Dealing with the mirad of currencies and paying for things you need
Over time you will spend a lot of money on your trip. Do you use credit cards, travellers checks, US cash or local cash?
Virtually no merchants accept credit cards or travelers checks. Never tried it but I understand Travelers checks are very difficult to cash in local banks and impossible at a merchant. Some large hotels in larger cities will accept credit cards but that is pretty rare.
Cash is king, particularly local cash.
I obtained virtually all of my local cash from ATMs. Having said that, I occaisionaly had difficulty getting cash from some ATMs, many times on Sundays and usually in small tourist towns. (My theory is that the ATM was running low on cash and they were curtailing withdrawals to non-customers)
Plan your currency needs ahead – I wound up on a couple of occasions very low on cash and no way to get more for at least a day. Stash some extra local cash for such emergencies. Just make sure you use up that extra cash before crossing into the next country.
Take a Visa card (or Mastercard) as this will be your primary way to get cash from ATMs. I have found Bank cards (Debit cards, ATM cards) are generally not accepted in foreign ATMs with the exception of Mexico. Take a second Visa card in case your main Visa is lost or compromised - DAMHIK. The card I used most was obtained specifically for this trip and had it set up with a $1000 limit in case it was compromised. After taking a withdrawal on my credit card I would go to my Bank’s online Banking and pay it off before it ran up a bunch of interest.
Using your credit card leaves you dependent on your bank for your currency exchange. Towards the end of my trip I realized the exchange rates my bank was charging was up to 9% plus their $5 fee for withdrawal from a foreign ATM plus the fee (if any) charged by the ATM bank. That 9% was arrived at by taking half of the buy/sell spread the bank shows on their website. Once you add the fees in, costs of some currencies became quite expensive.
I don’t necessarily begrudge the banks for hosing us for these exchange costs as it isn’t very efficient for big banks to have to purchase small amounts of some obscure currency to cover our small withdrawals.
In hindsight, I probably could have saved a bunch of money by getting more US$ cash when I could. I could then go to the local money changers and have them exchange US$ for the local currency. From the posted rates I saw at many places, they weren’t bad. US$ can be obtained as an alternate currency at some ATMs in many countries and of course, easily in countries using the US$ (Panama and Ecuador)
Money changers at the borders will offer a lousy rate but are a convenient way to get rid of the currency of the last country and pick up a bit for the next country. I tried to have as little currency to exchange at the border as possible. Find out what the exchange rate is between the two countries the day before at this great currency converter to help you negotiate. You will never get the market rate but if they know you know what the real rate is, it will help you negotiate. Helps even more if there are a few competing money changers around.
Keeping your cash safe
There is always a trade off between carrying as much cash as possible vs safety and the potential loss of a large wad of loot.
Initially I rarely had more than a couple hundred dollars worth of local currency with me at any time and even that was split between different places. Later I bumped that up a bit just so I wouldn't be caught short. I always had US$400 of emergency cash hidden on my bike. On a couple of occasions I had to get a big whack of cash (bike shipping in Panama and Buenos Aires) and tried to be as discrete as possible when doing so.
Where to keep your cash. Every bike has at least a couple of places to hide cash that are likely only known to other owners of the same bike. Put your cash in a zip-lock bags and just remember where the hiddy holes are. Some riding gear has some discreet pockets for hiding cash. I would even split my days supply of local cash between a couple of pockets.
I carry a throw-away wallet which contains my low-limit credit card, some expired and useless cards and a small amount of local currency. The theory is that if you are held up, give this to the robber and your losses will be limited. Bad guys expect "Rich Gringos" to have a wallet so the throw-away may just prevent more detailed inspection by a time-pressed ladrón.
My theory is that the locals generally view all Gringos as rich so, flashing a wad of cash or using wallets is just drawing more attention to you. Keep financial transactions simple.
Things like billfolds and those goofy tourist contraptions like money belts and pouches hanging around the neck are like a neon sign with a huge arrow pointing at you that says "Easy Mark!". They will look for the wallet, the pouch is like waving a red flag in front of a bull and it will be ripped from your neck faster than you can say "Ah shit!". If you are in fact held up, the first thing the bad guys do is feel your belly for a money belt.
Just for the record, I was never held up or robbed, so all of this is how I conducted myself - so all of this is just my opinion but, seems to me to be common sense.
Most ATMs give you a fistfull of the largest denomination bills for that country. A lot of merchants aren't able to make change. I usually toss a couple of the large bills in a separate pocket and use them to pay for gas. The pump jockeys at almost every gas station carry around large wads of cash (one of the reasons some gas stations have armed guards) and it's a great way to get a bunch of smaller bills.
This country has currency controls which means nobody can sell you US dollars legally. When I was there the official exchange rate was 5.2 pesos per US$. My bank was giving me 4.6 pesos per US$ after fees. The money changers were giving me 8 pesos per US$ cash - probably could negotiate slightly more with larger amounts. Unfortunately I didn't arrive in Argentina with any extra US cash. Since I needed a lot of cash to ship my bike home and to cover expenses for the over 2 weeks i was in Argentina, doing all the exchanges at the "official rate" cost me a lot.
What would I have done different? I would have accumulated more US$ cash in Peru and hidden it on my bike. Probably enough to last until I could get to Uruguay. Take a short (or long) trip to Uruguay, get the US$ you need for bike shipping and for the remainder of your stay in Argentina and get back to Buenos Aires and exchange it on the Black Market at 8 or better.