As tourists cross through the imposing colonial fortification and enter the walled city of Cartagena, any number of salesmen with attitudes ranging from overly friendly to more than a little aggressive, inevitably swarm towards unsuspecting visitors offering shell necklaces, knock-off sunglasses and one of a handful of souvenirs that just might actually come in handy under the unforgiving sun of the Caribbean coast – the sombrero vueltiao.

hat vendor cartagena

Street vendors face hefty fines for selling fake hats, but cheaper prices entice tourists looking for a deal.

Perhaps Colombia’s most visible cultural symbol, the hand-woven black and cream hats can be found on every street corner along the nation’s northern coast, where the design originated in the native Zenú community. Competition amongst hat vendors can be stiff, as each must offer something special – a unique design, a better price – in order to stand out from the throngs of fellow salesmen. But now, even tougher competition threatens the local hat industry from far beyond the sun-baked shoes of the Colombian Caribbean.

In a curious example of the far-reaching effects of a global economy, Chinese manufacturers produce and export cheap copies of the traditional sombrero vueltiao at much lower prices than Zenú artisans, who still produce the hats with hand-dyed palm fibers and ancestral designs.

The raw material – caña flecha – comes from one of several types of palm, including sabanera from the interior of the coastal region, costera and the original criolla, from the department of Córdoba, home to many Zenú communities.

“The criolla is the best because it’s the softest,” said Mayra Pérez, an artisan from the town of Tuchín, Córdoba, where most of the local economy revolves around production of the sombrero vueltiao.

“The hats have a tradition and history that have become a symbol of Colombia,” pointed out Pérez of the sombrero’s significance as a national cultural symbol. “It’s the most representative icon outside of the country.”

According to Pérez, the patterns used in each hat represent different aspects of life in the countryside and can help distinguish different family groups amongst the Zenú, not unlike Scottish tartans used to identify clans. Particularly on Zenú reservations, where as much as 90 percent of the population earns a living producing sombreros, the hats are a way of life, with grandparents teaching their grandchildren age-old techniques almost from birth. For many children, their first games involve weaving caña flecha.

Legitimate sombreros can cost upwards of $100,000 pesos depending on the pattern, size of the hat and fineness of the fiber used. Extremely tight weaves and intricate patterns signify higher quality and price. Chinese hats, on the other hand, use cheap materials and poor weaving techniques, but can cost as little as $10,000 pesos on the street. Unsuspecting tourists with little or no knowledge of the hats’ cultural significance are unlikely to notice a difference.

A recently passed law makes it illegal to sell hats produced in China, but price incentives tempt vendors who can sell the cheaper version to tourists looking for an affordable souvenir rather than a high-quality piece of clothing. The Colombian government isn’t playing around, however, and fines for those caught importing or selling the fake hats run as high as $590 million pesos (about USD $320,000), a laughably high sum for a street vendor. Versions of the hat made from other materials, such as cardboard, will remain legal.

Some telltale markers that a hat is a legitimate product of the Zenú community include the appearance of using one continuous fiber, a lack of loose or unattached fibers, and a uniformity of fiber color and width throughout the design. Price can also be a giveaway. A true sombrero vueltiao can take more than a month to produce by a skilled artisan. If the price seems too low to reflect the intricate work involved in producing the hat, it’s probably a good indication of a fake.

As Colombia expands trade agreements around the world, including with China, the nation’s artisans scramble to protect their craft from globalization, but for connoisseurs of Costeño culture, whether at an all-night parranda party or relaxing with a cerveza at the beach, the only true sombrero is “Made in Colombia.”