Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán is famed for its striking scenery: cobalt-blue waters fringed with dramatic volcanic cones and scattered Mayan villages. And now the site is about to add a rather different attraction to its shores. The lakeside community of Santa Catarina Palopó is embarking on an ambitious project to turn itself into a monumental piece of artwork, with a view to generating an alternative source of tourism income for locals.
It’s the brainchild of Harris Whitbeck, a Guatemalan journalist and believer in art as an agent of social change, whose family has links to the lake going back three generations. When he saw how renowned Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn had transformed the Rio de Janeiro favela of Vila Cruzeiro with vibrant colour, the idea of Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó was born.
“Studies show that if the physical environment of a community is improved, there’s a positive impact on inhabitants. There’s an increased sense of belonging, crime levels fall and new businesses open up,” Whitbeck said.
The community, from the mayor down, was on board from the start and the project has created a greater connection between the villagers – many of whom only speak their native language, Kaqchikel – and the Spanish-speaking “weekenders” from Guatemala City. Lidia Cumes, a community leader, said: “Living in darkness can be difficult. To be surrounded by new ideas and by colour is much better. Everything can be achieved when there is will and participation, and I’m convinced that the project will create more opportunities for our village.”
One of Central America’s largest cement companies, Cementos Progreso, donated lime to manufacture paint. Whitbeck discovered that lime-based paint is cheap to produce and has anti-fungal and anti-humidity properties, as well as a thermal effect. In fact, the villagers’ ancestors were using lime-based paint 5,000 years ago.
The company also covered the fees of the Dutch duo – better known as Haas & Hahn – who ran a Color Lab workshop in November last year. A wall surrounding the football pitch was used to experiment with colours, and a plaza became a design prototype.
The community came up with the final idea with a Guatemalan design company; each family can choose from five colour combinations and a series of stencil designs, all based on their traditional huipil tunic, and painting will start this week. There are 800 houses and enough paint for 100 so far, so an “adopt-a-house” scheme is being set up. Groups of up to five visitors, who pledge $500, will be assigned a house and can help the family paint it (hotels in the area, including Casa Palopó and Villas Santa Catarina, will offer discounts to volunteers).
Whitbeck estimates it could take up to two years to complete the project, depending on funds. The hope is that the village will attract more tourists and generate money for homestays, guides, restaurants and weavers. “The community will determine how the project evolves,” said Whitbeck. “They might create a [tour] guides’ cooperative, or weave textiles based on the new design. Painting is just the beginning.”