Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó

Each of the villages and towns around Lake Atitlán has its unique personality. Over the past year, the town of Santa Catarina Palopó has been adding to its personality with bright colors and designs that reflect the town’s history.

Santa Catarina Palopó is the town closest to Panajachel–about 2.5 miles or 4 km. Though a few lovely hotels and vacation rentals offer an alternative to Panajachel lodgings, and the town has spectacular views of the lake, Santa Catarina has not been known as a tourist destination in its own right. The economy of this town of about 5,000 is based primarily in agriculture and fishing, with some artisan weaving.

Stage in Santa Catarina Palopo's central square
Stage in Santa Catarina Palopó’s central square

A project aimed at changing Santa Catarina’s tourism draw and improving the lives of its people is called Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó. The project was initiated by Harris Whitbeck and Melissa Whitbeck: Guatemalans who, according to the project’s website, “have a strong bond with this municipality, its inhabitants and Lake Atitlán.” Harris Whitbeck is a television personality (The Amazing Race) and journalist who serves as CNN’s international correspondent in Mexico City. Melissa is his niece.

The Whitbecks brought in Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas y Dre Urhahn, who had worked on a similar project in Brazil. The artists took the designs from the old and new style huipiles (women’s blouses) of Santa Catarina and turned them into a color palette and designs to be painted on the town’s homes and businesses. Decisions about the project were made with the participation of 20 community leaders, from teachers and weavers to government and spiritual leaders.

The aim of the project is to hire local painters to paint the designs on every house of the village. With 800 buildings, the project is planned through 2019.

In addition to hiring local artists and focusing on cultural preservation, the project has an environmental focus. The paint is designed to be affordable and durable, without contributing any contamination to the lake. The paint is based on cal hidratada (calcium hydroxide), which is non-toxic and has disinfecting properties.

Learning about the Pintando Santa Catarina project in the office on the central square
Learning about the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project in the office on the central square.

We walk to Santa Catarina once or twice a week, and have watched as the buildings in the town center have gradually transformed into works of art. While only about 12% of the buildings have been painted so far, the projection is for over 50% to be painted by the end of 2018. On a recent walk we stopped into the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopoó office to find out more about the project.

The project is extremely well-organized, and is sponsored by several large Guatemalan businesses and arts organizations. They distribute a nice booklet (Manual Para Vecinos) that details the color palettes and designs to be used.

Painted buildings based on designs from the weavings of Santa Catarina Palopó
Painted buildings based on designs from the weavings of Santa Catarina Palopó

I admit to some reservations about this project. The Look Magazine article about Melissa Whitbeck and the project seemed odd (to say the least) with it’s staged photography and fashion-shoot feel. Beyond that, at first I felt like the paintings made the town look a bit like a Mayan Disneyland. Was this wealthy Guatemalans exploiting an indigenous village? The people I talked with in the village seemed to not only support the project, but to be excited about it. The designs and colors have grown on me, and I look forward to seeing more as the project progresses.

Links to more information about the project:

Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó website

Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó Facebook page

TEDx talk: Harris Whitbeck and Melissa Whitbeck explaining the project (Spanish)

Project video (Spanish)

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