On our way from Celestún to Campeche, we learn of a city named Becal known for its panama hat trade, so we drive to the central plaza to investigate. Getting more adept at navigating our rented Ford Aveo through the pot holes and speed bumps, we arrive at the plaza in front of the main church and then aren’t sure what our next move is.
Like a lost child entering a large room and moving our gaze constantly, we are all but asking for someone to come up and try to sell us something. And within seconds while still in the car, someone tries to get us to roll down our window like it’s a fast food restaurant or something. We don’t, but this guy is persistent. He gets on his motorbike with a wooden love seat attached to the front and starts following us around the square. If the bike didn’t look so ridiculous, I might have thought that we had a tail. But, we slow down, and the bike/love-seat pulls up alongside us, we size him up as small, friendly and mostly harmless, and open our car window.
His first question is if we’re looking for hats. Are we that obvious? And yes, we are, and we read online that this is how hats are sold in Becal. There are no storefronts, no vendors in the plaza, just folks waiting to take you to where the hat-making magic happens. We follow this friendly man in the safety of our Aveo and we pull up to a modest, clean home where we learn how panama hats are made from plant to finish. We also learn this is a family affair with many generations involved. They are like a hat mafia, but instead of running organized crime, they’re in the business of beautifully crafted headwear.
We learn of quality differences between hats ranging from $5 to $300 USD. I am clearly skeptical that such a range exists and that the most expensive of hats actually take a month to fabricate, but after trying them on and feeling them, I can differentiate. The highest quality feels very smooth, almost like a soft fabric; it sits better on our heads, and it even looks better. So we agree that there’s no reason to get the most expensive, but there’s also decent rationale not to go for the cheapest. After a little bargaining, we walk away very happy customers with a new sombrero each.
Becal is legit: Many locals make their living weaving these jipijapas (the panama hats). The best hats are then exported to connoisseurs in foreign cities. Now, we know a guy who makes panama hats in Mexico in case that ever becomes useful.