A Look at the Guatemalan Town That Is Transforming Into a Work of Art

© Erica Latak / Culture Trip
Photo of Rich Brown
5 June 2019

A dazzling painting project is fusing culture and sustainable development on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Local artists are painting homes in Santa Catarina Palopó to attract tourism and celebrate Maya Kaqchikel culture.

Santa Catarina Palopó sits on a mountainside above stunning Lake Atitlán, a huge, high-altitude lake famous for its volcanoes and picturesque Maya communities. The town is becoming one of the most stunning in Central America thanks to the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project. This project is advancing towards a goal of painting 800 homes with colors and patterns inspired from Kaqchikel Maya culture.

The painted houses of Santa Catarina Palopó | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

The project began with Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck, who saw how a similar project by Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (better known as Haas and Hahn) transformed life in Rio de Janeiro’s Vila Cruzeiro favela.

Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

Pintando brought the same Dutch artists to Guatemala in 2016 to work with locals in Santa Catarina to develop prototype designs in the town’s central plaza. Then, Guatemalan designer Diego Olivero collaborated with architects, designers, community leaders and residents to complete the planning process. This inclusive method was devised to give as many residents as possible ownership in the project and to ensure that it would reflect and support local culture and priorities.

The designs on the walls echo those used in traditional fabrics | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

This process produced color palettes and designs based on those of the town’s traditional woven blouses, called huipiles. The designs include centuries-old geometric patterns that represent traditional themes like cornstalks, butterflies, wild cats, birds, flowers, volcanoes and the waves of the lake. Each family can choose from five color combinations and various stencil designs for their home.

A weaver works on a traditional fabric | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

The environmentally friendly paint itself is also a modern take on an ancient local practice. It was developed especially for Pintando by Alfredo Maul, an architect with Guatemalan sustainable design firm Environmental Association G-22. Like the paint used by Maya builders 5,000 years ago, it contains lime as a preservative that protects against moisture and fungi.

It will take years to saturate the entire town with bright colors and intricate designs, and Pintando has not yet reached its fundraising goal of $500,000. Nonetheless, the project has already boosted tourism and led locals to open cafés, artisan shops and other small businesses. Organizers hope that guides and weavers will soon have more business and that homestays and restaurants will create new jobs.

Families get to choose the stencil designs for their homes | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

Pintando has also gained international recognition. The organizers of Pintando submitted an installation representing the project and the Kaqchikel culture it embodies to the 2018 London Design Biennale. In September 2018, the installation was awarded the London Design Biennale Public Medal by public vote.

The colors of Santa Catarina Palopó | © Erica Latak / Culture Trip

Travelers who wish to contribute can buy paint and work alongside families to transform their homes. Hotels in the area, including Casa Palopó and Villas Santa Catarina, often offer discounts to volunteers. For more information, contact either of those hotels or Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó at pintando@santacatarina.gt.

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