How does the ABBA song go? ‘Must be funny. In a rich man’s world.’ Well it’s definitely funny in South America.
When coming on the trip, we obviously knew we’d have to get used to handling lots of different currencies as we traveled around 17 different countries. What we didn’t really account for is how complicated it could be – from obtaining money to spending it. Whenever we get to a new country our life for the first few days seems to revolve around working out what weird and wonderful rules and obstacles we have to work with next.
Here’s our top 5 things we have learned to look out for when it comes to money in South America (so far).
1. Understanding the value of the currency
Obviously, it’s important to understand what the value of the currency is against your home country. Being used to mainly going to places in Europe, or places with stable currencies, this hasn’t been as easy as it sounds. Especially when we are dealing with a new currency every 3-4 weeks, and switching from currency denominations in single figures up to thousands (hyperinflation is a bitch).
Take for example Chile, where around 1 Euro = 745 Chilean Pesos. Whilst it’s nice to think that we are technically ‘millionaires’ There (that is until you realize the 10,000 bill in your pocket will just about buy you a couple of drinks), it’s a pain in the backside trying to do on the spot mental arithmetic on a daily basis trying to work out how much things are costing. Our friend, Susan, can attest to this, having arrived in Chile, taken out 5,000 pesos only to be told she couldn’t even take 5 stops on the metro with it.
Top tip – be sure to have a converter app on your phone. We’d like to say that we are becoming better with our mental arithmetic, but it’s really all about the app.
2. Handling ATMs
Wanting to try and save on unnecessary bank charges, trying to find out which ATMs are free to withdraw cash from is always a top priority for us. Easy you might think. Wrong. In almost every country so far we have not been able to fathom any rhyme or reason as to where and when we will be charged for withdrawing cash. Factors including which bank it is, which bank you have back home, what card you use and how often you use it all seem to come into play. We’ve spent some days looking as though we are casing the banks going from ATM to ATM trying to find a free one; not escaping the notice of some of the security guards we’re sure.
Top tip – once you find an ATM that works – stock up and be sure to remember the location for next time (oh, and share it with fellow travelers as much as possible too).
The only country that made it easy was Argentina. There, they all charge you – 10%! There we also faced another challenge with the ATMs. Because they’re so focused on cash transactions (with their economy not being in the best state), many of the ATMs run out of money quite early – especially on weekends and the early hours of the morning. Not the most convenient thing when you run out of cash at 2am on a night out.
Top tip – get to the ATMs early and always be prepared with enough cash for the weekend, or those big nights out.
3. Exchanging money locally
We didn’t bring that many Euros or Dollars with us on the trip as we weren’t expecting to have to change money here (thinking withdrawing from ATMs would be fine). Looking back, we wish we had. The exchange markets in South America are huge and normally offer pretty good rates! With exchange shops in almost every country we’ve been to being super keen to get their hands on foreign currency – especially Dollars (even many accommodations and tour operators accepting them too).
You have to have your whits about you though. Fake notes and short changing are supposedly rife. Plus, there are twice as many black market places around as there are legit ones. Argentina was probably the biggest example of this. Called the ‘Blue Dollar’, there are literally hundreds of people trying to sell you Pesos on the street of most cities (especially when you go down to the likes of Avenida Florida in Buenos Aires); often at much better rates than legit exchange shops. Another symptom of their economic issues.
Because of the ATM charges there, we decided (in a somewhat convoluted, yet still cost effective way) to get some Dollars from Brazil and use the Blue Dollar market. Never again. Being ushered off the main avenue, into a small shop down an alleyway, handing over our dollars and getting a wad of ARS 16,000 (no questions asked) to walk back the apartment with was all a bit too shady for our liking. It might be the fastest Carl has ever walked.
Top tip – always carry Dollars with you, stick to going to a formal exchange shop (perhaps in your home country) or suck it up and pay the ATM fees.
4. Paying with card
To be fair, we didn’t expect that much acceptance of card payments as we traveled around, and so any opportunity to pay with card (cheaper, quicker, safer) is always welcomed.
However, it’s been funny to see how differently (and often inefficiently) card payments are handled in each place we’ve been. Brazil accepted cards, but predominantly Visa (which left us screwed as we only have Mastercard). Argentina accepted cards in many places but only with your ID, recording you passport number every time (which was always incorrect as carl just gave his driving license which everywhere assumed was his passport) and then having to sign (even after having entered your PIN). Added to that, with Mastercard pretty much every place had to try 2-3 times before it would go through. Very convoluted, slow and not as secure as they would think (Jeroen used Carl’s card and ID on a daily basis without anyone batting an eyelid). Bolivia & Peru accepted card but only after slapping on a 5-10% surcharge in many places. The only place where it was actually a good experience to pay with card was Uruguay, where paying with MasterCard meant you got the tax paid back a few days later.
Needless to say, Carl wants to have words with his former Mastercard colleagues when we get back to Europe.
Top tip – never rely on card payments (always carry cash). Bring different card types and your ID.
5. Paying with cash
Now, given everything we’ve said so far you might be fooled into thinking that cash is much easier to pay with. Not necessarily. In pretty much every country there have also been challenges in certain scenarios paying cash. Whether it’s places not accepting high denomination or well-used notes (Argentina and Chile were particularly problematic), or not being able to pay for things because places don’t have change (particularly a problem in Bolivia and Peru, where searching for change could be classed as a national sport), to getting back fake notes in change (we got scammed with this in Bolivia when a taxi driver quickly swapped out a fake note and convinced Carl that we’d paid him with it and refused to take it).
Top tip: try and save your change and small notes as much as possible and be wary of fake note scams.
As we said at the start – money, money, money – definitely funny (in South America). For anyone travelling to the region, hopefully some of our tips help.
In the meantime, we’re in a pretty good rhythm with it all now and will be masters of money management by the time we get back! Although, with 10+ more countries to go we’re intrigued as to what other challenges might pop up. There could be worse things to have to worry about, we suppose.
Until next time.