After a little while in Guatemala City, one particular thing struck me. Every venue that allowed me to pay by card also greeted me with the option of contactless payment. 

Readers from the U.S. won’t bat an eyelid at this, but, as a person from Mexico City, I was flabbergasted. Coming from the self-declared fintech capital of Hispanic America, I have rarely seen places, even in the poshest, most touristy parts of town, offer contactless payment as an option.

Rest of World has long covered the reasons why Mexico lags when it comes to financial adoption: a lack of trust in financial institutions and companies, spotty internet, a purported love for cash. But, the thing is, these issues plague Guatemala as well. And yet, they allow me to pay without (gasp!) handing my card to someone else.

This contactless curiosity, nourished by my conversations with founders, investors, and average Guatemalans, underscored how simple structural differences can result in big divergences in tech adoption and implementation in seemingly similar markets. It explains how Guatemala can be both technologically ahead of and behind its larger, richer Latin American sister republics. 

Jaime Vargas Tabarini, the head of innovation at international development nonprofit Swisscontact Guatemala, noted to me that his country’s especially high dependence on migrants surely played a part in this contactless conundrum I found myself in. He said that Guatemalans are more likely to be banked, given the country’s dependence on remittances. In 2020, 18% of Guatemala’s GDP relied on money sent home from the U.S. This, in turn, meant that owning a bank card, and the services attached to it, was more likely to become a feature across the population in Guatemala than in relatively unbanked Mexico. 

Marianne Springmühl, founder of the Guatemalan social media marketing tool Aly-ai, told me she noted that differences in the technological services people had access to affected the way companies did business. She said that since “the internet” is often just social media to many in her country, Aly-ai was forced to contend with the Guatemalan reality that many rather large companies exist only on Facebook or Instagram. Whole companies can grow, thrive, and expand across the country without ever even considering building a website of their own. 

These differences go on to lead to fascinating cultural divergences: I’d be shocked to find a company past a certain size without a website, yet Mexican corporate titans leaning into fintech innovation are still unable to provide me with contactless payment. The answer to this seeming contradiction in technological adoption ultimately lies in the truism that many “nice-to-have” services in some places are “must-haves” in others, depending on the context one finds oneself in.