Dollars or Sols? – Tacna, Peru

You know how it is, on your way out of a country, the border or bust. Don’t want to change any more money because I’m leaving, now if I can just make it to the first town over the border I’ll find a bank there.

With no money in my pocket, just a Visa card to get cash advances, I walked to the edge of Arica, Chile’s most northerly city. The Pan-American highway went five miles north then it crossed the border with Peru. The first city on that side was Tacna, twenty miles or so. If I save my breath I felt I could make it. Without even lifting my thumb I was picked up. There was a police check point just before the border, every vehicle had to stop there. My first ride dropped me there. In rudimentary Spanish I explained I was going to Peru. I had only just finished speaking, the officer was flagging down a truck. The driver was forced to be my host, things were going swimmingly.

Five minutes later I was filling in immigration forms, the truck was going further north, I could be dropped in Tacna. But first it’s cargo had to be married up with it’s paper work. This went along the lines of: The paper work says 240 boxes, let’s count them. At least two hours we waited.

Like many nations throughout the world Chile didn’t seem to get on with it’s neighbor. “Peru is full of peasants.” At least that was the trucker’s point of view. Hence the friction at customs. Boxes accounted for, we were on our way. As promised I was dropped in Tacna, whilst the trucker sourced some Peruvian company for the night.

I had a date with a bank, followed by lunch. Of course, it was closed when I found one with the blue, white and orange Visa sign outside. Another hour wait, finally I had my nose on the glass as they opened for the afternoon’s business. I liked to practice my Spanish when ever I could, banks are an ideal opportunity. Changing money is a long, drawn out process. Using a Visa card is positively aging. Queue here, fill in a form, queue there, show passport and Visa card. Queue here, collect a receipt. Finally make your way to the jackpot, the teller. Probably just shy of another hour I was in the bank, I had divulged my entire life story. Who I was, where I was from, the direction I was headed. They knew more about me than I did. I was minutes away from lunch, the teller was only young. I handed her the receipt. 300 was all she saw, and a Gringo.

“Dollars?” she enquired. Now I don’t really know what went through my head, in my defense, I had just spent an hour in this bank, was very hungry, I just wanted to leave.

“Si.” I replied….lied. 20 ten dollar bills, 18 five dollar bills and 10 one dollar bills were pushed towards me. Shuffling them together I left. Do they have cameras in these
places, was I to be starring on the Peruvian version of Crime Watch tonight?

Was it a mistake? If so who’s, mine? Their’s? Studying the Visa receipt it clearly stated 300 Peruvian Sols. The money in my pocket was U.S. greenbacks. At the present rate of exchange I had been given about three times more than I should have been. Ten minutes later, having changed $10 I was celebrating with chicken and chips and a cold cerveza. Really pushing the boat out. Studying the receipt between mouthfuls I folded the money into strips and pushed it into the tear in the waist band of my jeans, better than a money belt.

Even with a $200 bonus I was still thinking like a back packer…fool. For $20 I could have been on a plane to my next destination Arequipa. But, oh no! I chose the bus, overnight, for $5. I sat on the bus with my ruc-sac stowed over head, directly behind the driver. I was engulfed in that smug warmth feeling, knowing I was ahead.

The bus was already 10 or 15 minutes behind schedule, sat in the terminal honking it’s air horn, trying to entice more passengers to fill it’s last few seats. Now if it had only left on time…

I saw the pale blue uniforms first, only split seconds before they saw me. Five of them stormed the bus. Invasion of the bankers! Adding the tills up at the end of the day’s business the mistake must have dawned on them. We are $200 out, something like a month’s salary, count it again. They must have had a rapid pow wow, wasn’t rocket science. I had sat in that bank for an hour and told them all where I’d been and where I was going. Lady luck was on their side. “The bus to Arequipa!” And here I was with my mouth open.

Rapidly explaining that it wasn’t my fault and I wasn’t in trouble, but there had been a mistake at the bank, and could they have their $300 back? With the bus about to depart, I had to get off, in front of bewildered Peruvians, undo my trousers and fiddle $300 from my waist band. Felt like a magician. Counting it I had already spent about $20. They took me to the obligatory bus terminal old lady money changer, and changed $100 into Sols for me. Financially I was where I should have been hours ago, everybody square, I got back on the bus.

What was once mine, that sinking feeling in my stomach. I had a crappy overnight bus journey to dwell on it. My comeuppance I suppose!

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment