As the new billete de 100 mil becomes a more regular feature in our wallets, Oli Pritchard takes to the streets to find out how easy they are to spend.
“Usted no tiene mas sencillo?” How often have you heard that familiar refrain? It’s so common here that I make a point of obsessively collecting one and two mil notes to make sure I can always pay for my goods. Furthermore, I go out to spend my 50 mils as fast as I can, knowing that not everywhere will accept them.
This year, Colombia introduced a new family of notes to match the new coins released at the end of 2012. Top of the table in this family gathering is the big green billete de 100 mil, replacing the 50 as the highest denomination. They’re very rare and still hard to come by, so when a friend mentioned that she could get as many as I wanted from the bank in which she works, I jumped for joy.
That was tempered somewhat when she explained that I would have to pay face value for them. Still, I was excited to see them in their full glory. Long and elegant, they feature legendary former president Carlos Lleras Restrepo on the front and a glorious depiction of the Valle de Cocora, home to Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, on the back. However, as I passed it around a circle of eager colleagues, the same question came up again and again – where and how will you spend it?
I thought about it and was sure that they could go in Éxito or, if necessary, to the larger banks. However, I generally avoid such large chains, believing one of the wonderful things about Bogotá to be its array of small shops and individual locales. I told my friends that I would endeavour to spend the 100s without going to any large stores and they fell about. I was told it was impossible, so I took up the gauntlet. I would get these 100s spent without using big chains.
Our attempt started up in the northlands. I met fellow writer Angela Forero on Calle 116 and we headed down Carrera 15 in search of somewhere to spend our loot. Getting thirsty, we stopped at a small tienda. “¿Tienes cambio?” I asked the friendly server, who nodded and so I handed over the billete de 100 mil. He took the note and our hearts raced – would he accept it? He did a quick double-take, chuckled and handed it back. He advised us that we would have to go to a bank to change it. I began to get a little nervous – I’d stopped for an empanada before meeting Angela, and that had been a no-go too.
A tienda was always a little ambitious, so we headed down to a little salad and coffee shop. After finishing our tintos, we were met this time with outright laughter from the amused cashier. Perhaps we should have bought some salad too. Oh well, we decided to try Parque 93. On the way down we passed a Bancolombia, so I popped in to pay my rent. My doubts about having to use the 100s in banks were irrelevant – a sign on the consignación machine made it clear that I couldn’t use any of the new family of notes even if I wanted to!
Still, the gomelo-lands of the 93 would surely offer me the opportunity to offload a large bill, so we wandered through the chains until we arrived at Chelarte, a rather fine microbrewery. We sat and discussed the new money – Angela rather impressively being able to read the tiny print of the poem – and had rather too many drinks. That worked to our advantage though, as the large bill no doubt contributed to their eagerness to accept the billete de 100 mil with nary a question asked.
Day two: Candelaria
The centre of town felt like a real challenge. After all, much of Candelaria is fairly local and it’s filled with smaller, family-owned shops. First off was some photocopying for class. Don Álvaro in the university copy shop was unimpressed and not hiding it. “¿En serio?” he asked me, before laughing a little and telling me I might as well give up or go to Éxito. Undeterred, I finished class and went for an elevenses of coffee and croissants with a couple of workmates. The lady in the coffee shop happily took the note, until she looked at it properly. Then she was clear about not having enough change, despite a sign in the café detailing the markings. Luckily, I had a couple of 2 mils in my pocket, but I was running low now. Lunch was coming up and I had to hope my colleagues would help me out if there was no chance of spending the billete de 100 mil. Luckily, the (rather good) El Bistro was, despite an initial request for something smaller, happy to help. The owner/chef told me it was fine, although they hadn’t seen another hundred before. He also explained that the new notes are easy to check for forgeries as they only have to look at the band and the flower.
Taxis were by far the hardest. I don’t take many, but two of them were gracious enough, in that amiable taxi-way, to talk about the 100s. Juan Carlos from Armenia said it was the first time he’d seen one and explained that he’d have accepted it at a less early morning hour than 9am. As he pointed out, later at night most taxi drivers already have a stack of 50s, so there’s not much difference. The friendly caleño from the night before simply laughed at me and said he could drive on to Oxxo and change it, but that would have meant breaking my own self-imposed rules, so I declined.
So, in conclusion, many of the fears are unfounded. The 100s are, if not easy to get rid of, certainly possible to spend. And all this was without simply going to a bank or a large store like Carulla, Éxito or HomeCenter. Just like before, and like many countries, it’s always a good idea to have plenty of small notes too. However, the billete de 100 mil really fills a need. Paying rent or making large deposits now only needs half the notes previously required – and there are plenty of places in Bogotá that will leave you low on change from a 100 anyway!