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On Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, a Novel Way to Support Locals

By Tim Chester

Oct 9, 2020

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Santa Catarina Palopó sits on the northeastern shores of Lake Atitlán.

Photo by Mesa Studios / Shutterstock

Santa Catarina Palopó sits on the northeastern shores of Lake Atitlán.

At boutique hotel Casa Palopó, in a town painted vibrant colors, guests are given credits to spend on local products.

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In 1934, Aldous Huxley compared Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán to Lake Como. Como “touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque,” the Brave New World writer said, but Atitlán “is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing.”

Nearly 90 years later, and the renowned lake continues to draw visitors for its excessively beautiful setting, serene atmosphere, and the dozen Mayan villages that dot its shore. Santa Catarina Palopó is among the best known, a settlement of some 6,000 inhabitants that’s grown over the years as more people from the Guatemalan highlands (most of whom identify as Mayan Kaqchikel) moved in and tourism supplanted traditional occupations such as agriculture and fishing.

The town has benefitted from outside attention in many ways. Perhaps the most striking example is the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project, a yearslong painting endeavor started by Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck in 2017 that’s seen more than 500 local houses painted vibrant hues representing Mayan culture, with the involvement of 300 volunteers and over 3,000 locals.

Butterflies, deer, and peacocks are represented in the buildings’ symbols.

Families choose a color scheme for their home; they sand the surfaces and apply a base coat; then the organization comes and begins painting. The colors and symbols are inspired by the huipil, a garment worn by local women, incorporating three elements: figures of animals or plants, geometric patterns, and combinations of colors. Symbols represent butterflies, deer, and peacocks, which all have their own significance. Santa Catarina Palopó, like every town around the lake, has its own colors and symbols.

The result is a technicolor wonder. But the nascent economy here is still underdeveloped, and many live in poverty—and of course COVID dealt a devastating blow to progress. 

Hospitality helping

One hotel is committed to helping the town continue its transformation, ensuring travel remains a force for good in the region: Casa Palopó, the country’s only Relais & Châteaux property. Originally a private home, Casa Palopó was converted into a boutique hotel by Guatemalan native Billy Beckford in 2000 and later purchased by its current owner, Guatemala City–based Claudia Bosch, who checked in as a guest in 2010 and ended up running the place.

The hotel is very much a part of the community—16 of its 28 staff members live in Santa Catarina Palopó and others are from neighboring San Antonio—and it’s been heavily involved with the painting project. So naturally, when COVID struck, it was on the frontlines, donating fabric for mask production and helping with the distribution of more than 800 food and hygiene kits.

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As the pandemic worsened, however, the Guatemalan government imposed a strict lockdown banning travel between different departments (or counties) in the country without a permit for work or humanitarian reasons. Bosch returned home to Guatemala City. After several months, she returned to check on the staff and plan for a reopening.

Casa Palopó has several suites overlooking the lake.

Her helicopter’s arrival was not well received by the locals, she says, as it implied the hotel was open again to foreigners who could bring the virus to the previously untouched community. Their fears were justified; Santa Catarina Palopó had been closed to outsiders for months and had reported no cases at all. However, the dearth of tourism income was becoming a problem and a safe reopening needed to be considered.

Bosch had a “candid conversation” with the town’s mayor and indigenous leaders. Revenue for local artisans was discussed, as was the need for the hotel’s staff to get back to work. Staff salaries had been sustained through August, but the community needed money for food and medicine.

Reopening safely and revitalizing the economy

Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport finally reopened on September 18. To enter the country, travelers needed a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the trip or commit to a 14-day quarantine.

Casa Palopó implemented widespread health protocols, setting up antibacterial gel and handwashing stations at the town’s main entry points, at the dock (for boat arrivals), and in the main square. At the property, guests’ temperatures were checked before they left for the town.

The most ingenious idea for rebooting the local economy, though, was a new travel voucher system implemented with the aim of diverting tourist money to the community’s pockets in a way that felt empowering for the locals. It gave guests 10 percent of their nightly rate, per night, in credits for locally produced items like coffee, textiles, and garments, with unused credits donated to the painting project. To avoid travelers potentially bringing COVID into the community, the hotel hosted pop-ups on the property.

“For those visiting our area, buying from our local shops and artisans is the most impactful way to help our community in its recovery,” says Lidia Florentino Cumes, a local woman and one of the leaders of the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project, who hosts weaving demonstrations. “Our local shops and businesses have started to reopen, as much as our minds, because we understand that with tourists come economic opportunities for our community. So long as they are healthy, we are happy to welcome travelers back.”

500 houses have been painted already.

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Adrienne Lee, director of global impact at Tourism Cares, applauds the venture. “Hotels and tourism businesses that are looking to creatively, constructively, and responsibly support the communities they operate in during the pandemic is essential and inspiring,” she says. “Local spending through tourism is one of the greatest tools to redistribute wealth in our industry, and by actively finding solutions to diversify markets for local communities, businesses can help make communities more resilient.”

Lee goes further, hoping that businesses rethink their relationship with their communities as travel resumes. “Tourism businesses, such as hoteliers, can take a look at their entire supply chain—are there products and services that are being purchased that can be swapped for something made locally?” she asks. “Can more food and beverage used on site be purchased from local farms and markets to strengthen local supply chains and small shareholder farmers? Tourism has the ability to be a force multiplier and support communities in these very precarious times.”

The credits can be used for local wares.

More colorful days ahead

With borders reopened and COVID eventually receding, Cumes is looking forward, not back. “Now that tourism in Guatemala has reopened, we are hopeful to pick up where we left off and continue the transformation of our town,” she says.

There are plans to replicate the painting project in the other towns around the lake. Hopefully, the community credit project will knit visitors and locals together beyond the initial transaction.

“This is one more opportunity for us to shine as a community,” says Cumes. “What happened is an act of nature and we can only control our response to the situation. Keeping hope alive and a friendly disposition towards returning tourists is as important as maintaining all safety protocols to keep each other well and healthy. We know more colorful days are ahead.”

Stay: Casa Palopó has 15 rooms and suites, 3 of which are in a separate wing and can be booked as a private casita sleeping six, with a private living and dining area (from $738 a night plus taxes and fees). The whole hotel—main building, three-suite villa, and infinity pool—can be reserved for $5,555 per night. Room rates start at $197.

Donate to the Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project.

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