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My Other House is a Jungle Hut or Maya Palapa Basics 101

Jan 22, 2008
In Quintana Roo and the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico huts are commonly known as palapas and there are even hotels that advertise beach palapas to Gringos and Germans. Go figure. Some turistas prefer going native. So do many of the natives.

The whole concept of the palapa developed because the Maya of old would farm one area of the jungle for several years and then move to another area. Everything was renewable. The trees they cut for palapas would over a 20-30 year period grow back and the Maya would not go back into an area for that period of time so the jungle could actually rejuvenate.

It all worked well since a palapa could be built in a week or two. And jungle men like my friend Poot could build one using just one tool; his machete. But things changed. With population increases land was privatized or more commonly turned into 'ejidos' or communal farms. We live on one and so do many Maya.

In one of our huts there is no roof. Hurricane Dean took care of that. It wasn't thatched but we are converting. We'll have to go out to the ranch and cut some guano or palm fronds for the thatches; fortunately the wooden frame is intact so we don't have to replace that. On the ranch we have an older palapa and amazingly nothing happened to it; one hundred mile per hour winds could not knock it down.

A hurricane will blow the roof off a well constructed house since the hurricane winds form a vacuum inside the house and the roof is literally lifted off. Not so with palapas. In a bad hurricane the roof will lift up until the outside and inside pressures equalize, something more modern style constructions cannot do. Because of its natural construction the palapa will bend but not break.

The palapa roof is also cooler than conventional roofs. What is strange is to see a modern hotel with a thatched roof; it's not just the 'look and feel' for tourists. It's cooler and air conditioning costs in Mexico can be very expensive. Obviously a palapa cannot be air conditioned because it has no insulation.

The downside to the thatched roof is critters like rats and scorpions love to make their nests in the thatches. Last night we heard a rat and sure enough in the morning it had raided our food.

Another downside to a thatched roof is that it burns easily so smart palapa builders put their kitchen outside and away from the hut. Since most rural Maya still burn wood, the sparks can easily ignite a dry, thatched roof.

The palapa walls can be made of sticks or planks of wood. Our main palapa has walls made of caoba wood; a precious wood like teak or mahogany. It may be a hut but it's got some very upscale walls. Many of the poorest Maya simply put up stick walls with gaps in between meaning that one can actually see inside the hut. Great for letting breeze in during the steamy summers as well as allowing hurricane winds to pass through. Not so great for nosey neighbors.

Snakes like palapas too. Our lot in the Maya village has a large venomous four- nosed snake and hopefully one day he doesn't get tired of his limestone hole in our back yard and decide to join us in our palapa. Sometimes snakes do that when rain floods them out. Such are the risks of palapa life.

The roof and frame sit on top of posts dug in the ground. But these aren't ordinary posts. We use zapote tree hearts for this. A zapote tree can fall down in the jungle and the heart of the tree not rot for 10 years. Sturdy and durable is an understatement; just don't figure you can easily put a nail in it because it simply is too hard. Palapa doors and windows can be made of an assortment of wooden planks; some more modern Maya put screens up to keep out the bugs.

Today's modern palapas have simple cement floors. In the old days the Maya would build a floor out of limestone rock and then crush more limestone and put it on top to form a smooth surface. After several months of walking on it the floor would become smooth and as hard as rock.

In our Maya village almost everyone has a palapa although the more successful farmers are now building their cinderblock and cement houses. Not me. Those cinderblock houses get too hot. How hot is hot? How about a hundred degrees Fahrenheit with one hundred per cent humidity. A veritable rainforest sauna; sweating like a pig in the pouring rain. Unrelenting.

The brutal sun, wind and pounding rain cause cement and plaster walls to crack even with steel rebar reinforcement. I prefer a genuine real palapa. True, when we build our new ranch palapa in the jungle we will use nails and wire and bolts to hold the roof down. During a hurricane nails and wire hold the palapa together better.

But for all the modern day improvements such as wire and nails the palapa design remains the same has it has for centuries. My neighbors wonder why we don't build a cinderblock house and I can't really explain it other than to say I feel more at home in my jungle palapa. Crazy Gringo.

When in Rome do as the Romans and when in the Zona Maya do as the Maya. Good advice that makes sense. Besides, no one can every accuse us of being arrogant or presumptuous as long as we live in a Maya palapa, even if the walls are made of some very chic caoba wood.
About the Author
Jack Deal is the owner of Deal Business Consulting and a part time resident of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Mexico. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com/blog and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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