Santa Catarina Palopó, on the northeastern shore of Lake Atitlán, offers the usual Guatemalan village sights: kids flying kites, women weaving textiles. But the scene here is made all the more colorful by a vibrant backdrop of bright walls covered in local folk motifs—the work of community art initiative Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó.
As subsistence agriculture and fishing began to dry up here, the twin specters of decline for the town and poverty for many of its families loomed. But, inspired by the success story of a Rio de Janeiro favela, Guatemala-born CNN International correspondent Harris Whitbeck and his niece Melissa Whitbeck set out to change that by transforming the entire town into an outdoor gallery, in the hope that Santa Catarina Palopó could become Central America’s answer to rainbow-hued Burano, Italy, or Morocco’s “blue city,” Chefchaouen.
“We’re painting houses at a rate of four to five a week and are close to completing a third of the houses in the community,” Harris says. The organization’s goal is to paint 850 houses by the end of 2020. Homeowners choose from a selection of colors and traditional Maya symbols such as waves, volcanoes, and the mythical two-headed bird ixcot.
“I’m happy because my house looks different now,” says homeowner Angélica Cumes. “More visitors are coming to our town, and Santa Catarina is becoming known.”
Tourists can become part of the project, as well. For about $500, a group of six can help a local family paint a mural through Pintando’s Adopt-a-House program. The organization also recently partnered with West Elm on a limited-edition collection of wall art and furnishings called the Atitlán Project. Half of all sales proceeds will be donated to the group, for projects such as a soon-to-open community center. “I’m very thankful for this project,” says local artisan Martina Sajvin. “It has brought many benefits to our community.”