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

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My first day in Buenos Aires I took advantage of all the U.S. dollars I had withdrawn in Bolivia by cashing in on Argentina’s black, or “dollar blue”, market.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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Córdoba – An electronoics heist using only a gallon of yogurt, the art of Argentine asado, homemade wine, mate and Fernet Branca, Argentina’s drinks of choice

Córdoba – An electronoics heist using only a gallon of yogurt, the art of Argentine asado, homemade wine, mate and Fernet Branca, Argentina’s drinks of choice

I enjoyed the nicest bus ride I’ve ever experienced on an overnight coach from Jujuy to Córdoba.

It was the equivalent of first class plane ride but on a bus.   We were served a nice dinner with some fine Argentine vino, we had on demand movies, and the best part of all — the seats reclined fully, into beds.

The cost was 600 Argentine pesos or around $90 USD, but it beat the heck out of the sweat room buses with non-functioning bathrooms in Boliva.

I did not see many “sights” in Córdoba, nor are there many sights to see, but I did enjoy the best 4 days of my time spent in Argentina there.

That was because of my genial and generous host, José Atea, a Córdoban who I’d met and traveled with for two weeks in Boliva.

José prepares some asado.  I ate a different type of grilled meat every day I spent in Córdoba and even that, José assured me, was less than average.

José prepares some very basic asado. I ate a different type of grilled meat every day I spent in Córdoba and even that, José assured me, was less than average.

José is an architect and used to spend part of his time teaching at the University of Córdoba.  He was in the process of quitting his job while he was there.

José’s school

José’s school

I was in Córdoba right after Argentina’s Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, a national holiday which commemorates the victim’s of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”  The school had several posters for the holiday.

The Dirty War was a period of state terrorism in Argentina against political dissidents, with the military taking action against anyone believed to be associated with socialism.  Victims of the violence included an estimated 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, including trade unionists, , journalists, and students, many of whom were studying at the University of Córdoba.

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30,000 red roses are reborn in every struggle for the homeland

Many of the victims were just made to “disappear” and were therefore given the name “the disappeared.”  The government justified its tactics as part of a war against a revolutionary insurrection waged by “subversive terrorists.”

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Black silhouette figures to represent “the disappeared”, many of them students of this University.

Many of “the disappeared” were children – lost orphan’s stolen from their captured mothers who had been accused of being left-wing dissident socialists.

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Because history is not only in books, its also in the streets and schools. For this, we all march.

Some of these mothers were pregnant when captured and had their babies stolen from them at birth.  According to human-rights groups, as many as five hundred newborns and young children were taken from disappeared parents and handed over – their identities erased – to childless military and police couples.

The time I spent in Córdoba also happened to be during Semana Santa, a week which carried more than usual significance for most Córdobans. The recently appointed Pope Francis, is the first Jesuit pope, the first Latin American pope, and a guy who spent time as a spiritual director to the Jesuit community in Córdoba.

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Many of the Jesuit churches in Córdoba were going above and beyond the call of duty in their celebrations of Semana Santa.

My first night in Córdoba I helped José and his friends bottle some of the wine they had been making.

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José and his friends buy huge quantities of red and white grapes from nearby vineyards and make the wine themselves, first by crushing the grapes in enormous jugs and letting the crushed grapes sit and ferment with a light towel covering the vessels.

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When the fermentation process is complete the wine is ready to be drained into a long row of empty plastic jugs.

The boys had run the math on the situation and with the cost of the grapes and the bottles, they would end up paying much less per liter of wine than they would at the storePlus, you get to say “yeah, this is the wine I made!”

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Getting the wine out of the vessels took more than simple draining – we all took turns smashing down the grapes in order to squeeze out every last drop into the green jugs.

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In the end the guys only filled just over half of their green jugs.  They were disappointed with the production because they told me that last year, with the same amount of grapes, they had filled all the jugs.  But still a ton of homemade wine, nothing to be upset about.

The next day José and I were joined by Jelena, a Bosnian-born Dutch girl we had traveled with in Bolivia.

Jelena and José enjoy a tasty pizza-esque spinach pie prepared by José

Jelena and José enjoy a tasty pizza-esque spinach pie prepared by José

We spent most of the next two days drinking mate…

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… walking around the parks in and around Córdoba.

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playing “Truco”, an addictive and popular trump-calling card game played in Argentina and Brazil (Jose usually won)

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…and usually combination of those three activities.

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As far as I could tell by looking around, this was not that different than what most Córdobans were doing with their time.

Some natural pools near Córdoba

Some natural pools near Córdoba

Argentines seemed to have a good beat on just slowing things down and enjoying the now, more so than the previous South American countries I had traveled through.

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And for most Argentines, enjoying the now was usually accompanied by the slow and steady consumption of mate.

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In two of the three days we all spent together, the first 2-3 hours of the day were just spent drinking mate, talking, and playing Truco.

Its pretty hard to get stressed in that situation and for Jelena, it was just the reprieve she needed.

She had recently been victim to one of the most bizarre robbery/scams that I personally heard about in all of South America – her story begins on the next page.

El Pucará del Tilcara, La Garganta del Diablo, the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay, and the Pilgrimage  to Punta Corral

El Pucará del Tilcara, La Garganta del Diablo, the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay, and the Pilgrimage to Punta Corral

Tilcara is a bigger town than Humahuaca with a bit more to offer.

 South American towns love to carve their names into hillsides overlooking the town.  Austin and I had seen it in Cuzco and I saw it here again in Tilcara:  "Bienvenidos a Tilcara.”

South American towns love to carve their names into hillsides overlooking the town. Austin and I had seen it in Cuzco and I saw it here again in Tilcara: “Bienvenidos a Tilcara.”

My first day I hiked up the “Devil’s Throat”, aka La Garganta del Diablo.

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Forty-five minutes into the hike you can see why the locals call it the Devil’s Throat.

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The gorge was formed over thousands of years by the Huasamayo river but as the below video shows, the river is now just a trickle.


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From the top of the gorge you can hike upwards along the stream that is Rio Huasamayo.

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I did the hike with a guy from Uruguay who I had met at the trailhead, Mauricio Betran Garcia.

Mauricio blazes the trail across the stream

Mauricio blazes the trail across the stream

By the time I had arrived in Argentina my Spanish was as good as it got in all of South America.  I was able to carry on a conversation with Mauricio, solely in (basic) Spanish, for about three hours, mostly because Mauricio didn’t speak much english.

Mauricio snaps my pic in front of the waterfall at the top of el Garganta del Diablo

Mauricio snaps my pic in front of the waterfall at the top of la Garganta del Diablo

My ability to speak Argentinian Spanish, however, is a different story.

Cacti and blue sky were the themes of the day

Cacti and blue sky were the themes of the day

In Argentina “calle” (street) and “pollo” (chicken) are pronounced “Kai-shay” and “Po-sho” instead of “Kai-yay” and “Po-yo”, as in the rest of South America.  The double-L, which normally has a “Y” sound in spanish, has more of a “sh” sound in Argentina.

The silver bushes were sharp looking and sharp to the touch

The silver bushes were sharp looking and sharp to the touch

I guess the difference is comparable to english in the south of the United States vs. the north.  For instance, the five word sentence: “Its at the add line” (think an oil change) in the north of the U.S. is pronounced with only one word in the south, “Satadline!”, typically with a  mouthful of chew.

Mauricio and I passed by a herd of feeding goats on our way back to the town center

Mauricio and I passed by a herd of feeding goats on our way back to the town center

Thankfully Mauricio was from Uruguay so I didn’t have problems understanding him.

Mauricio and I’s topically varied conversation continued after our hike was over and on into dinner.

I had a bowl of “locro”, a delicious northwest Argentine stew made with lama meat.  Mauricio had about five empanadas.  Argentina’s empanadas are arguably the best in all of South America

I had a bowl of “locro”, a tasty northwest Argentine stew made with lama meat. Mauricio had about five empanadas. Argentina’s empanadas are arguably the best in all of South America

We talked about a lot of things but as I usually do, I steered the conversation towards the place that the person I’m talking with lives, in this case Uruguay, and its sociopolitical role within South America.

I had heard some interesting things about Montevideo and Uruguay from Matan Vax, my Bolivia travel partner for 3+ weeks. Matan had traveled in Uruguay right before he met me in Bolivia.

Humahuaca: El Cerro de Catorce Colores and excessive money changers in Villazón

Humahuaca: El Cerro de Catorce Colores and excessive money changers in Villazón

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping view I saw in all of South America – el “Cerro de Catorce Colores” (The Mountain with 14 Colors) in Argentina’s Humahuaca  – is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Bolivia’s Tupiza.  From Tupiza you can take a quick bus ride to Villazón, one of Bolivia’s towns that border Argentina.

I had already been to Villazón once after oversleeping a bus ride where I was supposed to get off at Tupiza.

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Most border towns have cash exchanges where you can exchange the currency of the country you are leaving for the country you are entering at a rate that is decidedly not in your favor.  Many cash exchanges also double as general stores (food and other goods) as a side business, and vice versa.

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The cash exchanges are more than willing to buy U.S. dollars, euros, and British pounds, currencies that have historically been relatively strong and stable.

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For whatever reason Villazón seemed to have more pure money changing stations (no business besides changing money) than any border town I’ve passed through in the world.  I can only speculate that this is because Villazón borders Argentina, a country where Argentine people are absolutely mad for any currency besides their own, in particular, the U.S. dollar.

Argentines lost faith in their own pesos after the government’s debt default in 2002 and since then, have headed to the streets to buy what they view as much better currencies to have in store, in case it happens again.  I will elaborate more on this in my blog post about Buenos Aires in a week or two but for now, just know that it behooves one to load up on U.S. dollars and/or euros before entering Argentina because you can sell them to people on the streets for better than the going rate (the only country in the world where you can do this).

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So to make a short story long, my educated guess is that there are more money changers in Villazón because people crossing the border into Argentina have better reason to change money (buying U.S. dollars with Bolivianos, e.g.) than, say, people entering Ecuador from Colombia.

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I had already loaded up on U.S. dollars to exchange in Argentina, so I bid adios to my favorite country in South America, Bolivia….

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…and said hello the final country I traveled in my South American trip, Argentina.

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Another couple hours from the Argentina border is a quaint town called Humahuaca.

The typical South Americann style cemetery -graves adorned with garlands of flowers -  in Humahuaca

The typical South American style cemetery – graves adorned with colorful garlands of flowers – in Humahuaca

Humahuaca is just 169 km from La Quica, Argentina’s town that borders Bolivia, making it a convenient first stop on my travels through Argentina.

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Humahuaca’s most eye catching structure is el Monumento a los Heroes de la Independencia.  This region had an important part to play in Argentina’s War of Independence.   At the time, Humahuaca was a crossroads, a strategic location on the road to the colony of Alto Peru (now Bolivia) because of its natural resources (in particular, silver – think Potosi).  At the time, these silver resources were far more important to the Spaniards than they were to Argentina.

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The giant panoramic sculpture is the work of Ernesto Soto Avendaño, built to pay homage to the Northern Argentine Army that fought 14 battles in Humahuaca during Argentina’s National Independence War.

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The Monument is made from an almost unbelievable 70 tons of bronze.

There is some dispute as to who the main man in the middle of the sculpture is.  Most believe the monument is meant to honor the Army in the north and that the man in the middle is Pedro Socompa, delivering news of Argentina’s freedom, which it earned in the early 19th Century.

Indigenous locals believe that the monument is meant to honor the indigenous people in the fight (Humahuaca and its locals successfully resisted 11 sieges put on by the Spanish Army) and that the strong armed fellow is Diego Viltipoco, an Omaguaca Indian Chief who helped Belgrano in the Independence Fight.

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Whoever the man in the middle is, Avendaño’s sculpture has images of people from both native and European descent, an accurate representation of Argentina’s beginnings.

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From the top of the staircase leading to the monument you can turn around and take in the small town.

Humahuaca’s central plaza reminded me a bit of State Street in Madison and the ped-mall in Iowa City, complete with hippies (Argentina has lots of hippies) selling mostly useless, arguably decorative trinkets made from hemp.

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One of the pieces of graffiti in Humahuaca featuring naked mother earth – cleverly stretching across the right angle of a wall – was some of the best I’d seen in South America, though it was not as good as the giant mural I saw in La Paz, which also featured naked mother earth.

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I had not come to Humahuaca for the graffiti, however.   I had come to see Serranías del Hornocal, a mountain with the most colors I had ever seen in my life.

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There were 14 colors to be precise, giving rise to the mountain’s nickname “Cerro de Catorce Colores.”  Its really surprising that this place isn’t more popular – it was one of the best views I had throughout all of South America and I was one of only 4 people there that afternoon.

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In what seemed like an optical illusion, certain parts of the top of Serranías del Hornocal seemed to be giving off a wispy colored smoke, as if the mountain itself was leaking the different colors of its peaks into the sky.

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I have seen more majestic peaks than this one but none so colorful, making the afternoon I spent up here one of my favorites in Argentina.