The engineering and architecture of the Maya pyramids is admirable; those majestic buildings that constantly amaze us, like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán. But there are other buildings that deserve to be seen and appreciated: the Maya houses, that you will certainly have seen in many pictures of southeastern Mexico, with their characteristic “huano” (palm) rooftops.
The Maya house, “nah,” for centuries has had the same design, oval shape, and construction materials, even as far back as the arrival of the Spanish. This shows us there were architectural developments that already existed in the Yucatán Peninsula before colonization. The traditional Maya house has various separate areas, each with a specific function: the main room-sleeping room, the kitchen-storage area, and the bathroom. The Maya practice the multifunctional living space concept!
The building is sustainable, resistant and built with organic materials that are easy to get in the jungle. The main structure is held together with wooden beams, preferably of zapote wood; the rooftops are covered with huano leaves, and placed in a way that prevents leaking when it rains. The walls are built with wooden beams filled with stucco (red dirt mixed with grass) and the floor is made of “sascab” (leveled white dirt). The dimensions can change according to the number of family members; and of course it will depend on how many hammocks they need!
The main room is used for welcoming guests and also as sleeping quarters. The main door is made of wood, and it has no windows. Yes, that’s right, no windows! In spite of this, it is adequate for both hot and cold weather; it maintains a constant cool temperature and is also resistant to rain and strong winds. This is the reason why people still build this kind of house.
The life in the main room changes constantly. In the morning all the hammocks are stowed away, leaving a large area to be used for the family’s normal daytime activities. Maya families were always large and everyone used to live together. At night, the hammocks are hung once again and this space becomes a place to relax and sleep. Everything happens in the same room. Great lessons of what is really necessary in a house can be learned from the Maya.
Another smaller area beside the house is used for the kitchen and storage. In the center of that room you will find a stove made of wood and stone, along with an area for the preparation of handmade tortillas prepared on the “comal” (griddle). The bathroom is located at the back of the property, usually in a corner.
During your travels in Yucatán, you will surely see Maya houses with “albarradas” (fences) painted white, draped with colorful bougainvillea, and fruit trees in the garden: a “must” photo opportunity. Even though some restaurants follow this construction technique in Mérida, Maní and other places, you should travel through the small towns and meet local people: there’s no a better way to get to know a traditional Maya house!
By Violeta H. Cantarell
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