As I mentioned in an earlier post, the political climate in Zimbabwe is a little unstable right now so we had been warned before going about a few things: our safety primarily, getting "ripped off" or "scammed" by vendors, and bringing enough cash in case credit cards were not accepted. Well, as it turns out, the main concern was the CASH issue! The people in Zimbabwe were very friendly and welcoming -- they were willing to negotiate prices fairly for souvenirs (in our experience) and the cab drivers were WONDERFUL when it came to pricing and picking us up/dropping us off throughout the day at our different destinations. But, I digress... back to the cash issue!
As a result of the political instability in Zimbabwe, the dollar experienced severe hyperinflation and became one of the least valued currency units in the world. Back in January 2009, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe legalized the use of foreign currencies for transactions within the country and in April 2009, the Zimbabwe dollar (virtually worthless at this point) essentially was replaced by the U.S. Dollar and South African Rand as the new local currency. I became a little obsessed with the currency (as I had heard they had printed Billion and Trillion dollar notes before the change happened) and was determined to get my hands on some Zim dollars. Lucky for me, on our way back from Vic Falls one morning, one of the hawkers on the path offered me 7 Zimbabwe notes for $7 USD - $1 USD per note. Now, let's be honest, these Zim notes are not even worth the paper they are printed on, let alone $1 USD per note... but I really wanted the notes so I paid my $7 USD and went on my way. Of course 3 other hawkers jumped out of the trees and tried selling us a bunch more notes but I had what I wanted so after about 5 minutes of them pestering us up the path they finally gave up...
Here are some pics of the Zim Dollars that I collected. First is a 100 Trillion Dollar note - yes, you read that right! One Hundred Trillion Dollars!
I was also amused by the 50 Billion, 20 Billion, and 10 Billion Dollar notes...
So what should you expect if you happen to go? Well, when we arrived in Zimbabwe, all prices were quoted in U.S. Dollars wherever we went. Due to the warnings we received, we had plenty of USD in small denominations on-hand which turned out to be a really good thing ($20 bills or less). We had brought a few travelers checks but they turned out to be useless because the banking system is still pretty unstable, so travelers checks are generally not accepted anywhere (even at the bank!) because they might not have enough local currency to fulfill the exchange. AND... the use of credit cards is also very limited -- most local retailers and restaurants will not accept credit cards, and the local excursion agents (bungee jumping, river cruises, etc.) will not accept them either. The exception is large hotels - if you are staying at the hotel, you can charge everything to your room during your stay and then pay with a credit card upon checkout. But, just in case... be sure to plan ahead, see what everything costs before you go, and to carry enough cash to last for your whole trip! Most hotels have a safe in your room so you can leave most of the cash in the room when you go out -- just take enough to cover your excursions for the morning or afternoon and leave the rest behind. Better be safe than sorry...
Since you are paying in U.S. Dollars, things are much more expensive than you will expect so be prepared. Here are the costs of some things that we incurred during our trip:
(Prices in USD)
- Entrance to Victoria Falls National Park: $30 per person
- Lunch by the pool at the Vic Falls Hotel: $80 (2 sandwiches, 4 cocktails)
- Lunch at the Safari Lodge: $75 (1 sandwich, 1 lunch pie plate, 4 beers)
- Cab from Vic Falls Hotel to Safari Lodge, then from Safari Lodge to Town, then from town back to the Vic Falls Hotel: $25
- Dinner at the Vic Falls Hotel on the Terrace: $100 (including a $35 bottle of wine)
- Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi River: $60 per person
So if I haven't scared you already, my advice is basically plan out your trip ahead of time (including all your excursions) and budget accordingly. If you build in a little buffer for unexpected additional things, you should be fine! And, you can book things like excursions ahead of time where you can use your credit card from the US (although expect your credit card to be declined the first time since the originating transaction request is coming from a travel agent in Africa -- this is standard operating procedure for most US banks so just be prepared...) I was on the phone with my bank every other day asking them to please authorize hotel bookings and plane tickets for this trip! And also remember to call your credit card and debit card carriers before you leave and let them know you will be traveling abroad and the dates so you card is not declined while you are in the middle of your trip....
Hopefully you find this helpful if you ever find yourself in Zimbabwe. Happy Travels!