Buenos Aires – How to use your U.S. dollars to capitalize on Argentina’s black market cash exchange

BA has the feel of a European city and the prices to match.   It was the most modern city I visited in South America and has a black market cash exchange that can actually work in your favor if you are carrying U.S. dollars, Euros, or British Pounds.

El Obelisco in Plaza de Repulica

El Obelisco in Plaza de Repulica

My first day in Buenos Aires I took advantage of all the U.S. dollars I had withdrawn in Bolivia by cashing in on Argentina’s black, or “dollar blue”, market.

Calle Florida, the famous black market cash exchange street

Calle Florida, the famous black market cash exchange street

Every 25 meters along Florida Street you can hear a singsong phrase thrown in your direction in a discreet manner. “Cambio cambio cambio….Cambio cambio cambio….”

And this is how Buenos’ market black and blue market begins.  Wandering closer to one of the shifty people shouting “cambio” at you initiates a conversation that begins with “Dólar or Euro?”

I would always answer “dólar”, and they would respond by asking me how many dollars I wanted to sell.  I had brought 400 U.S. dollars from Bolivia to sell in Argentina.  The more you are willing to sell, and the bigger the bills you have (100s are better than 20s are better than 5s), the higher black market exchange rate you can get.  So I would tell them I had 3 one hundred dollar bills and 5 twenties.

The person would then respond with a number (6.5) representing the number of Argentine pesos they would give me for each of my dollars.

Their number would always be low – I had done my research before coming to Calle Florida and knew what the black market rate was on that day (7.2).  I would counter with a number significantly higher number (7.8) than the going rate and watch them laugh and tell me that I was crazy.  Not crazy, just part of the game you need to play.  With some of these folks the negotiation would stop here and I would walk away.

Eventually I found someone willing to play the game through to its logical conclusion – me getting the going rate I wanted (7.2).  Then we proceeded to the next step.

The man I had made a deal with led me into what seemed to be a deserted building, a former mall or market that had seen better days.  I was not too worried about the less-than-safe-feeling location because I was accompanied by Jelena, who I was going to give part of my “spoils” because she had recently been robbed of her cash and bank cards. Jelena, an expert in martial arts, wasn’t going to let us (or me) get robbed again.

From there we were led into a small room where an old, grey haired man was sitting.  He was wearing a pair of spectacles and definitely looked the part of black market money changer.  I was in a “cueva”, an illegal money exchange office.

I showed the old man the dollars I had brought but before I was going to hand it over, I requested to inspect the pesos he would be giving me in exchange.

His “street man” told him the rate we had negotiated and the old man counted out 400 x (7.2) = 2,880 Argentine pesos and allowed Jelena and I to inspect each of the bills I would be receiving.  I had done some research on how to spot counterfeit bills – a list of five things to check – and Jelena and I proceeded to run through this checklist with each of the bills we had been handed.

Eventually we determined we were not getting conned and the transaction was done. I handed over my 400 U.S. dollars and Jelena and I walked out with our pesos, 480 Pesos ($70) more than I would have received at an Argentine bank exchanging my U.S. dollars at the official rate (somewhere around 6 at that point).

After taking care of our money business Jelena showed me around the city, having already spent one day there herself while she dealt with getting a new passport and bank card.

Casa Rosada

We made our first stop at Casa Rosada (the “Pink House”), the presidential palace where popular leader “Evita” would greet crowds during the 1940s.

María Eva “Evita” Duarte Perón was the wife of populist Argentine president Juan Perón during the 1940’s and 1950’s. She was a very popular figure in Argentina’s history.

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Along with Eva’s portrait, Casa Rosada has some other famous figures hanging in its halls, among them Ernest “Che” Guevara.

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Born in Argentina and ending up in Bolivia, Che is most well known for his role in the Cuban Revolution.  His younger years spent traveling in Argentina and Bolivia on a motorcycle helped shape his revolutionary views and were fictionalized in a book and movie, “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

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