How to Carry Money in South America
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If you have planned your long-term trip around South America like me, you will undoubtedly need to organize your finances and decide on the best way to carry money to South America.
According to the experiences of me and my peers, your budget for a half-year South America trip will possibly range from $5000 to $10,000, depending on the countries you visit and your travel style. However, $5000 to $10,000 is a substantial amount. Not only it is unsafe and stressful to travel around with such a large sum in cash, but also some countries have a limit for the amount of money you can bring in.
After traveling in South America for six months, I will show you currency information, and a list of tips and things you need to know about how to carry money in South America.
How much money do you need to bring to each country?
Firstly, not all South America countries are cheap to travel, and the basic travel costs can vary depending on where you plan to visit. Colombia and Ecuador are affordable with average meal costs between $1.50 and $4.00 and a shared hostel room between $10 and $15 per night.
In Peru, you can find the same price for meals and hostel rooms, but the cost can skyrocket if you visit tourist areas, book multi-day trekking tours, and visit Machu Picchu by train.
The travel costs in Argentina and Chile are significantly higher than in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, with average meal costing from $10 to $20 and a shared hostel room between $15 and $25.
Taking the long-distance bus to travel around South America is also an easy and cost-efficient way. You can take the bus from Colombia all the way to the end of Argentina and Chile. An overnight bus in Colombia and Ecuador can come down to a few dollars while, in Argentina, be prepared to pay $100 for less than a 24-hour bus journey.
I survived a six-week trip in Colombia for $600, but in Chile and Argentina (especially in Patagonia) the same budget can last for two weeks or less if you are not careful.
What currency do you need to bring to South America?
South America has 12 countries that use 12 different currencies. If you travel to all 12 countries, then you need to source all these local currencies. You can organize with your bank in advance to get all the currency you need, but some currencies are difficult to source and it takes a few days to get them from your homeland. So I hereby recommend that you change local currencies of the first destination of choice and get the rest after arriving in South America.
My first destination was Colombia and the small branch of my bank I visited in Toronto did not have any Colombia pesos at all, so I had to order Colombia Pesos from the Continental Currency Exchange. Most of South America’s local currencies need an advance order so make sure to call or visit the exchange office a few days in advance and tell them the amount you want to purchase.
Euros and USD are widely accepted in South America for currency exchange and it is possible some hotels and hostels allow their guests to pay by Euros and USD. I found this especially true in Ecuador, where most banks only exchange Euros and US dollars. I also traveled to Argentina and Chile and paid some of my accommodation in Euros and USD without any problems.
Lastly, do not expect to change at the land border. Make sure to get the currency of your next destination before you cross the border. Most borders you go through you will be either too busy to cross or do not offer any currency exchange.
I have crossed seven different borders in five South American countries, and Colombia and Ecuador’s border between Ipiales and Tulcan the only one that has a bank service.
There are occasionally be some random persons on the street and at the border offering exchange services and they have dozens of local currencies and US dollars with them. It is hard to know if their notes are real and if they offer the official exchange rate. If you are not able to change before you go to the border, you will always find banks and currency exchange opportunities after arriving at a new destination.
If you plan on visiting Venezuela, you will need to change the local currency in the black market for an excellent rate. Additionally, bring sufficient USD to Ecuador, as it is their official currency.
Credit, Debit Card and ATMs
To avoid stress and problems while using cards and ATMs in South America, you first need to understand how ATM’s work in South America and your bank policies.
In South America, most hotels and few hostels in the big cities accept credit cards as a form of payment, as well as a majority of the bus companies in Chile and Argentina, supermarkets, selective shops, and high-end restaurants. It is possible that there will be extra charges involved in paying by credit card at your hostels, so I recommend that you talk to your hostel owners to figure out the best method of payment. I usually offered to pay cash in these situations.
In Amazon and most parts of Patagonia, credit cards are not accepted so be prepared to pay cash for almost everything, including boat trips and guided tours. I even had to pay my plane tickets in cash from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas.
Debit Card and ATMs
Before your trip to South America, please call your bank and talk to them about waiving foreign transition fees should you need to get cash from ATMs. Some banks will charge you a few dollars while others will waive your international transaction fees, so make sure you research the policy of your own bank beforehand.
One tip for avoiding extra transition fees is to check if your bank belongs to the Global ATM alliance group where you can use a list of their ABMs in each overseas country without surcharges or excessive fees.
You will need to use cash a lot of times in South America and getting money from an ATM in some countries is easy while others it is difficult. For example, ATMs in northern and southern Chile are a dime a dozen and each allows you to get $300 and $400 with a few dollars in transaction fees. In Argentina, banks charge higher fees for international withdrawal and the maximum amount of cash you can get is $100. You will also find ATMs always run out of cash on weekends and holidays.
Transfer your money online
If you have several bank accounts, it would be better to have an online account so you can check your balance and have access to money transfers as needed. You should use your own personal computer for online banking. Pay extra caution when using public computer and be sure to change your password often.
Always have credit card and cash backups
You might want to take two to three different cards with you in case one of them is compromised or lost. The easiest way is to open an account in different banks or get different cards for different accounts under the same bank. I traveled with three different cards from two countries and I was able to pay my credit card bills online.
Moreover, set an extra hundred euros and USD aside in case you are running out of cash and cannot access local currency. It also gives you peace of mind knowing you always have extra funds to access when you have an emergency. I will never forget my last day in Chile when all my cash was stolen during my sleep, and it saved my sanity that I had hidden emergency cash I could use.
Do not take broken bills
Do not take and carry any broken bills, or nobody will take them from you. Say no to the ones even with the slightest scratch on the corner or the tiniest hole
Counting your money
When shopping and exchanging money in South America, make sure to count the amount of change you receive every time. This is especially necessary in Colombia and Chile when the notes are large and it is easy to get confused in the beginning. I had a few times in both countries when taxi drivers and street vendors did not give me the correct amount of change, but when I talked to them about it they gave me the rest without fuss.
Do you have any extra tips for carrying cash in South America? Share it below.