Panama.  It is from Ecuador, and specifically originally from Monticristi, a small village in the mountains near the port city of Manta.

    In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a man who in many ways is considered the grandfather of the Panama hat, arrived in Montecristi to make his name and fortune in Panama hats. He set up a Panama hat business with his  goal being exportation. Most of the exports went through Panama, thus the name.

    But hat making had been an indigenous occupation long before Alfaro arrived and exploited it. Since the early 1600’s coastal and mountain Ecuadorian peoples had steadily perfected the art of hat weaving.

    Known locally as Toquillo Straw Hats, Panama hat construction uses the toquillo palm, which is not actually a palm but a palm-like plant.  In fact, you might recognize this plant as many in the USA have this as a houseplant.  I have had several over the years.

    Loved for the lightweight texture and breathability, Panama Hats are more popular now than ever before, particularly to wear in hot weather.  The authentic hand-made hats from Ecuador can take months to construct, and depending on the intricacy of the design can sell for retail in the USA from $200 to $10,000.  Purchased direct from the weaver in Ecuador (before the multiple middle man markups) hats cost much less, anywhere from $50-$300.

    We watched a couple of local weavers in the mountain village of Monticristi.  It was fascinating to see the process.  Most of the expert weavers are women.  They stand for hours hunched over a wooden support that they lean their breast bone on.  I’m sure these women have a permanent bruise on their sternum.  From this position they weave the hats, basically from an upside down position, while the hat is right side up.

    We watched one hat under construction.  The young woman had been working on it for two months.  She told us, through an interpreter, she expected to be done with it in another month.  The quality of the hat comes from the tightness of the weave.  Two styles of weave are most commonly used; the Cuenca weave has the appearance of a herringbone pattern and utilizes slightly more straw;  the Brisa weave has the appearance of small diamonds/squares. This type of weave is less intricate but perceived as finer than the Cuenca weave by some as it is lighter.  Both are very beautiful and the hat we watched being made was absolutely magnificent with its intricate design.  Perfection. She expected to sell it for $300.

    Of course today you can buy imposter Panama hats from Taiwan.  They look about the same and cost decidedly less.  But if you want the real thing from the real and authentic Ecuadorian artists, be sure you are buying a real Panama Hat.

    I did not buy one, since I wouldn’t be able to take care of it during our full-time travels.  Although designed to fold up with out damage, I still didn’t want to take a chance.  I expect to return to Ecuador in a couple years and I will surely buy one.  A quality purchase that will last a lifetime.

    I’m so glad I got to witness this art form first hand.  A wonderful cultural, artistic experience I will not forget.


    (Source for this blog Wikipedia

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    South & Central America Travel

    The World’s Greatest Shortcut – Crossing the Panama Canal

    Location: Panama Canal

    What a fascinating experience it was to cross through the Panama Canal on board the Norwegian Sun.  I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I was going to.  Absolutely a fascinating experience, in a life full of fascinating experiences.  My Fab Fifties Life.  

    Panama Canal

    Approaching Gatun Locks

    Incredibly we had a glorious sunny and hot day (the next day was cloudy, wet and stormy), so we felt lucky as we stumbled out of our stateroom a little after 6:00am, for what would be about an eleven hour excursion through the 80km  canal – an engineering wonder of the world.

    Panama Canal

    Inside Gatun Locks

    The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, cut through one of the narrowest saddles of the isthmus that joins North and South America.  The Canal uses a system of locks with entrance and exit gates that function to raise the ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake (a man-made lake) 26 meters above sea level.  

    We began on the Atlantic side passing first through the Gatun Locks (named for the town located here) at 7:00am.  It took about two hours to pass through this first set of three locks (see video). 

    Our ship, the Norwegian Sun, is a relatively small cruise ship, just under 900 feet long.  The locks we passed through are the original locks – the longest ship that can pass through these locks is 1000 feet (304.8 meters).  Curiously the Panama Transit Authority uses feet and inches rather than meters in all transit communication.

    Panama Canal

    Panama Sunrise

    A new set of locks (opened in 2016) now can accommodate larger vessels,  up to 1200 feet long and 158 feet wide known as Neopanamax ships.  Norwegian’s newest ship, Bliss, which is 1100 feet uses the new canal.

    Panama Canal

    Our stateroom view when the water was lowered

    The water used to raise and lower the ships in the locks comes from Gatun Lake by gravity; it comes into the locks through a system of main culverts that extend under the lock chambers from the sidewalls and center wall.  The narrowest portion of the canal is the Culebra Cut, which extends from the north end of Pedro Migues Locks to the south edge of Gatun Lake.  It is approximately 8.5 miles carved through the rock and shale of the Continental Divide. 

    Panama Canal

    Jockeying for a good view

    The Panama Canal is a saga of human ingenuity and courage that dates back to the early 16th century when the Spaniards arrived to the Isthmus.  Since then, the idea of building a route that would link the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans was discussed.

    The French began the first effort in 1880, but abandoned the effort when financial problems as well as tropical diseases made it impossible to continue. 

    At the urging of the United States, Panama broke from Colombia and declared its independence in 1903, resulting in the partnership with the USA to begin construction once again on the passage.  The canal was completed in August 1914 and as per the original agreement the USA administered the canal until December 31, 1999 when Panama assumed full operation.

    The world’s greatest shortcut provided a boost to world trade and transit, by cutting transit time from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice versa) by approximately three weeks.

    A private yacht may pay $2000 or less and a large commercial ship up to $150,000. The cost is still less than sailing around South America. Interesting fact: Panama Canal authorities used to charge swimmers 36 cents to pass through.

    Panama Canal

    Culebra Cut

    Toll for crossing through the canal for a ship the size of the Norwegian Sun is approximately $250,000 (1500 passengers).  A giant cruise ship such as the Bliss, will pay $890,000 (4000 passengers).  The tolls are calculated with numerous factors including size, revenue earnings and number of passengers.  A universal measurement system is used, taxing every 100 cubic feet of passenger space (cabins, dining, entertainment areas) but not bridge or crew areas.  Usually $5 per cubic foot.

    Panama Canal

    The Norwegian Sun

    Cruise operators will often include in the cost of the cruise approximately $140 per person as a surcharge.

    Panama is now one of the fastest expanding countries in world trade.  The canal generates 2 billion dollars for Panama annually.  The canal is vital to the world’s prosperity and is clearly an enormous feat of humanity, linking the world.  

    As we exited the final locks on the Pacific side (Pedro Miguel) at 5:30pm we completed more than ten hours of transiting through one of the wonders of the world – the world’s greatest shortcut.  As the world moves through the challenges of nationalism versus globalization, as well as the impending and potentially disastrous effects of climate change, new and expanded canals are being considered.  The wildly successful Panama Canal has sparked interest in Nicaragua for possible construction of a new canal there.  China is poised to capitalize as a world power in potential new canals around the world,  with the construction knowhow and trade-savvy chops to lead in the building of such a canal.  

    Cruising through the Panama Canal was certainly the highlight of our 15 days onboard the Norwegian Sun.  Fabulous !

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