In the United States if you have, say, a $100 bill, and you go to the grocery store and buy $25 worth of goods, they will have the other $75 to make the hundred. But most ATMs give you only $20s which are nice, easy bills to use.
In Colombia we didn’t really have a problem with change because there seemed to be a proper supply of it to go around. In Ecuador they also use United States Dollars and the ATMs also kick out $20 bills. However, when most vendors don’t even have $20 total in their pocket, this becomes a problem. The average monetary exchange goes something like this:
Hello how are you? Good? I’ll take one of those, how much is it? $2? Ok, do you have change for $20? (Angry face from vendor…) You don’t? Well that’s all I have so what are we going to do about it? Oh, you do have change, great!
At this point the vendor usually leaves his shop to go to another shop to beg them for all their coins, brings them back, gives us change and everyone is happy. The change shortage in Ecuador seems to have a couple causes: one, the government just doesn’t make very much of it, and two, when people do get change they save it at home for when they need to take a taxi or something. Sometimes vendors really don’t have change and it is frustrating, but usually one of their fellow vendors helps them out.
In Peru the change situation is every worse. The ATMs give out 200 Soles at a time, which is close to $70. This is more money than a lot of people make in a whole week. It’s not a problem when buying two 80 Sole bus tickets, but when you want to buy supplies at the biggest grocery store in town (where you would assume they have the most change in town) you have a problem. When we did this, they actually did find change for our 200 Soles, but it took 10 minutes and afterwards they literally had only a few Soles left in the cash register and had drained the pockets of the owner and two employees.
Yes, we could go to the bank and ask for smaller bills, but bank lines are almost always WAY out the door and usually it takes at least an hour to see a teller. So we just try to always be prepared and ask in advance if we can pay with a big bill. If we tell a waiter before ordering food that we’re going to have to pay with 200 Soles, usually by the time we are done eating they have had the chance to run all over town collecting smaller bills. It’s just one more everyday problem that you would never think about in a first world nation.