Saturday, May 12, 2012

Banks and Credit Cards

I thought I'd write up my personal feelings on banks and credit cards when you're living abroad. It's certainly easier to get this stuff figured out before you head off to your new post.

It's not very easy (maybe impossible?) to get a personal check from the US cashed in another country. The embassy here does have a bank that can do it, however, I find it much easier to just get money from ATMs. ATMs are everywhere, and most of them will allow you to withdraw funds from your US bank, at the day's current exchange rate, making it super-easy. However, some ATMs may charge a fee and some banks charge a fee when you use an ATM that isn't owned by the bank, so you could get double charged. You may think "hey, I have Citibank in the States, and I'm at a Citi ATM in San Salvador, so they won't charge me a fee since I'm using their ATM." You would be wrong, though...  On top of that, some banks will charge an 'international' fee. What a crock.

In El Salvador, there seem to be a lot of ATMs that don't charge a fee, which is great, but I haven't been able to figure out which ones do and which ones don't. For instance, a Citi ATM at one location may charge a fee, while another at another location won't. So, it's better to go with a bank that will pay these fees if you incur them. I highly recommend Charles Schwab for your bank while abroad. They don't charge an international fee, they will reimburse you at the end of the month for any ATM fees you incur, and you can deposit checks using your Android or iOS device. Furthermore, they have excellent customer service - always an American, always within 30 seconds of calling, and always very nice!

Credit Cards
We use credit cards here quite frequently. By and large, El Salvador is a cash economy, but for purchases larger than $50, we typically charge it. Most credit cards will charge you an international fee for using your credit card internationally, even if the country you're in uses the dollar (like El Salvador). This is partly because Visa/MasterCard charges the fee to them and they pass it on, but it's also because the banks add their own fees. I highly recommend getting a Capital One credit card. They pay these international fees so you don't have to. Also, they have this handy feature where you can have Capital One email you whenever your card is used internationally. This feature is a bit scary because I know when my wife is at the grocery store because I see the charge before she gets home, but it makes it very easy to know when an unauthorized charge was made, giving you some piece of mind. So far, we've had no problems.

Anyone else have a favorite US bank or credit card for expats?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Xela & Volcán Tajumulco

So, I'm currently pseudo-employed. Basically, I'm still working, but at a much-reduced workload. This means that I have had a lot more free time. I've been trying to find things to fill the void. It just so happened that one of my good friends was doing a language study in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala. Xela is very close to the highest volcano in Central America, Tajumulco, so I decided to meet up with her and hike to the top of Tajumulco.

The hike started at 5 AM from Xela, so I had to drive there the day before. The drive to Xela from El Salvador is a solid 7-8 hours, which passed by pretty uneventfully. It gets really spectacular when you start getting close to Xela, mainly because you are driving in a large, beautiful, green canyon. We went with a group named QuetzalTrekkers. I assumed that since I had never heard of Xela, that no one else had either, so I was quite surprised to find out that all 11 people who were doing the hike with QuetzalTrekkers spoke English. I had expected to have a nice weekend of Spanish. Oh well.

So, we met early on Saturday and took two local buses to the drop-off point for hiking Tajumulco. It was a gorgeous day - beautiful blue sky with a few clouds, and gorgeous mountain scenery. It took us maybe 3 or 4 hours to reach our campsite. The hiking wasn't really that hard, but you are pretty high, so your heartbeat is more pronounced and you will get more out of breath. The campsite lies around 13,100', so it's about 700 vertical feet from the summit. We ate lunch there and hung out until sunset. For sunset, we climbed a small hill next to the campsite, which gave us a nice view for a pretty sunset.
the start
Our plan was to wake up an hour before the sunrise and hike to the top, to view the sunrise from the top. However, since the temperature dipped below freezing, there was a lot of ice on the rocks, so the guides decided it probably wasn't a good idea to have us all stumbling up the mountain with the potential for slippage. Rather than hike to the top, we hiked for about 10 minutes and saw the sunrise above treeline. It was a great sunrise - just enough clouds to give the sunrise some definition. I was annoyed initially when some clouds rolled in, thinking it was going to spoil our sunrise, but alas, they moved. From that point, we made our way up to the peak, which took another maybe 30 minutes.

At 13,845', the peak of Tajumulco is pretty nice. There's a decent sized crater, but the walls of the cone aren't equal, so you have a sort of spiral up to the peak. There, we had great views of the world below. You can see volcanoes in Mexico as well as the huge valley below. However, for most of our time up there, we just saw a sea of clouds below us. It was breathtaking! We hung out for a good amount of time before making our way down for breakfast. The hike down was much quicker and with great views. We couldn't have picked a better weekend.

The return bus trip was a bit harrowing, since we had a lot of downhill. My friend and I were trying to talk during the ride, but every few minutes, we would both stop talking, fearing that this curve could be our last as our bus seemed to be on the verge of tipping over. Alas, we arrived safely back into Xela.

Xela is an interesting town. It's at 7,600' and it surrounded by beautiful mountains. The city itself is pretty dirty; I was very cognizant of the large amounts of diesel smoke being belched into the air around me. It's also pretty unsafe. That said, it has a pretty large community of traveling backpackers, due to its cheap prices and good restaurants. Most of the backpackers are doing home stay programs for weeks or months. I stayed at a hotel for $12 a night. Overall, I wish I had had more time to explore in Xela. It's a great area because it's cheap, it's close to lots of great mountains, and there's a good tourist industry there.
the views from the road out of Xela

New guidebook on El Salvador

Sophie recently bought another guidebook on El Salvador, bringing our count up to 4, I think. Anyway, this new one is a bit confusing in how it is laid out, but I think it's the best so far in breadth of fun stuff to do. Basically it just seems to have a lot more 'local' things to do, such as the waterfalls I described in the last post. We've enjoyed it. Check it out!