My #1 Tip for Not Getting Ripped off in Central and South America

We were very fortunate in our ten weeks of travelling through Central and South America that we didn’t have anything too bad happen to us. Before our trip, we were warned about pick-pocketers, being robbed at knifepoint, getting bags stolen on the bus, and shady police officers. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any of those things — but we did get ripped off a few times. If you read our anecdotes below on what happened, you’ll notice a common theme on how we could have prevented these petty thefts from happening to us.

Examples:

  • We were on the side of the road in Nicaragua, waiting for a bus to San Juan del Sur which may or may not come. We were instead picked up by a taxi shuttle, who offered to drive us for a very reasonable fee. When it came time to pay, we didn’t have change so we paid him 5x as much. We took the loss.
  • Steve and I got split up into two motocarros on a quick drive in Colombia. Steve paid one driver for the both of us because we didn’t have change to pay them separately. Our motocarro drivers got into a loud, intense, Spanish argument on the side of the road. In the transaction, our money seemed not to be shared with the second driver by the first. We took the loss and ended up paying the second driver again.
  • We took a taxi from the side of the street in Bogota. When it came time to pay, the taxi driver wouldn’t take cash and insisted we pay credit card. A week later, we had $4,000CAD worth of cash advances transacted in Bogota on the credit card Steve used. We are currently waiting for Scotiabank to clear things up.
  • We paid an extra $10USD on a tour in Peru, but the guide didn’t have change. We didn’t bring it up again and neither did he. We took the loss.
  • We broke two cups in our Peruvian guesthouse and the owner asked us to pay him for a portion of the damage, which was fair to us. We didn’t have exact change for the amount he quoted so we paid him extra. We took the loss. (Although maybe in this case he took the loss because we broke his cups).
  • We ordered a taxi from our Peruvian guesthouse to the airport. There was a miscommunication between the English and Spanish words for “14” and “40”. We weren’t sure if it was 14 or 40, so we gave him the higher amount of 40, and he gave us 20 back, so we concluded that the price was 14. Fine, keep the change. A few minutes later he ran into the airport after us and told us it was actually 40. We paid him the extra 20. Later on we checked the going rate for transport from the airport, and it was definitely 20 —or less!

Not all of these instances are malicious intentions by the service provider, but in every case, we took the loss. Based on the scenarios I shared, there’s a common solution on how we could have prevented being ripped off in all these instances.

My number 1 tip for not getting ripped off in South America is to bring exact change.

This means you should break your large bills up at trusted venues (ie. the grocery store, a restaurant, or cafe), keep coins on hand, and know the local currency well so you can recognize your bills and count your change faster. Make sure you know what you’ve paid, and what change you expect to receive in return. Also, know your numbers in foreign languages well — bring out the calculator on your phone to clarify the amount if necessary. It doesn’t feel good to have to pay more than on an agreed upon price. If there’s any discrepancy in the amount you paid, clarify it right when it happens — we learned there’s only a small window of opportunity to clarify the transaction.

When travelling, I realized the onus is on us to have exact change to pay for services. We noticed many service providers don’t carry change with them — or pretend not to — so they can potentially make a bit more off the tourist who is fine with paying a couple dollars extra to avoid the awkwardness of not paying enough.

With the exception of our credit card fraud incident, each of these petty instances cost us $10 or less. But when you’re travelling for nine months, these little extra payments add up.

When travelling, should it be up to you or the service provider to have exact change?

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11 Comments

  1. I’m from Guatemala, and I can attest that. Bringing change is a really good idea, but for the taxis drive, we also have Uber rides, and I know some other main cities in El Salvador and Costa Rica have it as well.

  2. Great advice! I think it’s up to you to give the exact amount during traveling cause sometimes people will give you short change without you even knowing.

  3. You weren’t “ripped off” (except by that cab driver if he was the one who committed credit card fraud). You expected small on-the-go providers to have exact change for your large bills and they didn’t. Using “ripped off” makes it sound like the providers are at fault, when you bear most of the responsibility here- even admitting that nothing malicious happened. Please don’t paint Central and South America is such a poor light. As travelers, we have a responsibility to be fair and honest to the countries we are guests in. This article could have been just as valid without the click baity and incorrect “ripped off” title…

    1. Hi Mary, thank you for your response. I agree with you that as travellers we should be fair and honest to the countries we are guests in — which is why we accepted our loss every time, rather than have our service provider take the loss for not having change. To make it clear, we didn’t pay with large bills. It was a couple dollars here and there (in the local currency) that the service providers didn’t happen to have change for — and this scenario happened on multiple occasions across multiple countries. The takeaway here, especially for new travellers to Central / South America is to be aware that this scenario can happen, but can easily be avoided by paying with exact change whenever possible.

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