We come across this question, all the time in Belize, from first time visitors to the Jewel. Tropical environments in Belize use a sustainable roofing technique to keep houses cool and shelter from rain called a Palapa, in English this is called a thatched roof. Palapas are one of the most talked about construction techniques by visitors to Belize, as it is a beautiful and practical roofing option used in this area. If you have visited Belize, you have probably stayed at one time or another in one of these roof covered resorts or villas. 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 Belize, 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 of palm leaves, now a grass is used to create the thatched roof. "AK" (sacate in Spanish) (grass) is the given Mayan name for the grass that grows widely on the plains of Corozal, northern Belize. It is a preferred substitute for the Bayleaf (Guano in Spanish). Sells for about $1.00-$1.50 Bcy per Bayleaf. If harvested and maintained properly, it can last as roofing material for up to 15 years. A very viable industry with job creation and export potential. Due to the over harvesting of the palm tree that originally was used to make the thatched roofs, the AK or “sacate” is now harvested to build the palapas.

AK, 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 no 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.

Unlike a tarred, tiled roof, like we find elsewhere, 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.

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 passes through. Wind cannot damage 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 or tie the entire roof down with a permanent net. You would be surprised as to how many of these roofs have survived Category 1-4 hurricanes with some surviving category 5 hurricanes!

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 Belize. Air conditioning in most cases, especially on the Belize coast off-grid beaches, is not an option so the use of building materials and air flow becomes extremely important.

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 to generation so that this sustainable building option remains a part of what we call Belize and its Maya Culture.

The Corozal Daily recommends your local expertise and craftsmen in Corozal for your next thatched roof project.