People in the Andes hate to break big bills (or even medium sized bills, for that matter). Never in my life have I been in such constant pursuit of small bills and change. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most ATMs don’t dispense small bills. Every purchase must be considered – can this person break a 50 Sole note? Can this restaurant accept a $20 bill? If there is even a small chance that a retailer might take a larger bill, you must try! Even though you may have decent change in your pocket right now, likely that won’t last for long.

And what happens when you don’t have smaller bills? You don’t get to buy what you want to buy. That’s right, on multiple occasions, I have been told that a store owner would rather not sell me a product than give me the change required for the bills I am presenting. A small example – along the Ecuadorian coast, I was thirsty for a Coke. I walked in to a small store where a 500ml (20oz) bottle of coke was for sale for US$0.50 (Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar). I had no change and no single bills, so I handed her a US$5 (not a $50, or a $20, or even a $10, but a $5!). Nope, no change, no Coke for me. This is not uncommon.

And the kicker…THEY HAVE THE CHANGE (most of the time) – they just don’t want to jeopardize their ability to make change in the future! Well, two can play at this game. It’s most fun to force the change out of your service providers. This works best when you have already consumed the products they are selling. I’ve had hotels tell me they don’t have change for my bigger bills, but since I’ve already stayed at their property, miraculously, change for my 100 Soles appears from the drawer after denying its existence just minutes prior. I’ve also gotten quite good at denying my ability to make change, even when I have it. Often time a store will request small change on top of your bill so they can give you a bigger bill back. For instance, if my lunch costs 56 Bolivianos, and I pay with a 100, they’ll ask for 6 Bs so they can give me a 50 back. Little do they know that I have 56 Bs exactly, but I am using a 100 so I can hold on to that precious 6 in change (and to make more change to be used later). AND, since I already ate their food, they somehow or other find a way to break that 100 after all.

Who would have thought that a $1 could be more valuable than a $10 bill, when you need the change?

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