South America on the cheap: money tips and advice

Handy tips so your pesos/ real/ bolivianos and sol go further…


USE THE BLACK MARKET: We’re not trying to run a campaign on illicit activity, but make like the locals do and all that, right?! We seriously can not stress this point enough. While it’s technically illegal (so yes, it’s illegal) – the fact remains that inflation in Argentina is just bat shit crazy (30 % to be precise), and the Argentines are desperate to get their hands on foreign currency which doesn’t decrease in value quite so rapidly. This means anyone carrying foreign currency can cash in, quite literally, on the streets of Buenos Aires.

More money means you can live like an Argentinian king like us, on this actual executive bus

Touts on the street offer higher rates than what is official for the US dollar, so you’ll get a higher rate than what you’d get in a bank, money exchange, or literally anywhere else. For example, when we visited way back in 2014, banks were paying 8 pesos for one NZ dollar – whereas on the black market, the locals were paying 11 pesos as a flat rate. With a bit of bargaining and faux walking away, that easily bumps up to 12 without even really trying. Our most successful rate was a whopping 12.5 pesos. What’s the catch, you say? There really is none. We were skeptical to begin with as well, checking each note meticulously for signs of a fake – and don’t get me wrong, that does happen – but more often than not, it’s just a case of the Argentinians desperately trying to sustain their reserves. Just scout around, they’ll usually advertise on shop windows, or shout at you from a storefront – Florida Street is the best as they’re practically standing in one long line shouting rates at you, so they’re all desperately competing against you and each other – almost in the same breath.

HOWEVER – do not, I repeat, DO NOT, think you can suddenly make a fortune by pawning off US dollars for an exceptional rate in Argentina, taking those Argentinian pesos out of the country, and then swapping them back to make a profit. To put it simply: Argentinian pesos are worth less than toilet paper outside Argentina. You will, in short be left with $500 worth of toilet paper, that’s actually worth $100 anywhere other than its country of origin. Yes, we are speaking from experience. Yes we were forewarned. No we did not listen. Yes, we were laughed out of several banks. But at least we didn’t have to carry toilet paper for a while.

‘Gourmet meal on executive bus’

When bussing long-distance, at least do some half-assed research companies out first. We paid a LOT for what we thought was an extremely good deal onboard an executive bus with food and full reclining seats, but turned out to be a very average coach with half-reclining seats and cold bacon and egg pie. Don’t believe the “discount for two beautiful girls” line either. Especially from a guy with his own face printed on his wall clock.


Eat on the street. Restaurants can be kind-of expenny, especially in BA, but the choripan and burger stalls can provide just as much – if not more – of the good grub for a couple of pesos.

Go the long way. We’re sure that’s what Fleetwood Mac used to say. Stands for most South American countries actually, the tourist routes tend to be the most-travelled and most direct – but sometimes you can save yourself a good cut of a bus ticket just by visiting a couple of extra towns. And you see more of the country – so actually, if you’ve got the time it’s a bonus. For example, we saved $20 or so on our trip from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, just by stopping by Posadas.

Puerto Iguazu
Riot: Puerto Iguazu. We still can’t figure out whether these people are happy or incomprehensibly angry

– Don’t risk watching a football game Argentina has even the slightest amount of losing, in Argentina: You’ll end up entangled in a particularly loud and potentially scary riot, where you’re not sure if the hundreds of people shouting on the streets are: A. Venting their frustrations through car revving, B: Actually about to plunder the towns and lay waste to all the women and children or C: actually in quite a cordial mood and this is simply their way of saying ‘good game’. After Argentina’s 2014 loss to Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals, thousands of fans rushed onto the streets as soon as the whistle blew, jumped in their cars or on their motorbikes, or simply marched energetically through the streets. And we thought we were in a quiet mountain village of only a couple hundred people. There was a lot of shouting, revving, flag waving, and utter confusion as tourists tried to figure out if this was a convivial display of ‘oh well maybe next time, we got this far’ or if we were all actually in mortal danger. Thankfully, the town was Puerto Iguazu, we were mere kilometres from the Brazilian border – and immediately on the next bus.

In fact, just start practising a solely alfajores-based diet.

Eat at least one alfajores a day: They’re cheap, and they’re delicious. Will this aid your budget? Not particularly, no. Will it make you feel better? Of course. Are we trying to justify our addiction? Absolutely.


– Eat local, eg in the slums: The favelas do great food, for a fraction of the prices of meals just two streets down – closer to the beaches or the tourist areas. The humble favela is also home to The Best Burger Of Our Lives (not quite Fergburger, but for $2.20 I think it’ll inch up in the rankings), whereas the exact equivalent was retailing for four times that a few streets down. Don’t be scared of the quality either – local haunts in Brazilian are clean, and the food cooked fresh. Face it, people are going to think you’re an idiot for wandering listlessly into the one area tourists are repeatedly told never to go – but have you considered the thought people thought that anyway? Seriously though, the favelas are full of wondrous Brazilians who will see you wandering listlessly, ask you where you’re trying to go, and then point you in the right direction. While we’re not saying Fernando Meirelles was lying in City of God, we’re just saying it’s not all guns and drugs.

This is obviously a fairly sweeping general recommendation – we’re not too blame for any salmonella inflicted by a dirty hole in the wall with rats scampering across the ground, or if you’re about to stray into a short-changed drug lord’s house to ask for his best burger joint recommendation.

Rio de Janeiro
When you hike to the top of Pedra da Gavea and start thinking you’re Christ the Redeemer

Hike. If money is tight and you want something active to do for the day, Rio has some of the best hiking we’ve ever experienced. The city is located right in the basin of an adventure-lovers dream – surrounded by mountains and monoliths, and flanked by gorgeous beaches so the people-so-svelte-from-all-the-hiking can show off their work. If you’re feeling exceptionally fit, or simply want to inflict some torture on yourselves, try Pedra da Gavea – 866 metres of steep, steep – and when I say steep, I mean steep – did you hear me say steep – climbing and almost a quarter of that rock scrambling. There is a stretch of rock at the top that is particularly hard to navigate, especially when you are perched precariously on an almost-vertical, sheer cliff with no footholds, staring down at a kilometre of thin air between you and Rio. But what’s facing sheer death between friends?

What a view though, amiright? Worth the death risk.

Besides, the online scare-mongerers banging on about how unsafe it is to try it unguided and unharnessed and how many people have died attempting to scale it are all probably just trolls – and standing in the way of your new Facebook profile picture on your flash new DSLR you left at home because, thieves.

Also, the girl in front of us nipped up in JANDALS. Don’t get me wrong, if Brazil had OSH she would’ve been reprimanded rather severely, and to this day I still have no idea how she scaled the sheer cliff-rock – but the point remains. At the time, it was one of the toughest and scariest things I’ve ever done, and nothing compared to the death wish some make it out to be. The reward at the top is like no other.

-Student discount for touristy things. It’s often not advertised all that well, or at all, but if you have an ISIC card there’s usually a pretty decent chunk of a discount you can score. Christ the Redeemer for one offers a 50% discount for students. It’s never been so convenient to be an impoverished undergraduate.

-Walk. There might be over 4km between Copacabana and Ipanema, but the amount of stalls and incredible sand sculptures and people to gawk at make it seem like half the distance. Plus, the bus is like $2 and you can buy a beer for that.


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