Currency

Argentina: Argentine peso (AR$)

Bolivia: Bolivian boliviano (B$)

Brazil: Brazilian real (R$)

Chile: Chilean peso (CH$)

Colombia: Colombian peso (COP$)

Ecuador: US dollar (US$)

French Guiana: euro (€)

Guyana: Guyanese dollar (G$)

Paraguay: guaraní (G)

Peru: nuevo sol (S)

Suriname: Surinamese dollar (SR$)

Uruguay: Uruguayan peso (UR$)

Venezuela: bolívar fuerte (BsF)

Daily Costs

Budget: less than US$30

  • Dorm beds: from US$10
  • Double rooms: from US$25
  • Shopping at markets, eating inexpensive set meals: from US$5

Midrange: US$30–90

  • Budget jungle lodge in the Amazon per day: US$50–80
  • Hiking and cycling tours per day: from US$50
  • 3½-day Manaus–Belem boat trip (hammock fare): from US$100

Top end: more than US$90

  • Hiking the Inca Trail (four-day trek) per person: US$600
  • Multiday Galápagos cruise per day: around US$200

Bargaining

Bargaining is accepted and expected when contracting long-term accommodations and when shopping for craft goods in markets. Haggling is a near sport in the Andean countries, with patience, humor and respect serving as the ground rules of the game. Bargaining is much less common in the Cono Sur (Southern Cone; a collective term for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and parts of Brazil and Paraguay).

Money

ATMs are available in major towns and cities, stock up on funds before visiting remote areas. Credit-cards are widely accepted.

ATMs

ATMs are available in most cities and large towns, and are almost always the most convenient, reliable and economical way of getting cash. The rate of exchange is usually as good as any bank or legal money changer. Many ATMs are connected to the Cirrus or Plus network, but many countries prefer one over the other. If your ATM card gets swallowed by a machine, generally the only thing you can do is call your bank and cancel the card. Although such events are rare, it's well worth having an extra ATM card (to a different account), should something go wrong.

If possible, sign up with a bank that doesn't charge a fee for out-of-network ATM withdrawals. Also, find a bank that offers a low exchange-rate fee (1% to 2%). Before hitting the road, call your bank, informing them of your travel plans – that way the bank won't put a hold on foreign withdrawals while you're on the road.

Many ATMs will accept a personal identification number (PIN) of only four digits; find out whether this applies to the specific countries you're traveling to before heading off.

Black Market

Nowadays, official exchange rates are generally realistic in most South American countries, so the role of the black market is declining. Most people end up using the mercado negro (black market) when crossing isolated borders, where an official exchange facility might be hours away. Some travelers might still want to use street money changers if they need to exchange cash outside business hours, but with the convenience of ATM cards, this necessity is declining. The one notable exception to this is Venezuela, where ATM withdrawals and credit-card transactions cost much more than exchanging cash on the black market.

Street money changers may or may not be legal (but are often tolerated), and the practice of changing money on the street is prone to scams – one such trick consists of money changers handing their client the agreed amount less a few pesos; when the client complains, they will take it back adding the few pesos while making a few larger notes disappear. Money changers may also distract their customers during the transaction alerting them to supposed alarms such as 'police' or any other 'danger,' or use fixed calculators which give an exchange rate favorable only to the money changer, or pass counterfeit, torn, smudged or tattered bills.

Cash

It's convenient to have a small wad of US dollars tucked away (in US$20 denominations and less; US$100 bills are difficult to exchange). US currency is by far the easiest to exchange throughout South America. Of course, unlike traveler's checks, nobody will give you a refund for lost or stolen cash. When you're about to cross from one country to another, it's handy to change some cash. Trying to exchange worn notes can be a hassle, so procure crisp bills before setting out.

In some countries, especially in rural areas, cambio (change) can be particularly hard to come by. Businesses even occasionally refuse to sell you something if they can't or don't want to change your note. So break down those larger bills whenever you have the opportunity, such as at busy restaurants, banks and larger businesses.

Credit Cards

Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most large stores, travel agencies and better hotels and restaurants. Credit-card purchases sometimes attract an extra recargo (surcharge) on the price (from 2% to 10%), but they are usually billed to your account at favorable exchange rates. Some banks issue cash advances on major credit cards. The most widely accepted card is Visa, followed by MasterCard (those with UK Access should insist on its affiliation with MasterCard). American Express is accepted at fewer places.

Exchanging Money

Traveler's checks and foreign cash can be changed at casas de cambio (currency-exchange offices) or banks. Rates are usually similar, but casas de cambio are quicker, less bureaucratic and open longer hours.

It is preferable to bring money in US dollars, although banks and casas de cambio in capital cities will change euros, pounds sterling, Japanese yen and other major currencies. Changing these currencies in smaller towns and on the street is next to impossible.

Traveler's Checks

Traveler's checks are not nearly as convenient as ATM cards, and you may have difficulty cashing them – even at banks. High commissions (from 3% to upwards of 10%) also make them an unattractive option. If you do take traveler's checks, American Express is the most widely accepted brand, while Visa, Thomas Cook and Citibank are the next best options. To facilitate replacement in case of theft, keep a record of check numbers and the original bill of sale in a safe place. Even with proper records, replacement can be a tedious, time-intensive process.

Tipping

  • Restaurants In some countries (such as Brazil and Chile), a 10% service charge is typically included.
  • Tours When booking tours (such as to the Galápagos or the Amazon), it's customary to tip your guide — from a few dollars per day to 15%, depending on service.
  • Taxis Not expected, though you can round up the bill.
  • Bars Not expected.

Fraud

Unfortunately, ATM-card cloning is a big worry in Brazil, and your account can be drained of thousands of dollars before you even realize it.