History Of Mexican Palapas
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.