Palapas add a tropical touch to the landscape and provide a shady location that blends into the greenery in the garden. It is as well the traditional roof for all Mayan Houses.
Palapas are just thatched huts or umbrellas that provide overhead shelter. They can be as complex or simple as you want. The most difficult part of building a palapa may be getting the thatching material except in Mexico in the Yucatan peninsula. Palm leaves are the traditional material and are very easy to get in Mexico. This is probably why you see Palapas everywhere here. Palapas in our days are even made to provide a spectacular look to a modern building.
Why are palapas frequently a part of Mexicos landscape? Because they represent history and the clever use of natural resources, pairing tropical charm with practicality: Mayan settlers built thatch-roofed huts thousands of years ago for shelter and to this day, their ancestors still craft them.
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.
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.
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.
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, just give time to the time…
When in Rome do as the Romans and when in the Zona Maya do as the Mayan.