One of the most important aspects of travel is knowing what currencies to take with you and how to access your funds abroad. This week I’ll give you a quick overview of South America in terms of what money you need and accessing your money etc. I am only including the countries I actually visited by the way (so Guyana and French Guyana are not included here)
First of all the BEST currency to carry with you in South America is the US Dollar. You will be able to exchange US Dollars in every country for the local currency and carrying US Dollars with you is pretty much essential to your trip, you’ll save money, you’ll be able to swap it in every country and you can also use it as currency in a few places.
Ecuador and Panama (though I didn’t include it on this as it’s in Central America) officially use the US Dollar. All the other countries will have money exchange places to transfer your US Dollars. Basically in each country I would carry US Dollars, the currency of the country I’m in and if possible the currency of the country I’m heading to next. It is much better and easier to pay for everything in South America by cash. Yes you can use credit card of course, but I stuck to cash 95% of the time.
Country by country here is a rundown of the currencies you’ll be using as you explore this wonderful continent:
Argentina use the Argentine Peso. Within Argentina you can transfer your US Dollars for these. You can also find Chilean Pesos, Paraguayan Guaranis, Bolivian Bolivianas, Uruguayan Pesos and Brazilian Reals, especially in those cities and towns close to the borders.
The big cities ALL have international ATMs for you to withdraw your funds. A lot of the small towns do as well, but rural villages etc. might not.
You can pay for a few things on Mastercard, American Express and Visa, especially in Buenos Aires.
ALL airports have ATMs and shops/restaurants which accept credit cards.
Bolivia use the Boliviano. Often shortened to the B. Beware of bogus and counterfeit notes in Bolivia. It’s better to book your tours etc. in cash though I did notice places in La Paz, Potosi and Uyuni accepting credit cards.
Brazil’s official currency is the Real, you can get Reals in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay for sure, especially in towns near the border (Ciudad del Este and Puerto Iguazu).
The big cities all have ATMs as do the airports. You’re better to carry cash around with you though, which is what I did. Places like Sao Paulo and Rio of course accept credit cards in many venues.
Again US Dollars are the preferred currency for exchanging. Chile themselves use the Peso. Don’t carry large notes as getting change can be difficult.
Colombian Pesos are used everywhere. ATMs exist even in small villages if you get stuck. But generally stick to using cash. Please note that most places don’t have change or will say they don’t have change. So avoid carrying large notes, especially the 50,000. Forgeries are also known to pass their way around and I noted that Visa is more common than Mastercard.
Officially Ecuador use the US Dollar, though the former Ecuadorian currency known as the Sucre still exists in some places and you often get small coins of change in it. I kept mine as souvenirs. You can always refuse to take them when them handed them.
I met more travellers who had money stolen in Ecuador than in any other country so be aware of pick pockets and almost certainly only carry the cash you need for that day. Carry 1 US Dollar notes, the bigger notes will make it difficult to exchange.
Peru use Peruvian Soles, available at exchange places at all the land border crossings. Carry US Dollars to get the best rates, you can also exchange your left over Bolivianos in Peru.
I really liked Paraguay and I was a millionaire there! The Paraguayan Guarani! It is often known as the G. It comes in banknotes of 1000G right up to 100,000G. Own ten of those and you’re a millionaire. Outside the capital city of Asuncion there are basically no places that accept credit card, so carry cash. US Dollars are the best to exchange, though Brazilian Reals and Argentine Pesos can also be exchanged at the border city of Ciudad del Este. I also noted that once you leave Paraguay, it is difficult to exchange Paraguayan Guarani into other currencies, so only get out what you need and spend it while you’re there.
Suriname is one of the less ventured countries, but I loved it and recommend it. You’ll need a visa to get there, which can be difficult. Once you arrive, you’ll notice it’s very much a cash policy and the local currency is the Suriname Dollar. You’re best to carry US Dollars to exchange. The capital Paramaribo of course does have ATMs, but I never used them.
Uruguay is one of my favourite countries, I stayed in Montevideo with a local family and studied Spanish there. ATMs on the main street Avenida 18 de Julio are all safe to use and some provide US Dollars as well as Uruguayan Pesos. You can also get Brazilian Reals and Argentine Pesos in Montevideo. Punta del Este also has a lot of ATMs and Mastercard and Visa are accepted. I would say that of all the countries in South America I visited, I had less money issues in Uruguay. A fairly organised country and culture. Just make sure to carry small change for buses, markets, shops etc.
Last on this list and by all means least, Venezuela is an absolute NIGHTMARE money wise. When I visited there was a black market crash and money was hard to come by. Some ATMs didn’t accept any of my cards (I carried UK and Australian bank cards at the time) and if you have Venezuelan Bolivares and want to exchange them, be prepared to lose out on the exchange rate big time. I must stress – as it is VITAL for travelling in Venezuela. Enter the country with plenty of US dollars on you. If you do that, you’ll likely have no issues. Venezuela is not on my list of top countries, and you can seriously read here about some of my problems there: My Nightmare in Venezuela. For this reason I’ll keep my bit on Venezuela short. Trust me – carry lots of US Dollars!