“I never save less than $400 on a round-trip ticket Kennedy-de Gaulle,” said the 40ish, balding businessman in the paneled bar of his Manhattan club. “I fly Concorde to Paris once a month. My secretary buys my New York-Paris ticket, which is presently around $1,200, and books my return. In Paris I change dollars at a premium and buy the westward flight back for about $800. Whichever way you cut it, your credit-card company is going to give you the lowest possible foreign-exchange rate and make a bundle doing so.”

“But it offers me safety,” I (a law and-order guy) corrected him.

“Okay,” he conceded. “But with the dollar as strong as it is in South America, you have to be crazy not to buy local currencies in the black market there and pay for your travel, hotels, purchases, whatever, in local monies. There’s nothing illegal in doing so.”

Only risky, I thought about to leave with my wife for an extensive trip through that lovely, hopelessly debt ridden continent, and unable to use the cheapie tour deals which limit your time. So I decided to take my friend’s advice and trade in the negro, as it’s known south of the border. My conversation with him took place two years ago, and rates have changed, but as a blanket strategy-give or take a little-my businessman’s plan has worked through several trips since, the benchmark being, of course, the five rates of exchange for going currencies quoted in something like the New York Times: c=commercial, d=controlled, f=financial, v=official (the big one), z=floating. I submit my findings. 

Venezuela: not an easy country to lark about in money-wise, and far less hungry for the dollar than most; the bolivar was then varying from nine, in hotels and shops, to 13 per U.S. dollar, at the airport. This extremely exceptional, and artificial, situation was due to the government’s Bs. 9.90 rate for dollar sales and Bs. 4.3 for essential imports, a practice against which the chairman of the main exchange house, Italcambio, has complained, and which has been somewhat modified by incoming Jaime Lusinchi. But the outlines remain the same. They mean that if you get v, the official rate, on your credit-card billing, you’ll be badly burned and lose $20 per $100 when changing at a hotel. This spread of rates is1 of course, a symptom of economic malaise: Indeed, in Alfonsin’s Argentina the same spread climbed from 10 percent to 30 percent in the time we were there.

Brazil: We arrived in Rio’s gracious airport at the height of an unreasoning dollar panic, plus 44-degree centigrade temperatures, and I’ve not seen its like since the side-streets of Naples in the war, when U.S. troops were running riot with the green (a General Issue American soldier received five times as much at the pay table as his British equivalent). At Rio the lobby was physically hard to thrust through, so many touts were offering bargain cruzeiro deals, while hotels sent representatives to hold up placards advertising their rates. We were even approached by two families, both better-heeled in appearance than us, desirous of un loading cruzeiros at almost any price. The official rate was in the 900’s then, but it was easy to get 13 in the hotels, with streetside cambios (exchange shops) offering much more.

However, caveat emptor. The Rio cambios required greenbacks rather than traveler’s checks; this, of course, can create difficulties since it is not always possible to obtain dollars for traveler’s checks, even with a U. S. passport and return ticket. (Worse, the Rio cambio to which I repaired, on recommendation, run by a youth who resembled a Vegas pit boss, was impolite.) Still, the rates, soaring as we left, were golden enough to buy a lot of travel in that long-distance continent. While my wife sat it out in Varig and Lineas Argentirias offices (the latter line said to be losing a million dollars a day) I hied back and forth to various sources for the loot. Since we like to travel first-class in such parts, this involved carrying cruzeiros in the mil lions in my walk shorts through some pretty hoody thoroughfares. Your aver age mom-‘n’-pop tourist might not want to do this, even accompanied, as I took the trouble to be, by a rent-a bodyguard boy behind. Furthermore, the conservative Copacabana Palace to which I kept returning, since it had just announced some excellent rat s (with probably the least counterfeit money), began to develop suspicion of my large requests. A superior individual was summoned to interrogate me, possibly because I look a little older and more organized, not to mention clad than the average Rio beachcomber. Some time later in Brazil, arriving at the lovely Varig (viz government) hotel over the Iguassù Falls, far from any change sharks, I thought that v had finally caught up with me. This was not the case. The bellboy who carried up our bags began peeling cruzeiros out of his pants pockets as soon as he’d reached our room-quite the best rate we got in Brazil.

Paraguay: Since there is no bank at the tiny airport for Asunción, I changed taxi fare at a stationer’s at the then-official rate of 160 guarini to the dollar. The pleasant hotel on the river outside the capital to which we later repaired gave me 348. I did not see any cambios in the unimpressive town, nor in either of the two Dictator Gothic hotels there. But parenthetically, Paraguay must not be oversimplified, as it is by stupid American liberals who will doubtless declare war on Stroessner after they’ve finished with Pinochet and who make for much local suspicion, if not plain resentment, of the rare norteamericano visitor. Among other pleasures, the food in our hotel, which cost a song, was some of the best we had in South America.

Argentina: Don’t cry for me, moneychanger. Here again the dollar frenzy was in full, if more orderly, spate. So were prices. While Claridge’s in London was charging 200 pounds a night, our room its Buenos Aires namesake, with breakfast and a garden terrace over the pool, cost $6 5. Florida, the famous BA shopping mall, was positively staked out with quick-change artists. During four stays in the lovely city, I have dealt with several, favoring one pair of louche-looking Italian gays who spent most of our transactions screaming hysterically at each other in the subterranean “office” marked Cueros (Leather Goods), to which I was directed. Needless to say, there was no leather about, only, as in such redoubts, a wall safe and calculator. I changed a lot of dough with Piccolo, as the aging impressario of the pair was called, and did not regret it at 34 pesos rather than the official 24.50. It made my hotel room even cheaper. 

In lakeside Bariloche (while a group of Tolstoyan teenage girls besieged my wife with questions like “What was the first poem your husband sent to you?”) Riccardo, our friendly changeman, operated fro1n an open counter in a busy mall. He would have lasted two minutes in Times Square. 

Peru: I never went near a cambio there (if such exist). Since places like Lima and Cuzco are such pickpockets’ paradises, I invariably carried the minimum of sols on my person (even so, I was relieved of some in the latter town by a stage prestidigitator manqué). As to the other countries, I have only touched on Uruguay, now with its own new peso, found Chile beautifully organized and totally off limits to negros of the monetary variety, its Guardia extremely civil, and have never been to Colombia or Bolivia nor  wish to repair the omission.

Now, before my experiences be taken for “Never leave home with it” advice, I would emphasize that the credit card is useful in checking out of this country or that. Though I have saved thousands of dollars dealing with legitimate cambios, I still nurse far too many depreciating South American bank notes, from failing to calculate last-minute needs carefully enough.

Neither, apparently, did some Cuban Intelligence types who for nearly five years occupied a house opposite our home in Grenada. After U.S. Rangers had encouraged them to leave, two young boys guarding goats near the local village came up to say they had found several satchels stashed in some dried-out bush close to our grounds. The find was reported to the incumbent 82nd Airborne bomb disposal squad, since the Cubans had learned some savage booby-trapping tricks from their Russian instructors. The kids came out ahead. Six million in noncounterfeit U.S. dollars was found in those valises, and the boys got handsome bounties-from all of which I assume there are no credit cards in Cuba.