Boats begin skimming the blue waters of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala’s highlands at daybreak. The lanchas, as the 20-seat speedboats are referred to here, act as taxis picking up and transporting local villagers on their way to work, women wearing traditional Maya dress heading out to sell their handmade crafts and tourists exploring the region. Surrounding the 1,049-feet-deep lake, which fills a volcanic crater, are three perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes and 11 Maya villages. Each village is known for something—textiles, ceramics, chocolate—and all of them compete for the attention of tourists who flock the area to soak in the lake’s natural beauty.
On the northeastern shores of the lake, the village of Santa Catarina Palopó was having a tough time attracting the tourist’s eye. The roughly 5,000 Indigenous Kaqchikel Maya living there traditionally relied on fishing and agriculture, but these sources of income were not enough to sustain the town’s increasing 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 spur economic growth through tourism, a small but mighty group of laborers, artisans, domestic workers and stay-at-home moms created the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project in 2016. The project’s initial goal was simple: paint all 850 homes and businesses in vibrant colors, in an effort to transform the hillside town into a cultural destination.
“We wanted to paint the houses with the colors and figures that represent the community,” says the project’s executive director Stephany Blanco. “A range of designs were created so that families can choose designs for their house that are representative of the family.”
The project was the brainchild of Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck. He witnessed firsthand the poverty-induced problems the residents of Santa Catarina Casa Palopó lived through, says Gabriela Camacho, hospitality manager for the nearby boutique hotel Casa Palopó. His plan was to rejuvenate the community through tourism with the local residents’ active participation.
“He was inspired by artists who transformed a favela in Rio de Janeiro by painting all the buildings on the hillside in bright colors,” Camacho says.
One of Whitbeck’s first actions was to bring Guatemalan-born artist Diego Olivero on board. Before the painting began, Olivero organized social design workshops with community leaders to ensure 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 the place where they were born, so we pulled in colors from their surroundings 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 palette of colors with names like “water,” “mud” and “green stone.” Vivid blues plucked from the expansive sky, deep purple from the sunsets and vibrant green from the grassy volcanoes are used most frequently, but orange, yellow and pink round out the color scheme. Blue is also a prominent color in the project because the women of Santa Catarina Palopó are known to wear distinctive blue huipiles.
The project is transforming the town into a work of art. Each week, local artists, community members and tourists spend afternoons picking up paintbrushes to convert grungy gray facades into colorful buildings. So far, 749 buildings up and down the hillside have been painted.
“Seeing the town change color has been amazing,” Olivero says.
A local paint company created an environmentally friendly paint brand named “Palopó” specifically for this project. Like paint used by the Maya for thousands of years, this paint uses lime as a preservative to protect against moisture and fungi. Cementos Progreso, one of Central America’s largest cement companies, donated the lime to make the paint, while the 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 onsite before they begin painting for the day.
The dark blues and purples create the base paint for most buildings, while light blues, greens, oranges and yellows are used to create centuries-old geometric patterns and symbols on the facades. Community leaders selected a handful of symbols found in traditional Maya textiles, such as butterflies, deer, corn, cats and the resplendent quetzal (the national bird) to be used for the project. The same patterns the local women have been weaving into their blouses for generations are now seen on the sides of buildings throughout the village.
Before painting a home, project volunteers work with families to determine what type of design they want on their home. Each family can choose between the five available color combinations and various stencil designs. Once 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.
Providing homes with a fresh coat of paint is just one component of the project. Beautifying 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. During the past five years, the town has seen a huge jump in tourism, encouraging local families to open 17 new businesses, including a cultural center, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and artisan centers, Blanco says.
“Since the beginning of the project, 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 project’s main sponsor, 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 on the town’s main plaza. Volunteers at the one-room museum explain the various symbols, geometric shapes and colors seen throughout town as well as the history of the project and its impact on local villagers. Then the guests spend a few hours with a handful of local volunteers painting a home and getting to know the family who lives there. After an afternoon of painting, visitors can explore the hillside village on foot, stop in at the Centro Cultural to learn about the Kaqchikel Maya history and culture, shop for handmade textiles at one of the many pop-up stores or grab a cup of local organic coffee.
While tourism is increasing, it is still far lower than in Lake Atitlán’s more popular destinations, like Panajachel, San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna. Community leaders, however, 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 from lanchas in the middle of the lake will continue to ask, “What is that town with the blue buildings?”