Guatemala – go, but don’t pack your preconceptions

I am sitting in Guatemala’s ultra-modern Aurora airport after a site visit at Hotel Adriatika in Guatemala City for a global annual conference for FAMILY for Every Child, here in October.

That brings our tally of countries we’ve worked in up to about 10, stretching from the Middle East through Europe over to the U.S. and Central America. It’s natural that we let our preconceptions come to the fore on a trip like this, especially when external advice suggests that Guatemala City is dangerous.

After a 22 hour journey door to door we were relieved to find ourselves in the city’s shiny airport. Our bags (pop-up banners, not our own things – we didn’t risk that!) DID make it through and our driver met us and took us efficiently through immaculate streets to our destination, just 10 minutes away.

So, I thought, so far so good but there several days for things to go wrong.

I’m used to the warmth of the Spanish and the Central Americans are evidently no different. We were greeted, not by a firm handshake, but a big smile and an even bigger embrace. The hotel was boutique, immaculate and well thought out from a conference and meetings perspective. The AV suppliers were not only fluent in English (despite my wish to converse in Spanish) they were well-versed in all the state-of-the-art equipment we might require. The hotel was flexible to the point of incredulity on our part: while obviously this is a big booking, we would not expect the same level of co-operation, understanding or negotiation room from a UK or continental European hotel.

The surrounding area is also well worth visiting. Antigua, or La Antigua Guatemala is a delightful city (and indeed a UNESCO world heritage site) 40 minutes away, of cobbled stones, Mayan ruins and bold coloured buildings. Tikal (another UNESCO site) is a short flight away and perfectly achievable in one day. Lake Atitlan would also have been on our list if we had been here researching incentives.

On venturing out one night for an authentic view of the city, we found out where all the bad press had come from. While Hotel Adriatika is situated in the ‘Chelsea’ of the city, we passed through the downtown. The taxi driver locked our doors as we passed street corners with security guards (and youths) brandishing guns. A couple of decades ago, with rucksacks on our backs, we would have probably passed through feeling blas but I have to admit to feeling some trepidation this time.

So Guatemala isn’t all shiny & pristine. But it is honest – pick the right area and you receive not only what you need in terms of modern day requirements but also a warm atmosphere, helpful and efficient staff and the flexibility to make it a true global contender for conferences, meetings and indeed incentives.

Several days, and I can honestly say EVERYTHING went right. Why isn-t it on the global event map yet?