Key points in this post:
- Understanding exchange rates in South America
- How to minimize exchange fees
- Best payment methods in South America: credit cards, debit cards, and more
- How to exchange currency in South America: tips for different countries
- Safety tips for handling money in South America
South America has always been a popular bucket-list destination for vacations. But whether you’re planning a short stopover or the backpacking trip of a lifetime, it’s crucial to plan the small details — and part of that involves getting the best exchange rates for South American currency.
Here’s everything you need to know about exchange rates, the best payment methods to use when traveling, safety tips, and how to exchange money in various South American countries — including Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia.
Understanding exchange rates
An exchange rate demonstrates one currency’s value relative to another currency’s value.
For example, if you want to exchange US dollars (USD) for the Brazilian real (BRL), you’d need to look for the USD/BRL exchange rate. With a rate of 4.92, you’d get 492 Brazilian reais for 100 US dollars. The inverse of this is the BRL/USD exchange rate — if this rate was 0.2, 100 Brazilian reais would get you 20 US dollars. You can find the most up-to-date exchange rates with a quick Google search.
However, you’ll never get the current exchange rate when you go to a travel money exchange. These exchanges need to make money, which they achieve by using an exchange rate that shortchanges you and allows them to profit.
This is why you need to be so careful when exchanging money — and we’re here to give you all the tips you need for currency exchange in South America.
Minimizing exchange fees
If you want to get the best possible value when exchanging currencies, minimizing your fees is crucial. Here’s how to do it.
1 – Find the cheapest place to exchange money
It’s usually cheaper to exchange your money at the bank rather than going to a currency exchange. Local people use banks, whereas a travel money exchange is mostly for tourists.
On the other end of the spectrum, the worst and most expensive place to exchange money is generally the airport. Since this is the most convenient place for tourists to get their travel money, they tend to charge a premium fee.
However, the best place to exchange currency can vary between South American countries, so check out our breakdown for different countries.
2 – Pay in local currency
When you’re withdrawing money from an ATM or paying with your card in a store, you’ll often have to choose between paying in the local currency or doing an automatic conversion from your currency.
Always say you want to pay in the local currency, as this means you’ll be using the currency exchange rate of your card and not whichever rate the card machine uses. This is especially true if you’re using a top debit or credit card for travel.
3 – Have multiple payment methods
If you only have one good way to access money on your trip, you may have to resort to expensive ways to obtain more funds if something goes wrong with that payment method (like using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM).
Instead, make sure you have at least a couple of bank cards to withdraw funds from an ATM, along with cash as a backup option.
Best payment methods in South America
Should you use credit cards, debit cards or cold hard when traveling?
In terms of efficiency, using a credit card is often the best way to get the most favorable exchange rate. Many credit cards offer you the same exchange rates banks use themselves, with no additional exchange fees. Some also charge zero fees for spending money abroad (though fees for withdrawing from ATMs tend to be exorbitant).
Before traveling abroad, make sure you reach out to your credit card company to check if there are any fees involved in foreign transactions and to ask about the exchange rate for the country you’re traveling to.
There are also debit cards offering the same perks as credit cards, along with fee-free withdrawals from ATMs. Most banks allow your local debit card to be used abroad, but some of them charge a transaction fee or use high exchange currencies that won’t always give you the best deal.
It really depends on the deal your bank offers, so if you want to use this option, check your bank conditions in detail to avoid surprises.
Pre-paid debit cards
As the name states, these cards allow you to buy the amount of currency you want in advance so you can lock in an exchange rate and avoid dealing fluctuations.
Using them is very simple. Normally, you just order a card and transfer money into it using a competitive exchange currency of your choice. Then you’ll be able to use it as a debit card at your destination and also exchange money at ATMs. They’re usually VISA or Master, so they’re widely accepted.
If you’re planning a multi-currency trip, these debit cards usually convert automatically. If you’re trip starts in Brazil and ends in Chile, you won’t have any problems.
For these cards, the charge for taking out money from an ATM is often lower than the fees you’d pay for exchanging money at a travel money exchange. It’s also far more convenient.
Not all places are set up to accept card payments — some destinations, especially more remote ones, still operate in a cash-heavy way. In this case, you may want to use a travel money exchange before you leave or when you arrive.
It’s always good to bring some cash and exchange it locally so you have some money to count on in case you need it. You might end up not using it, but it’s for sure better to have it—even if it means having leftover money you’ll need to spend a day before your flight back at a local shop on unbudgeted souvenirs for your family and friends. They’ll sure appreciate it!
How to exchange currency in South America
Although a few rules for exchanging currency apply universally, all countries have their own quirks. We’ll explain what you need to know when exchanging money in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.
How to exchange money in Argentina
Currency: Argentine peso
Argentina has faced a lot of financial instability recently, with the currency’s value changing drastically from one week to the next. For instance, 1 USD was worth 287 Argentine pesos (ARS) in August 2023, 350 ARS one month later, and 361 ARS by December on official channels, though travelers in the country could easily find shops exchanging 1 USD for up to 800 Argentinian pesos.
Now, with a newly elected government (December 2023), the country announced a new official exchange rate of 800 pesos for 1 USD, in an attempt to neutralize the economic crisis and stabilize the local currency.
If you’re headed to Argentina, Western Union often has the best rates for currency exchanges, and local exchange companies are okay for a backup option. Make sure you take a popular currency such as the US dollar to exchange for Argentine pesos. Many businesses will also let you pay with the US dollar itself since it has a more stable value, so this can be a way to get around the difficulties of currency conversions!
Also, most shops accept card payments. But the conversion rate can change drastically depending on the day and the bank, so be alert.
How to exchange money in Brazil
Currency: Brazilian real
At the time of writing this post, 1 USD gets you approximately R$ 5 (reais), and the local currency, which has been pretty stable in the past year.
One of the great things about traveling in Brazil is that pretty much everywhere accepts credit cards—whether that’s at restaurants, shops, hotels, street vendors or the guy selling caipirinha or snacks at the beach.
This means that you’ll need to take less cash with you and can withdraw as you go if you prefer. ATMs are everywhere, including rural areas and villages, which is another good option for exchanging money. Using cash can help you to negotiate a better price, so it’s worth withdrawing banknotes instead of relying on card payments.
How to exchange money in Chile
Currency: Chilean peso
In December 2023, 1 USD can get you about 880 Chilean pesos.
It’s fairly straightforward to exchange money in Chile. There are lots of ATMs around where you can withdraw your cash, especially in larger cities. You can also head to currency exchanges (called cambios), often found near shopping centers and tourist attractions. The licensed ones often have slightly better rates than banks, and they’re also open more hours.
It’s good to make sure you have plenty of small change when traveling Chile, so try to get this while you’re in a big city. In more rural areas, shops may refuse to give you change if you try to use big banknotes.
Fortunately, most businesses accept card payments, so you shouldn’t need to carry too much cash around.
How to exchange money in Peru
Currency: Peruvian sol
In Peru, 1 USD will get you about 3.80 Sols in December 2023.
The best way to obtain the Peruvian sol is heading to an exchange house, where rates are often better than alternative options such as changing money at the bank or supermarket. Withdrawing from ATMs is also a good option.
A quirk of Peru is that in the Miraflores District in Lima, you’ll see men wearing bright blue jackets offering to exchange your money — it might seem like a scam, but it’s totally legitimate.
TIP: If you’re taking US bills with you for your exchanges, make sure the bills are in good condition, as Peru can be strict about this.
How to exchange money in Bolivia
Currency: Bolivian boliviano
At this time, 1 USD will get you 35 bolivares.
You’re likely to struggle to pay with your card in Bolivia, so make sure you have plenty of cash before you arrive. To get the best rates, take a popular currency like US dollars or Euros to exchange for the Bolivian boliviano.
The good news is that there are a few options to exchange your currency. Exchange houses usually offer the best rates, but many hotels will exchange your money, which is a convenient choice. You can also use ATMs, though it’s best to stick to the ATMs attached to banks for safety.
Similarly to Peru, authorities can be strict about the condition of your banknotes.
How to exchange money in Colombia
Currency: Colombian peso
When in Colombia, 1 USD will get you about 4.000 Colombian pesos.
Exchanges can be harder to find in Colombia than in other South American countries. Similar to Argentina, the country is experiencing financial difficulties, and most banks don’t exchange money.
Your best bet in Colombia is to use a traveler’s debit card, which offers good rates and is also safer. You can use it to pay or withdraw money from an ATM.
Another option is to head to money exchanges where you’ll often get a good rate. Just be aware that you might end up with a lot of bills to carry considering the weaker currency.
Also, several hotels in Colombia facilitate bank transfers, offering a convenient option, particularly for individuals with a multi-currency bank account like Wise.
How to exchange money in Ecuador
Currency: US dollar
Ecuador is a little different from the nations outlined above, because it uses the US dollar rather than its own currency (although there is a local currency too, and you may occasionally get handed Ecuadorian change in transactions).
It’s best to withdraw US dollars — or exchange your home currency to US dollars — before you arrive. However, it’s also possible to use banks and exchange houses to change your local currency to US dollars if necessary.
Safety tips for handling money in South America
No matter how savvy you are about exchange rates, you could still end up losing your money if you fall for the first scam that comes your way. Here are a few safety tips to ensure you can hold onto your hard-earned cash.
When traveling South America, being vigilant of potential scams is essential. People may come up to you in the street and tell you there’s something on your shirt, claim they’re trying to sell you an item, or offer to take a photo for you — just to give themselves an opportunity to take your money and run.
Another thing to be aware of is fake money. Always double-check that the money is real, or you could face a penalty.
If you keep your money in your pockets or a bag, it’s relatively easy for thieves and pickpockets to grab it and go. That’s where money belts (also known as security belts) come in. These are thin belts with a pouch that you wear discreetly underneath your clothes, which are designed to fit a few banknotes or cards discreetly.
While they don’t guarantee that a thief won’t be able to access your money, they do at least make it more difficult.
It might sound obvious, but don’t carry all your money around. Instead, opt for a safe where you keep your documentation, cash, and bank cards.
If this isn’t practical for your vacation, you can opt for a padlock to combine with a sturdy bag or a locker at a hostel.
Use multiple payment methods
Don’t just use one payment method. The safest option is to use a combination of cash, cards, and digital payments. This way, if one method is compromised or lost, you have alternatives.
Notify your bank
Before embarking on your journey, inform your bank of your travel plans, including the countries you’ll be visiting. Sudden international transactions might trigger security alerts, potentially causing your cards to be blocked. Providing your bank with advance notice helps prevent such inconveniences.
Always have a contingency plan. Keep a separate stash of emergency funds in a secure location, such as a hidden pocket or a discreet compartment in your bag. This ensures you have a backup in case of unexpected situations.
Avoid displaying large sums of money in public. Count your money discreetly and, when possible, do so in a private space. Being discreet minimizes the risk of drawing unnecessary attention to yourself.
Research and stay informed about the local currency, common scams, and safety tips specific to the regions you’ll be visiting. Awareness is your best defense against potential threats.
Make the most of your money
As long as you plan ahead, there’s no reason that money troubles should ruin your epic South America trip. Just make sure you research the area(s) you’re visiting to find out the best places to exchange money, arrive armed with a few payment methods, and always put safety first.
Ready for the trip of a lifetime? Now you know how to get the best-value exchange rates, it’s time to turn your attention to getting the best-value travel possible. Plan your trip on Busbud to compare bus and train ticket options from various providers, helping you to grab a bargain.