🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now

Guatemala has big money problem

Marketplace Staff Sep 27, 2007

Guatemala has big money problem

Marketplace Staff Sep 27, 2007


Lisa Napoli: Back now on the subject of world tourism. Few things have made shopping easier for foreign tourists than the ATM. Brett Neely went to a place where it may be easier for visitors to get money than to spend it.

Brett Neely: Guatemala’s currency is called the Quetzal, named after the national bird. The biggest bill is 100 Quetzals — a little more than $13.

When you get money from an ATM, you wind up with a big stack of 100s. And as tourists soon discover, a hundred Quetzals goes a long way. Maybe too far.

Joel: It’s been virtually impossible to purchase anything with a hundred-Quetzal bill.

Dana: They always seem upset when you hand them a hundred.

Esteban: If I know I need to make some smaller purchases in the afternoon, in the morning, I’ll get something really random from a large store so I can break my change down.

The lack of change is an inconvenience for tourists. But it’s also a business problem for Guatemalans and for other Central and South Americans.

At a small store in the highland city of Quetzaltenango, owner Elimira Reyes Osorio tells me she’s lucky if she’s got change for two 100-Quetzal bills — about $26 bucks. If she burns through that, she can only make the sale if she knows the customer.

Elmira Reyes Osorio (interpreter): Because some people come and they want their change right away, and I can’t give them change at that moment. So they leave and I don’t get to sell anything. People who live here and we know already will come back later for their change.

At this street market, most vendors grimace when you hand them a hundred. But they’ll run around the market until they find another merchant who’s got enough change — borrowing money if they have to.

I asked vendor Blanca Rosa how it works.

Blanca Rosa (interpreter): It’s simply a favor. If I can make change for the bills I do. But if I don’t have it, I can’t. But we don’t charge each other for the service. It’s a favor between friends.

A hundred Quetzals isn’t a lot of money, but spending it is a lot of work.

In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.