One of the biggest travel faux-pas one can commit when visiting Buenos Aires is not bringing in a wad of US dollars (or Euros)!
The reason is Argentina has been in the middle of a currency crisis for awhile, and inflation is ever on the rise. Argentinians need to secure their assets by converting the majority of their cash into a secure currency, as the US dollar. However, this would create a vicious cycle of depreciation of the Argentinian peso, so obviously the government doesn’t want that. To prevent this from happening, the government makes it virtually impossible for one to obtain US dollars in Argentina, foreigners and locals alike. Of course, people manage to work around it; Colonia in Uruguay is just a 1.5 hour/$40 boat ride away, and in the ATMs there one can extract US dollars directly. Another common way is to resort to the “Blue Market” – this de facto black market that everyone knows about exists because of the demand for US dollar supply. Basically they buy dollars from tourists & folks with US dollars for a rate higher than the official rate in exchange for the peso, and sell the US dollars back to locals.
When I was there in the latter half of February, the official exchange rate was around 8 pesos for a dollar. At the Blue Market, it was a whopping 11.5 pesos per dollar for exchanging $200 worth of cash. That means that for everything I bought in Argentina, I got a 30% discount rate for the already cheap prices. I got an all-you-can-eat barbecue with wine and beer for around $15. I bought wine and bottles of vodka for $3. Staying at a hostel for a night was $9. Talk about serious savings!
Anyway, here I present to you some tips of utilizing the blue market:
- The blue market can be found all over Buenos Aires, but it is most blatant at Calle Florida. Here, there are many people standing around saying “Cambio! Cambio!”. You just need to approach one of them and ask them what the rate is, and do the exchange at wherever the guy/girl leads you to. I did it once at a newspaper kiosk and once right on the street.
- Of course, exchanging in the blue market has its risks, that being receiving fake notes, or getting targeted by criminals watching out for foreigners with a wad of fresh cash. A good option is to also ask one of the Cambio places that actually have a storefront. Although they have an official rate, they very likely have an unofficial rate too that is not much worse than Florida. You can also ask your hotel/hostel if they know of any trustworthy Cambios. When I asked one, their rate was 11.3 pesos to the dollar, which was minimally different from Florida. I rather do this than “trying to find someone non-sketchy” on Florida.
- Bring large bills! The exchangers love the Benjamins ($100) and look down on your $20 bills. Consequently your exchange rate for $20 bills will be lower, for me it was only worth 11 pesos to the dollar. ATMs in Uruguay will give you $100 bills.
- Some restaurants will give you a better rate too if you pay with the dollar, as they too want to protect the value of their earnings by converting to the dollar – doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Here is the live twitter account of the Dollar Blue, updated daily for your information! For example, on Jan 15, 2015, if you exchange $100 USD, you should get 1,362 Argentine pesos. Official rate would give you 859 Argentine pesos
— Dolar Blue (@Dolar_Blue) January 15, 2015
A word of caution though – since their economy is so bad, petty crime is rampant. I half expected to get my stuff stolen in Buenos Aires, and voila, I got pickpocketed! I was walking through a crowd of people, and didn’t even notice when my phone and wallet were gone. Factoring in my losses, I ended up not spending less per day than I did in Uruguay and Brazil – I guess it’s only fair! These things happen, the only way to prevent it is to bring less on you when you’re out.