PalapaMan Provides All Things Thatched

IMG_1878.jpeg.jpgThe palm frond design of the roofs can be simple, or elaborate, small or huge. With our temperate climate, soft breezes, and abundance of palms, these roofs are perfectly suited for the Baja lifestyle and famously popular.  These roofs breath, but they also fly away when there are 150 mph winds during a hurricane. They also don’t last as long as a real roof, and they do harbor a variety of critters; they need constant fumigating. When Hurricane Odile swept through southern Baja, she took with her many of these palapa roofs.

When people began the arduous process of cleaning up and repairing their homes, especially replacing and repairing palapa roofs.  Trickery, thievery, lack of supply coupled with a huge demand, resulted in huge price hikes.

Pescadero homeowners Kevin and Georgina awoke after the hurricane to find their two palapa roofs severely damaged.  Huge parts of the roofs were missing, with palms flapping in the still strong winds.  The palapa structure, the large pine poles that create the skeleton of the roof, seemed to be fine, but who knew for sure?  The dirt roads to their house were washed out and no cars, even 4 wheel drive trucks, were getting through.  But almost immediately, at 8 a.m. the morning after Odile, Concacho, the Mexican palapa builder who six years before had constructed their palapas, showed up on horseback. He was no dummy; he knew to strike when the iron was hot.  And Kevin and Georgina thought the same thing.  Everyone else in their community was going to need new palapa roofs, but here was Conacho, right now willing to talk about repairing and rebuilding. 

 $1400, was agreed on  for repairing one palapa and completely re-palming the other. A contract, (a note in a notebook), was signed, current phone numbers were exchanged, and a deposit  was given to purchase the needed supplies.  They knew Conacho and trusted him, as he had done great work for them in the past.  What they didn’t know was what had happened in the last six years since he had worked for them. (Drinking and apparent drug use). They also didn’t know that he was riding down the beach, visiting many of the Gringos who lived there, who had lost their palapas too.  He was scooping up deposits from all of them.

Conacho brought a few palms by Kevin and Georgina’s house.  Then, came the bargaining.  The price of palms was much higher than he had earlier anticipated, which they thought was probably true.  The supply was limited so he need more money to purchase the remaining palms.  Another $300 was given.  But soon the neighbors all started to talk, and they all had the same story.  After the second deposit, though they called him continually and even confronted him at his home, Conacho always promised manana but never did any more work or delivered any more product. Finally, they all cut him loose and took the loss.  At least they still had the few palms he had delivered.  It was a common story, and it happened to countless people, all through the Baja. 

But there is even more sophisticated trickery taking place among palapa builders.  There are stories of workers taking hurricane damaged palms and re-using them as new palms.  Homeowners are also being told that the palm leaves they cleared from their own lots after the hurricane are different palm leaves and can’t be cleaned and used to repair their palapa roofs to save some money.  The uneducated palapa buyer believes this, but it simply is not true.  Palm leaves are palm leaves, but you do need ones that have not been used and damaged.

Kevin and Georgina (OK, I confess, these stupid people are really pseudonyms for my husband and me), decided to board everything up, take a six week vacation back in the U.S., and start the process over again once the furor had died down.  But, the furor doesn’t seem to have died down.  There is still high demand for palms, (Washingtonian palms are the best but palapa experts say any palm with a circular or fan shape will work), and still high demand for palapas, and there is still low supply of the materials.

This is where enterprising people like Laythe Hartwell enter the story.  A contractor from San Diego, he saw opportunity here.  According to Hartwell, he specializes in doing repair work after disasters around the world, and he was contacted right after the hurricane about doing emergency cover-up for destroyed palapa roofs at Esperanza.  Originally, he brought down supplies like plastic sheeting, harnesses, and staple guns to at least cover the roofs while the hotel rooms were cleared so the real work could then be done on the roofs.  He applied for the contract to build Esperanza’s roofs, but this deal fell through. Hartwell had already scoured the Baja, securing product or commitments for product from  fincas (palm farms).  “I drove around to little villages and talked to hundreds of people,” said Hartwell.   “I sent my Mexicans workers and friends out to talk to people.  The main thing I needed was the palm fronds.  The first load we brought down ourselves. I bought a trailer, and we cut the palms, cleaned them, dried them, and stacked them.” He claims to have more than 10,000 palm fronds on hand. With the loss of the Esperanza contract, he now had the supplies that everybody else in Baja needed, but no one to use them.  Joining forces with his now-partner, Tristen Cutler, they created PalapaMan, a palapa supply store. PalapaMan is on the corridor right outside of Cabo between the go-cart track and the BBQ joint.

According to Hartwell, these are things to be most aware of:

1)  Most buyers get palms rolled up in bunches of 100.  He says the best way to deliver palms is to have them straightened by keeping them between sheets of plywood. 

2)  “There are many different ways you can build a palapa,” Hartwell said. You can use “20 palms per yard, all the way up to 90 palms per yard, and this changes the weather proofing a little.  The more overlap there is, the thicker the protection there is.” He advises that this will cost more, to use more material, but, he says,  “If you have two or three palms that are overlapping as opposed to just one, then it’s going to give you that much more protection for longer.”

3)  Always cover your palapa with a fishing net.

4)  How the murillo (the big pine poles that make up the skeleton of the palapa, usually between 4-12 inches in diameter) is installed may be the most important part of any palapa construction.  “The locals install the murillo with nails,” said Hartwell.   “The way I install them is I pre-drill through the murillo and install a huge lag bolt that’s about 10 inches long, which is going to make it a lot stronger.   Then the best way to attach the murillo down at the base is to anchor them into concrete with all thread bolts then wrap them with the rope.”

5)  For the actual palm frond, Hartwell advises to notice the size of the actual frond.  Most of the local fronds, especially from the Todos Santos area, are smaller, he said.  “It’s not much meat to hold onto.”  The fronds he found in the fincas from the mountains are a bit different.   “The stem that comes out is very, very thick,” he said. “We use staples that go on both sides. The staples are big, it’s just more substantial so when the wind comes, there’s a lot more shear strength, the fronds are not just stuck in with a small pin.” 

6)  Make sure your palapa builder is an expert.  “Because palapa building is a specialized trade, you can’t expect the gardener to do it for you. Anybody can say they can do it, and they might be able to give you a palapa, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best palapa.”  And go with your builder to purchase your supplies if you can, thus eliminating the deposit game.

7)  Pricing?  Don’t be suckered in by the low bid.  According to Hartwell, “to do a job reasonably, for labor and materials, expect to pay $100 per square yard for an average size job.”  (That’s not a tiny palapa, a palapa with wrap around leaves, or with a more intricate structure.)

8)  Lastly, spend a little extra for the upgrades listed above to make sure the palapa is more secure.  However, he does concede that “obviously with a 150 mph hurricane, the palapa still might not hold, but you will have a better chance.”

  PalapaMan will get creative for you, making a palapa dog house or kid’s play fort, or anything you can dream up. Look for the very controversial 50 foot high, (some say mile high), PalapaMan figure designed and constructed by Hartwell’s partner, and made with what else? Palm fronds. ,