Piles of Guatemalan currency Quetzals

A Complete Guide to Money & Currencies in Central America

Find answers to all of your questions for each country in Central America (officially from Guatemala to Panama). Find out what the local currency is, whether the US Dollar is widely accepted, and what the exchange rates are. (Remember to always look up the exchange rates in a country before you purchase, as they can fluctuate quite a lot!) 

Unlike the majority of European countries, which share the euro, you’ll find a lot of different Latin American currencies throughout Central America and the rest of Latin America. Some Latin American countries will also accept the US Dollar, but I’ll get to that! For each country we’ll go over their official currency (or currencies), the most common currency used, if they take debit and credit cards, how to draw cash out, and more.

If you’re looking for a specific country, jump straight to it here:

Belize

Guatemala

Honduras

El Salvador

Nicaragua

Costa Rica 

Panama

General Information on Currencies in Central America

The local currencies, exchange rates and foreign-cash-tolerance varies widely throughout Central America, so make sure you check the rules in each country before you go. 

As a general rule of thumb (and not guaranteed by any means), you can usually use US Dollars in places like the airport, and many accommodations will either accept US Dollars or exchange them for you. I always carry emergency US Dollars on me (even though I’m European) because I find they’re the most widely accepted in a pinch. 

When I first arrived in Colombia from Panama, my last stop in Central America, I desperately needed to buy a bin bag (long story). She asked me for 1,000COP, which is about 25 cents, but I had literally just stepped off the boat and had no local currency. I offered her a dollar. She was confused, but she accepted. (I doubt she would have accepted a euro.)

Where possible, physically go inside a bank to withdraw cash. Not only will you get to make use of some luxurious air conditioning for a few minutes, it’s much safer. Some ATMs are just in a room by themselves, but even these are safer than ATMs outside because they’re usually manned by a security guard or camera. The next best option is to use an ATM in a mall or supermarket – these are generally the ones that have higher fees, but it’s worth paying for your personal safety. 

Exchanging Money at the Border

Close to airports and all over the place at each land border in Central America, you will find people willing to exchange money for you. They’ll always take and exchange the money from both countries of the border crossing, and often if you ask they’ll exchange US Dollars and other Central American currencies, too. These people are generally fine to deal with, but I have heard of the occasional scam.

Of course, these people don’t exchange to be nice: they need to make a living, so exchange rates are usually quite unfavourable. Don’t use them to change large amounts of cash! Try and spend most of your cash before you leave a country, and use these informal currency vendors to exchange any loose change. It’s always useful to have a little local currency when you enter a country, but if you need a large amount then a cash machine is always best! 

Belize Currency

The Belize Dollar is an interesting one: it is tied to the value of the US Dollar, meaning 2 Belize Dollars always equals 1 US Dollar. This is useful if you’re travelling from the US or (like me) you tend to use US Dollars as your base currency when travelling in Central America. 

Especially in the more touristy areas, Belize Dollars and US Dollars are both widely accepted, and everywhere sticks to the 2:1 ratio. This avoids last minute calculations and getting ripped off by a shoddy exchange rate! That being said, Belize Dollars are more widely available at cash machines. 

Atlantic Bank and Belize Bank are the most reliable with the lowest fees for cash withdrawal. Try not to get caught out with no cash, because cash machines tend to run out, especially on Fridays as this is when most people in Belize get paid. There is an ATM at the airport when you arrive, but I recommend taking US Dollars with you in case it is out of service or has run out of cash.

As I mentioned above, you’ll also be able to buy Belize Dollars in exchange for the US Dollar or the Mexican Peso on the Belize-Mexico border.

Guatemalan Currency

The official currency of Guatemala is the Guatemalan Quetzal, named after their national bird, the Quetzal. In Guatemala a lot of places will also take US Dollars, but beware because they may not give you a great exchange rate. You can use US Dollars in the airport and for airport taxis, so you don’t need to worry too much about drawing or exchanging cash when you first arrive!

Local places like the public buses and markets will only accept the local currency, so it is good to carry it on you in small denominations (they don’t often have a lot of change).

Cash machines are easy to access and fairly reliable in Guatemala, and you can often choose to draw either Quetzals or Dollars. However, cash machines charge the equivalent of around $4-8 dollars per withdrawal, and it is a fixed fee rather than a percentage, so it’s best to take cash out in large amounts (but keep it somewhere safe at your accommodation, don’t keep it on you!). Although it costs to take out money at a cash machine, it is usually a much better exchange rate than you will get exchanging dollars. (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 the most expensive cash machines are 5B (yellow) and these are the ones that charge almost 8$ per transaction for foreign cards. 

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. 

Some cash machines, but not all, also offer the option of withdrawing US Dollars.

Read more about the Guatemalan Quetzal here!

Honduras Currency

We skipped straight though Honduras on our trip through Central America, just staying in the country long enough to cross from the El Salvador border to the Nicaragua border. We had very limited interaction with the country, but here’s what we heard from fellow travellers we picked up on the bus journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua:

The national currency of Honduras is the Honduran Lempira. Some places like hotels and hostels will take US dollars, but it’s relatively uncommon and not advised due to the continuously fluctuating exchange rate. At the moment 1 dollar is worth 25 Honduran Lempira, but this changes frequently. In the more touristy areas, like in the Bay Islands, US Dollars are more widely accepted, but don’t expect this to be the case everywhere!  

The two main banks are BAC Honduras and Banco Atlántida. Both of these banks provide reliable cash withdrawals, but cash in Honduras is a bit harder to get hold of due to a lack of cash machines and because they often run out. 

Not a lot of places accept card, and those that do still prefer you to pay in cash. 

El Salvador Currency

One of the most interesting things about El Salvador’s recent sweeping political changes (let’s not get started on that, eh), is that they adopted Bitcoin as an official currency in 2021. I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t really know how it works (you’re either one of those people that’s into bitcoin, or you’re not, and I’m not). 

Merchants are not required to allow you to pay in Bitcoin, but many do. We stopped at a service station in El Salvador and you could even pay in Bitcoin there! 

When you choose to pay in Bitcoin they give you a QR code, which you can scan using your crypto wallet. El Salvador is the first country in Latin America to officially start using a digital currency. 

El Salvador also has an informal currency union with the United States. This means their primary currency is the US Dollar, but without a formal agreement with the US. (This doesn’t really affect you as a consumer). Before adopting Bitcoin as a means of payment, the US Dollar was El Salvador’s only currency since they dropped the El Salvadorian Colon in 2001.

Thanks to El Salvador’s growing digital infrastructure, you can pay with credit or debit card almost everywhere without an additional fee. It is always advisable to carry US Dollars on you, party for emergencies and partly because places like markets and public transport generally won’t take card. 

Nicaragua Currency

Nicaragua is similar to Guatemala in that they have their own currency, the Córdoba, but US Dollars are widely accepted, especially by accommodations and in touristy areas. You’ll often see the prices for things such as tours and tourist shuttles quoted in USD, but you can of course ask to pay in Córdoba. 

The current exchange rate between Nicaraguan Cordoba and the US Dollar is around 36 Córdoba to 1 Dollar, but of course remember to check before you go, and before you agree to pay for anything! 

A trick with ATMs: when Ellie and I were travelling in Nicaragua, we found that a lot of ATMs didn’t work do anything when you first put your card in, and you had to withdraw your card and reinsert it before it worked. But, you had to pull it out quickly and fully. If you pulled it out half-way or too slowly, it didn’t work. We have no idea why, but once we’d figured out this trick, it worked every time. 

The charges for withdrawing cash vary based on the bank, and you’ll often find that your choices of bank are limited as a lot of the best places to go in Nicaragua as a tourist are small. The best bank with the lowest charge, or even free depending on what type of card you have, are BAC Credomatic ATMs. 

I had heard before going that these ATMs are free for Mastercards, but I tried it with my Mastercard and I was still charged a small amount to make a withdrawal. 

Cash machines generally give you the option of withdrawing Córdoba or US Dollars.

Palm trees in the sky in Costa Rica, taken from below

Read more about Central America

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Costa Rica Currency

In Costa Rica, Costa Rican Colones and the US Dollar are both legal tender. Despite the increasing value of the US Dollar, over the past two years Costa Rican Colones have gained value over the US Dollar, which is one of the reasons that Costa Rica is now more expensive than ever to visit and one of the most expensive countries in Latin America (totally worth it, though!). 

In 2021, you could buy around 700 Colones for 1 US Dollar. Now, at the beginning of 2024, you get just 520. (These figures are approximate based on my experiences, always check the official exchange rate at the time before you accept a conversion).

Usually when you pay in dollars, you will be given your change in Costa Rican Colones. This can be a useful way to get some small change if you’re just staying a few days and don’t want to withdraw a large amount of Colones!

Costa Rica is also one of the most well developed countries in Latin America, and thanks to this infrastructure you can pay with credit or debit card almost everywhere without an additional fee. 

You can also withdraw cash for free at Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) ATMs and Banco Popular ATMs. Beware, because some other cash machines come with hefty fees. I ended up paying 8$ to withdraw cash inside a hospital when their card machine wasn’t working!  

Cash machines generally give you the option of withdrawing Colones or US Dollars.

Read more about the Costa Rican Colón here!

Panama Currency

Panama has an informal currency union with the US Dollar. This means their primary currency is the US Dollar, but without a formal agreement with the US. (This doesn’t really affect you as a consumer). Panama is the only country in Central America that only accepts a single currency, the US Dollar, and doesn’t have another currency in circulation. 

Like in Costa Rica, most places in Panama allow you to pay on card without an additional fee, although that’s not a given. When I arrived, my accommodation charged an additional 3% to pay by card or bank transfer. 

All of the cash machines we came across in Panama charged 5.50$ or 6.50$ to withdraw cash, with a 250$ withdrawal limit for foreign cards. (At first it will tell you the limit is 500, which I assume is for local cards, but if you try to withdraw that much it will get rejected and handily tell you that your actual limit is 250$.)

This can especially be a pain, because a lot of excursions require payment in cash. When I toured the San Blas Islands and travelled to Colombia by boat, I’m pretty sure everyone on our trip, also staying in the same hostel, just about cleared out the local cash machines..! 

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