two dollar bill

The Incredible Zimbabwe ATM Tour

When a national cash crisis wreaks havoc on your travels

Zimbabwe is a lovely country. I wish we could have seen more of it. We planned to see more of it. But we had the misfortune of traveling there during a cash crisis.

We arrived the last week of May, right after the government announced it would ease the currency shortage (US dollars) by issuing bond notes. Having seen similar measures before, locals were withdrawing their money. ATMs rarely had cash. Banks set withdrawal limits. By the time we arrived, banks had blocked Visa network withdrawals, shutting off cash to foreigners and non-account holders.

We had brought a healthy amount of US dollars, planning to replenish our supply along the way. People warned us about road fines and politics. No one mentioned empty ATMs; and no media reports or social media alerts.

When we couldn’t draw money in Masvingo, our first stop, we weren’t concerned. It was the day after a holiday in a small town. They just hadn’t filled the ATMs yet. We had enough cash. We’d top up in Harare. The capital city would surely have cash. In the meantime, we enjoyed the ruins at Great Zimbabwe.

Over the next two days, we saw the locals queueing for cash at the one bank with money (accessible to locals only). A guy told us that many had come from the rural areas to get cash. When they were unsuccessful, they camped overnight in the hopes of better luck the next day … or the next. They were still queueing when we left town on Saturday, bound for Harare.

We tried a dozen ATMs in Harare, endlessly queuing alongside the locals. No go, but it was Sunday. We’d surely have better luck Monday. We planned to get to the bank first thing when it opened, get cash, and go back to our lodge for the car hire we’d arranged to go sightseeing for the day. There was a Barclay’s nearby and they accepted international cards. Plus, we had an account with them so we were sure to get money.

When we got there at 8:00, there was no money in the ATM and there was already a huge line of people waiting to get into the bank to draw cash via the tellers. In the bank, we split up. I waited in the regular line. Phil queued in the enquiries line. He got to the front in about 30 minutes. I had moved about six feet. Some cash had arrived and a lucky few were making withdrawals via the tellers. Phil confirmed that Barclay’s ATMs allowed international Visa debit card withdrawals and Visa credit card cash advances, but these transactions could only done at an ATM, not via a bank teller.

At this point, reality set in. Getting cash was not going to be easy. Time to rethink plans. We’d use a credit card for 99% of our spending, using cash only when absolutely necessary because we had no idea when we could top up our supply. Forget the car rental. The payment and entry fees required cash. No balancing rocks and cave art at Epworth or Heroes Acre visit for us. Such a disappointment.

Sightseeing plans scrapped, we shifted gears to explore all options for getting cash. We went to multiple ATMs, including ones besides Barclay’s we’d heard allowed Visa withdrawals. All had massive queues. When we found two ATMS with cash, we were hopeful. Requests denied. Barclay’s was our only ATM option. We just needed to find one with cash. We might as well have been looking for a unicorn.

We found two more Barclay’s. Empty ATMs. We visited a fancy hotel and asked about cash advances. No luck, but we did learn that Barclay’s ATMs are rarely stocked. Maddening. We tried getting cash back with a purchase at a grocery store. Nope.

We had planned to leave Harare for Bulawayo on Tuesday. Should we go there and see Matobo National Park and the Khami ruins (the second Great Zimbabwe) as planned? Or just go straight to Victoria Falls? Other travelers said there was cash there.

Lack of a direct bus to Vic Falls with the one company that took credit cards ultimately made our decision. Since we had to stop in Bulawayo anyway, we took a chance that one of the tour companies might take credit cards. Or we could maybe rent a car and drive to the sites and use some cash to pay entry fees. But then there were the road fines. We’d seen the checkpoints on our bus rides. The last thing we needed was to burn through our cash in fines. As international drivers, we’d surely be targeted.

We didn’t get a response to our email queries to the tour companies, so we called them and the tourist office when we arrived in Bulawayo. Cash only.

Nothing left to do but book the bus to Vic Falls and lodging for the next day – online with a credit card. Fortunately, we’d bought a SIM card and data so we had Internet access, as wifi was not widely available. We spoke with the Vic Falls tourist office and learned that cash was less tight there and most places took credit cards. Vic Falls is, after all, Zimbabwe’s major tourist town. Hope sprang eternal …

Plan B if we could not get cash in Vic Falls was to cross the border into Botswana earlier than planned. No cash issues there. Another plan was to ask someone to wire us money through Western Union. Seeing two-hour queues at those locations made that option a very last resort. We had money to get by, just not enough for the fun extras.

Back on the Jesus bus (because we could pay by credit card) and off we went. We arrived late so we decided to play ATM roulette in the morning. The guy who checked us in at our hotel said the Barclay’s ATM had been giving money. Fingers crossed.

Off to the Barclay’s ATM first thing. No go. We saw locals queueing at a bank next door. Probably another case of locals-only access, but we gave it a try. Jackpot! To our surprise and delight, we withdrew a decent amount of cash.

Elated, we considered backtracking to Bulawayo to see the sights we missed. That meant a six-hour bus ride there and a six-hour return. We stayed in Vic Falls for a few days doing the fun things we’d planned and considered options.  

Ultimately, we couldn’t make the backtrack timing work to avoid spending my birthday on a bus, so we opted to extend our time in Hwange National Park and visit on a grander scale. We booked a safari lodge at a great price near the Park. It must have been meant to be because we only booked one day before we arrived. I think we may be the only guests who arrived by bus, with backpacks vs. suitcases. We spent three fabulous nights at Ganda Lodge. For two days, including my birthday, we were the only guests. It felt like our own private getaway, complete with private game drives.   

The irony is that we paid for Ganda Lodge and most of our Vic Falls activities by credit card. We needed cash in Bulawayo and Harare but couldn’t get any. We didn’t need cash in Vic Falls but we could get plenty. Such is the irony of life on the road. Things don’t always go as planned. And when they don’t, my type-A, control-freak self is learning that the best thing I can do is make lemonade out of lemons. And when things are especially wacky, adding vodka (or beer) is really helpful in gaining a new perspective.           

Have you ever been caught in the backlash of local events while traveling? How did you make lemonade out of lemons? How much vodka did you add?

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2 thoughts on “The Incredible Zimbabwe ATM Tour”

  1. You sound like you might need bank of America 😀😀😀
    The pictures look like you had a great time minus the trouble
    Happy Birthday

  2. My first solo, international trip out of the US was two weeks in the Algarve and one week in Lisbon, Portugal, right when there was a coup ousting the dictator. The travel agency told me to give my passport to the desk and keep a photocopy with me at all times (I had four photocopies in various places just in case) and stay away from military and have no opinion on anything you see, religion, politics or government (back then I didn’t have any opinions on most of that stuff). However, I did like to challenge authority when I thought it was wrong, but I kept that to myself when it reared its ugly authoritarian head!

    We crossed from Portugal into Spain for a day trip and there were warships in the harbor – which of course I had never seen before. I photographed them! Uhmm, probably wasn’t my smartest move! A Portuguese military man came up to us and told me in Portuguese (my traveling companion spoke Portuguese) to give him my camera which is when the resisting began. My companion suggested strongly I be charming. So I blinked and wimpered and asked what I had done wrong and he relented and told me to be careful what I photographed and sent us on our way. Relieved we enjoyed the coastal town, fresh seafood lunch and walked back through customs into Portugal. Oddly enough that same military gentleman was there and came over to say hi. I handed my camera and purse to be hand checked, which they did, but they took the camera out of the case and handed it back to me through the old x-ray machine. The roll of film with the beautiful harbor town photos was ruined. And he smiled and waved goodbye.

    All in the daily adventure of traveling around the world. I’m smarter now (???)! Experience teaches you the worth of things.

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