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If the hat fits...

We decided to see the sights in town today and to go to the nearby national park tomorrow. At breakfast we planned our route to take in hat shops, museums and tourist information and then headed out.

Cuenca is famous for its toquilla straw hats, commonly known around the world as Panama hats as they were worn by the people working on the Panama canal. The straw is grown near the coast then dried, bleached, split and the hats made in the villages around Cuenca. It is hard to imagine that large green leaves can end up as white straw hats but they do!

We passed two old shops filled with hats. The hats last for about six to seven years but need to be reconditioned during that time. Here they are worn as part of the every day national dress. There are different shapes from round-pointed hats, to pork pie hats as well as the "traditional" shape we are familiar with, and most are worn by women. These old shops were lined floor to ceiling with hats, many new others in for a refurb.

Our last hat stop was at a place called Barrasco which, according to Lonely Planet has a small museum. It is very small! Like the others it is a family business that has been handed down through the generations. They export a high proportion of their stock to Europe and the poor summers we have had recently have hit sales quite hard. We had hoped to see the actual process of the hats being woven but this was not the case as this happens in the outlying villages. Here they finish the hats and we did see part of the finishing process. All hats are initially made in the same shape, a simple rounded hat with a large brim. They then use pressure heated moulds to shape the hats into either a trilby, boater, safari or pork pie style hat. It takes less than a minute of pressure at 80C to mould the hats. The next stage in the process is to determine the width of the brim. Generally speaking the taller the person the wider the brim. The men's hats are then finished with a navy or black band on the outside and an adjustable strip on the inside which you can use to tighten the hat for a slightly smaller head.

Because women wear their hair in different styles they are not finished in the same way. The hats are left plain and an elasticated band, or a scarf, is then used to fit the hat to the right size. Both men's and women's hats come in different sizes so it really is just a minor adjustment. The process from start to finish takes one to two days for a low grade (i.e. thick straw) hat and one to two months for the finest hats. The latter are very soft to the touch but because they have more straw in them they are more durable.

We are both now the "proud" owners of our own toquilla "panama" hats. Stef has had a lesson in the correct way to put on and take off his hat - very 1920's - but still needs a little more practice to perfect his technique. I suspect these may be purchases that we regret. Unlike our walking hats we cannot really squash them up and shove them in the bottom of our packs. I sense a parcel being sent back to the UK in the not too distant future!

Washing clothes in the Rio Tomebamba

With hats in tow we ambled along the river and popped in to a small museum with different masks and dolls from the various tribes in Ecuador, Perú, Chile and Mexico. We then went on to the Museo de las Culturas Aborigónes, a private collection of artefacts spanning the 13,000 years of habitation in the area. It was an interesting collection of pots, bowls, weapons, statues and jewelry. The highlight for me though was some early musical instruments - chime bells. These were unusual because they were large (20 - 30cm long and 5 - 10 cm wide) pieces of rock, but when you struck them they sounded like metal chimes.

What we had thought would take us most of the day had actually only taken a couple of hours so we headed off to Tourist Information where we were supposed to be able to buy a map of the National Park that we want to visit tomorrow. It turns out that they no longer have the maps but they gave us an alternative (to Lonely Planet's suggestion) bus company to go with. I also asked about where I could get something to prevent altitude sickness, or rather to proactively manage the symptoms, because the peak is at 3,900m. Another man in the office, who we think must be a doctor gave me useful information. Simply take drinks and sweets with high glucose or natural sugar content, avoid eggs, cheese, chocolate and anything that will get your liver going (like what, other than alcohol, we thought afterward). The ranger stations are all equipped to deal with altitude sickness but he assures me that I will be OK.

We then headed off in search of information for tours to the Galapagos Islands. We have had a recommendation for a tour agency, Metropolitan Touring, from an American/Irish couple we met in Perú who live in Ecuador. Their local agency confirmed they could get us availability on a motor launch for a weeks trip but we are a bit dubious about the cabin. Our request for a sailing boat rather than a motor boat seemed to fall on deaf ears. She had tried three companies to get the motor launch option she gave us and I got the feeling she simply could not be bothered to look into other options. When we asked who ran the boat she said Metropolitan Touring - a bit odd then that she had had to try three different companies for availability.

Back at the hotel we went to the internet cafe to have a look around ourselves. We must have looked at five or six different agencies, some based in the UK, and a common theme soon emerged - they all place people onto the same boats. We have reserved the spaces with Metropolitan Touring (to be confirmed tomorrow) but I think we were both left with the feeling that we could end up spending a lot of money with them (around £2,500 for one week!) and not be happy with the end result. Instead, we have emailed our contacts at Travelbag (who we used for Argentina, India and to buy our OneWorld tickets for this trip) and Journey Latin America (who we used for Chile), both in the UK, to get information that we both feel confident we can trust.

Having done as much as we could we dashed back to the hotel for a quick change, to grab some cash and then took a taxi to Millenium Plaza - we were off to the cinema. We have been assured that the films at this cinema are in English with Spanish subtitles. Its a multiplex based in what looks like a small but new shopping centre. We bought our tickets for War of the Worlds, confirming again that it was in English. Having successfully negotiated past the popcorn without buying any (neither of us really like it but Stef normally succumbs, it is part of the overall cinema going experience I suppose) took our seats.

With people here generally being short we were both surprised that we had more leg room than in any other cinema we have been to. The film was superb - go and see it if you have not already. I was gripped from start to finish and we will probably go and see it again. It is definitely one for the big screen so do not wait for the DVD. I am not sure though that I would have classified it as a 12 - it was a bit gory and scary in places.

The marketing team for the Plaza know their stuff. The way out of the cinema takes you through the upper floor of the centre which is full of fast food places, KFC and Burger King among them. Rather than heading back into town for dinner with the inevitable restaurant hunt we decided to eat here. We opted for grilled meat and potatoes, very tasty, quick and portions too large for us to finish. A taxi took us back to our hotel and we were in bed before 10pm.

Cuenca has a lovely feel. It is a university town and has a more international perspective than we have come across before. There are beautiful buildings, quiet little squares and people, particularly the older generation, are very friendly and welcoming.