Lake Atitlan Travel Guide: Why You Need To Visit Santa Catarina Palopó

By Katie Foote, Epicure & Culture Contributor

In search of a Lake Atitlan travel guide that contributes to social good?

Well, you’re in luck!

For most, the lake is one of the must-visit places to go in Guatemala.

This picturesque and peaceful lake — hugged by mountains and volcanoes — has capivated visitors from the ancient Mayans to modern-day backpackers looking for a place to settle in for a few months as they learn Spanish.

Now if you’re an art lover, this destination gets even better; at least if you choose Santa Catarina Palopo as one of the Lake Atitlan villages to visit on your trip.

Here’s why:

Santa Catarina Palopó is currently being transformed into a community-based art project called the “Pintando Santa Catarina”. As it grows, the village further transforms into a colorful masterpiece, decked out in traditional Mayan patterns using vivid, eco-friendly limestone paint.

The project started in 2017, and while it is projected to take two-to-three more years to complete, travelers can see — and even contribute — to the transformation when visiting Lake Atitlan.

Psst! Don’t forget to pin this post on Pinterest for later:

Lake Atitlan Travel Guide

Pintando Santa Catarina: Changing Lives Through Art

The Pintando Santa Catarina project aims to improve the quality of life in this indigenous community by inspiring a sense of pride and community empowerment among its inhabitants.

For example, tourism provides jobs that help preserve traditions and indigenous crafts. Through this project, when visitors are choosing between places to go in Guatemala, they’ll think of Santa Catarina Palopó.

Melissa Whitbeck explains:

“Lake Atitlan is under tremendous environmental pressure, and this is one way to create alternative sources of income for people who have been forced to use agricultural practices that have contributed to endangering the lake and its ecosystem.”

Guatemalan journalist, Harris Whitbeck, along with his niece, Melissa Whitbeck, started the project because of their love for the area.

Harris covers Latin America for international TV outlets. He grew up going to Lake Atitlan to visit his grandmother every weekend, and feels a deep connection to it.

Actually, he built his house in Santa Catarina Palopó fifteen years ago as a peaceful place to come home to after tough assignments in the Middle East, when he was a war reporter for CNN.

Melissa inherited a love for the lake from her family, and is now the executive director of the Pintando Santa Catarina project.

Below, she shares more about how the project is contributing to positive change in Santa Catarina Palopó and the surrounding area, and how you can get involved, too! 

Bonus: This interivew acts as a great Lake Atitlan travel guide, too, especially for those looking to go beyond the typical recommendations.

Lake Atitlan travel guide

Hard at work. Photo courtesy of Pintando Santa Catarina.

1) What was the community’s initial response to the Pintando Santa Catarina project?

The community has been involved since day one. They have been the ones guiding the decisions the project has executed.

We first approached the local municipality with this idea and they have been very open and supportive about the process. We then contacted local community leaders that represent different groups; for example: the artists, painters, artisans, educators, local weavers, tourism guides to name a few. They helped spread the message and the idea behind the project.

At first, the idea of the project left many unsure about participating; but once they started seeing the first houses, or their neighbor’s houses, painted more and more residents enjoyed the idea and wanted to participate.

2) How does the project engage local expertise, local community and local businesses?

We ran an initial trial of the design — painting eight buildings — to see how the community responded, and at first they didn’t feel a connection with the design.

So, we invited a local Guatemalan artist, Diego Olivero, to create new ones. This resulted in higher praise by the people of Santa Catarina.

Every family has the liberty to choose from a number of different designs. The patterns represent the town’s ancient textiles that are usually found woven on the garments/clothing of the indigenous people.

On the other hand, the project has received partial support from the Santa Catarina Municipality, the Guatemalan Ministry of Economy, the Guatemalan Tourism Commission and mainly local businesses, such as Casa Palopo — one of the most beautiful Lake Atitlan hotels — located in Santa Catarina. The now 15-room boutique hotel is one of the main sponsors supporting the project, and working on empowering the community.

Lake Atitlan travel guide

Local weaver. Photo courtesy of Chapin Films

3) How do the location and heritage inspire the designs?

The design is based on the traditional weavings that Guatemala is known for.

Olivero worked with community leaders to come up with the final design, which is now being applied to the first 100 houses in Santa Catarina Palopó.

The town decided to use the same colors and patterns in their traditional weavings, which are a crucial instrument of cultural identity.

Our design is constituted with colors, figures and patterns.

The colors — mainly blues and reds — represent the modern and ancient textiles local people wear.

The figures, mainly animal’s figures represent an important part of their daily life — think cats, birds and corn — and finally the patterns represent the nature that lives around them, volcanoes, mountains, water.

Lake Atitlan travel guide.

A local. Photo coutesy of Pintando Santa Catarina.

4) How has Pintando Santa Catarina changed since the project started?

The Pintando Santa Catarina project has evolved a lot since everything started, from the design to the paint.

For example:

We’re now using lime-based paint that is environmentally friendly, fungicidal and protects buildings from humidity.

Our paint formula has been improved, and with the help of the project’s main, local sponsors Cementos Progreso and Pinturas Volcán — local cement and painting companies — a paint brand has been created specifically for the project named “Palopó” with a standardized color palette.

The guidelines for painting a house have also changed completely.

Here’s how:

At first, our team would visit local families and, once we had their approved, our painting crew would start painting.

Now a list of guidelines has been implemented to be next in line to paint your house.

As a first requirement, families have to come to the local office and show interest for the project.

Additionally, at least one family member has to paint their house and has to be present with our painting crew at all time.

Other requirements, for instance, include preparing the facades of their house and cleaning it.

The involvement and the interest of the families has been higher, and this has accelerated the process exponentially.

Over the last month approximately, more houses have been painted than what has been painted in almost five months.

It has even developed a new job opportunity for some people, as local families have started hiring helpers to paint with them and work in their house.

Lake Atitlan travel guide

Painters at work. Photo courtesy of Chapin Films.

5) How far into the project are you?

I would say about 80% of the families are participating, and as more houses are completed, interest in the project rises.

So far, we have painted 87 buildings of the 850 buildings in Santa Catarina — so 10%.

The Pintando Santa Catarina project is estimated to finish by the end of 2019.

6) What’s the vision for what Santa Catarina Palopó will be like when the project is “done,” and how will the benefits be sustained?

Pintando Santa Catarina is as much about urban design as an agent of social change as it is about empowerment, self-determination and the creation of new opportunities.

The majority of the project members are local Mayan women who are finding new ways to develop and assert leadership skills.

Several new small businesses have already cropped up as townspeople notice an increase in the number of visitors to the community.

As colorful murals continue to cover Santa Catarina Palopó, the hope is that this new environment for the creation of new cultural social and economic opportunities will be consolidated.

7) The Pintando Santa Catarina project is supposed to be replicable model for facilitating community dialogue. Has this inspired similar projects elsewhere?

Pintando Santa Catarina has been developing an operation and execution guide that could be easily replicated in other communities.

The project has called attention of other municipalities around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and even in other countries in Central America. Our priority though is still in Santa Catarina Palopó.

Lake Atitlan travel guide

Visitors helping alongside locals. Photo courtesy of Pintando Santa Catarina.

8) How do you educate visitors on the local heritage of Santa Catarina Palopó to provide a deeper Lake Atitlan travel guide?

Volunteer groups were formed, a visitor center and project office were opened in the town square, and groups of paid promoters and local painters work with individual families to sign them up and organize the painting of all the houses.

One family has started a small cultural center that is receiving 600 visits a month where they provide weaving workshops and cooking demonstrations. Additionally, there is a group that has shown interest in starting a local tour group cooperative.

To learn more from a distance, Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó will be featured in “A Movement for Hope,” Guatemala’s official entry into the London Design Biennale in 2018.

Guatemalan textile designer Silvia Dembourg will collaborate with project designer Diego Olivero and curator Cecilia Santamarina to develop an exceptional space that allows viewers to immerse themselves in the deep waters of Lake Atitlan.

Furthermore, it invites them to become part of this journey to save Lake Atitlan and help the local community of Santa Catarina Palopó find new sustainable tourism-based development opportunities.

It provokes them to really consider Santa Catarina Palopó when deciding between places to go in Guatemala.

9) How can Epicure & Culture readers get involved in the Pintando Santa Catarina project?

People interested in getting involved can adopt a house for $500 USD, which covers materials to paint one entire house.

Teams can adopt a public space as a team building exercise that gives back to this community.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Lake Atitlan and the town, guests of Casa Palopó — one of the luxury boutique Lake Atitlan hotels — can lend a helping hand with their “Painting Change” program. This invites them to adopt a house by donating $100 to the cause that will also be their admission to help a family paint their home.

During this experience, guests will be transferred into the community where they will be appointed to a team and introduced to an indigenous family of the house they will be painting.

They will then help the family paint their home with the family’s choice of mural or traditional pattern stencils and paint colors made specificially for this project.

Lake Atitlan hotels
Photo via Casa Palopo, one of the top Lake Atitlan hotels

Antigua To Lake Atitlan Travel Guide

Traveling from Antigua to Lake Atitlan is easy, especially as you can reserve a van transfer for less than $20 by clicking here.

Once in Panajachel, which is where the van drops you off when visiting Lake Atitlan, you can choose between:

  • Walking. It takes about 45-60 minutes.
  • A public pickup truck (flete) that drops visitors in Santa Catarina Palopó. You can pick one up in front of the Despensa Grocery Store, located at the corner of Calle Amante and Calle Principal. Before boarding, be sure to ask that the flete is stopping in Santa Catarina Palopó.
  • A boat ride (lancha), which will be your most expensive option, though scenic.

If you’d prefer to visit Santa Catarina Palopó with a guide, you can book a Santa Catarina Lake Atitlan Upper Rim Hike with village visit here.

What would you add to this Lake Atitlan travel guide,specifcally on visiting Santa Catarina Palopó? Please share in the comments below! 

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Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

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