One of the prettiest and most colourful villages on Lake Atitlán is Santa Catarina Palopó (sometimes also called Santa Catalina Palopó). This traditional Kaqchikel Mayan village is known for its brightly painted buildings and houses, each with its own theme and colour scheme (within an acceptable range, of course).
In hopes of improving the look of the town and increasing tourism, the local organization Pintando el Cambio (Painting the Change) set about painting over 850 buildings throughout Santa Catarina Palopó with a variety of geometric patterns and symbolic drawings based on traditional weaving patterns.
The village also has a very open, very green, waterfront area with many picnic areas and some small tiendas, not to mention the standard incredible Atitlán views over the lake to the three volcanoes (Tolimán, Atitlán and San Pedro).
The name comes from the town’s patron saint, St. Katherine of Alexandria (a 4th century martyr), and “palopó” is a combination of the Spanish word “palo” (stick or pole) and “po”, a Mayan word for a type of tree common in the area.
The increase in tourism, mainly from day-trippers like us, has helped this village of 5,000 replace continually decreasing income from former mainstays agriculture and fishing. The women of Santa Catarina Palopó are also known for their distinctive blue huipiles (traditional blouses).
Of course, despite its growing popularity, Santa Catarina Palopó still sees far fewer tourists than the main travel destinations on Lake Atitlán such as Panajachel, San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna.
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Where to Stay: The Best Santa Catarina Palopó Hotels
Most people visit on a day trip from Panajachel but if you want to experience a different side of Lake Atitlan consider staying overnight. Santa Catarina Palopó is much quieter, offers a much slower pace of life than busier tourist centres like Panajachel or San Pedro and has some of the best hotels on Lake Atitlán. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet in a lovely location, this quiet little village is an excellent choice.
Villa Santa Catarina
The best value option in Santa Catarina Palopó, this pretty yellow hotel has an extremely convenient location right next to the dock, just a short walk up to the Central Plaza.
With lovely gardens, phenomenal views and a refreshing pool, it’s a popular choice.
Tzampoc Resort Atitlan
More expensive than Villa Santa Catarina but still outstanding value, Tzampoc Resort Atitlan is located just east pf Santa Catarina Palopó and also features great lake views and swimming pool, but adds in a sauna, jacuzzi and spa. The villas come in a variety of sizes and classifications, although whichever one you choose you can expect the perfect blend of modern comfort and traditional style.
Hotel Casa Palopó
For maximum luxury, check out the extraordinary Casa Palopo, featuring everything you’d expect from a high-end hotel along with the classic (but always exciting) Lake Atitlán views. The grounds are immaculate, every room has a balcony to take maximum advantage of the scenery and the restaurant is considered one of the best on the lake.
Villas B’alam Ya
This quiet resort with its own private dock halfway between Santa Catarina Palopó and Panajachel offers charming villas with kitchenettes without sacrificing the local feel or Mayan traditions. There are free kayaks, a good breakfast and balconies attached to every room.
15 Awesome Things to Do in Santa Catarina Palopó – Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
While it lacks the impressive range of activities available in some of the larger tourist towns, Santa Catarina Palopó still has enough to do to fill a regular day trip or even a few days, as long as you are happy with a slow pace and plenty of sitting around enjoying the view.
1. Marvel at the Painted Houses
Serving multiple purposes, the colourful houses and businesses of Santa Catarina Palopó are definitely the village’s most unique feature. As well as attracting tourists, the distinctive patterns and symbols are intended to promote and maintain cultural designs as well as increase overall civic pride.
Whatever the reasons behind them, though, you’ll certainly enjoy wandering among the bright streets and alleys looking for your favourite photo op.
2. Find Your Favorite Painting Galleries
The small but functional Plaza Central is surrounded by art galleries featuring paintings by local artisans. Representing a wide range of styles and themes, it is worth checking out several to find the particular collection that speaks to you. Artesanía Maria Magdalena and the Gallery of Art of Alejandria are two of the most popular.
3. Swim in the Hot Springs
The Aguas Termales Natural of Santa Catarina Palopó aren’t so much hot springs, per se, as they are an area of the lakeshore where steaming hot water comes straight from the ground. However, they are the only ones of their kind on Lake Atitlán.
In some spots you may find a large enough puddle to sit in, but most people simply enjoy swimming in the relatively warm lake water around the termales.
And, even if you aren’t in the mood to get wet, there is a terrific view back along the lakeshore to the village from the point just past the Aguas Termales.
4. Seek Out the Centro Cultural
For even more in-depth background on the local culture and history of Santa Catarina Palopó stop in at the free Centro Cultural.
You can find loads of information relating to the town and its Kaqchikel traditions, as well as more detail on the symbols and patterns. There is even an entire section devoted to local trajes (clothing).
There are also many of the traditional crafts that are made by local women for sale.
5. Have a Drink with a View of the Town
Up on the 4th floor of the Centro Cultural you’ll find a charming café where you can sip a drink or tuck into a snack (or, gasp, both!) while enjoying a bird’s eye view of the entire village of Santa Catarina Palopó. In our opinion this is the best spot for a view of this colorful village.
On the second floor there is a small coffee spot if caffeine is more what you are looking for.
6. Wander Through Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó Museum
The very people responsible for the vibrantly coloured buildings, their office also includes a small museum that delves into the history and symbolism of the different animals, colours and geometric shapes used in the designs.
7. Check Out the Mirador Santa Catarina Palopó
A fairly steep 15-minute walk (or short tuk-tuk ride) toward Panajachel you’ll find the town’s main viewpoint where free viewing terraces offer an expansive look out over the lake and volcanoes.
As you can see, the clouds often roll in later in the afternoon so it is best to get there early if you want the clearest skies.
8. Get Some Shopping in
While painting galleries are the main focus, the Central Plaza and the path down to the dock have a variety of other shops where you can browse (and potentially buy) some traditional products and support the local economy.
From beautiful Kaqchikel weaving, clothing, blankets and scarves to handicrafts and fantastic locally grown coffee, avid shoppers will struggle to pass through without filling up a bag or two.
You can watch some of the women at work right on the street or, if you want a more thorough demonstration most of them will be happy to show you around their workspace.
9. See the Santa Catarina Palopó Church
It may not be large but it has a simple dignity common to most of the flagship churches in the villages of Lake Atitlán. This photogenic white church backed by the steep hills is the first thing you see once you make it up to the main village from the dock.
10. Visit the Famous Sololá Market
First thing, you will want to check out the local Santa Catarina Palopo vegetable market. Just a block or so behind the church, this is the place to pick up tasty local fruits and vegetables supplied from local Santa Catarina farms. Like so many things on Lake Atitlán it is at its best early in the morning.
But if you have a bit more time and are interested in seeing more of the highland culture and one of the best markets in Guatemala, you will surely love the village and culture tour out of Panajachel. During this 6-hour tour you will explore the traditional village of Concepción, check out local farms, experience a sacred Mayan fire cleansing ritual and finish off at the wonderful Sololá market.
11. Head Out on a Hike
The short 10-minute waterfront stroll to the Aguas Termales and the viewpoint back over the village is popular. You can also walk along the relatively quiet road about an hour in either direction, north to Panajachel or south to San Antonio Palopó, known for its fascinating ceramics.
Or if you’d rather have someone show you the trail, you can sign up for a scenic 4-hr hike ridge hike on the crater rim above Santa Cruz la Laguna. The tour starts in Panajachel and the hike will take you past a sacred Mayan site before finishing in the traditional town of Sololá with lunch at a local comedor.
There are also many other good hiking trails around Lake Atitlán that can be explored with a local guide or by following the GPS tracks in our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan.
12. Kayak, Paddleboard or Swim
Located in a slightly sheltered bay, the lake area in front of Santa Catarina Palopó is perfect for watersports. For the calmest water and least number of lanchas (local boats) it is best to get an early start.
Los Elementos in Santa Cruz also runs one of the best all-day adventure tours that includes kayaking, swimming, hiking, rock climbing, cliff jumping (optional, obviously), archery, trampolines and, if you behave, even some time to relax with a view. This trip is very popular with families.
13. Tackle a Atitlan Bike and Kayak Trip
Even more hardcore, outdoorsy types will love the Atitlán Bike and Kayak Adventure Tour which gives you a chance to experience the wilder side of Lake Atitlán away from the tourist shops and restaurants. Starting in Jaibalito, this 2-day tour includes meals and hotel (plus transportation from Panajachel or Antigua if needed) and involves mountain biking down from the crater rim, hiking between villages, kayaking on the lake and even cliff jumping.
14. Explore Lake Atitlan’s Villages
Every village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala has its own character and at least one or two good reasons for a visit. If you are staying on the lake for a few weeks or more you should be able to explore them all one at a time.
Beyond San Antonio you’ll find San Lucas Tolimán, another quiet village that gets very few tourists. Farther along on the south side is Santiago Atitlán, the largest town/city on the lake. Despite its size, it also sees a relatively small percentage of tourists.
On the other side of the lake, San Marcos and Tzununá are somewhat similar, both known for their holistic and spiritual pursuits. San Pedro, on the other hand, is the busy backpacker hangout with the best nightlife and pretty San Juan is the place to go for local art.
If you don’t have a lot of time to spend at Lake Atitlán but still want to enjoy the best bits, the most efficient way is to sign up for a full-day Lake Atitlan boat tour out of Panajachel. Along with enjoying the fabulous scenery all the way around the lake, this 6-hour tour includes stops in traditional Santiago Atitlán, gorgeous San Juan la Laguna and local coffee plantations and textile shops.
15. Take a Day Trip to Chichicastenango
“Chichi”, as it’s known, has one of the biggest, craziest and most famous markets in all of Central America. It takes place every Thursday and Sunday and draws huge crowds of locals, farmers, city folk and tourists. There is a huge variety of stalls selling fresh produce, livestock, local clothing, traditional art, regional flowers and amazing pottery.
It is very popular and undeniably touristy but still worth seeing at least once. While most people visit the Chichicastenango market on a whirlwind day trip, we would recommend going the day before the market and spending the night. This gives you the chance to watch them setting up the stalls the night before as well as get there before the crowds first thing in the morning. While in Chichi, be sure to check out the colourful cemetery and have a look at the fascinating church of Santo Tomas.
Most people come on a guided day tour (common and good value) or you can make your own way via chicken bus to Los Encuentros, then a mini-bus from there to Chichi.
When to Visit: Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala Weather
Often called “The Land of Eternal Spring”, thanks to its position 1,600 metres above sea level, the weather on Lake Atitlán remains a comfortably moderate temperature all year round, ranging from lows of 10-15C to highs of 20-25C. It almost never rains during the dry season from November to April. Rainy season runs from May to October but even then mornings are usually calm and clear with the rain only showing up in late afternoon and into the evening. And the sunsets are truly spectacular that time of year.
Santa Catarina Palopó’s annual “feria” (festival) takes place in November, with a full week of festivities and the main procession scheduled for November 25.
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How do I get to Santa Catarina Palopó on Lake Atitlan?
Santa Catarina Palopó is located on the eastern shore of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands. Just about everyone flies into Guatemala City, with decent connections from lots of places around the world, particularly Mexico, the USA, El Salvador and Bogota. We generally find SkyScanner to be the fastest and most accurate place to find flights. To get to the lake itself, most people will be coming to Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City, Antigua or Xela.
However, most people take a tourist shuttle or “chicken bus” to Panajachel, then take a local pickup truck to Santa Catarina Palopó (10 min). Shuttles from Guatemala City to Panajachel usually take 3-4 hours and cost around 200-250 quetzales ($US25-35). Shuttles from Antigua or Xela to Panajachel will be a bit shorter (2-3 hours) and cost just 100-150Q ($15-20) because it is a much more common route.
From Pana the most common method is in the back of a pickup truck but you might be able to use a tuk-tuk (many to choose from) or taxi (although there aren’t many of these in Pana). It is even possible to walk, as Santa Catarina is only about 4 km from the centre of Pana.
Another option is to negotiate a price with a private lancha. This will definitely cost more but will provide striking views of the lake and of the beautiful private houses that line the lakeshore.
The best way to get to the villages on the north and west sides of the lake is by public lancha, the small boats that run roughly every 20 minutes all around the lake. You pay when you get off and the price is based on how far you’ve gone, varying from 5Q ($0.60) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake.
Helpful Details and Tips for Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala
Money and ATMs in Santa Catarina Atitlan
You should be able to use cards at some of the hotels and restaurants but will still need cash for the tiendas, street vendors, tuk-tuks, lanchas and local markets. There are no ATMs in Santa Catarina Atitlan but there are several in Panajachel. If you find yourself exploring other parts of the lake, there are a few ATMs in San Pedro and one each in San Juan, San Marcos and Santa Cruz.
The maximum withdrawal is 2,000 quetzales and all Guatemalan ATMs occasionally run out of money so don’t wait until you’re completely out of cash to try for a withdrawal.
You can sometimes change $US at the banks in Panajachel but don’t count on it. And try to break your large Guatemalan bills whenever you can since a lot of places have limited change.
Wise is by far the best international multicurrency bank account we’ve found, although so far they do not offer Guatemalan quetzal accounts. We still find it useful for money transfers to Pasajcap, however, and we can now send and receive money in half a dozen different currencies, convert to dozens more with no exchange premium and pay or withdraw local currencies. Highly recommended.
Grocery Stores and Markets
There are several little tiendas in the community of Santa Catarina Palopó with a variety of basic supplies but for a bigger shopping trip you are best off going to Panajachel.
Internet & Mobile Data Plans
You can find wifi in most hotels and restaurants but never really know what the speed or reliability will be like. Plus, there tend to be lots of power outages. If your phone is unlocked we would recommend picking up a local SIM card with data (Tigo or Claro) so that you always have access on your phone and can use it as a hotspot if necessary.
The recent development of eSIMs has also changed the travel SIM card landscape. Anyone with a relatively new smartphone can buy them online, download them by scanning a QR code and buy a data package specific to anywhere in the world. After extensive research I have decided that KeepGo eSIMs have the best coverage and prices for most of our trips.
Language in Santa Catarina Palopó
Everyone in Guatemala speaks Spanish (except for maybe a few old timers in very rural locations). However, in the Highlands, Spanish tends to be the second language behind one of the indigenous Mayan languages. There is a fair bit of overlap but, in general, the people around Santa Catarina Palopó, Panajachel and most places along the north side speak Kakchiquel. Between San Juan and San Pedro they speak Tz’Utujil and up the hill in Santa Clara and surrounds most people speak Quiche.
Is Santa Catarina Palopó Guatemala safe?
Overall, yes. Violent crimes are very rare and we never feel unsafe during our stays on Lake Atitlán. However, there are enough incidents that you need to be smart and take reasonable precautions. Occasionally tourists are robbed at machete point while hiking, in particular on the popular trail to Santa Cruz. It is recommended to always hike in a group or hire a guide, and don’t carry valuables.
Where to Eat: The Best Santa Catarina Palopó Restaurants
Restaurante y Café Jardín Villa Santa Catarina
The restaurant attached to the top hotel in town, they offer delicious food very close to the dock. It is an excellent choice for lunch (or breakfast or dinner if you’re spending the night).
Located on the highway out of town toward Panajachel, just before the main mirador. Realistically, the views of the lake and volcanoes from this friendly little café are just as good as those from the mirador higher up, plus you get a really nice angle down over the village.
Restaurante Laguna Azul
Literally steps from the dock, it has a nice, open-air terrace where you can gaze out over the lake and down at the women selling textiles on the street while knocking back that last drink before catching a lancha.
Superb coffee right on the Plaza Central with great views of the church in a friendly, informal atmosphere.
Santa Catarina Palopó Summary
With a completely different look and feel than the other villages on Lake Atitlán, the evocative coloured houses of Santa Catarina Palopó are sure to stick with you long after you’ve left this friendly little village. It is both a terrific day trip destination and a great choice for a longer stay, with several gorgeous hotels where you can relax in maximum comfort at the end of a busy day exploring around the lake.
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