Money Changing, Bogotá
Fondest memory: Getting into town was made about as easy as a Latin American country could make it, with a preset fair counter and a fleet of taxis waiting. Sure, it was cheaper in Lima a few years earlier but I couldn't really take a deep breath until I actually got out of the taxi on that memorable trip that found us walking outside the airport to get a cheaper taxi. So, Colombia was to be a more civilized if expensive affair and we were in our cab before we knew it. The read out said a little over 20,000 even though the hostel said even at night it should be just under that amount. I fumbled with the new money and found only one 20,000 peso note and a lot of what appeared to me to be 50s which were very small in comparison. We got to the hostel and I handed the driver the bigger note and a few of four of the smaller ones as he had asked for the “Christmas time” tip I had also been warned about. It was New Year's Day so I obliged as he had been a good driver. So, I figured I was giving him 22,000 pesos but immediately he handed all but one of the 50s back to me. I couldn't figure out why he would take so little and under any normal circumstances, it would have signaled me to re-access what I had given him but being tired and just wanting to get inside and in our room at this late hour was not the best scenario for this to be played out. I gave him three more 50s figuring that was a more fair 20,000 and again, he gave them back, almost fearfully. He finally took the 20,000 note and said that was “bastante.” (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
Fondest memory: We went into the hostel, got our room and once inside I sorted through the money and realized I had given him 50,000 too much! A queasy feeling came over me. I'm not used to being on the short end when it comes to money and certainly not being the one to perpetuate such conditions. My more than understanding wife tried to console me and said we would just have to be more careful but it did little to make the sour feeling in my stomach go away. By the next day, I had come to my senses. It was, after all only $25 and I'm sure it meant a lot more to him than us. I realized that he could have taken all the money quite easily and just driven away but the truth is that despite everyone's preconception that places like Colombia are so dangerous and full of criminals, the people in South America as a rule are quite honest and friendly. He gave me back the equivalent of $85 and only took the additional $10 on my absolute insistence. Though I vowed to be more careful in the future I figured giving him the money during the holiday season could bring us good things, and that it did, many times over. Besides, if he was any indication, Colombia looked to be full of not only the adventure we were craving but honest people to help us out along the way.
Bogota is full of architectural marvels. All you have to do is get out and walk around a very pedestrian friendly old town center. It is particularly good early in the morning as locals are generally late risers and the light is at its best.
Fondest memory: Arriving in Bogota's El Dorado International Airport couldn't have been easier. A short flight 3 hour from our local in Fort Lauderdale and their national carrier, Avianca pretty much blew their US competition away. Hands down, it was one of the most pleasant flights I've ever taken. Well, it was a night flight and arriving in any Latin American city after dark is a never desirable affair but with such a short trip I didn't think twice about going for the cheaper direct flight. The airport was nice and once we picked up our bags, I made my way to the departure's area as there were no ATMs in arrivals. I had read this much in a guidebook and left Doreen with our bags at the bottom of the escalator up to where I was now rising. The first machine didn't work and I contemplated taking the advice of our hostel owner and just going into town with any Colombian peso. He said the hostel would pay the cab fair and we could just get money in the morning and repay them along with the money for our room. I didn't want to appear like a newbie to South American travel as I am in not after three previous lengthy trips there so I persevered and found another a few steps further. Bingo, it spit out my brand new shiny currency ready for my perusal. I headed to the nearest toilet to do so, not wanting to be conspicuously counting what I figured was a king's ransom in Colombia in public. Yup, it was all there but I didn't really pay such close attention to the denominations as I normally would. I just raced back to my wife who was still waiting patiently where I left her(continued below in Fondest Memory)
The official currency of Colombia is the Peso (COP) and at the time of this writing the exchange is as follows:
1 USD = 2010 COP
I Euro = 2963 COP
As I stated in the Warnings and Dangers section, be cautious with flashing money around here for safety reasons. ATMs are found around town and many are well-lighted, but be aware of your surroundings when you are near at ATM.
Favorite thing: I really felt its too bureaucratic to change cash at the airport. First of all, you give the USD to change. And they ask you for your passport and fill out a lengthy form by themselves but they often ask you questions. 'what do you do...bla bla bla' What I have already filled out at the immigration. Second you are asked to give your thumbprint, com'on! Everyone was doing this! Third you are given only the larger banknotes and if you wanna get a change you have to wait again. When I found out the yellow taxis accept USD along with Colombian pesos, it could be easier and quicker if I haven changed at all and would have got my money from ATM instead.
Know the exchange rate before you go out there.
Change it at the airport because it's fast and easy and safest. Also, do not exchange too much (I changed $100 and it lasted me for 11 days). Of coouse, i stayed with friend's family so I didn't spend as much. In fact, I ended up giving a large amount of pesos to my friend's uncle before I left because there was nothing I would be able to do with it at home.
If you are to stay in the big city of Bogota, then you could actually shop using your credit card. Consider this: everything is really cheap there! And you do not want to carry a lot of money around with you. I was advised of that early on.
Fondest memory: I only stayed in Bogota for a night and left the next day. Most of my stay was in Chapparal - 5 hours away from Bogota.
I made a mistake booking my ticket and had to stay an extra day and was scared. Luckily, my friend's family took very good care of me. The eldest son (who was so cute!) took me out on the town that evening. We hit all the local bars, which played classic rock hits,, and walked through the city streets. It reminded me of NY and some of it's shady characters, college students, and city slickers. Some drunks too! But we were absolutely safe and I had not worries, even being Asian (there weren't that many around).
Every person I met was extremely friendly, generous and nice. I am looking foward to going back! Hopefully 2007 in the summer.
Favorite thing: Due to the low value of USD I understood people are giving you a little poorper rate. Perhaps all better if you just get a better rate through ATM.