There appears to be a drought of change in Peru. Just about every exchange of money involves the person paying trying to convince the person receiving payment to give them change. This usually doesn’t end well for whoever is paying. On many occasions, I have had small business owners turn down my business, rather than create change for me. The mentality is clearly “I would rather make no money than be stuck with lots of large bills.” Since every single person in Peru is trying to get the smallest change possible, every day is an ongoing struggle to make change and successfully pay for things.

Let’s break down the money in Peru. The currency is called the Sol (sun), represented by S/. (note that the period is not a decimal); there are the following five bills and six coins:

Bills:

  1. S/.200 (two hundred)
  2. S/.100
  3. S/.50
  4. S/.20
  5. S/.10

Coins:

  1. S/.5
  2. S/.2
  3. S/.1
  4. S/.0.50 (50 centimos)
  5. S/.0.20
  6. S/.0.10
All but the 50 and the 200

All but the 50 and the 200

Assuming you are conducting an everyday interaction like buying something from a store or paying for a locally priced meal (that is, spending less than S/.10), I’d say you can basically buy anything with a S/.10 note, but otherwise, you’re completely screwed. You may be able to end up paying with a S/.20 note, but you will likely encounter resistance. Resistance comes in three forms:

  1. Flat-out refusal
  2. Request to pay with something smaller, followed by much mumbling and hesitantly searching their own pile of change
  3. Whining.

Whining is one of the funniest and also most annoying cultural habits I’ve encountered in Peru. It is fairly common for anyone, including full-grown men, to employ a high-pitched whine if a transaction isn’t happening in their favor. I’m yet to employ this technique and I hope I never do (though I absolutely won’t rule it out).

Anyway, despite resistance, you will probably be able to break your S/.20, though that’s not a guarantee. If you are stuck with only a S/.50 or S/.100 for a transaction of less than S/.20, I give you approximately a 0% chance of being able to pay. It’s the rough equivalent of going to a small, locally-owned pizza place in New York City and trying to pay for a $5 slice with a Gazillion dollar bill. The big difference is that 50 soles is a real denomination of money, which in Peru is not at all motivation enough to accept it.

The trouble for tourists is that to limit transaction fees, you will want to take out a few hundred soles from the ATM at a time, and the ATM will distribute S/.100 notes. Which means you will often be stuck with a few Gazillion dollar bills that need to be broken down. Luckily for you, I’ve learned from some of the best change-makers in the country – Peace Corps Volunteers – and I’m going to share with you 5 change-making strategies.

Change Making Strategies in Peru:

  1. Buy a change purse. Even guys. This obviously doesn’t make change, but your goal is to have as many coins as possible, which is not conducive to pockets. You should be able to buy cheap change purses anywhere in Peru.
  2. If you take out money from an ATM attached to a bank, go into the bank and ask for smaller bills. This is my favorite, because you can dictate exactly how much of each denomination of bill you want. Get lots of S/.20 and S/.10 notes.
  3. Plan your bigger purchases ahead of time. Never, ever use multiple S/.20 or S/.10 notes to pay for anything – always use a S/.50 or S/.100. For example, if you’re buying a S/.35 bus ticket, DO NOT use two S/.20s. Use at least a S/.50, although preferably a S/.100.
  4. Make small purchases with big bills at big establishments. For example, if you are dining somewhere touristy, that’s a great chance to break big bills without resistance. There are typically also a few large stores in any hub city that won’t complain about, for example, breaking a S/.50 for a S/.3.50 purchase.
  5. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to break bills. Bottom line is that making change in Peru is an everyday, full time strategic challenge and constant vigilance is required.