I recently visited two travel shows south of the border. One event was located in Mexico City for the newly created FITA, which invites tourism professionals from around the globe to showcase their products, services and destinations to other tourism professionals and the general public. The other conference was in Antigua, Guatemala for the more established, but smaller, CATM, which services the seven nations that make up Central America. I was glad to help promote both events and genuinely enjoyed both cities. There were also a few differences, mainly in accommodations.
In Mexico, I stayed in the Westin, a well-established hotel brand in Santa Fe (known as the financial district), an area in Mexico City. The hotel had black marble and a highly polished corporate appeal with numerous options for just about anything a traveler could possibly want. The staff at the Westin was bi-lingual and stylishly sleek. They were also very nice. My room door magically opened when my thin plastic key card waved before my door’s sensor pad.
In Antigua, Guatemala, I stayed at Posado Don Rodrigo, which had wagon wheel décor and thick Guatemalan ladies milling about that spoke only Spanish, but were also very nice. My room key was a clumsy skeleton key with a giant phallic fob that, when sitting in my pocket, suggested to all who noticed that I was “happy to see” them.
Both hotels were memorable, but for different reasons. One was a schwanky five-star place with layers of amenities and a sharp, efficient staff. The other was a creaky two-star (maybe three-star) hotel with a performing ten-man xylophone team (with a drummer) and fairly reliable Internet.
This is the part where I guess I am supposed to tell you about the value of five-star treatment and getting what you pay for. I discovered how true this was when I asked for an aspirin at the front desk of the Westin.
For my headache (likely due to Mexico City’s altitude), I was given Westin’s corporate policy of not offering medicine of any kind, but that they could offer pharmacy service in about an hour or so, but this would be at an additional expense. They could not give me an idea how expensive it would be. There was no gift shop to buy my own aspirin and it was recommended that I not walk to the pharmacy on my own. Later, I asked about Internet and was invited to use the business center for 190 pesos (about $15.50US) an hour.
I ventured out on my own anyway; I never found the pharmacy. I found mostly other huge hotels and construction sites for future hotels with bi-lingual staff and more corporate policies. I could not find a market, a restaurant, a mall or anything to do. I walked alone. Santa Fe did not even look (or sound) like Mexico. For a moment, I wondered if I was in Mexico. I still had a headache.
That night, I returned to my room to discover a carefully typed note letting me know that the breakfast coupons I had be given by the Westin would not be honored for undisclosed reasons. Instead I was invited to their $25 a day breakfast for the final three days of my visit at my expense (I eventually discovered that the Westin was arguing my host company over money. The Westin thought better of their decision the following day after some discussion). I knew I was just a writer on assignment and should be grateful for staying in such lavish accommodations, but I only felt like a means to turn a profit for a big company.
The Entrance at Don Rodrigo
Of course, the Posada de Don Rodrigo had far fewer amenities, but I was given the Internet password upon check in. I stood a few doors from a twenty-four hour pharmacy, but the lady at reception looked in her purse first to see what she had before sending me there. I was smack in the middle of town and walking distance to shops, restaurants, stores and people. I knew I was in Guatemala.
By the time I left the Westin, I felt dejected and my main purpose as a guest was to tip and present reasons to be charged more. I left the Posada at Don Rodrigo feeling like I hoped to return and bring my family one day.
In the world of star listings, the Westin remains a popular five-star hotel with rooms filled with $6 Snickers bars, $9 bottled waters, Internet costing 190 pesos an hour through their business center and numerous costly luxuries waiting to be sold. The Posada Don Rodrigo does not carry the same airs, but is smack in the middle of town, affordable and far and away a better, more interesting value and experience.
The point of my article is not to trash the Westin, although the experience was not a good one. The enclave of five-star luxury drowned out all the things I like about Mexico: food, people, and rapidly spoken Spanish. My Westin experience was about not having choices and a corporate policy to ensure safety, and it drained the culture. In the end, it is about choice. It is fine to be offered an overpriced Snickers bar when there are other choices available. It is this type of experience that makes me think about how important a hotel and its location can be toward making a trip good — or bad.