The fact that people tend to build their homes out of whatever materials are available can lead to some interesting results. Eskimos use blocks of packed snow; in the American southwest, where wood is at a premium, adobe is common; and in tropical climates, where jungles provide ample vegetation, it is common to use that vegetation to build homes.
One example of this is the native huts made by the indigenous people living on the Pacific islands. Most of these are made of sticks and branches, with a roof made of palm fronds or grass.
Palm fronds are also used to make roofs for homes in Mexico and Central America. There they are called “palapas.”
A true palapa is a unique structure as it is only a roof without walls. This makes sense if you think about it, as the palapa is only used in hot climates, most often in coastal areas. Leaving the walls off offers some cooling from the wind, while the roof provides protection from sun and rain. Of course, a building without walls doesn’t provide much in the way of privacy.
Palapas originated with the ancient Mayan people and were adopted by the Aztecs. Yet, these ancient structures are still in use today, although mostly for restaurants and entertainment areas.
Even so, you can still find homes in the southern part of Mexico that have palapa roofs, with the walls made of corrugated tin or some other material.
These structures do an amazing job of protecting from the rain, mostly due to the fact that the palm frond thatch on the roof is about a foot thick. Even if the rain makes it through the top layers of palm fronds, it will be captured by lower levels and directed towards the edge of the roof.
A palapa roof lasts about 20 years before it deteriorates to the point where it needs to be replaced. Even then, all that needs to be replaced is the palm frond thatch; the underlying structure is usually still good as it has been protected from decomposing by the thatch attached to it.
While a great system for building a shelter in the right areas, palapas do have one problem: cockroaches and other insects like to live in them.
While they will stay in the thatch and leave you alone, the idea of having a roach hotel for a roof tends to bother people. But then, palm trees themselves make good roach hotels too, and a lot of people have those.
Making a Palapa Roof
When most people think of a palapa today, they think of nothing more than an umbrella-like structure for use on the beach. However, most palapas are considerably larger and supported by four stout legs. So, the starting point for building any palapa is these legs.
The legs can be made out of tree trunks or bamboo, depending on which you have available to you. Just about all of the ones I’ve seen in Mexico have been made with tree trunks, but I understand that in Central America bamboo is more common. These support legs need to be inserted into holes dug a good two feet down into the ground. In modern times, they are usually set in place with concrete.
A center pole is also used to hold up the ridge pole but is usually removed after construction of the palapa’s structure is complete.
The roof structure itself is either made of bamboo or tree branches, depending on which you have available to you. This is a “bonnet” style roof, meaning it has no gable ends. Instead, the ends are sloped just like the sides, creating a roof that is sloped on all four sides.
So, the ridge pole should be several feet shorter than the finished roof. Start by making the perimeter and mounting the ridge pole. Then, run poles going from each corner to the ends of the ridge pole. At this point, you’ll be able to tell the finished shape of the roof.
A number of poles need to be run from the eaves to the ridge to attach them in place. This can be a bit tricky as you approach the corners because the poles will have to be cut shorter and the top end angle cut to fit the corner poles.
Finally, stringers are run horizontally every 12 to 18 inches all the way around the roof. Once that is done, you end up with a roof structure that is crosshatched. If you go back far enough in time, all of these structural elements were tied in place; but today they are connected with nails and screws.
Today, you can find a variety of different commercial thatches available for making palapas, most of which aren’t traditional. Traditionally, bundles of palm fronds are tied together three to four inches in diameter. These are then tied to the horizontal crossbars on the palapa roof structure. You can also nail them or use staples, but they were originally tied.
The bundles need to be tied from the bottom of the roof, working your way upwards with each successive row overlapping the one below it by about half the distance. This ensures that the roof will shed rain well as the water will run down it and end up on the outside of bundles that are farther down.
Really good palapas will have more than one layer of thatch on them, giving more thickness to the roof and ensuring that water can’t drip through. The bottom edge can be left jagged or trimmed to make it neat, as you prefer.
Using the Palapa in a Survival Situation
If you find yourself trying to survive in an area where palm trees are prevalent, a palapa could be a great survival shelter. While they are fairly time-consuming to build, they can be made totally out of naturally-occurring materials that can be found on site.
While the traditional palapa didn’t include walls, there’s nothing to say that they couldn’t be added. I have seen palapa roofs used in conjunction with walls made out of a variety of materials. It is even possible to make the walls out of the same material as the roof simply by continuing with the same style of structure and covering it with more thatch.