TULUM, México – Tulum, renowned for its picturesque palapas scattered across both hotel and residential developments, exudes a rustic charm that has captivated travelers from around the world. However, amid the booming real estate development currently sweeping the region, a disheartening reality plagues the local artisans behind these iconic structures. Despite the surging economic prosperity brought about by Tulum’s popularity, these craftsmen find themselves left behind.
The palaperos, as they are known locally, have long been the custodians of this ancient craft, passed down through generations. Fulgencio Caamal, one such artisan, learned the trade from his father-in-law, don Felipe, a pioneering palapero in Tulum’s history. However, the demand for their exquisite craftsmanship has dwindled as a wave of outsiders has flooded the market, undercutting prices and usurping opportunities once reserved for the families of Tulum’s ninth municipality.
In a candid interview, Caamal shared his lament over the current state of affairs, revealing that the influx of external workers offering cut-rate prices has severely hampered their livelihoods. While the surge in construction projects in Tulum has seemingly created a conducive environment for their trade, the palaperos have struggled to capitalize on these opportunities fully. Despite efforts to emphasize the importance of preserving the local essence, it appears that economic incentives often prioritize cheaper alternatives over authenticity.
“The demand for traditional palapas has plummeted due to the influx of outsiders offering rock-bottom prices. The current season is also quite slow. While there are requests for structures like pergolas, palapas, or staircases, the locals lose out to the low-cost offers from outsiders,” Caamal explained.
Expressing his doubts about a positive shift in the future, Caamal lamented that most employers tend to favor cheaper labor, even if it means compromising on quality. The locals’ expertise is sought only when problems arise from shoddy workmanship.
Adding to their woes, the cost of raw materials has been steadily rising. Caamal cited the escalating prices of wood and huano, the traditional material used to craft palapas. He estimated that building a 4×4-meter palapa now costs between 90,000 to 100,000 pesos, mainly due to these material price hikes.
Once, a thriving community of palaperos thrived, with entire families involved in this trade to build their homes and secure their primary source of income. Now, this once-vibrant community has dwindled to barely fifty artisans, struggling to find work as the construction industry becomes dominated by outsiders.
In the absence of sufficient work contracts, many artisans have reluctantly abandoned their craft, seeking alternative means of income. The precarious situation highlights the need for both local and national initiatives to support and preserve Tulum’s rich cultural heritage.