QUITO, Ecuador – Selling fruits and vegetables on a recent weekday, Luzmila Mita dug into her apron and pulled out a fistful of coins embossed with the image of an American Indian woman with a baby strapped to her back.
"I always thought she was one of us," said Mita, as she looked at the image of Sacagawea, the 18th-century Shoshone woman who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. "It took me a long time to know she was from up there."
"Up there" is the United States, where the U.S. Mint has been producing Sacagawea dollar coins since 2000. And even as the coins have lost their luster in the United States, they have been embraced in Ecuador, where they are preferred over paper money.
On the streets of this small South American nation, which adopted the dollar in 2000, Sacagawea is ubiquitous — and something of a kindred spirit in a country where many have indigenous roots.
In rural Idaho on Wednesday, Randy'L Teton, 40, was thrilled to find out that her face was so prominent in Ecuador. In 1998, when she was still in college, Teton, a member of the Shoshone tribe, was asked by artist Glenna Goodacre to be the model for the young Sacagawea. (Teton still holds the title as the youngest and only living model for U.S. currency.)
The currency never took off in the U.S. Vending machines spat them back; cashiers saw them as a hassle. But in Ecuador, it's George Washington who's spurned.
"Nobody wants to carry around dollar bills," said David Maji, a taxi driver in Quito with an ashtray full of Sacagawea coins. "If I ever get a bill, I get rid of it as fast as I can."
He said there was something about the weight of a coin that felt "more valuable."
Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar 17 years ago amid an economic meltdown and hyper-devaluation that forced the country then to abandon its beloved sucre currency.
And while the country does mint some of its own coins, dollars rule the day.
Byron Imbaqo, who works at the Rio Intag cafe in Quito, said he pulls in about $120 a day, but he only gets a paper dollar bill about once a week.
"Nobody wants those things," he said, "because you think they might be fake."