Visiting the Painted Kaqchikel Maya Village of Santa Catarina Palopó

by | Last updated May 7, 2021 | Guatemala | 0 comments

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Santa Catarina Palopó is a small and endearing village on the northeastern shores of Lake Atitlán where the indigenous Kaqchikel Maya (also spelled Kachiquel or Kakchikel) proudly call home.

In recent years, the town has undergone an alluring aesthetic transformation to help eradicate poverty and spur economic growth. The association Painting Change (Pintando El Cambio) began painting Santa Catarina Palopó’s 850+ houses with bright colors and traditional Maya designs and motifs as chosen by the families of each household.

Today, Santa Catarina Palopó pops with life. The project has brought in a new wave of tourism which the community heavily depends upon as their traditional economies of agriculture and fishing have waned in recent years, leaving many of the families to live in poverty to extreme poverty.

As we’ve seen in communities around the world, and to repeat Painting Change’s mission, art acts as a tool for positive change. If you are visiting Lake Atitlán, then you must spend a day exploring Santa Catarina Palopó.

Out of the near 10 of the towns around Lake Atitlán that I have visited, Santa Catarina Palopó is one of my favorites. Everything from the vibrant colors to the community and the women – with their vibrant blue and purple traditional clothes and headdresses – all contribute to the town’s charm.

Here’s how to visit Santa Catarina Palopó in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala!

The Complete Guide to Santa Catarina Palopó

woman on the plaza principal in santa catarina palopó guatemala

How to Get to Santa Catarina Palopó From Panajachel

You can find Santa Catarina Palopó on the map by zooming in on the northeastern shore of the beautiful Lake Atitlán in Sololá, Guatemala.

To get to Santa Catarina Palopó, you’ll first have to pass through Panajachel. So if you are currently in one of the other lakeside towns (i.e. San Pedro or San Marcos), then hop in a boat for Q25 and skirt across the lake to Pana.

Once in Panajachel, you have two options for getting to Santa Catarina Palopó:

  • Hire a tuk-tuk for Q15-20 per person and go straight to SCP
  • Grab a tuk-tuk for Q5 to the drop-off location in Panajachel where you’ll take a public “carro” (i.e. a seat in the back of an open truck bed) for another Q5

Not feeling the tuk-tuk that day, we opted to take the carro, which we found out is just a seat in the back of a pickup truck with locals. It was certainly a bit more fun than taking a tuk-tuk, which we are used to. By doing so, we saved around Q20.

To leave SCP, you can simply repeat the process but the other way around. Trucks come and go from the town about every 15 minutes. On our way back, we snagged a tuk-tuk for Q10 per person to go straight to the dock in Panajachel so we wouldn’t miss the last boat departure for San Pedro La Laguna.

Where to Stay in Santa Catarina Palopó

Santa Catarina Palopó has a handful of things to do, so staying overnight might be a good option if you want to slow down and enjoy the peace and quiet of this municipality and all it has to offer. Not to mention, it’s ideal for those wanting to be close by Panajachel without the crowds.

That said, here are a few of the top recommended places to stay.

Hotel Casa Palopó (Rélais & Chateaux) – a luxurious and memorable hotel with exquisite gastronomy, ecotourism activities, and rooms decorated with antiques and fine arts.

Tzampoc Resort – where traditional décor meets modern pleasures, like a hydro-massage hot tub, outdoor pool, and exceptional volcano views.

Villa Santa Catarina – a no-frill yet charming boutique hotel with a large outdoor pool. Located right near the heart of Santa Catarina Palopó beside the dock (muelle).

Villas B’alam Ya – a true retreat with an atmosphere that harmoniously combines villa-style comforts with treehouse vibes. Located lakefront within easy driving distance to both Panajachel and Santa Catarina Palopó.

Things to Do in Santa Catarina Palopó

1. Peek Inside the Museum Pintando El Cambio

plaza principal in santa catarina palopó with showroom pintando el cambio

Pintando El Cambio has a museum located on the main plaza in Santa Catarina worth stopping by. The museum and showroom explain the different symbols, geometric shapes, and colors that you see represented throughout the town – designs and colors that are inspired by the Guatemala huipiles.

Every local family was able to choose their own textile designs and colors for their home from a palette of primary and secondary colors so that the town would have a cohesive aesthetic.

Each Maya textile symbol or animal, such as the quetzal, butterfly, and other animals, has a unique meaning. Once you understand what the beautiful colors and designs represent, the town becomes alive in a whole new way. All the paints are eco paints, as well!

2. Dip Your Toes in Natural Hot Springs (Aguas Termales)

couple dipping their toes in the aguas termales (hot springs) in santa catarina palopó guatemala

traveler visiting aguas termales in santa catarina palopo

locals sitting on wooden dock outside the town of santa catarina palopó on lake atitlan guatemala

Surprisingly, despite having three volcanoes, Lake Atitlán doesn’t have any natural hot springs – apart from the mysterious hot water seeping out of the earth in Santa Catarina Palopó!

That’s right – although they’re not baths you can sit in, Santa Catarina does have natural hot water that you can dip your toes in or swim in nearby. No one really knows why the water is so hot in this particular location, but you can definitely feel it coming out of the ground! There must be a magma chamber nearby…

To find the aguas termales in Santa Catarina Palopó, follow the trail heading to the right of the boat dock (muelle). There is a nicely developed park and a path leading to the edge of town. Here, on the corner, you will find the hot water flowing out of the earth nearby some rocks and abandoned stairs.

3. Learn About the Kaqchikel Maya in the Centro Cultural

a kaqchikel maya women from santa catarina palopó using the backstrap loomA Kaqchikel Maya woman weaving using the backstrap loom 

Santa Catarina Palopó has its own Centro Cultural where you can learn about the Kaqchikel Maya and the history and culture of the town. You can shop or try on a few traditional trajes (clothes) as well as sip on freshly roasted coffee or hot chocolate.

The Centro Cultural in Santa Catarina is free to visit. You can find it behind hidden between the streets in the southwest corner of the principal plaza.

4. Shop Handmade Textiles (& Backstrap Loom Weaving Workshops)

The Kaqchikel Maya women can be spotted around town weaving new textiles from the traditional backstrap loom.

There are workshops that you can take here (ask at the cultural center) and lots of tiendas selling handmade textiles you can shop for. The women have made cooperatives to keep their traditions alive while providing themselves and their families with an income.

If you find something that catches your eye, don’t hesitate to buy it! If not, donations are highly encouraged. You will see many women sitting doing the backstrap weaving technique up the road from the main dock.

kaqchikel maya women selling textiles on street doing backstrap loom weaving

quetzal coop in santa catarina palopo

5. Hike Up to the Mirador Santa Catarina

About a kilometer before you reach the town there is a beautiful garden and panoramic viewpoint from the Mirador Santa Catarina.

Up here on a clear day, you can marvel at the unhampered views of Lake Atitlán and its volcanoes. When we went to visit the town in the afternoon, it was already too overcast to see anything. So if you visit Santa Catarina Palopó make sure to check out this view earlier in the day if the weather is nice!

To get there, you can ask a tuk-tuk from town to take you up to the stairs leading up to the mirador. You can find these green-painted stairs across from the shuttle drop-off point perched above the town. From there, follow the path up to the top! The entrance to the viewing deck is free.

6. Grab a Coffee on the Plaza Principal

colorful buildings and cafe tuk in santa catarina palopo municipality

The Plaza Principal in Santa Catarina Palopó is the first place you’ll visit when you arrive since your tuk-tuk or carro will drop you off right next to the yellow and white church here (Iglesia de Santa Catarina Palopó).

Explore around or simply grab a cup of local organic coffee with a view at Cafe TUK – on the second floor of one of the colorful buildings that overlook the plaza.

7. Photograph the Colorful Houses

You can’t come to Santa Catarina Palopó without a camera!

Since the community came together to paint the municipality, it has brought a new sense of life and joy. You can feel the pride of the locals as you walk down the streets. It is beautiful to see the blue, green, and purple hues against the green of the hills behind the town.

Even on a cloudy day like the one we had when we visited, you can still feel the vibrance of the municipality and its people radiating off the walls. I can imagine that on a sunny day, the town glows even brighter.

painted houses with Maya textile motifs in santa catarina palopo guatemala

painted houses and buildings in santa catarina palopo

streets of santa catarina palopó guatemala

colorful principal plaza in santa catarina palopo with catholic church

8. Visit the Neighboring Town of San Antonio Palopó

There is another adorable town further east of Panajachel called San Antonio Palopó. Although it’s not painted like Santa Catarina, San Antonio attracts visitors for another reason: handcrafted pottery and ceramics. The pottery culture isn’t native to San Antonio Palopó, however, it did greatly impact the community and the local economy.

The story behind how ceramics came to flourish in San Antonio Palopó, you have to understand the story of Ken Edwards, who arrived in Guatemala with his wife in the ’90s. You can read more about his story and the influence he had on San Antonio Palopó and the world here. There are now four ceramic workshops where you can witness the brilliance of how the Kaqchikel Maya turned Ken Edward’s creative influence and grew it into their own.

To get to San Antonio Palopó you can take a tuk-tuk or pickup truck from Santa Catarina for Q5 or take a boat from the dock for a little more. You can also stay overnight in this town to take advantage of its local attractions and activities. Hotel Nuestro Sueño and Hotel Terrazas Del Lago both come highly recommended!

Final Thoughts

Santa Catarina Palopó (and its neighbor) is a must-see town around Lake Atitlán. It is unique in so many ways and quaint in even more.

From the beautifully dressed women with their rich purple headdresses and traditional clothing to the colorful streets, buildings, and natural attractions, there is so much to discover and do here.

I hope this short and sweet guide to Santa Catarina Palopó helps plan your trip! Be sure to read my other guides for more Guatemala travel inspiration.

Lastly, please remember to visit with care and respect for the local community and the environment. If you have any questions or comments, drop them down below!

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Hi, I’m Bri! I’ve been slow traveling around the world in search of new adventures since 2013. I have lived in 8 countries on 4 continents including Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Europe! I created this blog to inspire others to live a life of adventure, seek out meaningful experiences, and to travel slowly and mindfully. Join me on this journey and let’s tick off our bucket lists! Read my story here.

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