A group of Guatemalan fruit and vegetable exporters looked more like Eskimos when they were unexpectedly exposed to subfreezing temperatures in New Orleans.

The Guatemalans weren't protecting themselves from an Arctic blast.The visitors - members of Guatemala's Non-Traditional Products Exporters Association - donned special thermal jackets with hoods last week to tour a local supermarket's perishable goods warehouse where storage temperatures range from 20 degrees below zero to 45 below.

One of the association's goals is to find new markets in the U.S. Midwest for Guatemala's fresh fruit and vegetables, spices and products other than the traditional exports of bananas, coffee and sugar. To reach that market quickly, they are hoping to use a mid-Gulf port instead of Miami.

Miami currently handles most of the Latin American trade and can get congested, said Eduardo Gonzalez, an exporter and one of the eight visitors.

The Guatemalans' three-day tour focused on how their product would be handled upon arrival in New Orleans - from Customs inspections to the grocery shelf. They visited shipping terminals and a local supermarket, met with shipping and port officials and even climbed into a refrigerated container that would transport the produce.

In the case of New Orleans, we want to know that there are people that we can depend on (to handle the produce), said Antonio Maldonado of Baby Fresh Produce Co. of Guatemala. Many times in the handling, you can get your product damaged.

While touring the supermarket cold storage warehouse, the visitors asked questions about what U.S. consumers expect in imported produce.

The biggest problem is quality, said Bill Burge of Schwegmann Giant Super Markets, a New Orleans-based chain. What they really need is to send some experts in produce-handling down there.

Frank Valle of Valle & Sons Co., the firm that imports perishables for Schwegmann's, said U.S. consumers want their produce to look pretty while other world markets care more about taste.

Handling and packaging are important in the United States, Mr. Burge said. It has to be properly handled from the time it is picked, he told the Guatemalans during their tour of the warehouse.

Mr. Maldonado, whose firm now ships through Miami, agreed that a successful shipment begins with picking the produce and packing it for shipment. He said the exporter must be sincere in trying to send only the best quality if he wants to increase business.

The exporters said the biggest problem they experience is time delays that arise for a variety of reasons, including port congestion and government inspections. Fruit and vegetables coming into the United States must be inspected by Customs and the Department of Agriculture for infestation and quality.

Competition for the Guatemalan fruit and vegetables in the Midwestern market will come from Mexico, which can truck produce into the United States, and from southern Florida growers, said John Hyatt of Irwin Brown Co., a customs broker/freight forwarding firm that has been promoting Gulf Coast ports in Central and South America.

Mr. Maldonado said there are good air and water connections between New Orleans and Guatemala. A direct flight takes about two-and-a-half hours and a ship about three days. Crowley Caribbean Transport Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. both have regular service between Guatemala and the Gulf Coast.

According to USDA statistics, about 23,600 tons of fruit and 6,000 tons of vegetables were imported from Guatemala in 1986.