How to Pay for Things in South America

South America has as many currencies as countries, making things slightly confusing even for the most savvy traveler. Not to mention the fact Ecuador uses the US dollar, which is just plain weird. I can’t tell you how many times we made mistakes with money in South America, quickly uttering an embarrassed lo siento as we realized we were paying, yet again, with the wrong peso coin…or in the wrong multiple of ten thousand.

This guide includes travel money tips for South America, including currencies, conversion rates, and tips on how and when to pay with cash versus credit.

Currencies of South America

Country Currency Abbreviation Symbol Conversion
Argentina Argentine Peso ARS $ Get Rate
Bolivia Bolivian Bolíviano BOB $b, Bs Get Rate
Brazil Brazilian Real BRL R$ Get Rate
Chile Chilean Peso CLP $ Get Rate
Colombia Colombian Peso COP $ Get Rate
Ecuador United States Dollar USD $ No Conversion
Guyana Guyanese Dollar GYD $ Get Rate
Paraguay Paraguayan Guarani PYG Gs Get Rate
Peru Peruvian [Nuevo] Sol PEN S/. Get Rate
Suriname Surinamese Dollar SRD $ Get Rate
Uruguay Uruguayan Peso UYU $U Get Rate
Venezuela Venezuelan Bolívar VEF Bs. Get Rate
French Guiana Euro EUR No Conversion

Can I Pay By Credit in South America?

While traveling through South America, we wound up using cash more than expected. Most major cities accept credit cards at places that see a lot of visitors. However, once outside big cities acceptance of cards went way down, and in many cases using a card came with a hefty transaction fee (6-8% or more of the charge). Although the ability to use credit card varies depending on location, it’s good to always have cash on hand – and to get cash out in major cities. Some smaller towns don’t even have ATMs.

Cash Versus Credit: How to Choose?

While there a variety of reasons to choose one payment method over the other, for me it usually comes down to a few key questions.

  • Is it possible to pay with card? If not, then you obviously have to use cash. If I can use my card though I do, since I get points I can use towards future travel.
  • Is there a fee for using your credit card? Many places – including restaurants, tour agencies, and hostels – charge a fee, usually a percentage of the total transaction price, for using a credit card. In any of these cases, I pay with cash to avoid unnecessary charges. Unless of course I do not have cash with me and there is no ATM, or the fee is less than the ATM fee (I have a fee-free card, but not everyone does). I mentioned above I prefer using my card so I get points, but generally the number of points received does not outweigh the fee cost.
  • Does it look sketchy? If there appears to be a risk when it comes to my card securly, I go with cash. It’s not worth the time and hassle of dealing with a compromised card, no matter the reward points. Generally, hotels, hostels, and “tourist” restaurants are safe. My rule: If the card reader or place appears insecure – it probably is.

So Much Cash? What About ATM Fees?

ATM fees are awful. Whether it’s a transaction fee for using the machine or a % value fee on foreign cash withdrawals – or worst of all, both – they can take a big bite out of your budget and should be avoided. Travel Tip: open a fee-free checking account. We went with Charles Schwab, as they reimburse all ATM fees even in foreign countries. This saved us loads of money, especially in cash-focused areas of South America we repeatedly found ourselves in.

Just for Fun: Why Does Ecuador Use the US Dollar?

When looking up what currency we’d need for Ecuador, we were shocked to read they use the United States Dollar. What? It must have been a mistake, a misinformed travel blogger, a sudden bout of illiteracy. But the more we read the more we saw: Ecuador uses the USD. Flash forward to our first withdrawal from an ATM – we were still a bit skeptical – but before we knew it we were holding a wad of US cash. Strange doesn’t begin to describe it. But why?

Ecuador switched to the United States dollar in 2000, following a 1999 financial crisis during which time Ecuador’s previous currency, the Sucre, was devalued by nearly 70%. Shortly thereafter Ecuador’s president announced the switch to help the economy. Ecuador does have its own coins — but standard US coins are accepted, too!

Worried about traveling with all that cash? Check out my guide on Securing Your Valuables (including money & credit cards) Safely During Travel

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