"Cambio cambio dólares cambio..."
I feel like I'm in a spy movie when we go to get pesos in Buenos Aires.
In most other countries, you pay with a credit card, or use the ATM to withdraw local currency. You can definitely do that in Buenos Aires, but you get a much better exchange rate if you use this thing called the blue market.
Given the high inflation rate, and that the peso can quickly devalue, no one here wants to save in pesos. Rather, the US dollar is king, and the currency of choice for savings. But in 2012 the Argentine government restricted the ability of ordinary Argentines to purchase US dollars. Naturally, the people found way to work around this restrictions.
Enter the blue market where Argentines can buy American dollars secretly with ease, and tourists can sell American dollars getting way more pesos from this market than an ATM. (If you want a lengthy description of the workings of this market that go way beyond my basic, tourist focus, check out this article from November 2014.)
The only problem is that the blue market is illegal. But this illegal market has it's own rate posted in the newspapers, and online at DolarBlue.net. So while illegal, it's mostly tolerated, though I did read tonight that there were some police raids last fall.
As tourists who don't speak Spanish, we wondered just how easy this blue market would be to find and use. We knew we needed US dollars, and that new, crisp $100 bills were preferred. How on earth do you decide how much to bring for a month in Argentina when you're stopping in Rio first? So we guessed and decided if we did indeed find this market and run out of our US cash, we'd be giddy at the money we'd saved and then find an ATM.
TripAdvisor.com has been a big source of our information since leaving Edmonton. The forums are active and current and filled with great information. But, the Trip Advisor people delete posts that discuss illegal activities. So every post that said where to get money was deleted from the forum. However, from the remaining skeleton posts we knew to go to Calle Florida and will hear people shouting out "cambio" who will exchange your money, that sometimes you got counterfeit money, that you might get a better deal asking around, that you never exchange money on the street but your guy will take you inside somewhere, and that it was illegal. Good heavens, how would we ever pull this off. I thought we might be destined to eat into our savings stash using ATMs.
But within 3 minutes of being in the taxi from the airport, our driver was telling us that he changes money and will come to our place whenever we need. We'd heard that the going rate was anywhere from 12-15 pesos per $1USD. He offered us 12. He also said he had good money and fanned it all out for Kerry to pick one bill with which the driver paid the toll road, proving it was good money. We were brave and changed $100USD.
Later, when we checked into our AirBnb, our host told us exactly where to go for money. He also said the exchange was currently 14 pesos and that we might get 14.5, but maybe not quite.
So, while the taxi driver didn't give us a great rate, he did give us a much better rate than the airport ATM which was just below 9 pesos. We needed to use the ATM because we needed pesos for the taxi company - which you pay inside the airport, not to the driver.
A couple days later, we took a deep breath and headed to our address on Calle Florida to get some money. As soon as we hit Florida we heard "cambio cambio dólares cambio..." chanted over and over from dozens of men on the street, and maybe two women. Florida is a pedestrian shopping area in the central area. These people just stand outside shops chanting their lines waiting for a bite. I found it interesting that just about every single one tried to lure in Kerry instead of me. Little did they know that I had the money.
We found our address and it was a mini mall with half a flight of stairs going up, and half a flight going down. The going up was blocked off. The going down ended at a shop with large letters that said "Sex Shop". That shop wasn't our place, but we sent Kerry in on a reconnaissance mission. The type of shop we sought was there, but he couldn't see a name. We dithered for a moment, and then I went marching down there with my money belt full of US dollars.
I saw the name of the business and walked into the room. To add to the sketchiness of the scene, these places are called "cuevas" (caves). I felt quite invisible. No one looked at me. No one made eye contact. People just stood or sat, in silence, waiting. One fellow was in the corner visiting with a worker, but no one else was. I figured I was in the right spot when the guy standing at the tall desk at the door handed a fellow a whole lot of cash. No one moved or talked. I figured the guy had been sent to get more pesos.
While waiting I felt as though I were in an awkward modern piece of theatre where the actors sit or stand uncomfortably in a room in silence for many minutes. No one even looked around; they just all looked down.
Quite a while later the guy returned with bulging pockets, and a whole lot of pesos. Then the line started to move.
At my turn I went up to the counter. Said "hola" and set my money on the counter. He punched the amount into his calculator, gave me an exchange of 15.1 and showed me how many pesos I'd get. He counted out the money. Handed it to me. Told me to count it. Transaction done. Mission accomplished. Yeah for me! I felt like a badass who'd pulled off a huge heist.
Now, while I was waiting in the shop this whole time, Kerry hanging out on the street with the kids, waiting for me, wondering what had happened to me. But good for Kerry, he was patient and calm.
We changed money again today at our cueva.
Again, the place remained cloaked in silence. No talking. No visiting. I handed the guy my money and got thousands of pesos in return at a rate of 15.5 pesos. The 100 peso bills are wrapped in bundles in 10,000 pesos. I "counted" the pesos, but sort of lost track. Though I've read that the seller gets into way more trouble than the tourist, I was still a little nervous being there and decided I could live with any mistake the counter of pesos had made and left. (He hadn't made a mistake.)
I really do feel like I'm in a spy movie, or even a mob movie, but this is how life works here. And let's be honest, I'll take an exchange of 15.5 over 9 any day.