We were looking for sombreros–hats. Viewing the giant hat sculpture in the village plaza, there was no doubt we had arrived at the hat-making town of Becal, Campeche, Mexico.
We saw several tricycle rickshaws in the town center waiting for passengers. Judie, who has ridden camels in the Sahara, funeral boats in Mog Mog, said, “I want to ride one!” So she hired one of the taxistas to take her to the cave of the best hat maker and we followed in the car.
Hats have been made in Becal for generations in the humid environments of backyard limestone caves. The humidity keeps the fibers pliable for easier weaving. It is said that there are more than 2,600 of these caves in the area.
The women of the families weave hats in the caves, while the men gather the materials and sell the sombreros. They make everything from colorful, floppy beach hats to expensive fine “Panama” hats. Don’t mention “Panama” to them, however. “Panama” hats are not from Panama. Originally men building the Panama Canal bought hats from Ecuador and called them “Panama.” This is somewhat akin to buying a Christian Dior or Chanel chapeau in Chicago and calling it a “Chicago hat.”
The “taxi” bearing Judie led us through winding streets lined with thatch-roofed houses behind primitive rock walls. We stopped at one of these, the home of Elvie Cuipam — “the best hat maker in the village” and probably the cousin of the taxi pedaler. The was no sign in front mentioning “best” or even hat maker.
Elvie told us that people came from all over the world to buy her hats. She took us past her modest house, past gardens of guano palms — for making the more rustic hats, flowers and banana trees.
In her backyard we climbed into the darkness of a cave dug by her ancestors many generations ago. She lit a candle and proceeded to weave a hat, her hands moving at lightning speed, as if they had ages of experience doing this. The candle flickered, illuminating the green-, brown- and red-streaked limestone walls. It was humid and smelled of damp palm fiber.
She demonstrated how she used a needle to strip the palm leaves into thin, even straw, then she occasionally moistened the fibers with water from a soda bottle to keep the straw supple while weaving.
Her husband joined us in the cave with an ample supply of hats we could buy. He was fifty years old and had been making hats all his life. He explained how the rougher hats were made with the fiber of the guano palm, the same leaves used for roof thatch. And the fine hats–read Panama–were made using a plant called jipi, pronounced hee pee – the same way the Mexicans say hippie. They call these hats jipi sombreros. It takes much longer to make a jipi hat, and the finer the weave, the more expensive the hat. Even the finest weave “breathes,” making them excellent for the tropics. He also demonstrated how the jipis could be rolled up tightly and how they would return to their original shape when unrolled—a great feature for travelers.
I bought a very nice jipi hat from him for only about $18 U.S. We left this industrious family – one of hundreds, probably not 2,600. We were told that fewer families are making the hats now. Many have gone to the U.S. or elsewhere to “make their fortunes.”
Today, when I wear my jipi hat, I can still smell the damp interior of the cave and imagine the family weaving the hat in the dim candle light.
This article is an excerpt from John Lamkin’s upcoming book “Your Secret Yucatan Peninsula: Modern Day Explorations” (Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers in 2011)
IF YOU GO
Becal is a side trip from Campeche City, Campeche
Fly into Campeche Airport (CPE), serviced by Aeromexico, Mexicana and Copa airlines.
Alternative airports: Merida International (MID) or Ciudad del Carmen (CME) which is closer with service from U.S. By Continental
Best accommodations and restaurants are found in Campeche City
Moderately priced: Best Western Hotel Del Mar
Hotel del Mar located across from the modern Sea Side walk, only a few blocks from the downtown – swimming pool, restaurant, shops and 164 rooms with sea views. wireless internet service and business center. Restaurant: Laffite’s Boulevard Café
Luxury: Hacienda Puerta Campeche
This luxurious hotel is housed in a collection of restored 17th century historical houses located at one of the city gates. Restaurant: La Guardia Restaurant – fine traditional cuisine.