Part 1 Latin America: The adventure. The dichotomies.
By Jen Marshall
Where to get the best exchange rate is always a question when traveling on a shoestring. The airport is the worst; it was 17% for Córdobas, the Nicaraguan currency. The local bank is usually the best. But we found two other clever options: the grocery store and the guy on the corner. “The guy on the corner?” I rejected, in León on day three assuming that’s sketchy and still in American-mode. The country uses both US dollars and Córdobas, so it’s tricky to know which is the best deal, but I have a traveling rule – use the local currency. It’s always colorful and I like the math challenge.
The grocery store option was kinda cool. We entered into the usual melee of loud Latin America happenings, past the local vendors outside the front door selling sticky buns from plastic trays, surely left over from the breakfast rush. It was past 8 pm. Past the armed guard, down the aisles that seem familiar but contain items just a little different than my local Whole Foods, to the aisle of bottled water. (Bottled water is an unfortunate, non-sustainable necessity, because you need water to survive and to brush your teeth. The tap is taboo.) I paid with a US $20 dollar bill and received more than 400 Córdobas back in change for a rate of 21.6%. It felt like cheating and we liked it.
By the way, everything is paid for in cash or “efectivo”, which is difficult for a girl that is dependent on her debit card. Some upscale hotels will take credit cards but charge 5% more on top of your bill to cover the fees. Planning and budgeting is difficult and important, especially when you find yourself a 3 hour round-trip chicken bus ride away from the nearest ATM. But Jiquilillo is a story for another day.
On day nine we were in Grenada, on the quest for the best exchange rate and ready to embrace the local habits. I approached the bank which is, as usual, guarded by security persons wielding large guns that sling from one shoulder to the opposite arm. They seem poised and ready to shoot. After passing through the metal detector I’m asked to leave my camera behind. I’m not sure why but I don’t question people with big rifles. I waited in line for the ATM feeling daunted by the guns peering at me. When it came to my turn I took out $80 US dollars. I retrieved my camera from the armed guard and walked outside into the bright hot sun, crossed the street dodging taxis, buses and horse-drawn buggies and arrived at the other corner – at “the guy on the corner”. He was casually hanging out in the midst of pedestrian traffic beside a few vendors selling fruit waving a big wad of Córdobas. His 5-inch stack of cash was colorful – pink, orange, blue, red, green – and probably equaling over $1000 US dollars. I walked up to him expecting someone to rob me or him. Instead we exchanged some Spanish words about exchanging, “cambiar”. He whipped out a small calculator, wad of cash in his other hand still waving in the air to attract more business, and punched in 80 times the rate to show me the calculation. He counted out the Córdobas gently and handed them to me in exchange for the dollars. 23.6%, the best exchange rate we found during our trip. There was no receipt.