Guatemalan Currency: The Quetzal

Colorful Guatemalan Money Features the Beautiful Quetzal Tropical Bird

Quetzales notes, the currency of Guatemala.
Kryssia Campos / Getty Images

The official monetary unit in Guatemala is called a Quetzal. The Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ) is divided into 100 centavos. The remarkably stable exchange rate of the Guatemala Quetzal to the U.S. dollar is approximately 8 to 1, which means 2 Quetzals equal a U.S. quarter. Guatemalan coins in circulation include 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos, and a 1 Quetzal coin. The country's paper currency includes a 50 centavos bill, plus bills worth 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 Quetzals.

History of the Quetzal

The Quetzal bills feature the beautiful national bird of Guatemala, the green and red resplendent Quetzal, which is in danger of extinction from habitat loss. The ancient Mayans who populated the region of present-day Guatemala used the bird's feathers as money. The modern bills include their denominations in both standard Arabic numerals and the corresponding ancient Mayan symbols. Images of notable historical figures, including General José María Orellana, Guatemala's president from 1921 to 1926, decorate the fronts of the bills, while the backs display national symbols, such as Tikal. The Quetzal coins carry the Guatemalan coat of arms on the front.

Introduced in 1925 by President Orellana, the Quetzal let to the creation of the Bank of Guatemala, the only institution authorized to issue currency. Pegged to the U.S. dollar from its inception until 1987, the Quetzal still maintains stable exchange rates, despite its status as a floating currency.

Traveling With Quetzals

The U.S. dollar is widely accepted in Guatemala's capital and in the country's most touristy destinations such as Antigua, around Lake Atitlan, and near Tikal. However, you should carry local currency, especially in smaller denominations, when you visit rural areas, food and craft markets, and government-operated tourist sites.

Most vendors make a change in Quetzals even for transactions in dollars, so you will undoubtedly end up with some in your pocket. The Quetzal bills fit in wallets designed for U.S. dollars, and their colorful designs easily distinguish them, so many travelers end up with a mix to draw from when they go to pay a bill.

The country's chronically undependable ATMs inspire many a rant on online travel message boards. Those located inside banks or at international hotels seem to produce the best results. Some newer ATMs even allow you to choose between Quetzals and U.S. dollars. If you do withdraw Quetzals from an ATM, you might end up with large bills that can be difficult to break, but you generally get the best exchange rate this way. Keep in mind, too, that ATMs typically impose a transaction limit, and you may incur charges from both your bank and the issuing bank when you use an ATM in another country.

You can also exchange money at banks throughout the country. If you carry U.S. cash into Guatemala, make sure the bills are crisp and undamaged, as tears and other signs of wear can cause a bank or vendor to reject them. Try to spend all your Quetzals before you leave the country as it can be difficult and expensive to change them back to your home currency.