Colombia: A simple country

You know that famous acronym KISS? Keep it simple, stupid? Well, I feel that it could easily be Colombia’s slogan. Manténgalo sencillo, imbécil. MSI–no, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ring or no ring, this is a country where simple is the name of the game. Cash is king in the U.S.–or at least was in our grandparents’ day–and simple is king in Colombia. Ah, maybe you see where I’m going with this now. Flinging around simple like a noun, when I’m really referring to its Spanish counterpart: sencillo. In Colombia and many other countries, sencillo means small bills and change. A must-know word because I can almost guarantee that you’ll have to carry and pay with cash here far more than you’re used to in your home country for a plethora of reasons. Credit and debit cards aren’t yet the common, well, currency that they are in many other parts of the world, so you need to make sure to have bills and coins on you at all times. But not just any dirty money will do. No, it needs to be small. It needs to be sencillo.

Yesterday I bought some things at Éxito, a huge supermarket chain here. They came to 30.650 (around 15 dollars), and I handed the cashier a 50-thousand peso note (around 25 dollars). She then asked if I had the 650 pesos- the coins, that is. I could only find about 200 pesos, so I said no, all the while still rummaging around in my purse. I eventually found one more coin, and then another, and then another. But several of them were just tiny 50 peso coins—I really didn’t think I had 650 pesos, and in any case I just wanted to finish my transaction, get my change from her, and leave. She kept waiting, though, eyeing my accumulating pile of coins feverishly. When I finally rooted out all the metal from the bottom of my purse, I silently noted that the seven or eight coins did miraculously add up to 650. But you know what? I didn’t feel like giving her my every last coin and then remaining coinless in the sencillo-obsessed country I live in. It’s a free country, er, world, right? I’m not under any obligation to hand over my sencillo. That’s why she has a huge till full of money. I wasn’t going to be a pawn in her sencillo game.

I told her to go ahead and just give me the change from the 50,000 peso bill. How much do you have there? she asked n0sily. I don’t know; it doesn’t really matter, I answered, feeling flustered. What I was doing was so un-PC, practically against the social law. But, how much do you have? she insisted. To be honest, lady, I’d really just like to pay with the 50. She probably hated me, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my finest moment. Lo and behold, she gave me my change with a heaping handful of coins. There was no shortage of sencillo on either of our ends, it turned out. I get it, though–it’s the principle. Better to get as much sencillo as you can and hoard it for a rainy day, a complicated sencillo drought. (A rainy day and a drought? Yes, in Colombia you need sencillo 24/7. As well as an umbrella and sunscreen.) In the morning’s sencillo battle, Vocabat: 1, World: 0. A KO.

I felt like a selfish jerk. How could I not give her sencillo when I had it right there? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the customer and she represents the multibillion-dollar company. Hardly to be pitied. I always pay with sencillo and regularly make unnecessary purchases on the street or at the corner tienda just to break “large” bills and make sure I have sencillo for the bus driver, the taxi driver, and everyone else. But that’s because I’m nice, and I know how life works here. It’s not my problem (in theory) if you don’t have the right change and certainly not if you’re simply loathe to give up your change. Except . . . sigh . . . it inevitably always becomes the customer’s problem. Oh, why don’t you buy one of these cookies so I can then have the right change for you? Sorry, I’m just under, but it’s close, so please just consider it a small tip and skip off. ¡Te quedo debiendo! I’m X pesos in your debt! Yeah, like they’re going to track you down and repay those pesos later! The best way to prevent this from happening is by being armed to the teeth with–you guessed it–lots and lots of sencillo. Such a misnomer! Simple, my foot.

¡Eso!                     ¡Jamás!

¡Eso!                                                                       ¡Jamás!

I wasn’t trying to lie to her or even hacerme la pendeja–play dumb–but who’s brave enough to say, yes, I have sencillo, but I don’t want to give it to you? I have just as much of a right to it as you do. Read: you ain’t gettin’ any. The social contract here basically requires that you fork over your sencillo if you have any, though. All right, cough it up, mister! If you choose to slyly omit the fact that you’re in possession of sencillo, you may find that the establishment really doesn’t have change. And then you’re in the awkward position of magically “finding” the sencillo you were so sure wasn’t there just a few seconds ago. It’s really uncomfortable, trust me. Or maybe both sides will act tough, and then it’s just a matter of who calls whose bluff first. What would they do if they found out about those little Take a Penny, Leave a Penny change trays that are so common in the U.S.? You mean . . . they leave sencillo there for anyone to just take?! In broad daylight?! But in Colombia’s defense, you can often fiar things at your little neighborhood store (pay on credit, or they’ll let you bring the money by later if you’re short a few pesos). Why doesn’t the government make things genuinely simple for everyone and stop producing non-sencillo denominations? All I can think of when I get stuck with a 20,000 bill is when and how I can break it; a 50,000 bill feels like a curse.

Who tells that story about the kid who had a fifty-dollar bill, but he exchanged it for two twenties, and then three tens, then four fives, five ones, then six quarters, seven dimes, eight nickels, nine pennies, all because he thought he was getting richer with each transaction as the number of units increased? Sometimes it feels like that here! I feel like a king, the cock of the walk, when I have a pocket full of jangling coins, and practically a pauper with large bills. What good do they do me?

Another common way of saying sencillo is suelto. Which means loose. We talk about loose change in English, but not so much loose bills. It works for both in Spanish, though. (There appears to be a rapper named Loose Bills. I’m sure he’s a favorite of taxi drivers.)

I did some research, and here are different ways of saying small change and bills in Spanish.

Monedas (just coins), menudo, cambiocalderilla (Spain, just coins), chatarra (Spain, just coins), morralla (Mexico, just coins), feria (Mexico), chauchas (Chile, just coins)

For my money, I’d stick to sencillo or suelto when traveling around.

This Actualidad Panamericana article (a Colombian The Onion) exposes a bar where Bogotá taxi drivers go to indulge in their peculiar fetish: massages with small bills sensually rubbed all over their bodies. It would explain a lot.

How do you ask for sencillo? How do you beg someone to break a bill? This was one of my very first questions when tagging along with Spanish goddess Eva my first week in Colombia. Well, you don’t say romper. Let’s just get that out of the way. What you do say is cambiar.

¿Me puedes dar cambio para un billete de cinco?

¿Me podrías cambiar un billete de mil?

¿Tienes cambio de cien pesos?

¿Me cambias este billete?

¿Tienes sencillo para (un billete de) 20 mil?

As you can see, you have lots of wiggle room to play around with the word order.

Now, what about the change you get after a transaction? Or telling someone to keep the change? Ay ay ay, this book–I mean, post–is getting long. I’ll write about that in the next post.

Also, I gave the KISS acronym a few vueltas, and I came up with an equivalent for the Spanish BESO that fits the topic.

BESO: Billetes En Sencillo, ¡Obtuso!

Keep it BESO, keep it sencillo, and carry on!

24 responses to “Colombia: A simple country

  1. A 50.000 banknote? Sounds like what we had in Poland before the 1995 denomination. There must be plenty of millionaires there :)


    • Yep. I’m a multimillionaire here. I’ve never understood anything related to currency or monetary policy, but why would a country use huge numbers? Why not drop all those zeros? Did the change make things easier in Poland? Thanks for pointing out to me another reason why there’s nothing sencillo about sencillo (1.000, 2.000, 5.000, etc.)!


  2. En tunja, dicen descambiar.
    Ejemplo: Vecino, ¿tiene para que me descambie este billete de 50000?


    • ¡Excelente! Muchas gracias por la nueva palabra y el ejemplo. Me gusta. Y está en el DRAE: Am. Convertir billetes o monedas grandes en dinero menudo equivalente o a la inversa.

      Aunque la verdad, ¿no te parece que el significado de una palabra como descambiar debe ser lo contrario? O sea, convertir sencillo en “complejo”, es decir billetes más grandes. Como, vecina, tengo estas monedas y estos billetes, ¿será que me podría descambiar este cambio por un billete de 50? Bueno, el DRAE admite las dos acepciones.


  3. Me ENCANTA tu blog!! Siempre me pongo contenta al ver uno nuevo en mi correo electronico :) muchas gracias!


    • ¡¡Hola Laura!! Muchísimas gracias por el comentario tan amable y animante, de todo corazón espero que no seas spam (es que el spam tiende a ser súper halagador, pero demasiado… más unos links rarísimos que nada que ver). A ti, muchas gracias por leer el blog y por participar, es decir dejar comentarios. Es por gente como tú que me animo a escribir y compartir. Besos :)


  4. You gotta admit that pennies are worth significantly less than the smallest unit of sencillo here, 50 pesos. Four coins of 50 pesos buys you a roll, or a candy… four pennies buys exactly jack shit. Maybe if 10 peso coins were still around, the take/leave a penny trays could be a thing. Also, thanks to my work I am the queen of sencillo… Almost everyone carries coins, so almost everyone can afford to toss me between 100-1000 pesos as they pass by… and at the end of the day I have a big heavy bag of coins that will need hauling to the bank. Though I surely prefer the typical haul of lightweight $1 bills in the U.S. …it’s kind of fun feeling like a pirate with a bunch of booty :D


    • 50 pesos are 2.5 pennies, but you are right that four pennies is a piddling amount equivalent to zero. I’ve seen old coins for 20 pesos– teeny tiny!–but I didn’t even know that 10 peso coins once existed! Rock that booty, girl!

      And, hey, four pennies would have bought four small Tootsie Rolls (Midgees) at the neighborhood pool from my childhood!

      (In case anyone’s wondering what Linda’s “work” is and why people toss her money in the streets: Linda plays the violin in the streets here. And she’s amazing!!! Look for her on the blog in a bit.)


  5. The battle of accumulating and managing supplies of moneda! You did the right thing, particularly in the major chain stores.. there is no guilt about accumulating change, From the beginning of payday I start breaking down the 500 pesos notes that the bank gives into useable money. I take a lot of taxis and the difference between having a 50 peso note and getting told that is the price and 45 pesos in change (the actual price) adds up… although usually if I feel like I am being taken I will pull out a 500 peso note and demand change. Like you say it is a dog eat dog world when it comes to change


    • Thank you… I already feel better. I had a mildly guilty conscience about it, and this blog helped me heave some things off my chest! Haha. The tricky thing about demanding change is that once they have your bill, they can call the shots. Dog eat dog world, exactly!! Though at least somewhat preferable to the alternative of using a card for everything, since there’s not much trust here and if someone’s going to be unscrupulous, they’re can get a lot more from a card than just a few cents. At least with physical money there are knowable limits. Bitcoins, anyone??


  6. Today a friend confirmed descambiar from above and also taught me sencillar. He also said that once in a blue moon you will hear romper or partir.


    • What about the famous “no tengo vueltos”? Buying a coffee at Juan Valdez and, really, you don’t have any change? I know how you feel and every time I am in the country I think jeez, they should really print up some more small bills. :)


      • You’re getting ahead of me! Haha. I was going to talk about this in my next post. (Just realized that I promised a part two to this change post as my next post, but then made my next post about search terms.) Jeez is just the word. Give me a break, already!

        And here in Colombia, it’s vueltas. Again, in the next next post! ;)


  7. This post is hilarious, and the comments too. Regarding the last comment, I was thinking that it could be vueltos or vueltas, and I don’t know which way is “correct,” so to speak. It reminds me of people saying saludes for saludos, but the latter is clearly the winner here. I, for example, don’t know if I should say el maratón o la maratón. El computador o la computadora, although I think that la computadora might actually mean “la máquina computadora.”

    But going back to the topic, this descambiar thing is just very funny, and I think it’s similar to saludes in that people make those words up and then they gain acceptance regionally. Probably what is behind descambiar is that if you say cambiar then someone smart ass might just give you a bill of the same denomination. Like in, señor, por favor cambieme este billete que está muy feo (when you get your vuelto/as and they give you a beat up bill, and you know then that nobody will want to take that bill from you when it’s time t to spend it). Never heard of sencillar, though. And this idea of accumulating change reminds me of people hoarding quarters for the laundry machine (you still might find yourself looking for change for the bus). I’m surprised you haven’t seen one of those “small” coins. Some of the 1 coins peso used to be really big and ugly. If I ever see you, I might show you 20 centavos (I’m pretty sure I have one of those somewhere). The 5 centavos coins were very similar to pennies, and I think the centavo looked like that too. The10 centavos coin was like a dime. Just saw some pictures in the internet of all these coins; nice.


    • Ed, we missed you! I always look forward to your comments.

      I’m 99.99% positive that in Colombia we say vueltas. But apparently in the rest of Latin America they say vuelto! (And vuelta in Spain) Maybe if a Colombia picked up vuelto from living abroad or watching TV from elsewhere, he’d then turn it into vueltos. I dunno.

      I’ve also picked up saludes ;) Didn’t know about el/la maratón. Hadn’t gotten around to running one down here yet! I say el computador, but I think they say la computadora in most other countries. I see that your exposure to other Hispanic cultures and language variants up in that great melting pot is diluting your Colombianness! Which is to say, probably making you infinitely richer, language-wise and in so many other ways. I’ll try to be your trusty source for all things Colombian… though, haha, we all know that you’ve taught (and hopefully will continue to teach) me much more than I could ever teach you :)

      Ah, hadn’t thought about people trying to get rid of ugly, disintegrating bills. How do they get out of circulation al fin? I guess a bill that you fear will any minute become a pile of threads on you would be like a hot potato. Good point about the laundry quarters- one of the last remnants of sencillo obsession in the US! Gosh, I bet even arcades these days take credit cards. Remember phone booths? Maybe I should be grateful that Colombia is more traditional in this sense. Guess it depends on a person’s perspective.

      Come to think of it, I did see a 20 peso coin once. But we should still see each other :)


      • Those are nice things you said about me, thank you :) Never underestimate how much Spanish I have learned from your blog, though. You’d be surprised. That, and the good laughs I get (no te hagas la pendeja…) I will pay more attention to vueltos/vueltas when I go to Colombia. The main thing is that neither vueltos nor vueltas sounds weird, so I must be used to both, and it must be from Colombia, not here.

        I recently saw somebody using a phone booth around here, and if I paid more attention I might see it more often than expected. I was also looking at the prices of local and long distance calls but I forgot what they were. I was thinking then that it must be really expensive to keep those public phones out there. Not to mention that they’re gross. A pinball machine from a local bar, which used to take quarters, was removed a few months ago. I was in Coney Island recently but didn’t look for arcades; I wonder if there is one around.

        About the old bills, there was a piece in the paper (probably El Tiempo) about it a few months ago. I couldn’t find it but found plenty of sources about the removal of those bills (they get to a bank, the cashier decides that they are too nasty and puts them aside, everything is taken somewhere to el Banco de la República, and they are shredded; thousands of millions per month). Also, there are constantly discussions about dropping three zeroes to the currency but no agreement on this point. It would not accomplish much, and it would cost money. I am afraid that it would be an excuse to increase some prices, although with a transition of about three years (using both currencies) this should be minimized. Google “quitar tres ceros moneda colombia” and you’ll find a lot about this.

        I always get carried away…


        • This is from a translation that I’m going to do soon. This artist (an acquaintance of mine) got the Banco de la República to give her bags of that shredded-up old money, and then she reconstructed a bill.

          Looks like you’re right about vueltos. Surprise!

          You must be a scientist:


          • That is an amazing job she did with that shredded money. Remind me to keep her away from my shredded financial records.

            I find myself thinking of what I would say in a random situation, vueltos or vueltas. I may be as inconsistent as the writer of that piece (vueltos in the title, vueltas in the first paragraph and back to vueltos in the last paragraph).

            Ha! I gave away my occupation. You do good detective work, on top of everything else. When discussing the proposal of dropping three zeroes from the Colombian currency, I was going to mention that an advantage of keeping the current system is that one billion Colombian pesos come close to being like one billion US dollars in value, within a factor of two. It would just require that we keep the meaning of billion as it is in the home country of each currency (is this getting too convoluted?). You probably have heard of the millardo, right? Sometimes I think that, to avoid confusion, it is useful to be a little nerdy and just say big numbers as powers of ten (or, equivalently, state how many zeroes to the right we are talking about). And let’s not start talking about dates. Don’t get me wrong, I am referring to the meaning of, for instance, 12-6-2014: is it the 12th of June or the 6th of December?

            Quick question: what is the most successful posting in the history of Vocabat, as measured by the number of comments generated. This must be up there, right?


            • Nope, didn’t know millardo. Thanks!

              Ha, OK, let’s nobody start talking about dates. Least of all in a blog comment thread. That conversation will take place on the backchannel.

              Most comments, in order: Cursi, My favorite Spanish words, Pardon me, but I think I’m in love with your Spanish, Back to Bogotá, Mitt Romney’s son speaking Spanish, Test your Spanish vocabulary, A blog birthday, About time, How to give a piropo, Conchudo!, Lo que se pegó

              Cursi was Freshly Pressed, so lots of comments from curious visitors and congratulators :)

              PS- you’re the top commenter! Followed by aussieguiri and My Nomad Life.

              I think the posts without any comments (there are 8 of them) cry a little at night ;)


              • Well, I didn’t know you had a backchannel. So I am the top commenter but didn’t make that cut? In general, I stay away from places that have a velvet rope at the door :)

                I know, I am behind in reading your posts. I was going to take that vocabulary test but haven’t gotten around to even checking the link. As usual, we blame it on lack of time. So many conflicts… I have quite a bit of work to do right now but the Brazil-Croatia game is on. I guess I’ll peak once in a while to check the score.


  8. In Puerto Rico we use both “el cambio” and “la vuelta” for the change we receive. The coins are also called “cambio”. In Chile they say “el vuelto” which for me is weird because I’m used to the feminine noun. If we want to break a bill we also say “tiene cambio” and I’m sure I’ve heard “alguien me parte el billete” which is clearly Spanglish at its best.

    In Puerto Rico as a commonwealth of the USA we use the dollar and in Chile the Chilean Peso is in denomination of thousands, it drives me crazy. “600 pesos por la coca light” “1, 200,000 por el pasaje de avión”. In Chile they always have change and the highest bill is the 20,000, nonetheless when you go to the supermarket and your change is less than 10 pesos they ask for a donation to whatever charity and If you say no “te miran mal”. ¡Ay qué complicado!


    • Good to know! It looks like you guys are in the minority, from what I’ve read. But good to know that vuelta is used outside of Spain. Here in Colombia, it’s vueltas. Or devuelta/devueltas.

      Yeah, what’s with the gargantuan numbers? I miss the simplicity of American denominations. Not actively or anything, and of course you get used to it. Yep, same charity question here. It’s also an option on the screen every time you take out money from ATMs. It’s useful to grow a thick skin to be impervious to those death stares!


  9. Pingback: Change we can believe in | Vocabat

  10. Pingback: And another blog birthday! | Vocabat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s