Boats begin to skim the blue waters of Lake Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala at dawn. The lanchas, as the 20-seater speedboats are referred to here, act as taxis picking up and transporting local villagers on their way to work, women in traditional Mayan dress on their way to sell their handicrafts, and tourists exploring the area. Surrounding the 1,049-foot-deep lake, which fills a volcanic crater, are three perfectly conical volcanoes and 11 Mayan villages. Each village is known for something – textiles, ceramics, chocolate – and all compete for the attention of tourists who flock to the area to soak up the natural beauty of the lake.
On the northeast shore of the lake, the village of Santa Catarina Palopó struggled to attract the attention of tourists. The approximately 5,000 indigenous Kaqchikel Maya who lived there traditionally relied on fishing and agriculture, but these sources of income were not sufficient to support the city’s growing population. With few job opportunities in the region, some men have been forced to migrate to nearby tourist towns, Guatemala City and the United States to find work.
To offset poverty and spur economic growth through tourism, a small but powerful group of laborers, artisans, domestic workers and stay-at-home moms created the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project in 2016. The original goal of the The project was simple: paint all 850 homes and businesses brightly, with the aim of transforming the hillside town into a cultural destination.
“We wanted to paint the houses with the colors and figures that represent the community,” explains the project’s executive director, Stephany Blanco. “A range of designs have been created so that families can choose designs that are representative of the family for their homes.”
The project was conceived by Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck. He witnessed firsthand the poverty-induced problems that residents of Santa Catarina Casa Palopó experienced, says Gabriela Camacho, front desk manager at neighboring boutique hotel Casa Palopó. His plan was to rejuvenate the community through tourism with the active participation of local residents.
“He was inspired by artists who transformed a favela in Rio de Janeiro by painting all the buildings on the hillside with bright colors,” Camacho explains.
One of Whitbeck’s first actions was to bring Guatemalan-born artist Diego Olivero on board. Before painting began, Olivero held social design workshops with community leaders to ensure this giant art installation authentically reflected the identity of Santa Catarina.
“What we learned in the workshops was that it was important for them to be connected to nature and to the place where they were born, so we drew colors from their environment using the huipil [a traditional blouse] as the main source of inspiration”, says Olivero.
Inspired by the nearby lake, volcanoes and plants, the team created a color palette with names like ‘water’, ‘mud’ and ‘greenstone’. Vivid blues drawn from expansive skies, dark purples from sunsets, and vibrant greens from grassy volcanoes are used the most, but orange, yellow, and pink round out the color palette. Blue is also a predominant color in the project as the women of Santa Catarina Palopó are known to wear distinctive blue huipiles.
The project transforms the city into a work of art. Each week, local artists, community members and tourists spend afternoons collecting paintbrushes to transform dirty gray facades into colorful buildings. So far, 749 hillside buildings have been painted.
“Seeing the city change color was amazing,” says Olivero.
A local paint company created an eco-friendly paint brand called “Palopó” specifically for this project. Like the paint used by the Maya for thousands of years, this paint uses lime as a preservative to protect against moisture and fungus. Cementos Progreso, one of the largest cement companies in Central America, donated the lime to make the paint, while paint company Pinturas Volcán produced an organic paint formula so as not to affect the community or Lake Atitlán. Painters mix mineral pigments and hydrated lime with water on the spot before starting to paint for the day.
Dark blues and purples create the base paint for most buildings, while light blues, greens, oranges and yellows are used to create geometric patterns and centuries-old symbols on facades. Community leaders selected a handful of symbols found in traditional Mayan textiles, such as butterflies, deer, corn, cats and the resplendent quetzal (the national bird) to use for the project. The same patterns that local women have woven into their blouses for generations are now seen on the sides of buildings throughout the village.
Before painting a house, project volunteers work with families to determine the type of design they want for their house. Each family can choose between the five available color combinations and different stencil patterns. Once the family has cleaned and prepared the house, they spend about two days painting the exterior of the house with the help of a team of painters.
Giving homes a fresh coat of paint is just one part of the project. The beautification of the town has fostered a strong sense of identity, which has led to community development initiatives that support the mission of creating an economically sustainable community through tourism. Over the past five years, the town has seen a huge increase in tourism, encouraging local families to open 17 new businesses, including a cultural center, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and craft centres, says Blanco .
“Since the start of the project, male migration out of the community has decreased, domestic and international tourism has increased by 74%, and the community is better organized,” she says.
Casa Palopó, main sponsor of the project, invites its guests to work hand in hand with the volunteers of the project for a day of painting. Hotel guests begin their day at the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó Museum, located in the town’s main square. One-room museum volunteers explain the various symbols, geometric shapes and colors seen throughout the city as well as the history of the project and its impact on local villagers. Next, guests spend a few hours with a handful of local volunteers painting a house and getting to know the family who live there. After an afternoon of painting, visitors can explore the hillside village on foot, stop at the Centro Cultural to learn about Kaqchikel’s Mayan history and culture, shop for handmade textiles in one of the many pop-up stores or grab a cup of local produce. organic coffee.
Although tourism is increasing, it is still far below that of Lake Atitlán’s most popular destinations, such as Panajachel, San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna. Community leaders, however, hope tourism will continue to grow, generating more employment opportunities through new restaurants, hotels and activities.
With any luck, curious tourists seeing the colorful murals of the lanchas in the middle of the lake will keep asking, “What is that city with the blue buildings?”