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History of Mexican PalapasBy AAA Travel Editor

The palapa (pronounced pa-LAH-pa) is one of the most common sights in the Yucatán. While on your trip, you'll see these familiar thatched roofs just about everywhere, from the beach to the main streets of the smallest towns to the swankiest resort hotels, but regardless of location their function is the same—to provide shelter from the strong tropical sun.

Palapas (the term also refers to a dwelling with a thatched roof) have been around this part of Mexico for more than 3,000 years. While members of royalty in ancient Mayan cities like Chichén Itzá and Uxmal lived in grand palaces carved from stone, the rest of the population made do with a simple palapa. And not all that much has changed for some of the peninsula's tiny rural communities: People still make their living through subsistence farming, and they still live in palapas built from the ground up.

The traditional Yucatecan palapa used for purposes of habitation is a one-story, rectangular-shaped oval. Wooden posts and crossbars create the framework for the structure and must be strong enough to sustain the weight of the steeply inclined roof. The walls are made of sticks covered with either mud or stone; the thatched roof is made from straw or palm fronds. The tough fiber of the spiny henequen plant, a member of the agave family, once held the frame together, but nails are used now.

Although the straw roof originated in Africa, it was ideally adapted to the needs of Mayan architects and is still used by palapa builders today. In addition to palm fronds, wild grasses provide abundant roofing material. The roof incline is important—a 45-degree slope allows rainwater to run off before it has a chance to penetrate and rot the thatch covering.

Palapas are inexpensive to build and maintain. And although they may look fragile, a soundly constructed one is weather resistant, provides effective cooling even on the hottest days, lasts up to 30 years and can even survive a hurricane. In coastal communities a palapa structure often covers trailers or an RV used for living space. Beachfront bungalow and cabana lodgings have rooms that feature a palapa roof under which a large tent is erected, or brightly painted wood or stucco walls and a palm-thatch roof.

In Cancún, one palapa in particular stands above all others: the roof that shades the very large lobby at the Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun All Inclusive . Soaring five stories, it lends a rustic touch to the hotel's otherwise extravagant public areas. The palapa roof, in fact, is a distinctive feature of restaurants both in the Hotel Zone and in downtown Ciudad Cancún. The open-air design allows cooling breezes to circulate and brings the outdoors in with all those views of lush vegetation. And almost every hotel pool area has them scattered around, with single-pole versions—and often a small round table mounted to the pole—on the beach shading a chair or two. It's a look that perfectly suits this laid-back vacation resort.

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Travel Information

City Population



7 meters (23 feet)

Police (emergency)

To contact the local police, dial 911.


Most major local hotels have their own in-house or on-call doctor. A list of physicians can also be obtained from the U.S. Consular Agency, in the Torre la Europea building, Boulevard Kukulcán Km marker 13; phone (999) 316-7168 in Mexico or (844) 528-6611 in the U.S. Local clinics do not accept U.S. health insurance, often charge fees well above U.S. rates and have been known to charge for services not rendered. The Red Cross (Cruz Roja) is in Ciudad Cancún on Avenida Yaxchilán, between avenidas Xcaret and Labná. It is open 24 hours; phone (998) 884-1616. In an emergency, dial 911 and request an English-speaking operator.


The Miami Herald and USA Today are available in the bigger local hotels.


Cancún Tips magazine has easy-to-read maps and information about local restaurants, shopping, entertainment and other things to do in Cancún. Pick up free tourist-oriented brochures at the airport, hotel lobbies, shopping centers and sidewalk booths.

Currency Exchange

Casas de cambio (currency exchange houses) and banks are along Avenida Tulum in downtown Ciudad Cancún. Most banks are open Mon.-Fri. 9-5; currency exchange normally is confined to the morning hours. Currency exchange houses also are at the airport and in the Hotel Zone shopping areas around Cancún Point.

Staying Safe

Crime directed at tourists is not prevalent, but do use common sense. Keep jewelry and other valuables in the hotel safe, or don't bring them at all. Guard against petty theft or purse-snatching incidents in crowded public places or when using public transportation. If leaving a vehicle in Hotel Zone shopping areas, don't invite a break-in by leaving valuables in plain view.

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