Boats begin plying the blue waters of Lake Atitlan in the mountains of Guatemala at dawn. The motor boats, as the 20-seater motorboats are referred to here, act as taxis, picking up and transporting local villagers on their way to work, women dressed in traditional Mayan costumes heading out to sell their handmade crafts, and tourists exploring the region . Surrounding the 1,049-foot-deep lake that fills a volcanic crater are three perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes and 11 Mayan villages. Each village is famous for something – textiles, ceramics, chocolate – and they all compete for the attention of tourists who flock to the area to soak in the natural beauty of the lake.
On the northeastern shore of the lake, the village of Santa Catarina Palopo was having a hard time catching the eye of tourists. The approximately 5,000 indigenous Kaqchikel Maya living there traditionally relied on fishing and farming, but these sources of income were not enough to support the city’s growing population. With few professional opportunities in the area, some men were forced to emigrate to nearby tourist towns, Guatemala City, and the United States to find work.
To offset poverty and stimulate economic growth through tourism, a small but powerful group of workers, artisans, domestic workers and stay-at-home mothers created the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project in 2016. The initial goal of the project was simple: paint the all 850 houses and businesses in vibrant colors in an effort to transform the hill town into a cultural destination.
“We wanted to paint the houses with the colors and shapes that represent the community,” says project executive director Stephanie Blanco. “A range of designs were created so that families can choose designs for their house that are representative of the family.”
The project is the work of Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck. He witnessed firsthand the problems caused by poverty that the residents of Santa Catarina Casa Palopó lived through, says Gabriela Camacho, hospitality manager of the nearby 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 hill in bright colors,” says Camacho.
One of Whitbeck’s first acts was to bring Guatemalan-born artist Diego Olivero on board. Before painting began, Olivero organized social design workshops with community leaders to ensure that this giant art installation authentically reflected Santa Catarina’s identity.
“What we learned in the workshops was that it was important for them to be connected to nature and where they were born, so we pulled colors from their surroundings using team [a traditional blouse] as a major source of inspiration,” says Olivero.
Inspired by the nearby lake, volcanoes and plants, the team created a palette of colors with names like ‘water’, ‘mud’ and ‘greenstone’. Bright blues plucked from vast skies, deep purples from sunsets and vibrant greens from grassy volcanoes are most commonly used, but orange, yellow and pink round out the color scheme. Blue is also an important color in the project, as the women of Santa Catarina Palopo are known to wear distinctive blue hupils.
The project turns the city into a work of art. Each week, local artists, community members and tourists spend afternoons picking up paint brushes to transform the rough gray facades into colorful buildings. So far, 749 buildings up and down the slope have been painted.
“It was amazing to see the city change color,” says Olivero.
A local paint company created an environmentally friendly paint brand called “Palopó” specifically for this project. Like the paint used by the Mayans 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 lime to make the paint, while paint company Pinturas Volcán produced an organic paint formula so it would not affect the community or Lake Atitlán. Painters mix mineral pigments and hydrated lime with water on site before starting to paint for the day.
Dark blues and purples form the base paint for most buildings, while light blues, greens, oranges and yellows are used to create centuries-old geometric motifs and 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 be used for the project. The same patterns that local women have been weaving into their blouses for generations can now be seen on the walls of buildings throughout the village.
Before painting a home, project volunteers work with families to determine what type of design they want for their home. Each family can choose from five available color combinations and different pattern designs. After the family has cleaned and prepared the house, they spend about two days painting the exterior of the home with the help of a painting crew.
Giving the homes a fresh coat of paint is just one component of the project. The beautification of the town has fostered a strong sense of identity, leading to community development initiatives that support the mission of creating an economically sustainable community through tourism. In the past five years, the city has seen a huge surge in tourism, encouraging local families to open 17 new businesses, including a cultural center, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and craft centers, Blanco says.
“Since the project began, the migration of men outside the community has decreased, national and international tourism has increased by 74 percent and the community is more organized,” she says.
Casa Palopó, the main sponsor of the project, invites its guests to work hand-in-hand with project volunteers for a day of painting. Hotel guests start their day at the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó Museum, located in the town’s main square. Volunteers in the one-room museum explain the various symbols, geometric shapes and colors seen in the city, as well as the history of the project and its impact on the local villagers. Guests then spend several hours with a handful of local volunteers painting a home and getting to know the family that lives there. After an afternoon of painting, visitors can explore the hilltop village on foot, stop by the Centro Cultural to learn more about the history and culture of the Cacchiquel Maya, shop for handmade textiles at one of the many pop-up shops, or grab a cuppa local organic coffee.
Although tourism is increasing, it is still far lower than in the more popular destinations of Lake Atitlan, such as Panajachel, San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna. However, community leaders hope that tourism will continue to grow, spurring more job opportunities through new restaurants, hotels and activities.
With any luck, curious tourists, seeing the colorful murals of lanchies in the middle of the lake, will keep asking, “What is this town with the blue buildings?”