If you have stayed at Casa de las Olas you would have noticed our verandas roofs are done with a roofing technique called Palapas, in English this is called a thatched roof. Thatched roofs are one of the most talked about construction techniques with our guests, as it is a beautiful and practical roofing option used in Tulum and throughout Central and South America. The typical questions about the palapas are: do the roofs leak? how does the grass or palm leaves actually stay on the roof? What happens when there are strong winds or hurricanes.
Palaperos, men who construct these amazing roof structures, are artists. Watching them build a palapa roof, a thatched roof is truly an experience in and of itself. They are fast, have a rhythm to their work and in a day or two, depending on the size of the roof, the roof is done! In Tulum, this is a skill that thank goodness is still being used in new construction. The materials used to build the palapas have changed, but the techniques remain the same. In previous years, palapa roofs were made out or palm leaves, now a grass is used to create the thatched roof. Due to the extinction of the palm tree that originally was used to make the thatched roof, the government outlawed the used of palm leaves and started the harvesting of sacate (grass) to build the palapa.
Sustainable Roofing option
Sacate is a sustainable building technique that not only is cultural but a great environmental option for new and old construction. The grass that is grown to make the roofs generates a significant amount of O2 in the environment and decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Harvesting of the sacate is done by hand, there are not machines used to harvest the grass. Men harvest the grass with machetes and bundle it ready for the roofs. It is naturally dried and does not require any processing. The grass grows quickly so harvests are generated regularly.
Building Palapas is Environmentally friendly
Unlike a tarred, tiled roof, like we find in North American cities in the United States or Canada, the actual building of a palapa roof requires only human energy. The Palaperos use their hands, some string and a good wooden base to create these sustainable roofs. Every single bundle of grass is placed by hand, hauled up to the roof by hand and the palaperos string the bundles to the wooden frames.
Natural Environmental Protection from wind and rain
When you see how tight the grass bundles are put together, you will realize that there is no chance that rain will come through the density created by the art form. The sacate is first put into 2 inch by 2 inch round bundles. These bundles are then sewn, that is the best term to describe the technique of hanging the sacate on the wooden frames, to the frame and in a 1 inch space. The grass bundles are sewn in long lines and cover the previous level of grass. What is most interesting is that rain trickles off the grass like it would on a regular roof, it does not soak in, yet wind passed through. Wind can not damn a palapa, it flows through the grass. During a hurricane, owners have been known to punch holes in their palapa roofs to allow for the passing of the wind, and then do gentle repairs afterwards. You would be surprised as to how many of these roofs survive Category 1, 2 and 3 hurricanes with some surviving category 5 hurricanes!
Naturally cooling and heating roofs
An additional extraordinary function of the palapa roof is that is keeps warm air in during the colder months (yes colder meaning 20 C/70F) and keeps cool air in during the hotter months. This has to be one of the greatest gifts this roof has for the buildings in Mexico. Air conditioning in most cases, especially on the Tulum beach is not an option so the use of building materials and air flow becomes extremely important.
Watch this video of palaperos using the older palm leaf technique to create these environmentally friendly roofs that are spotted on most building in Tulum. Next time you see one, or are having dinner in a thatched roof restaurant, have a look at the craftsmanship that is used to create these roofs. It is beautiful, amazing, mesmerizing and intriguing. The roofing technique is being passed down from generation from generation so that this sustainable building option remains a part of what we call Tulum and the Mayan Riviera. Don’t try this at home though. Snow can not withstand this building technique, it is only for the tropics! Miss Tulum? Well, what can we say! Get down here and hang out with us on the Tulum beach!
Check this guy out as he quickly places the palm leaves on the roof! Fast and efficient! Amazing! No tools required!