In 2012, UNESCO recognized the artistry of the iconic Ecuadorian straw hat, known as the “sombrero de paja toquilla”, as Intangible Cultural Heritage for Humanity. To truly appreciate the depth of its cultural significance, one must delve into its rich history and evolution as a symbol of identity. Perfectly timeless, universally appealing, and environmentally friendly—both elegant and casual, modern yet classic… a beautiful art. A visit to Homero Ortega in Cuenca leaves you with the perspective that there is simply no other hat like the paja toquilla!
More Than Just a Hat
“I grew up surrounded by them. I learned about the weaves and textures from my grandfather. We all grew up in the house where the factory operated. On Sundays, which were supply delivery days, the courtyard would fill up with hats piled up to about two meters high. I remember how much fun it was to jump with my cousin from the balcony and land on a pile of paja toquilla hats,” explains Angélica Molina, the company’s manager.
Her sister, Gabriela, Director of Communications, adds, “I remember my fascination with those labels that said ‘Made in Cuenca, Ecuador;’ our hats were little messengers that proudly told the world they were crafted by Ecuadorian hands. Knowing that something of ours embarked on a journey around the world made my imagination soar to those places. Pride in our own was always present.”
In an era when manual labor was often undervalued, Homero Ortega was a visionary man. He embraced and celebrated tradition in its purest form, bringing it to the most exclusive markets. Today, the company carries the torch of this heritage, ensuring that our national treasure continues to leave its positive mark on the world.
An Icon of Sustainable Fashion
The weaving of paja toquilla hats can take anywhere from three days to six months. In remote places like Pile, on the coast of Manabí, there are few weavers left with the knowledge to create the “superfine” hats—some weavers craft only one per year. Over time, the southern Ecuadorian highlands, especially the provinces of Azuay and Cañar, became the main production areas. Companies like Homero Ortega have succeeded in preserving the tradition, increasing its visibility, and rescuing its use without compromising cultural value. By staying true to the essence of our traditional paja toquilla hats, Homero Ortega guarantees not only the highest-quality but also a long life for a deeply Ecuadorian legacy.
The manufacturing process involves at least eight skilled artisans for each piece. Homero Ortega combines these skills and knowledge to create a unique object, making it a leading export company that honors craftsmanship, ancestral heritage, and tradition.
Homero Ortega’s hats are still handmade. They still require great dedication and a community of artisans. They are still as environmentally friendly as they were in ancient times when human impact on the environment was minimal.
“Each hat embodies a unique story, a piece of legacy woven into every fiber.”
In today’s world, where sustainability is a trend, the paja toquilla hat aligns perfectly with the highest principles of eco-friendly fashion. In addition to being handcrafted, production is limited; these are pieces created with the highest quality, biodegradable, built to withstand the test of time, making them a sustainable choice of the utmost value. But Homero Ortega takes sustainability a step further by offering free hat maintenance services, ensuring the longevity of every piece. Buying a paja toquilla hat from Homero Ortega is an act of responsible consumption.
A One-and-Only Hat Museum
Homero Ortega, understands that one cannot value what one does not grasp. Since the 1970s, the company opened their doors to share the history and crafting process of these iconic items with locals and foreigners alike. In the 1990s, Homero Ortega moved to its current location, where they exhibit finished hats and have create a living museum within the facility’s premises. Visitors from around the world have learned about the tradition of the Ecuadorian paja toquilla hat and have become “spread the word”. Today, one can even participate in creating their own paja toquilla accessory. This interactive experience allows a true connection with this wonderful natural fiber firsthand.
“Preserving any craft tradition requires that those who participate in its creation can make a living from it and contribute positively to their economies,” says Gabriela Molina Ortega. She adds that socially responsible production has always been a core value of Homero Ortega. For us at Ñan, we seek to support not only conscious tourism that respects and honors cultural traditions but also to contribute to those who are dedicated to valuing and strengthening timeless traditions like these. We are proud to invite everyone to experience the intricacies of this unique art at Homero Ortega. If you’re in Cuenca, it’s a must!
Text: Ilán Greenfield
Photos: Carlos Puga / Juan Fernando Ricaurte