Thursday, April 28, 2011

Currency and Tipping in Nicaragua

The currency of Nicaragua is the córdoba, which is named after the country's founder Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. Available in both coins and paper bills, it has had many re-issues since the first córdoba was circulated in 1912. Coins are available in three different types: copper-plated steel coins of 5 centavos, brass-plated steel coins for 10 and 25 centavos as well as 10 córdobas, and nickel-clad steel coins in 50 centavos and both 1 and 5 córdobas. The colorful paper bills are available in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500.

These numbers are relatively low compared to their neighbor Costa Rica, whose currency fluctuation has caused them to issue 10,000 colón bills. Based on the Nicaraguan exchange rates, it is safe to say that one U.S. dollar equals an average of 20 córdobas. In my experience, this is the best way to estimate what things will cost and how much you might be getting a fair or unfair exchange rate. 

The 2002-series bills are known only by their colors and whose face is being honored. Two examples are the 100-córdoba bill (seen above) that includes the face of Nicaragua’s beloved poet-son, Rubén Darío, and the 500-córdoba bill, which includes José Dolores Estrada Vado, a national hero known for defeating William Walker’s filibuster army in 1856. 

In 2009, a new series of paper bills was issued. Made out of a stronger polymer instead of paper, they are available in the same denominations except for two special additions: the 200-córdoba bill and the commemorative 50-córdoba bill, which is printed vertically instead of horizontally. In my opinion, the older series bills are much more interesting but like any change, it takes some getting used to. 

Each Central American country has their own set of rules about this activity, but currency exchange on the street in Nicaragua is something to be very careful about. You will see two types of money-changers: one who is waving a wad of cash on the street and wearing an official identification badge, and the ones who aren’t wearing them. For those wearing the badges, they are officially allowed to exchange money and they are both convenient and trustworthy. I have on many occasions stopped to exchange money with them and it is a quick and pleasant experience. The unofficial money-changers tend to hover on street corners and near the busy bus stations. Their exchange rates are terrible and depending on the location, you might even risk getting stopped by the police afterwards for doing the transaction in the first place!

Finally, although it is extremely convenient, avoid exchanging money at the currency exchange kiosks in the international airline terminals back home. In the U.S., the currency exchange booths tend to have the worst rates no matter if you are in the Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, or New York airports. You will (on average) receive about 20-percent less than the fair exchange rate. 

ATMs and Credit Cards

Fortunately, you will find many ATMs in the busier cities that use both the Cirrus and PLUS network in Nicaragua. This should take care of anyone with a MasterCard or VISA debit card. ATMs are one of the best ways to get cash and the machines give you a choice of denominations (U.S. dollars or Nicaraguan córdobas). There is usually a 3% fee applied to any amount withdrawn in addition to the bank fee for using an ATM not owned by your bank. The positive side is that you will get the latest exchange rate and feel secure knowing that it is a fair deal. A word of warning about using ATMs: always use common sense when withdrawing large sums of money. Much like an ATM in a large city back home, always check your surroundings. You could be a possible target for trouble. 

Credit cards are accepted in a majority of larger businesses throughout metropolitan areas but many smaller and family-run businesses do not accept credit cards at all. In general, try to keep a decent amount of cash readily available. 


At the Airport: When arriving at the airport in Managua, you have the choice of carrying your own bags at baggage claim or getting a skycap to carry them for you. If you choose to have assistance, handlers should receive no less than US$1 per bag with no more than US$ 2 per bag for large, heavy items. In fact, U.S. dollars are always welcome and expected at the airport since many travelers have not had a chance to exchange their currency.

At the Hotel: No matter what type of hotel, someone will always attempt to take your luggage to the room, even if it is small as a backpack. For anyone handling luggage, there is no set rule, but try to follow the same criteria from the airport: No less than US$1 or 20 córdobas per bag. Always give more especially for large, heavy pieces of luggage and for anyone looking like they are really going out of their way for you.

At the Restaurant: Many restaurants in Nicaragua generally add a 10-percent service charge to the bill. But this can vary depending on the type of restaurant and the time of day. In my experience, some restaurants add a service charge only for large parties or any bill in the evening while other restaurants don’t do it at all. So just be aware when you get the bill.

If a service charge is included in the bill, tipping is not expected and very few people do it, if any. But like I always say, if you want to leave some more just ask yourself some questions: Did you stay two hours longer than the meal? Are you taking up one of only five tables in the restaurant? Did your waiter go above and beyond for service at your table? Then by all means add some more! If it is NOT included in the bill, then tipping is definitely expected. Again I have still noticed that some customers don’t tip at all. But try to always leave at least 10 percent with higher amounts if the person deserves it.

Car Parking: As I have mentioned in other posts, there is no differentiation about this aspect of parking your car from one country to another in Central America. No matter where you go, there will always be someone willing to "watch your car" as you go into any area that is not a large shopping center or mall. Despite their eagerness, I am still unsure if they will actually  watch your car at all. But at least it gives you the peace of mind, especially at a fritanga, which is an outdoor Nicaraguan restaurant usually tucked away in some neighborhood. Tipping these faithful "valets" is highly expected and the amounts should always be at least 10 córdobas for those who simply watch your car or just stand near it. I tend to give more especially if they look like they care. Others go as far as stopping traffic when you arrive and leave and sometimes there is a small team of young men ready to actually wash the car! In these instances, the more the better (especially when you have a rental) and these guys really seem to appreciate the money no matter how small.

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