For people new to Colombia one of the first big challenges can be getting used to the new currency: how much is each bill and coin worth; which is especially valuable and which is pocket change; who is that guy with the excellent mustache on the blue note? I’ve heard all these questions and more from backpackers, new expats and the occasional drunk Colombian…! But never fear, because that’s what the Colombia Travel Blog is here for, so here’s a guide to the Colombian peso (or COP)…
The 1000 peso bill (worth about $0.50 or £0.30) is the orangey-brown bill: it is often confused with the similar in color 10.000 peso bill, however the best way to tell them apart is that the 1.000 note is smaller. The guy featured on both sides of the note is Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, former mayor of Bogota and prominent liberal hero, whose assassination during his 1948 presidential campaign started the violent Bogotazo, which led to the 10 year period known as La Violencia. You can visit the site of his murder and pay homage in La Candelaria (near the Septima and Jimenez), or take a trip to his former residence and now a Gaitan museum, where he is buried.
Like the aforementioned 1.000 peso bill, this note is smaller than the other, and is a pale green colour. It’s worth about $1 or £0.60. The obverse (yeah, that’s right!) of the bill features an image of Francisco de Paula Santander, and the reverse is a picture of the door of the Casa de la Moneda, Bogota’s Colombian currency museum in La Candelaria. Santander was a prominent military and political leader during the Wars of Independence, and served as President of the Republic of New Granada, as the territory including Colombia was once known.
Now we’re getting into the big bills (physically, really…): worth about $2.40 or £1.50, the 5.000 peso bill is a darker green color and features an image of Jose Asuncion Silva on one side, and an image containing a forest and his poem Nocturno on the other. Silva was, as you may have figured out from the previous sentence, a poet, and is widely considered one of the founders of Spanish-American modernism. He died young in 1896, aged just 30, and is buried in Bogota’s Central Cemetery.
This brown-reddish bill will fetch about $4.90 or £3 at the currency exchange, and features the best-named figure to appear on any form of Colombian currency: Policarpa Salavarrieta (I told you). Apparently she was “a Neogranadine seamstress who spied for the Revolutionary Forces during the Spanish Reconquista of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.” Considered a heroine of Colombian independence, Salavarrieta was captured by the Spanish and executed for high-treason in 1817. The reverse of the bill features the main square of Guaduas, in Cundinamarca, her birthplace.
A pale blue bill worth approximately $9.70 or £6, this bill is the one of the guy with the incredible mustache (who also looks a lot like my old flatmate Dan, true story!). The owner of the mustache on question is Julio Garavito Armero; a prominent Colombian astronomer, former director of the National Astronomical Observatory, and important scholar of celestial mechanics. The reverse image is of the moon, and is a reference to the Garavito Crater, a lunar crater on the moon’s Southern Hemisphere, named for our mustachioed hero…
Big bucks now! The 50.000 peso bill is multicolored (at a push I’d call it purplish-blue) and is worth about $24 or £15. This is the bill to really keep an eye on! The man on the front of the bill is Jorge Isaacs, a Colombian writer, politician and soldier, who wrote just one novel, Maria, which would become one of the Spanish-American Romantic movement’s most important works. A paragraph from the novel features on the reverse of the bill.
Colombian coins can be pretty confusing too, as there are several different coins representing the same value in circulation. The values are 50, 100, 200, 500, and the new 1.000 peso coins. The tiny silver one is 50, the bigger gold one is 100, the even bigger silver one is 200, the silver rimmed one with the gold center is 500, whilst the biggest of all, with gold rim and silver center is 1.000. Got it? A good rule of thumb: the bigger the coin, the more it’s worth (take that British 2p piece!).
A few important things to remember here when dealing with Colombian currency…A good rule to go by is this: divide the sum roughly in half for the dollar amount if you don’t have time to properly calculate the exact exchange rate. Also, watch out for counterfeit bills, which are quite common in the big cities. How can you tell if a bill is counterfeit? Check the hologram on one side, and rub the bill against a white bit of paper (it’s probably real if some color rubs off).