Hatmaking in the Mayan countryside

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January 14th 2010
Published: January 14th 2010
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Town square, Becal.Town square, Becal.Town square, Becal.

These concrete hats will get you invited to one of many studios in town. Simply stop to take a picture, and you will be approached.
We're back home now. I had tried to put this post online when still in Mexico, but most of my digits got lost. While I've datelined this entry as coming from Uxmal, Yucatan, the destination of this excursion is actually across the border, in Campeche state, in a tiny town not listed on travelblog's menu of destinations. After our visit to the ruins at Uxmal, we headed for Becal — Town of Hats, "Panama" hats. The scare quotes are there to awaken any readers who don't already know that Panama hats aren't from Panama. They acquired that name during the construction of the Panama Canal, because engineers and entrepreneurs saw the locals wearing these cool straw hats, and brought them back home, where they became so fashionable.

Most of those hats sold in Panama came from Ecuador. But these same sort of hats are also made in Becal, Mexico, using the same materials and techniques. And the locals here are every bit as good at making them, here in Mexico, as the Ecuadorians are. When I was in college, my landlord, on his deathbed, gave me a "fino" Montecristo, made in Ecuador. He told me he had paid $500us for
Houses wear straw hats!Houses wear straw hats!Houses wear straw hats!

This is called a palapa. We call it thatched cottage. It's a typical home in this region, although there are more modern homes made of concrete block, too.
the hat in 1928. (At the time, I thought he was delusional.) But then I learned something about the hours and cost of making such a hat, and the middlemen who bring them to market. (The story is well-told in a book: The Panama Hat Trail.) The "straw" (palm frond) is split so fine that my old fino hat felt like it was made of linen. And I saw a few hats in Becal that were made with that same feel. A fino still takes two or three weeks to make. But I will settle for the regular weave as being much more practical and affordable.

Getting to Becal was a bit of an adventure in itself, as we went through a nearby Mayan town named Halacho, where we got lost. The main road was closed off for some pedestrian event, and our detour wasn't expected. Such small towns have few cars. Bicycles, actually tricycles, were everywhere, as they're used as delivery vehicles and taxis. And when we finally found our way to Becal, we were solicited by just such a biker and 'delivered' to a hatmaker's home via one of these pedal-powered rickshaws.

Additional photos below
Photos: 12, Displayed: 12


Our bicycle ragtopOur bicycle ragtop
Our bicycle ragtop

Candelario, our taxi guy, took us to a hatmaker's studio.
Taxi trafficTaxi traffic
Taxi traffic

You should have seen grid lock in the previous town! Here, we see a 1:1 ratio. Four cars to four bikes.
The hat maestroThe hat maestro
The hat maestro

Yes, he's wearing my hat while he splits palm fronds.
Left and rightLeft and right
Left and right

Split and raw. The ribs get removed for incorporation into brooms.
Open air studioOpen air studio
Open air studio

The hatmaker is wearing a white shirt and brown pants. The four at his table are customers from upland Mexico (a doctor and his family).
Underground tradeUnderground trade
Underground trade

Behind his palapa is a cave dug into the limestone rock which underlays this region. When summer gets too hot, hats get made in the cooler precincts of the cave.
Cave man artisanCave man artisan
Cave man artisan

These studios are not for tall folks!
Doctor's son, about 14 years oldDoctor's son, about 14 years old
Doctor's son, about 14 years old

His name is Jesus. The entire family spoke English. I gave Jesus a pocket edition of the New Testament in Spanish which I had with me. Everyone was amused. The hatmaker and the taxi driver both told me they are Christians.

30th March 2016

Logistics for Merida to Uxmal to Becal
So, I'll be in Merida and going to Uxmal--driving. I see that Becal is within an hour car ride. Is it feasible to return to Merida afterward, as part of a loop?
30th March 2016

Yes, feasible, depending on how much time you want to spend there. Allow 90 minutes for transit in each direction.
30th March 2016

Hat blocking
I wanted to thank you for your blogs. I actually read through quite a few of them and they're very well-written and informative. I see your name is HatCat, which combined with your blog about Becal, makes me think you might know something about hats in Merida. I am a small-time hat enthusiast. I have a rabbit fur Borsalino fedora that spent a month in the rainy season of DF. I wear this Borsalino everywhere but it needs to be reblocked. I've had much luck doing this in other cities with living hat traditions, and I have pretty fluent Spanish, so I find it fun and easy to navigate this task. Are there any places in Merida that work on felt hats? Or are they just specialists in straw?
30th March 2016

I know nothing about felt hat care in Merida. Sorry. Too hot here for felt hats.
26th October 2016

Hats and Pants
I'll be traveling to Merida next week, and am looking to buy a hat. I speak just a little Spanish. I know that the general market is usually not the place to go for quality. I'm interested in buying a hat that will protect me from the sun. I read about Becal, but are there places in Merida where I can buy a good, well woven hat(I don't need a Rolls Royce, but maybe a Lexus). What can I expect to pay for such a hat? And by the way, do men wear pants made from linen or blend fabrics? Are those easy to purchase. I enjoy reading your blogs and thank you for any help you can provide.
26th October 2016

Hi Steve, there are plenty of stores in centro which sell hats from Becal, of varying degrees of craftsmanship. I bought one in Becal of Lexus grade for about $30usd. Not sure of price in centro. But this is low season (until December), and they will be open to bargaining. Don't be afraid to walk out to get a price from another store. Good luck!

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