A Quetzal, the bird after which Guatemalan currency was named

The Guatemalan Quetzal: A Guide to Money in Guatemala

What’s the official currency of Guatemala? Can you spend US Dollars? Where’s the best place to get cash? Can I pay on card? and more answers…

Click here for my full Guide to Currencies in Central America!

An Introduction to the Guatemalan Quetzal

The official currency of Guatemala is the Guatemalan Quetzal, named after the national bird of Guatemala… the Quetzal, obviously! These birds are beautiful and, if you’re lucky, you will be able to catch a glimpse of them on your adventures in Guatemala. They are named after the Quetzal because, back in the day, they used to exchange the feathers of these birds as a form of currency. 

In Guatemala a lot of places also take the United States Dollar, but beware because they may not give you a great exchange rate. And this isn’t something you can usually bargain on!

Click here to see the Guatemala to USD exchange rate.

You can easily use the US Dollar in Guatemala City Airport and for airport taxis, so you don’t need to worry too much about drawing or exchanging cash when you first arrive. When I went to Guatemala I didn’t withdraw cash until my second or third day, I survived on the US dollars that I had, plus the small amount of Guatemalan Quetzales they will give you in change if you pay in Dollars. (They almost never give you your change in Dollars!)

The History of the Guatemalan Quetzal

The Guatemalan Quetzal holds a lot of historical significance for Guatemala. As I mentioned before, it is named after the country’s national bird, the Quetzal, which symbolises freedom and wealth in Guatemalan and Mayan legend. 

The history, of course, dates back to indigenous civilisations, that used the vibrant green tail feathers of the Quetzal bird as a form of currency, because the feathers were valued for their beauty and rarity. 

After the Spanish conquest of Guatemala in the 16th century, the Quetzal was slowly replaced by various forms of Spanish colonial currency.

In 1925, Guatemala introduced its own national currency, the Guatemalan Quetzal, to commemorate its rich heritage and assert its independence. The Quetzal bird features prominently on the currency’s design, serving tribute to their heritage and their national bird.

In the almost 100 years since its inception, the quetzal has gone through several iterations but remains a tribute to Guatemala’s history and biodiversity.

Read more about Guatemala: The Best Places and Areas to Stay in Lake Atitlan

Is it Best to Use Quetzals, US Dollars or Debit Card in Guatemala?

Local places like the chicken bus in Guatemala (public buses) and markets will only accept the local currency, so it is a good idea to carry Quetzals on you in small denominations. In the markets and on the bus they don’t often have a lot of change, and you will get a very obvious eye-roll if you give them a bill that’s too large! Occasionally, if they really don’t have enough change to give you, they may refuse you service.

Most places like hotels, hostels and travel agencies will accept US Dollars, but the exchange rate they offer varies. Of course, if you brought US dollars with you on your trip, you need to weigh up the exchange rate they’re offering you vs. how much it would cost you to withdraw Guatemalan Quetzales at a cash machine.

The majority of places in touristy areas in Guatemala do take card, but they almost always charge a hefty fee (up to 10% of the transaction amount) to pay by card.

More on Guatemala: Is Guatemala City Airport Safe?

What’s the Best Way to Get Cash in Guatemala?

Cash machines are easy to access and fairly reliable in Guatemala, and you can often choose to draw either Quetzals or Dollars. This option is useful if you’re not planning to stay in Guatemala for too long, as every country in Central America has a different currency, and US Dollars tend to be the common denominator. 

Do be aware that cash machines charge the equivalent of around $4-8 dollars per withdrawal. It depends which machines you use (more on that below), but it’s always a fixed fee rather than a percentage, so it’s best to take out as large amount as you feel comfortable with at once, provided you have somewhere secure to store it. 

Although it’s pricy to take out money at a cash machine, it is usually a better exchange rate than you will get exchanging dollars in an exchange shop. (Especially if those dollars are already exchanged from your own currency!)

The best cash machines to use are 1B and BAC cash machines, as they have lower charges (they’re blue). The most common (and of course, therefore, the most expensive!) cash machines are 5B (yellow) and these are the ones that charge almost 8$ per transaction for foreign cards. 

Don’t forget to check with your bank if they will charge you for foreign transactions or for withdrawing cash abroad!

1 thought on “The Guatemalan Quetzal: A Guide to Money in Guatemala”

  1. This was so interesting to read as I did not know much about the history of the currency of Guatemala. It’s good to know that you can use US Dollars initially from the airport, but that having some of the local money is best to use for certain things. Great travel advice!

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