Today in Puerto Varas, I met a Swiss tourist who had lost his travelers’ checks and will have to wait until next week to have them replaced. In reality, I was surprised to find anyone carrying travelers’ checks these days as, in Chile and especially in Argentina, cashing them can be a bureaucracy-filled nightmare. It almost invariably requires visiting a bank or, alternatively, an exchange house, and they often take unconscionably large commissions - up to five percent and sometimes even more. Their hours are often inconvenient.
When I first visited South America, in the mid-1970s, there wasn’t much alternative to travelers’ checks, but the modern prevalence of ATMs has made them seem positively quaint, but it wasn’t always so. When I first visited Argentina and Chile in 1979, I hitchhiked from San Carlos de Bariloche to the southern Chilean city of Osorno, founded in colonial times but transformed by German immigration in the mid-19th century (the photograph here shows one of the city’s Germanic monuments, now a cultural center). It was the long Easter weekend, and I found myself with a few US dollars and American Express TCs, but without any Chilean currency.
At that time, under the Pinochet dictatorship’s regulations, only banks could change money, and I found myself unable to pay for a room or even buy food. One Chilean with whom I spoke suggested visiting one of the city’s more prestigious hotels, as they often changed money surreptitiously for their guests. I chose the Deco-style Hotel Waeger, whose German name suggested it would get at least some international clientele at a time when few foreigners visited Chile.
Despite my then limited Spanish, I approached the front desk and asked if they could change a few cash dollars into Chilean pesos. No, they told me, government rules prohibited their doing so. At that time, though, I spoke better German than Spanish and, on impulse, I asked in German whether it was impossible to find a place to change money until Monday.
The response, in German, was “How much would you like to change?” and an inquiry into what part of Germany I was from (in high school and university, all my instructors were native speakers, and my accent is still very good, even though my vocabulary and grammar have deteriorated). Even after explaining that I was American - which shocked them, as so few Americans can handle German - I had enough Chilean cash to get me through the weekend, though I couldn’t afford to stay at the Waeger.