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Backpacker | © Pexels / Pixabay
Backpacker | © Pexels / Pixabay
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What to Do When You Run Out of Money Backpacking in South America

Picture of Stephen Woodman
Updated: 20 October 2017
Every backpacker’s worst nightmare is being marooned in a foreign country without any money. This sticky dilemma can spring up for any number of reasons: you might have your wallet stolen, the ATM might not accept your card, or you might mismanage your budget and seriously overspend. But fear not, there are always options, and being aware of these solutions might make the unfortunate experience a good deal less painful if it does happen to you.

Work at a hostel

Completely broke travelers the world over have a crucial lifeline: hostels. Ask at the reception of your hostel if you can help out cleaning, bartending or assisting with the admin and many will agree to help in exchange for room and board. Hostels see so many travelers pass through each year that they won’t bat an eyelid at the sight of another sad, stranded backpacker.

Walk on the Beach Hostel, Brazil
Walk on the Beach Hostel, Brazil | Courtesy of Walk on the Beach Hostel

Busk

Now is the time to make use of your hidden talent and take to the streets in search of a quick buck. Whether you’re a singer, a guitarist, a juggler, a portrait artist or a dancer, many developing countries have pretty relaxed laws when it comes to public busking. Of course, make sure to find out whether it’s permitted in the area – the last thing you need right now is a police fine.

Busker
Busker | © Boyko Blagoev/Flickr

Use credit

If you lose access to your money or you simply run out, then you may need to turn to credit cards to support your trip. Financially speaking, it’s never the best idea to fund travel with credit, but it’s a good idea to take out a card before going backpacking just in case anything goes wrong.

Credit card companies
Credit card companies | © Philip Taylor/Flickr

Work on a farm

OK, so you won’t actually make any money this way, but if you’re simply looking for free accommodation then working as a volunteer on an organic farm is an excellent way to get it. The World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, connects volunteers with organic farmers in order to promote educational and cultural experiences, as well as environmental sustainability. The organization has farms and growers in different locations across the world and the owners provide room and board in exchange for your labor.

An Argentine farm
An Argentine farm | © Emilio Küffer/Flickr

Work as a waiter

Ask in local restaurants or hotels for waiting jobs and you may be surprised. In South America, you’re unlikely to make as much money as you might in the United States, but tippers can still be generous and waiting is a great way to get earn some quick local currency. Check the website expat.com for waiter or dishwasher openings.

Waiting in a restaurant
Waiting in a restaurant | © Maxbrotto/Flickr

Ask a relative to transfer money

Another option is to have a relative wire money via a money transfer service. Western Union is the best known money transfer company out there, but there are other online services such as transfast.com that may be more convenient. Be aware, money transfers can lead to fees on both sides of the transaction. You are also unlikely to be given the best exchange rate from the sender’s currency to the local currency that you so desperately need. Because of this, money transfers should always be a last resort.

Western Union telegraph office
Western Union telegraph office | © Sara Cooper/Flickr

Try couchsurfing

In recent years, couchsurfing has become more and more popular in South America and there are many websites that connect travelers with locals who are willing to lend them a bed (or sofa) during their stay. The largest site, couchsurfing.com currently has more than 400,000 hosts and around four million users. As well as being free, couchsurfing gives you the opportunity to meet locals and learn from their insider’s perspective. The website also organizes couchsurfing group meet-ups that will put you in touch with new people.

Teach English

Most travelers in South America will find that they have one skill that is most valued by locals and that is their ability to speak English. Looking for a job at a local school or providing private English tuition is a great way to get by when your travel funds are low. Teaching also puts you in touch with the local culture and frees you from the typical traveler’s routine. Look for teaching opportunities at websites like tefl.com and teachaway.com.