Procuring cash in Colombia

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This item appears on page 12 of the October 2015 issue.
This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Nave and altar at Iglesia Museo de Santa Clara in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Addison

I should have paid more attention to Julie Skurdenis. Appended to her June 2012 “Focus on Archaeology” column, regarding Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood, was a brief narrative of the difficulties she had using her cell phone with a SIM card purchased in Bogotá plus problems using ATM cards there. My cell phone worked fine in Colombia, but I suffered difficulties in obtaining cash.

The day before my wife and I were to depart on our July 2015 trip, it dawned on me that I should get some Colombian pesos in advance. My bank (Wells Fargo) didn’t have pesos immediately available, but we decided that, per our usual practice, we would just get pesos from an airport ATM upon our arrival.

I have both bank and credit union (Truliant) ATM cards, and both institutions had been notified about our trip in advance.

After arriving at the Bogotá airport and clearing Customs, we found ATMs from four local financial institutions in a small room to the right. Neither of my ATM cards worked in any of these four ATMs. Fortunately, we had arranged in advance for an airport pickup, and a representative from that company guided us to a pair of ATMs upstairs at departure level.

I tried both cards in each ATM, and the one from CitiBank finally dispensed a much-needed COP300,000, equivalent to $117 at the time (but a month later equal to only $94). Only my Wells Fargo Visa debit card (affiliated with the Plus network) worked with the CitiBank ATM.

We stayed on the lookout for ATMs over the next several days in Bogotá and later in Villa de Leyva. Contrary to what our Google research had indicated, we found no ATMs in La Candelaria. A Bogotá local directed us to a group of ATMs within walking distance of the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). Once again, a CitiBank ATM plus my Wells Fargo card provided relief.

Villa de Leyva had no Citibank ATMs, but there was a Davivienda (www.davivienda.com [in Spanish only]) ATM that dispensed a much-appreciated COP320,000. We had seen several signs for Davivienda (with its distinctive logo) in Bogotá, but we hadn’t realized that it was a bank. Davivienda has an extensive ATM network in Colombia.

atedral Primada and Capilla del Sagrario at Plaza de Bolívar — Bogotá. Photo by Stephen O. Addison, Jr.

My Truliant Federal Credit Union ATM card (also affiliated with the Plus network) never worked in Colombia. It’s become my primary ATM card when traveling overseas, since Truliant doesn’t charge a fee for using a foreign ATM, so this was disappointing. (Wells Fargo charges $5 for each use.) 

After our return, I followed up with Truliant and was advised that through some misadventure, my card “… was not connected to the foreign ATM network.” They apologized, corrected the problem and credited my Truliant account for the $15 in Wells Fargo fees I had incurred.

Cash is king in Colombia. Take plenty with you, either Colombian pesos or US dollars to exchange. With an exchange rate of roughly COP2,600 to the dollar (during our visit), you’ll burn through pesos quickly. Credit cards are not accepted as commonly as in the US.

To make things even more interesting, the first time we attempted to use our MasterCard, it was declined, with no real explanation. Our MasterCard was accepted for subsequent, smaller transactions.

Fortunately, we had prepaid most of the costs of our trip, but that involved a couple of wire transfers, each with a $45 fee from Wells Fargo. We were advised by our contacts in Colombia that they prefer to use wire transfers so they can avoid the high merchant fees imposed by many credit card companies. 

One last warning — if you return home with extra Colombian pesos, be alert when you exchange them for US dollars. The Colombian 50,000-peso bill (their largest) has “50 mil,” not “50,000,” printed on it. The bank teller originally processed my 50,000-peso notes as 50 pesos each. I couldn’t convince her that “mil” meant “thousand.” I had to find a more experienced international teller to correct this issue.

STEPHEN O. ADDISON, Jr.

Charlotte, NC

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Nave and altar at Iglesia Museo de Santa Clara in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Addison

I should have paid more attention to Julie Skurdenis. Appended to her June 2012 “Focus on Archaeology” column, regarding Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood, was a brief narrative of the difficulties she had using her cell phone with a SIM card purchased in Bogotá plus problems using ATM cards there. My cell phone worked fine in Colombia, but I suffered difficulties in obtaining cash.

The day before my wife and I were to depart on our July 2015 trip, it dawned on me that I should get some Colombian pesos in advance. My bank (Wells Fargo) didn’t have pesos immediately available, but we decided that, per our usual practice, we would just get pesos from an airport ATM upon our arrival.

I have both bank and credit union (Truliant) ATM cards, and both institutions had been notified about our trip in advance.

After arriving at the Bogotá airport and clearing Customs, we found ATMs from four local financial institutions in a small room to the right. Neither of my ATM cards worked in any of these four ATMs. Fortunately, we had arranged in advance for an airport pickup, and a representative from that company guided us to a pair of ATMs upstairs at departure level.

I tried both cards in each ATM, and the one from CitiBank finally dispensed a much-needed COP300,000, equivalent to $117 at the time (but a month later equal to only $94). Only my Wells Fargo Visa debit card (affiliated with the Plus network) worked with the CitiBank ATM.

We stayed on the lookout for ATMs over the next several days in Bogotá and later in Villa de Leyva. Contrary to what our Google research had indicated, we found no ATMs in La Candelaria. A Bogotá local directed us to a group of ATMs within walking distance of the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). Once again, a CitiBank ATM plus my Wells Fargo card provided relief.

Villa de Leyva had no Citibank ATMs, but there was a Davivienda (www.davivienda.com [in Spanish only]) ATM that dispensed a much-appreciated COP320,000. We had seen several signs for Davivienda (with its distinctive logo) in Bogotá, but we hadn’t realized that it was a bank. Davivienda has an extensive ATM network in Colombia.

atedral Primada and Capilla del Sagrario at Plaza de Bolívar — Bogotá. Photo by Stephen O. Addison, Jr.

My Truliant Federal Credit Union ATM card (also affiliated with the Plus network) never worked in Colombia. It’s become my primary ATM card when traveling overseas, since Truliant doesn’t charge a fee for using a foreign ATM, so this was disappointing. (Wells Fargo charges $5 for each use.) 

After our return, I followed up with Truliant and was advised that through some misadventure, my card “… was not connected to the foreign ATM network.” They apologized, corrected the problem and credited my Truliant account for the $15 in Wells Fargo fees I had incurred.

Cash is king in Colombia. Take plenty with you, either Colombian pesos or US dollars to exchange. With an exchange rate of roughly COP2,600 to the dollar (during our visit), you’ll burn through pesos quickly. Credit cards are not accepted as commonly as in the US.

To make things even more interesting, the first time we attempted to use our MasterCard, it was declined, with no real explanation. Our MasterCard was accepted for subsequent, smaller transactions.

Fortunately, we had prepaid most of the costs of our trip, but that involved a couple of wire transfers, each with a $45 fee from Wells Fargo. We were advised by our contacts in Colombia that they prefer to use wire transfers so they can avoid the high merchant fees imposed by many credit card companies. 

One last warning — if you return home with extra Colombian pesos, be alert when you exchange them for US dollars. The Colombian 50,000-peso bill (their largest) has “50 mil,” not “50,000,” printed on it. The bank teller originally processed my 50,000-peso notes as 50 pesos each. I couldn’t convince her that “mil” meant “thousand.” I had to find a more experienced international teller to correct this issue.

STEPHEN O. ADDISON, Jr.

Charlotte, NC