RECENTLY, THE PLACES I am most interested in going are far away. The more remote the better, it seems; my happiness seems to grow in proportion to how far removed I find myself from the familiar repetitions of my everyday life.
Casa Palopó fits that bill, though the trip to get there on a Friday morning from New York was not for the faint of heart: a 3 a.m. wake-up time, two flights, and then, upon landing, a drive. Forgetting how long it can take to traverse switchback mountain roads, I underestimated the significance of that last leg. After we’d been driving for well over an hour through the dense traffic of Guatemala City, I asked how much further we had to go. Surely not too much more? “About three and a half hours from here,” I was told. “Normally we would have taken the helicopter but it wasn’t available today.” I promptly closed my eyes.
When I opened them an hour or so later, the scrum of urban life had fallen away to an expanse of open, lush highland farms. Reminded of how much produce I have seen labeled with “Product of Guatemala” over the years, I saw farmers bending down to pick squash, and imagined the vegetables making the reverse journey I had just made, all the way back to supermarket shelves in Brooklyn. I closed my eyes again.
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The next time I opened my eyes we were in the mountains. We turned off the main highway and onto a smaller road, one with hairpin turns the driver seemed quite comfortable taking at high speeds. We zoomed past pedestrians, primarily Indigenous women in the distinctive and intricate dress of their respective villages, many carrying baskets on their heads and babies strapped to their backs. We passed numerous dogs lolling, unbothered, and, it seemed to me, way too close to the side of the road, as well as several psychedelically painted, chromed-out American school buses — known locally as camionetas and in English, “chicken buses” — that have been retrofitted to carry passengers between towns. I have driven some twisty roads, but this one was up there. I had to ask the driver to stop several times to keep from throwing up.
I am telling you all this to say: Despite the journey, Casa Palopó was worth it. Upon arriving at the property — nauseous, hungry, exhausted — I stepped onto the terrace and was handed a drink I was told would revive me: a sour lime juice, its glass rimmed with black volcanic salt. The effect was, as promised, nearly instantaneous, and feeling better allowed me to look around for the first time, to truly see where I was.
Even if you have not been to Lake Atitlán, you have probably seen it in pictures. If not, I can give you a quick description: heaven. The lake, the deepest in Central America, glows a rich, clean blue, and is ringed by three peaked volcanos and a small mountain with a distinctive hump, which I was told Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used as a model for the drawing of the elephant that swallowed a snake in the beginning of “The Little Prince.” The green shores of the lake are dotted with towns, each with a specialty in a local craft, including fabric, pottery, and drums. As Atitlán stretches 12 miles across, the best way to reach these towns is by boat, the surface of the water dotted with the paths of tiny crafts cutting across it. From where I stood, they looked like toys.
Casa Palopó is built high into the verdant, volcanic hills overlooking the lake. Formerly a private home, it was converted into a hotel just over 20 years ago, and has since been expanded to include additional rooms and a villa that can be rented out in its entirety. The hotel is Guatemala’s first Relais & Châteaux property (the second is its sister property, Villa Bokéh, which recently opened in Antigua), with an appropriately excellent restaurant.
The 15 rooms at Casa Palopó are each unique, with an eclectic mix of designs dependent upon which building they are in. The original houses feature walls painted deep blue, a motif that carries through to the rooms. I toured one that is outfitted with polished wooden furniture and an antique trunk, along with a sunken bathtub and shower that I was told is traditional to Guatemala. The room I stayed in is one of six in the newest building, a few short steps from the main house; it is decorated in soft neutrals, its hand-carved furniture revealing modern lines. All the rooms feature impeccable, locally produced textiles, and all have balconies overlooking Atitlán, unquestionably the main event. It was mesmerizing; I could have easily stared at it all day.
After regaining my footing with the help of the reviving drink, I was brought to the top of the property. Later I would do a yoga class at sunset on a platform hanging over the cliff, where the property also hosts weddings. But this first night, I was greeted by a shaman from one of the neighboring towns, who performed a traditional Mayan ceremony to protect me in my travels.
A dinner followed the blessing, swallows sweeping low as the sun set over the volcanoes. It was spectacular, as was waking up to the sunrise over the lake. Those looking for a restful vacation in a stunningly beautiful place could easily stop here. But for those with a desire to connect more deeply with the local community, the Mayan blessing was not the only cultural experience offered. In the nearby town of Santa Catarina Palopó, the hotel has launched a project to paint the local houses. That may sound like a small thing to an outsider, but in this case it has transformed the town, both literally and economically. Residents can apply to have their houses painted if they meet certain criteria, such as committing to send their children to school. Once accepted, they pick the colors and motifs, which are all drawn from the local indigenous fabrics, and their homes are painted by volunteers. With 850 houses painted so far, the brightly colored town has become a tourist destination, allowing locals to set up small businesses, from gift shops to parking lots that boost the local economy.
Hotel guests can volunteer time to paint with the project. I did so in the early spring, at a time when the nights were cool enough that I needed a warm jacket, but the daytime sun at 5,000 feet was punishingly hot. All the houses at the lower levels had been painted already, so we walked straight up the mountain, following tiny roads that crisscrossed through the town. It was Saturday; on our way up we passed children, many carrying loads of firewood and groceries, several carrying cinder blocks being used to rebuild their houses. The house we painted was at the top of the mountain; my step counter logged 50 flights of stairs that day. The owner was not there, we were told, because he was working in a neighboring town. But we painted the walls of his one-room home with the motifs he had picked, representing corn, a peacock, and a cat. The rough cinder block sucked up the paint, but when we were done, the house glowed as blue as the lake, with its corrugated steel roof and an uninterrupted view of all of Lake Atitlán.
Skye Parrott Writer
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.