We’re pretty stressed about cash after our week in Argentinian Patagonia. It was a lot more expensive than the Chilean side and we just didn’t budget well for it, so we catch the latest bus from Santiago to Mendoza to sleep for a night without paying accommodation. This is always our go-to plan when strapped for cash, and it’s brilliant, except when you arrive at 3am and have to sleep with all your valuables in a bus station, being constantly prodded by bus-workers insisting that you may only sit upright on the benches.
Once we are in Mendoza, though, we finally get a taste of the Blue Dollar that gets us excited to go to Buenos Aires and experience the peak exchange rates. Adios, poverty!
We first learned about Argentina’s black market cash exchange from English friends in La Paz, and it sounded almost too good to be true. Basically (from my very crude understanding of the complex economic situation in Argentina), their currency is depreciating, so many people in the country convert their savings into a strong currency (USD) that will retain (or even gain) value. To prevent all this money leaving the country and actually worsening the value of their peso further, the Argentinian government placed restrictions on the purchase of USD. And, typical of every single time in history that a government has tried to ban anything, the result was a massive black market for USD in Argentina.
Since we didn’t know about the Blue Dollar until we were already in South America, we had to settle for withdrawing USD from an ATM in Chile at a reduced rate to what we would have gotten if we changed over money at home or pulled USD out of an ATM in L.A. during our stopover. But still, those US dollars are now converting at 2x the standard exchange rate in back-alley, black market cash exchanges. After taking into consideration the low Aussie dollar 🙁 this still means that our measly budget of $40 a day has gone from 280 pesos to 400 pesos. We go from stressing about money to living like kings quite quickly.
How to reap the benefits of the blue dollar
Buenos Aires will have the best rates for cash exchange, but it is still possible to exchange money in other large cities, like Mendoza. In BA, the best spot is Calle Florida, a long shopping street where you’ll struggle to take more than a few steps without someone stopping you and saying “cambio?” No matter the city, just head for the busiest street and if no one stops you, just ask any locals where to go. There will usually be some suss man lurking around ready to do business.
Keep in mind that this is actually illegal, and even though the authorities won’t usually waste their time on something so petty, you do still need to employ a certain degree of discretion. When you are organising a trade with someone, typically you will huddle off to the side of the road and discretely show a few of your bills so they can see the quality. But it’s not only police that you should be wary of– definitely exercise caution when dealing with these illegals cambios.
- Do your research and know the going rate so you don’t get ripped off. They will definitely low-ball anyone who seems uncertain (and also anyone who seems white and stupid, but we can’t help that, can we).
- Haggling is strongly encouraged! It’s not hard to find someone that will pay the rate listed online, or at least a similar rate. (I read online that a good rule of thumb is to take the Dolar Blue rate minus 35c.)
- Don’t whip out all your money at once, and definitely don’t hand your cash over until you see their pesos.
- They will count the pesos in front of you, but double and triple count just to be sure before you walk away.
- Familiarise yourself, at least to a small extent, with the local currency. You should always check a few bills randomly out of the pile they hand you to make sure you aren’t being given obviously counterfeit money.
- Don’t change huge amounts over in one go. You won’t get a good deal if you’re only changing over $50 at a time, but if you are stopping people on the street asking to change $1000, you’re probably going to get mugged.
Ideally, you should have crisp, unfolded $50 or $100 USD notes to exchange. You can get a lower rate with $20 bills, but no one will exchange with smaller bills than that. They also really don’t like old or worn looking money, so take good care of the bills you have– it makes a difference! The best idea would be to arrive with USD that you changed over from a bank in your country (or actually got from an ATM in America), but it is still possible to get your hands on USD in other South American countries and bring it in to Argentina. Many airport ATMs in other South American countries will dispense USD.
If all this sounds incredibly suss, don’t worry, it actually is super easy (if I can handle this without disaster, anyone can). As long as you have some idea of what to look for, I don’t think it’s super common for anyone to get horribly ripped off. So read up online and enjoy the extra money!