It’s a Buenos Aires black market money exchange. We meet the guy on calle Florida… the pedestrian walkway through the center of the commercial district. There are dozens if not hundreds to choose from. They swarm the streets shouting “cambio” as if they are engaged in a perfectly legal enterprise like selling hotdogs or something. So how do you choose a money changer? We pick one at random who looks honest enough. He quotes us a rate of 11.0 to 1 which is pretty good and he leads us through some buildings to some kind of mini mall. There is a closed door and a secret knock. The door opens and we are shuffled inside. It feels a little dodgy. But there are other people in there doing the same thing; changing money. So it must be okay.
Street hustler man leaves us at the doorway. Money changer man is a whole different dude. He greets us with a firm hand shake and an overly friendly smile. He tells me the rate is 10.5 to 1. “That’s not what he said on the street,” I say.
“That’s the rate I pay here .” He responds.
Oh well, it’s still way better than the 7.2 bank rate so I’m going to do it. I hand over 400 US dollars and wait a minute or so until he hands me a big wad of Argentinian pesos. I look at each bill individually in the light and then hand it to Ms. B. as I count it. The big danger on the black market is counterfeit bills so I’m checking each one for the hidden holograph in the left hand corner. But they all seem real. No fakes here. 3200 pesos of real deal Argentinian money…
Wait a second! Didn’t I give him 400 US dollars? This is only change for 300. Is he trying to rip me off?
My last stop in Paraguay is the city of Encarnacion. Much to my surprise, I happen to arrive on the busiest weekend of the year. Tomorrow is Carnaval and Encarnacion is the epicenter of Carnaval celebrations for the entire region so every room in town is booked, double booked and triple booked. I do manage to find a dorm bed though and it somehow seems appropriate to finish my tour of Paraguay at the biggest party of the year.
I don’t really join the party though because the Encarnacion Carnaval celebration is not really my scene. They have the parade in a stadium instead of on the street. You have to buy tickets and sit in a seat. When spontaneity gets commercialized I find it less joyful. Thankfully, there’s a sub party in the surrounding streets and on the nearby beach. Yeah, that’s right, I should probably mention the beach. Four years ago, there was no beach in Encarnacion. But in another remarkable display of human engineering, they built a beach on the side of the river. Giant barges dredged the sand from the center of the river and dragged it ashore. A massive jetty constructed out of boulders holds the sand in place and whammo… instant beach. You have to understand. This is Paraguay; a land locked country; a beach on a river is the only beach they can get. So they make the most of it. They now have a booming beach economy that arose out of nothingness. There are lots of brand new hotels and bars and restaurants and souvenir shops and beach attire outlets. I’m not sure how they organized the whole thing in terms of financing, community approval and legal implementation. No doubt it was a typically capitalist process whereby the public pays and a few greedy individuals profit. Somehow it’s probably connected to the big dam at Itaipu. But I don’t know. I can only observe the result. I see a successful beach economy with lots of employed people and lots of customers smiling and having fun. This year’s Carnaval is the crowning achievement celebrating the success of a development plan that worked. So it is possible. There are, of course, some environmental and cultural issues to consider but I am still intrigued by the concept. How do you create an environment for a modern economy to thrive?
Before crossing the border into Argentina, I have to deal with some money issues. The so-called international investors (i.e. the one percent) is putting the squeeze on Argentina because they aren’t too keen on Argentina’s social spending. Accordingly, the levers of the international economic system are presently being manipulated to undermine the value of Argentina’s money. For me this means that significant bargains are available if I take advantage of the opportunities. In other words, if I try to get money from a bank machine or bank or through official legal channels within the borders of Argentina, I will only get about seven pesos for each dollar. If, however, I can access the international banking system, I can get about eleven pesos for a dollar. For this reason, there is a rather thriving black market in Argentina for US dollars.
Do I dare to travel off the grid? That is what the game is all about for budget travel in Argentina. If you play by the rules… use the system… the secure, modern, efficient, computerized system, you lose a good 30 or 40 percent on every transaction and everything is quite expensive. If, however, you forgo the machine and travel the old fashion way, with cash, the liquid kind, the tradeable kind, traveling in Argentina is rather cheap. Yeah sure, there are a few more risks involved. But those risks kind of make it exciting, thrilling…. adventurish.
I can carry up to 1800 US in my money belt. That should be enough for six weeks of good living in Argentina. I only have 1500 at the moment but a bank machine in Encarnacion will give US dollars so I go there to stock up. Unfortunately, the 300 US it gives me is in twenty dollar bills that won’t fit in my money belt. Oh well, I trade the whole 300 into Argentinian pesos at the nearby Casa de cambio where I can still get the international rate of 11.3.
I cross over the bridge from Encarnacion to Posadas on a local bus but then catch the long distance overnight sleeper bus south to Buenos Aires. I’m a day early for meeting Ms. B. at the apartment we have reserved so I head to San Telmo looking for a one night crash pad. It’s not hard to find one. The Hotel Bolivar has decent rooms in an awesome old building for only 150 argentine pesos for a single. That is less than 15 bucks if you trade in cash though its more than 20 on the machine. I love living in the alternative economy.
The next morning, I go to get the keys for the apartment that Ms. B. and I booked over the Internet. We paid a week in advance at 40 US per night for a studio apartment in the center of San Telmo. If I had done my research and understood the whole currency thing in advance we would not have used any service to book a room over the Internet. It’s important to understand this about traveling in Argentina. Every time you use the Internet, you add 30 or 40 percent to the cost because you have to pay in dollars at the Argentinian rate. If you look around the San Telmo neighborhood, it’s fairly easy to find a one bedroom for two people for 250 to 300 pesos a night. At the black market exchange rate, that’s 25 dollars… not bad. At the legal rate…. that’s 40 which is not so good. If you look on line, the cheapest two person room you can find is 40 US; like we paid. I’m not saying that our little studio apartment in central San Telmo was bad. But it was a 25 dollar apartment that we paid 40 bucks for. At the end of the week, we switch to the hotel Bolivar and start paying in pesos (260 pesos for a double). The quality of our accommodation remains about the same but we save a good 40 percent on the transaction.
The same principle applies to everything else. The lovely Ms. B. arrives in Buenos Aires the day after me and we proceed to live the good life. It’s amazing the difference 35 percent can make. Dinner for two in a fancy restaurant with a bottle of wine costs 300 pesos. If we pay with our visa card at the official rate that’s fifty bucks and budget bursting. If, however, I use the cash I got on the black market, it’s less than thirty and we can afford it almost every night. So we check out some tango and eat lots of ice cream. We drink fine espresso in the cafes and have a bottle of wine with every meal. I’m not wealthy… no way, no how. But black market money in Buenos Aires sort of makes feel like I am.
The hard part is, of course, accessing the black market money. The smart thing is to ask at your hotel or go through someone you know and trust. It is technically illegal. There’s a lot of game involved, a fluctuating rate and an abundance of unscrupulous characters. The more time you spend in Argentina, the easier it gets. But Ms. B. and I have just arrived and we don’t know anyone. The guy who rented us the apartment is no help. So we are on our own. We have to find a black market money man the old fashion way… we have to look around.
Truthfully, it’s a bit like buying weed. Technically, it’s illegal but it certainly isn’t immoral. It’s active participation in the underground alternative economy. There’s no government to protect you and no rules to follow. You are just trading some of what you got for some of what he’s got. You got green pieces of paper and he’s got blue. How many blue ones you give me for my green ones?
In Buenos Aires, the place to go for these transactions is the pedestrian walkway of calle Florida in the center of the commercial district. Ms. B. and I walk the entire length of the street trying to decide who we should trust. They shout out “cambio” as we walk by and we glance at them out of the corners of our eyes. They come in all shapes and sizes; businessmen money changers, punk rock money changers, old lady money changers, sexy woman money changers and teenage hoodlum money changers. There are at least a hundred options and we have to decide on one. I personally don’t trust the guys in suits while Ms. B. tends to shy away from the unkempt and rough looking characters. We’re looking for someone who just gives off the right sort of vibe. Finally, we agree on a younger clean cut guy in a baseball cap who seems easy going. He quotes me a rate of 11.0 to 1 and leads us to a secure location.
What happens next is a bit confusing. Ms. B. thinks it was an honest mistake or a misinterpretation on my part. I, however, think the guy tried to pull a fast one on me. I give the guy 400 US dollars and he gives me a wad of Argentine pesos. I count the pesos one at a time and look at them in the light before handing them to Ms. B.. The whole time I go through this process, money changer man says nothing about the amount he gave me. He just stands there smiling watching me count. When I finish counting and I realize I am a thousand pesos or a hundred dollars short, I question politely, “what about the other hundred?”
“Oh yes,” he says, “I have to get that from the back room.” He steps away, goes into another room and comes back with the other 1000 pesos.
I guess it’s possible that money changer man intended to give me the other thousand pesos all along and he was only politely waiting for me to finish counting what he already gave me. But somehow, I don’t think so. He was hoping I’d get confused by my concern for counterfeits and walk away without realizing there was a hundred dollars worth missing.
Oh well, you can’t blame a guy for trying or maybe it was an innocent accident. It doesn’t matter. We successfully completed our black market transaction and got a full 10.5 to the dollar for our 400 dollars. We now have enough money for another week of good living here in Buenos Aires.
Don’t forget to buy my novel. It’s only 2.99 for the ebook and you don’t even have to use the black market. You can buy it right here: