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Exchanging US$ for Quetzales

A common question is “Where is the best place to exchange my money?” which at least 90% of the time means buy Quetzales with US$. There are some pretty bad options and quite a few decent ones. This is my experience.

But, first, a conversation that took place a couple of months ago when I was stopped on Calle Santander by “a Gringo”.

Him: Do you speak English?

Me: A veces. (Sorry but I can’t help it.)

Him: Where is the bank?

Me: Which bank. There are six banks and a cooperative in Panajachel.

Him: The one where you can exchange money?

Where we were was not in outer space. Five banks were less than 200 meters (in assorted directions) from where we had this conversation. Assuming this person got to where we were on land, he must have passed at least one of these banks and, amazing as it may seem, they will all exchange US$ for Quetzales. While I haven’t done a survey on particular days, their rates seem to be about the same.

So, what is the rate? Check out the box at the bottom of the left column on the page here. What you see there is an average rate. Depending on whether you are buying or selling, it will be higher. For example, if you see 7.8 (Quetzales per US$) it is likely you will get around 7.7 Quetzales when buying and have to pay around 7.9 Quetzales when selling in a bank or Colua (the cooperative/credit union).

Most of the banks have pretty normal weekday hours. BAM (Calle Santander and Calle Real) is open seven days a week. There are two BanRural branches, one on Calle Real as you first enter town from Sololá and another across the street from the Cathedral. I forget which is which but one branch is open Saturday and the other is open Sunday.

A quick and convenient option is what you may call an ATM. There are quite a few but the first trick is to know that they are not called ATMs in Guatemala. They are Cajeros. Most are on the 5B network (which I assume gets its name from being related to five banks). There are also two Bi (Banco Industrial) machines in Pana and one BAC machine. All but the machines in DF (Walmart) and the BAC machine are available 24/7.

With ATMs the exchange rates tend to be decent. Where they may get you is with transaction fees. Depending on what is the “home country” of your debit card, fees can be different. The machine will tell you the fee amount and give you an option to abort the transaction.

Some street vendors and businesses will exchange currencies. US$ are most popular but some also accept Mexican Pesos and Euros. More often than not the exchange rates will suck so know what they should be before you start a potential exchange. For example, there is one business on Calle Santander with a big sign with their exchange rate above the door. Right now it is Q7.40 while banks are over Q7.70.

Finally, the worst option, at the airport. A friend who recently arrived said the rate there was below Q7. If using the Cajero is not an option, you are more likely to find someone willing to give you a better rate on the street than with the official exchangers.

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