A Guatemalan Town Rediscovers Its Identity Through Art
Story and photos by Shelley Seale

A town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala injects new energy in the community by making its buildings as colorful as its traditional clothing.

colorful buildings in Guatemala

Coming into the town of Santa Catarina Palopó, in the highlands of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, what you notice first are the vibrant colors. Most of the buildings along the main street and square are striking, in deep, varied hues of blues and greens; interspersed with pops of red and yellow to form intricate patterns and designs.

The energy in the small village is just as vibrant, and palpable. Locals greet each other and visitors warmly on the streets. You can feel the joy and the pride that emanates from Santa Catarina’s citizens. And the colorful buildings have a lot to do with it.

Situated along the shore of Lake Atitlán, three miles away from the popular tourist destination of Panajachel, Santa Catarina Palopó was once a sleepy town of 5,000 people, most of them indigenous and dependent on waning agricultural work. But the art project Pintado Santa Catarina Palopó, responsible for the rich colors that the buildings are swathed in here, has transformed the town into a destination on its own—as well as a thriving place for its citizens to be proud of.

Indeed, it shows the power that art—even a simple coat of paint—can have to change lives.

Painting as Pride Spreads North

The Pintado initiative in Guatemala was inspired by a similar project in the favelas of Brazil. It’s the brainchild of Guatemala City native Harris Whitbeck, who has spent his life vacationing in and visiting the picturesque towns that dot the peaceful Lake Atitlán shores, with the dramatic volcanoes rising up above it all. On a visit to Brazil, Harris became enamored of the Favela Painting Foundation that was turning the slums into a living art installation.

Two Dutch artists, Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, started the Brazilian project as a way to use art as a powerful weapon to catalyze social change, and create a sense of ownership and beauty in the favelas.

Harris knew that something similar could be done in Santa Catarina Palopó.

The first step was inviting Urhahn and Koolhaas to Guatemala to share their ideas and experiences. The artists agreed, arriving in Santa Catarina in October 2016 where they conducted a 12-day lab with twenty local community leaders. Besides sharing their knowledge and vision from Brazil and providing inspiration for the Guatemalan Pintado effort, Urhahn and Koolhaas helped the community to decide on their color palette and designs.

From Guatemalan Clothing to House Walls

This is where the unique heritage of not only Guatemala, but also Santa Catarina and its Kaqchikel Maya indigenous traditions, came into play. One of the most striking and instantly recognizable characteristics of the region is the blue huipil, or blouse, which has been worn prominently by local women since the 16th century. That deep azure blue was chosen as the primary color for the Pintado project, with secondary colors found in their clothing, textiles and topography to complement it.

Guatemalan woman sitting against a wall

“Guatemala is, first of all, beautiful in its landscapes and its people,” Koolhaas said. “The colors that are everywhere, the clothing, the houses…everything is full of color.”

As for the designs that would be used, they would also find inspiration in local culture. Symbols such as volcanoes, flowers, maize, Mayan-styled butterflies and the national bird of Guatemala, the quetzal, were incorporated.

A non-profit organization was formed, Asociación Pintando el Cambio, consisting of Harris and his niece, Melissa Whitbeck; lead designer Diego Olivero; local leaders Alfredo Maul and Sylvia Moreira; and Claudia Bosch and her daughter, Maria Cristina, The Boschs own the nearby luxury Relais & Chateaux hotel, Casa Palopó, which is a major supporter of the project.

A team of six masons and painters and a residing architect were hired by Asociación Pintando el Cambio to kick off the process. The group had a lofty mission: To transform the lives of the inhabitants of Santa Catarina Palopó through an artistic intervention that generates a sense of belonging, community pride and a climate of citizen involvement.

In the end, that is exactly what happened.

Since the project got underway in mid-2017 with its first painting job, the entire central square of the town, Pintado has sparked development, job opportunities, pride, and empowerment in its citizens. After the first few families came on board to paint their homes, more families began adding themselves to the list, eager to have their homes or businesses beautified. Every family or business that participates selects their own color and design from the palette and patterns that represent the town’s ancient textiles usually found woven on the garments of the indigenous people. Participants must also work on the painting project alongside association members and their neighbors.

Guatemalan children painting a blue wall

Beauty Spreads Like an Idea

“At first, the idea of the project left many unsure about participating,” Melissa Whitbeck said. “But once they started seeing the first houses painted, or seeing their next-door neighbors getting involved, painting their homes with colorful murals, the residents that were hesitant at first began to enjoy the idea and wanted to participate as well.”

The Pintado project has also increased tourism awareness. After the first few dozen homes were painted in 2017, word began to spread. Casa Palopó implemented it as a cultural exchange and service project through the inn, inviting guests to participate in a painting project and tour the town, meeting some of its residents. Shops, cafes and artisans have seen tourist numbers and their business increase.

“It’s really about finding ways to help them feel more dignified, about what they can do,” Melissa said.

Guatemalan Casa Palopó

The project has helped to team up public and private sectors to develop tourist lookout points, develop ancestral paths, provide tourism training, and improve the school, healthcare center and water system. The goal is to paint all of the approximately 800 buildings in town. Around 50 have been completed so far and there is a wait list of about 150 homes for completion through 2019.

"While it is projected that it’ll take two or three more years to complete, you can already see a considerable difference in the town,” Melissa said. “The coloring of the buildings/homes (that are currently just grey, cemented structures), is believed to improve the quality of life of the people. Uplifting the people’s mood and encouraging them to be proud of where they come from."

It’s a sentiment echoed by Claudia Bosch of Casa Palopó. “The sustainability of our communities is essential for its proper development,” she said. “This is the reason why we love being part of and getting involved with the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project, through which we ensure the growth, education and development of our community through painting and art.”

The transformation of Santa Catarina Palopó has far exceeded that of colorfully painted buildings. It has instilled a sense of ownership and community among its citizens, brought new work and entrepreneurial opportunities, and created a place of beauty for residents and visitors alike. Perhaps most importantly, it has rejuvenated the cultural identity of the town and its proud people.

Shelley Seale is a professional freelance writer, editor, and author based out of Austin, Texas. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Globe Pequot Press, CNN, AOL, BootsnAll Travel and Andrew Harper Traveler, among others. She is also the author or a contributing author of six books. See more at tradingplacesglobal.com.

Related Features:
Unreached Realities in Guatemalan Mangroves - Luke Maguire Armstrong
Handmade in Oaxaca - Tim Leffel
Village of The Dolls in Skikoku - Judith Fein
A Hermit's Prayer on Salvation Mountain - James Michael Dorsey

See other Central America travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: https://perceptivetravel.com/issues/0518/guatemala.html

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

How To Travel For Free

Buy How To Travel For Free at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Insiders' Guide to Seattle

Buy Insiders' Guide to Seattle at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India

Buy The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Sign Up