Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the February 7, 2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chiché Itzá Ruin, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Work on Hacienda Chichen's traditional Maya house continues. This week Paulino and Santos have been thatching the roof with Huano Palm fronds. Last weekend a truck arrived carrying big bundles of Huano fronds tied together with the ropy stems of "Tropical Grapevine," Cissus sicyoides, as shown below:

Huano Palm, SABAL YAPA, ready to be thatched

After chopping off each of the frond's stems, or petioles, so they'd be the same length, the men tied together bunches of them so they could be risen to their working spot on the roof, by rope, as shown below:

Huano Palm, SABAL YAPA, thatchng a roof

One reason the Huano Palm's fronds are favored over other palm species is that the fronds' petioles extend like a midrib into the fannlike blade. The fronds are affixed to the wooden pole below them by inserting the petiole extension and the leaflets arising from it BELOW the pole, while all the rest of the leaflets go ABOVE the pole. This way the frond hooks onto the pole very securely. You can see how this looks from below below:

Huano Palm, SABAL YAPA, thatched roof seen from below

You can see what the house looked like after the first hour of thatching below:

Huano Palm, SABAL YAPA, being used to thatch a roof

from the August 30, 2015 Newsletter issued from Yuxunah, 20kms southwest of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, MÉXICO

During my years at Hacienda Chichen next to Chichén Itzá ruin we got to see how a traditional Maya thatch-roof house was built. Here at Yaxunah the hut I live in is older and a hole in the thatch was letting in rainwater, so a couple of men came by to repair the hole. I've always wondered how replacing thatch in such a closely constructed roof could be done. A picture illustrating the process is shown below:

repairing a hole in a Maya hut's thatch roof

Several blades chopped from local Huano Palms, Sabal yapa, were hoisted up by rope. The roof's deteriorated fronds were pulled out, and then one after another new fronds were inserted with their midribs hooked beneath the wooden pole and the foliage put outside to form the new roof's exterior.

from the August 30, 2015 Newsletter issued from Yuxunah, 20kms southwest of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, MÉXICO

My hut's wall consists of vertical poles cut from the surrounding forest. Sometimes villagers apply a thick mixture of mud and straw to seal the openings between the poles. This week important visitors were invited to Yaxunah's Community Center to see how traditionally the Maya did certain things, such as roast pig in a pit and make pig cracklings, and one exhibition consisted of applying the mud and straw mixture to a section of my hut's walls.

First several buckets of "red soil" were dumped onto the hut's floor, formed into a low, broad crater, and water was poured into the crater's depression. Then straw was scattered over the dirt, a man entered the depression and with his feet began working the straw into the mud and getting it to the right consistency, as shown below:

preparing mud and straw to apply to interior of Maya hut

In this area, two types of soil are recognized by the Maya, both occurring in thin patches and layers atop limestone bedrock. Black soil is good for growing things because it contains organic matter -- though Maya farmers generally don't know about organic matter as such -- while red soil lacks organic matter. Our red soil also lacks sand, and when wet tends to form a runny mud, so the straw gives the mud body so it can be worked with. Also, when the mud dries, without straw it tends to crack and form patches that fall off. Red mud is red because it contains trace amounts of iron, which when combined with oxygen in the air forms iron oxide, or rust.

The straw must be very dry, else it decays in the mud and loses its ability to hold the mud together. In the old day the sap of a certain tree member of the Bean Family -- known as Chukum in Maya, but here that name is applied to two Bean Family species -- is used to add strength.

Once the mud and straw acquire the right texture, handfuls are scooped up, patted back and forth between the hands until no straw tips poke from the mud, and then is literally thrown in place on the pole wall. If it's not thrown hard enough it won't stick, but if it's thrown too hard, much is lost as it sails between the poles.
Below, you can see a worker slapping some mud in place:

applying mud and straw to interior of Maya hut wall

Of course mud thrown against a pole splatters. Once I was generously splattered anyway I took off my shoes, entered the crater, and began throwing mud against the wall. It's not an unpleasant job.

For my part, I think I prefer a wall without mud, though back at Hacienda Chichen sometimes during the winter dry season cold fronts, or nortes, passed through, and I would have liked to have the walls mudded then. However, that's only a few nights of each year. The rest of the time it's nice to have a draft through the house, to be able to hear the birds, and to see what's going on outside the hut, through the openings between poles.