One of the interesting things about living or visiting this part of the world is the fact it is a living museum. Here the ancient Mayan culture mixes with Spanish colonial and the modern world. You can still see Mayan houses in towns and even in Playa Del Carmen. Why has this house style lasted for thousands of years? How are Mayan houses made? Why are they oval and what are they like inside? We will answer all those questions here.
How are Mayan houses constructed?
Usually there is one main house for the family. A separate house is used for cooking usually. What about the shape of the house? They are oval and usually similar in size.
Why are Mayan houses oval?
The shape and size can be attributed to two main factors. When you do a thatched roof, if you had a square house, the roof would have four corners. Thatch does not match up that well and it would be a problem for leaks in the house. When you have an oval house the roof thatch is in a continuous circle and overlapping.
So why are Maya houses not round then? Well the use of hammocks for one would need both sides of the house for hanging. That means you would not be able to walk around the house without ducking a hammock. An oval shaped house allows the doorway to enter one side and exit the other side for good air flow. Hammocks can be hung on wither end of the house.
One other theory why the houses are oval is for wind. A plastered Maya house would stand up better to strong winds because there is not a flat side taking the full force. Rather, the wind would move around the house. This could be important in an area where there are hurricanes.
Why are most Mayan houses the same size?
There are two important things to realize about Mayan homes. One being the fact that the house is a perfunctory object and not meant to be a luxury item or status symbol. The house is for resting, sleeping and storage of minimal personal items. Most people spend time during the day cooking, hunting or farming.
Another factor for size if the fact that trees are more small especially in the Yucatan Peninsula. Having limited size of trees limits the expanse the roof can cover. This even effected the Spanish colonial houses that were built here from the 1600’s-1900’s. The rooms are usually not deeper then 16 ft. because the length of trees available.
The roofs of Mayan houses
The roof of the house is a thatch called “palapa”. There are two main materials used for the roofs of the homes, grass and palms. Grass palapas can last for about 3-4 years before replacing them. Palm roofs can last from 8-20 years.
In both cases, bunches are gathered by string and tied to the wood structure of the roof. This is done by starting at the bottom of the roof and going circular until reaching the top.
In some homes today you will see a black corrugated tarpaper looking material. This is a soft semi flexible material that is waterproof and more of a modern adaptation for the roofs of the houses. It does not seem to be as picturesque but does work well to keep water out of the homes.
In extremely rainy seasons the roofs can get moldy. However when the sun comes out and the air flows over and below the roofs, this prevents the mold or clears it up. If these homes were built in a more humid jungle then there would be more problems with a thatch roof.
How are the walls made?
The house is first started by making a rock foundation in the shape of an oval. Supporting wood post are added for the upright structure and then smaller trees are nailed to the frame. The smaller trees come from the fields where they are cut with machetes.
In some cases mud clay mixed with grass is added to the walls to make a plaster. This would make the house more enclosed like the example below.
On the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula you tend to see more Mayan houses built with wood planks. This is just because the planks are more available there event though termites are prevalent all over the peninsula.
What is the inside of a Mayan house like?
Usually Mayan homes are one open room. This is where sleeping and resting is done. Hammocks can be hung up from the sides of the home and taken down during the day for more space if needed.
Storage of items is done in baskets or plastic bags tied to beams. This can be for both personal items and food. Most Mayan homes do not have a refrigerator. Hanging food in plastic bags helps keep insects out. Of course most food is made fresh and picked close to eating, so storage is not as important.
Below you can see a real living home used today. There is a bureau for clothes and items hung on beams.
What is a Mayan kitchen like?
Usually cooking is done in a separate building then the main house. If so, the structure is the same style, so often you will see two Mayan palapa buildings together.
Even though cooking is done on an open fire, the buildings are wood and thatch. The fires are on the ground and surrounded by rocks. Usually the fires are mainly used to boils things in pots or make hand made tortillas on a comal (flat metal pan).
Some houses have running water and a basic sink is available for washing dishes and clothes.
Why has this style of house lasted so long?
When you think about sustainable architecture, this would be one of the near perfect houses. You can gather most of your building materials from one piece of land. The grass, palm, small trees and other material it takes a short time to grow.
These houses are also cooler with airflow and no concrete to hold in the heat and reflect it back in the evening. For the hot climate, these houses are well suited.
So both practicality of sustainable materials and the adaption for the climate have kept this house design alive for centuries.
Where can you see Mayan houses?
Even in Playa Del Carmen you can see Mayan houses but it is more interesting to see homes in communities and rural areas. Below is a list of places or tours where you can visit a Mayan home and take in the living museum that is the Yucatan Peninsula.
Tours where you can see Mayan culture and houses
- Any tour that goes to Chichen Itza will allow you to see the one model house that is there which displays a traditional Mayan house.
- If you take a tour that includes Cenote Hubiku, you will see several Mayan houses on display. You can also visit this cenote without a tour and see the Mayan houses.
- There is a family that opens their home to guest to show the garden and culture on the Coba-Xcan road. You will need to drive here yourself. We have more information in this article on it.
Towns and communities where you can see good examples of Mayan houses
- Tihosuco Quintana Roo. This small community is mostly Mayan decent and you can see both wood and the stone house pictured below.
- On the road to Yaxunah Mayan ruins you will see several good examples of Mayan houses.
- If you visit Valladolid you can see some good examples of Mayan houses at the gift store close to the main church on the plaza and Restaurant El Jardin.
- Punta Laguna has the below store that is a Mayan house and one the way there you will see numerous examples of Mayan houses.
- Along Tulum Coba road you will see Mayan houses besides the road.
Also if you get off the main highways and explore, you will see many Mayan homes along the way. We hope you are able to get out and explore this area and see what is here before is disappears.
Have you seen Mayan houses while our driving around? Do you have any questions or comments about Mayan houses? Let us know in the comments below.
Want to see how Mayan house are built? See our article and video here about building a Mayan house.
I love the pink one.
When we say that house Susan we just had to snap a photo of it. It is always nice when people have character and want to make their house stand out.
I was in Belize exploring and driving around, and it was really interesting in western Belize seeing mounds all around the farmland off the side of the highway. The friend I made who drove me told me they were all old Mayan houses, and that there used to be thousands in the area, but they were being flattened for farmland. Definitely go see them before they’re gone!
Most likely these were small Mayan temples or grave burials. Most Mayan house were made of wood for the more common folks. Only in some areas were houses made of stone. At any rate, it is sad that possible destruction of these archaeological site are planed.
Really nice article. Can you please tell me who and when was this written? As I am using it for my University essay and I want to reference it
Hello. This was written in 2019 by one of our staff writters.