ATMs, exchange rates, and what things cost in Peru

Ok, so you’re looking at your 15-day itinerary hitting all the highlights of Peru: you’ll be dune surfing and flying over the mysterious massive carvings in Nazca, heading to Cusco and the Sacred Valley with a visit to Machu Picchu included, and spending a few days exploring the lush cloud forest and wildlife in Manu National Park. And you’re gonna need some cash for a few cold beverages – not to mention the gorgeous handcrafted souvenirs you’ll encounter along the way. It’s good to know before leaving home that while “Life Takes Visa”, most places even in Peru’s larger towns don’t. Since you probably don’t want to be traveling with a suitcase full of cash it’s a good idea to know in advance where you’ll be able to withdraw or exchange money; and what you should plan on spending.
ATMs that dispense both the local currency (Peruvian Nuevo Soles, commonly referred to as just soles) and U.S. dollars are widely available in Lima (including the airport), Cusco, and larger towns in the Sacred Valley (Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Pisac). They are more difficult to find, and may charge higher fees, in Aguas Calientes, smaller towns in/near the Sacred Valley (Calca, Chincheros, Maras) – and are non-existent in the cloud forest or jungle. You’re best bet is to withdraw enough when you’re in Lima and Cusco to get you through a few days’ worth of activities and shopping. That way you’re prepared when the best stuffed llama souvenir EVER appears before your very eyes – and you won’t have to pay multiple transaction fees for making more frequent, smaller withdrawals. In Cusco I would recommend BCP’s ATMs on the northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas or any of the ATMs at the banks that line Avenida de Sol. They generally charge fairly reasonable transaction fees and offer the best security when you’re making your withdrawal.
As of today the fair market exchange rate for the nuevo sole (PEN) is 2.81PEN to 1$US; the exchange bureaus (casas de cambio) in the main square are offering 2.75PEN for the dollar. That’s actually pretty decent; and contrary to what I was often told, I have actually found better exchange rates at the casas than I was offered at banks. But, if you’re not in a hurry, it can’t hurt to make a quick comparison before you exchange your money any where…especially if the rate you’re being offered seems a lot lower than the one you got a day or two ago. Traveler’s checks are always a secure option; but you should know that you’ll be charged a 5% transaction fee for exchanging them in the casas de cambio. Remember to have a copy of your passport on hand when you are exchanging money or cashing in traveler’s checks; they may not always ask for it in the smaller storefront casas but you’ll need it for the ones that are associated with banks (i.e. the Interbanc exchange office in the main square of Cusco).
What do things cost? Well, that will vary depending on where you are – but here’s a general guideline based on Cusco prices:
-Average restaurant meals range from 10 soles for pre-set menus in mid-range tourist places to 40 soles for a gourmet meal in top-end restaurants. You can certainly eat cheaper, but I wouldn’t recommend looking for bargains at least your first few days here.
-Small local beers (Cusquena) are generally 6 soles for a small and 9 soles for a liter in the downtown bars. If you want to venture into the imported and microbrew ales found on tap in some of the Brit and Irish-owned pubs you’re looking at 15 soles or so for a pint…a price I’m willing to pay after 5 months of Cusquena.
-Wine and cocktails can get relatively spendy. Expect to pay at least 10-15 soles each, with the price rising in accordance to the ambiance of your venue.
-a taxi within the city shouldn’t cost more than 3 soles; except when it’s pouring rain and they’re able to play the supply/demand card. In that case 5 soles is still a bargain if it keeps you from getting drenched in a spontaneous torrential downpour. A taxi to the airport will cost 6-10 soles.
-Souvenirs and handicrafts run the gamut. The popular alpaca sweaters and simple silver jewelery are generally 30-50 soles, handcrafted dolls can be as cheap as 10 soles, and small ceramic vases and tableware are generally in the 10-20 sole range. Most merchants are willing to bargain, as long as the price you are offering is relatively fair…and they’ll let you know if it isn’t.
All in all it’s pretty easy to survive with ATM withdrawals and Peru is undoubtedly one of the more affordable countries to travel in – just plan ahead for when you’re in the jungle and you come across the first cold beer you’ve seen in days.