High inflation in many Central American countries means the dollar remains strong in the region. El Salvador has scrapped its own currency and made the U.S. dollar its official currency. The dollar is also the official currency in Panama, although it is used in conjunction with the balboa. In other Central American countries, you can expect the local currency to fluctuate while you're there, usually resulting in a better exchange rate for foreigners.
Note that most vendors prefer small bills and exact change. It's almost impossible to find someone who has change for a large bill. Many ATMs give out money in multiples of one or five, so try to request odd denominations of money. For larger sums, try to withdraw in a multiple of 500 instead of 1,000, for instance.
Here's a general idea of what things cost throughout Central America: a taxi from the airport to downtown cities runs $12 to $18 (£6-£9); a double room at a budget hotel with private bathroom, $20 to $50 (£10-£25); a double room at a moderate hotel, $80 to $120 (£40-£60); a double room at an expensive hotel, $150 to $250 (£75-£125); a small bottle of water, 50¢ (25p); a cup of coffee, $1 to $1.50 (50p-75p); admission to most national parks $10 (£5); lunch at a simple restaurant, $3 to $6 (£1.50-£3); and a three-course dinner for one without wine at a fancier restaurant, $15 to $25 (£7.50-£13).
In most countries in Central America, you can use American dollars without much of a problem. But if you're traveling in rural areas, it's always useful to have the local currency on hand. A list of currencies for all the countries in this guide is below.
Some prices throughout this book, particularly hotel rates, are quoted in U.S. dollars since local currencies can fluctuate, though we also give you prices in British pounds (at a ratio of .50 U.S. dollars to 1 U.K. pound). Note: Because of high inflation and volatile exchange rates, prices quoted here may vary greatly in accuracy.
Belize -- The Belize dollar, abbreviated BZ$, is the official currency of Belize. It is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a ratio of 2 Belize dollars to 1 U.S. dollar, or 4 Belize dollars to the U.K. pound. Both currencies are acceptable at almost any business or establishment around the country. Denominations include 50¢ and $1 coins, while notes come in 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 denominations.
Guatemala -- The unit of currency in Guatemala is the quetzal. In June 2008, there were approximately 7.4 quetzales to the American dollar, or 14.8 quetzales to the U.K. pound, but because the quetzal does fluctuate, you can expect this rate to change. There are 1 quetzal coins and paper notes in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 quetzales.
El Salvador -- El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as its national currency. Prices in that chapter are quoted in American and British currency only.
Honduras -- The Honduran unit of currency is called a lempira. It currently hovers at approximately 19 to 1 with the American dollar, and 38 to 1 with the U.K. pound. It comes in paper denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 100, and 500 lempiras. There are 100 centavos in a lempira and they come in coin forms of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 centavos.
Nicaragua -- The official Nicaraguan currency is the córdoba (it is sometimes referred to as a peso). It currently rates at approximately 19 to 1 with the American dollar, and 38 to 1 with the U.K. pound. It is made up of 100 centavos. Money is denominated in notes of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 córdobas. Coins are made of 1 and 5 córdobas and 50 centavos.
Costa Rica -- The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. In June 2008, there were approximately 520 colones to the American dollar and 1,040 colones to the British pound. Because of this high exchange rate, prices in the Costa Rica chapter are quoted only in American and British currency. The colón is divided into 100 céntimos. Currently, two types of coins are in circulation. The older and larger nickel-alloy coins come in denominations of 10, 25, and 50 céntimos and 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 colones; and newer, gold-hued 5-, 10-, 25-, 50-, 100-, and 500-colón coins. There are paper notes in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 colones.
Panama -- The unit of currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar, but the Panamanian balboa, which is pegged to the dollar at a 1:1 ratio, also circulates in denominations of 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, and 50¢ coins. (U.S. coins are in circulation as well.) Balboa coins are sized similarly to their U.S. counterparts. Prices in the Panama chapter are quoted in American and British currency only.
The easiest and best way to get cash throughout Central America is from an ATM (automated teller machine). The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks work here; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on, then call or check online for ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart -- you'll need a four-digit PIN throughout much of this region. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5/£2.50 or more) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $2/£1). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
You can also use your credit card to receive cash advances at ATMs. Keep in mind that credit card companies protect themselves from theft by limiting maximum withdrawals outside their home country, so call your credit card company before you leave home. And know that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time.
Traveler's checks are something of an anachronism from the days before the ATM made cash accessible at any time. They're also hard to cash outside major Central American cities, and even in those cities, you may still have problems doing so. Your best bet for exchanging traveler's checks is by heading to casas de cambio (money-exchange houses), though they usually change checks for a significant fee. Many banks will not exchange traveler's checks, and those that do often have long lines.
If you do choose to carry traveler's checks, keep a record of their serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money throughout this region. They provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can also withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, provided you know your PIN. If you don't know yours, call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank to send it to you. It usually takes 5 to 7 business days, though some banks will provide the number over the phone if you tell them your mother's maiden name or some other personal information.
Keep in mind that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% "transaction fee" on all charges you incur abroad (whether you're using the local currency or U.S. dollars). But credit cards still may be the smart way to go when you factor in things like exorbitant ATM fees and the higher exchange rates and service fees you'll pay with traveler's checks.
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Diners Club are all commonly accepted in Central America.
If Your Wallet Is Lost or Stolen -- Be sure to tell all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen, and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.