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Guatemala has big money problem

Marketplace Staff Sep 27, 2007
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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.

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