Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Building a Perfect Palapa

People from crawfish rock builds a palapa.

Thatched Roof Construction Business is Booming

Palapas have been in the Bay islands for as long people have lived here. The word palapa comes from a Mayan term for a “pulpous leaf” and Western Mexico and Honduras are the two biggest centers of palapa construction. The thatched roofs on Roatan are mostly made from cohoon palms and are eco friendly and a pleasure to sit under. They not only repel rain and make a calming swooshing sound in the wind, but they also have that great rustic, Caribbean look.

On the Jackson-Marbella road hundreds of cohoon palms are within an easy reach of the palapa builders. The younger harvested palms are around 25-30 years old, some are 50 feet tall and as old at a century. They were planted at the height of the Standard Fruit Company’s boom days in Honduras.

Around 150 palms from roughly a dozen cohoon palms are needed to build two large palapas. In order to get this quantity of palms a crew of four men works hand in hand. One man uses a ladder to climb the cohoon palm tree, and then with the machete he cuts the palm leaf off. Another helper breaks the fall of the cohoon so it doesn’t get damaged on impact. “There are many people building palapas, but Ramon [Armijo] is the best,” says Lucas Javier Martinez, a local helping Ramon load the palms onto a truck.

The crew brought a 12-year-old boy to help with work. “If you don’t teach the kids how to work they become thieves and robbers,” says Martinez. Once harvested, the cohoon fronds are then split into two down the length of the stem and dried for a week or more.

The palms are then attached with string to the wood structure of the palapa: rafters, ridges and posts. There are one-pole palapas, two-pole palapas and large multi-pole palapas. While Ramon Armijo was preparing to build a large 12 foot by 14 foot palapa, another experienced palapa builder from Crawfish Rock was building one over the dining area of a house deck. “You’ve got to do everything on full moon. You got to get the posts on full moon. Everything has to be done of full moon,” says Celso Connor. A palapa, if well maintained, can last well over a decade. The secret of a long lasting palapa is to quickly replace worn pieces of thatch.

There is a science and an art to building a perfect Roatan palapa. The palm leaves can be picked year round, but when picked during the full moon, they are said to be sturdier and last longer. “If you pick it right it will last six years, if you pick it wrong it won’t last six months,” says Armijo. “I didn’t used to believe it, but now I do.”

Scientific studies confirm this. “Palm leaves harvested during the full moon had higher total C, hemicellulose, complex C and lower Ca concentrations. These chemical changes should make palm leaves less susceptible to herbivory and more durable when harvested,” writes Kristiina A. Vogt in a Federal Food Safety report. These correlations between plants and animals based on lunar cycle has been known by natives for millennia.

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