Bank opening hours vary enormously from region to region and from bank to bank, but as a general rule most open weekdays from 9am until 5pm and in Lima, in particular, many of them close for the afternoon at about 1pm from January to March; the Banco de Credito has some branches which open on Saturday mornings, but this isn’t the norm. It’s also the most efficient bank, with fast service, a ticket system, and videos to keep you amused should there be queues. The Banco de la Nación is the one that officially deals with foreign currency, but it’s the least efficient of them all. Most banks will change dollar traveller’s cheques and there are often relatively shorter lines at the Banco Continental and Banco Latin. Interbanc and Citibank tend to have air-conditioned offices and quite an efficient service. Try to avoid going to the bank on Friday afternoons, and it’s generally better to arrive first thing in the morning. As the rate of exchange varies daily, you’re better off changing a little at a time, although there’s an enormous amount of paperwork involved in even the simplest transactions – some places fill out several copies of each form – which takes a good deal of time. You’ll always need to show your passport.
Peruvian hotels tend to offer the same rate of exchange as the banks, though they may fix their own rate, which is usually slightly worse and averages some five percent below the black market rate. For convenience there’s a lot to be said for the casas de cambio which can be found in just about any town on the tourist circuit. They are open all day, are rarely crowded, and the rate of exchange is often better than or the same as the banks’. Rates on the streets tend to drop during fiesta and holiday times, so change enough beforehand to see you through.
The very best exchange rates are found on the street in what is loosely called the mercado negro or black market . In Peru the difference is never as dramatic as it is in some other South American countries, but it is possible to gain between five and fifteen percent over the official rate. “Black market” is a rather nebulous term, encompassing any buyer from the official cambistas who wear authorization badges from the local municipalities, to hotel clerks and waiters. Official cambistas usually offer the best rates of all and can be spotted in the commercial or tourist centre of any large town, generally around the corners by the main city banks, and, rather less official ones at all border crossings.
It is not illegal to buy nuevo soles from street dealers, but if you do exchange on the black market, count your change very carefully and have someone watch your back if you’re changing a large amount of money. Theft of signed or unsigned traveller’s cheques, sometimes under threat of violence, is always a slight risk, particularly in Lima: when changing money on the street, play it safe – and never hand over your cheques until given the cash. Going into unfamiliar buildings (with hidden back staircases) “to negotiate” is also not advisable. Watch out, too, for forgeries, which are generally pretty crude.