This might be a good time to discuss the Quetzal.
No, I don’t mean the incredibly beautiful and elusive Resplendent Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala.
Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Francesco Varonesi via Flickr. Creative Commons licensing. With appreciation.
I’m thinking about the other Quetzal – not quite as resplendent – Guatemala’s national currency:
According to XE World Currency Site, 1 USD (US dollar) equals 7.805 GTQ (Guatemalan quetzales). And, thus, 1 GTQ = 0.128123 USD. So, in my head, I was constantly dividing my dollar by about 7 or 8 to estimate the costs of things in terms I understood. It was pretty confusing at times. If something cost Q8, I knew I was spending about $1. If it was Q16, I knew that was about $2, and so on. An item that was about Q80, was about $10. (It always helps me to think in terms of multiples of 10’s).
This may seem too complicated but mentally figuring costs helped me with negotiating and with making sure charges were fair and accurate. It took a lot of mental energy, but was well worth the effort. I could have used a currency calculator app (for iPhone or Android), too, but was trying to help my brain stay mathematically sharp!
Although usually frowned upon nowadays, Guatemala is one place where I really felt that using traveller’s checks still made sense.
"Travelers-Cheques" by Valentin Wittich - Kodak DX7590. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Sure, ATMs are available and used frequently, but there is a very real danger of theft of account information when using an ATM machine in Guatemala. Jacque, in fact, on a previous trip to Guatemala, lost $1000 when her account was hacked and her card cloned after she used her debit card at a freestanding ATM machine. $1000!!! But, she still feels ATM machines can be utilized safely if they are located in major banks.
Before our trip, we researched this subject extensively and I decided to stick with traveller’s checks. I figured that, if they were lost or stolen, they could be replaced. But, I have to admit, cashing them was a pain. Some banks didn’t accept them and those that did, generally cashed only $300 worth at a time.
It was a little worrisome when the guard at Citibank at the northeast corner of Parque Central turned us away because that bank did not change traveller’s checks. Fortunately, just about half a block away, we found Banco del Quetzal directly across the street from el Parque . The armed guard allowed us in and pointed to the desk where we needed to go. I had to show my passport and sign a form showing the amount I was to receive for each $100 check (approx.Q800). This part of the process took quite a bit of time and then there was more waiting in the queue at the teller counter.
Obtaining money from an ATM would certainly, in theory at least, be a much more rapid and straightforward process and when I asked Jacque her opinion about this – having been a victim of the ATM card hacking schemes in the area – she was still quite adamant that ATMs were the best way to go. We had quite a discussion about it actually; quite a little controversy. And, she is still of the opinion that she is right. And, I agree with her, unless of course, there’s a good chance of getting ripped off, and how can we know for sure that this won’t happen at any ATM in Antigua or Guatemala? There are some steps you can take to ensure you are actually able to retrieve money from an ATM safely. These include never using a freestanding ATM, using ATMs inside banks or hotels which have guards (most of the banks we saw had armed guards but interestingly, and the one time I tried my ATM card in our hotel in Guatemala City, it didn’t work), planning ahead and knowing where the banks are that are safe to use and if they have an ATM machine (you can call or sometimes find this information on line). Or, consider carrying an ATM card and some traveller’s checks. Who knows when you might need cash and the only available ATM is either not safe – it was such a nightmare for Jacque when it happened last time that that was enough of a deterrent for me – or simply not working. On the other hand, who knows if the only bank in the area will accept your traveller’s checks? It can be a bit of a gamble either way in Guatemala. Prepare as well as you can.
If you take a trip to Antigua and decide to use your debit card in an ATM here is some great advice from Rich Polanco, who knows the area well. And, here’s some general information about Antigua banks from Lonely Planet.