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Inflation and the Blue Dollar: How much does it really cost to travel in Argentina?

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We often say, half-jokingly, “We make mistakes so you don’t have to.” This is a story about a major travel mistake we made that, had we been better prepared, we could have saved thousands of dollars.

To be fair, we did research, but because we were going to spend the firest six weeks in Buenos Aires, there were some things we left for after our arrival. We read fellow travel blogs about trips taken in 2010 and 2011, and relied on an older version of the Lonely Planet. The latest version of Lonely Planet South America on a shoestring has only just been published after over three years. So much has changed in that time.

Prices seemed low, more comparable to Central America than Europe or the United States. Accommodation seemed to fit in the range of US$30 a night for a private room, overnight buses around US$70 and meals at restaurants around US$5 – $7.

Our first mistake was thinking that currency exchange information from 2010 or 2011 would be correct in 2013. With inflation currently running at 25 per cent, prices aren’t even the same month to month, let alone from last year.

The second lesson we learned was that the official US Dollar – Argentine Peso rate that you get withdrawing cash at ATMs and banks is worth half the Blue Dollar rate, a parallel currency exchange that is unofficial and technically illegal.

Blue Dollar rate vs. official Dollar rate

The biggest travel mistake we have ever made was not bringing cash in US dollars. At the time, we had been housesitting in Costa Rica and then flew to Buenos Aires via Mexico, and if we had just gotten some US Dollars before traveling to Argentina, we could have saved an incredible percentage of our overall spending.

Blue Dollar ArgentinaATMs in Argentina limit withdrawals to 1000 pesos, which at the official exchange rate of (around) 5 pesos to the US$1, was US$200. Due to the high prices, we had to withdraw very often, and pay the US$4 ATM fee on top every time. (Had we opened a Charles Schwab account before our time in Argentina, we would have had all those $4 reimbursed at the end of every month. Yet another lesson learned.)

Note: Citibank allows up to ARS3000 pesos, three times the usual ARS1000 peso limit. However, even though Jess has a Citibank account, we could never withdraw from these banks despite several attempts.

The peso, and the entire Argentine economy, is extremely unstable. Argentina has a history of financial crashes and when the last crash happened in 2002, US Dollars kept in bank accounts were simply converted into Pesos (at much lower value). In 2011 the government of Argentina made it impossible to buy US Dollars at all in an attempt to keep their own currency afloat. But this doesn’t stop the flow of US Dollars, it just relegated dollars to an unofficial black market, or parallel economy, which is referred to as the Blue Dollar Rate.

Here’s where we could have saved loads of cash

At this point it should go without saying that Argentines don’t trust their own currency. They are willing to buy dollars at a weaker rate just to have them and most people stuff them in suitcases or boxes under the bed. This is better for them than having pesos even though they lose a big chunk buying dollars on the black market. For foreigners traveling with dollars to Argentina, however, this is a great advantage and a way to cut costs in half.

While we were in the country in late 2012 / early 2013, the official rate was 5 pesos to $1 and the Blue Dollar Rate was 7-8 pesos per $1. With inflation running at 25 percent, the current Blue Dollar rate is now up to 10 Pesos per $1. This frustrating number (for Argentines looking to secure their net worth in dollars) is now even referred to as the Dollar Messi, after Argentina’s current top soccer player Lionel Messi, who wears the number 10 jersey.

What does this difference look like in actual numbers?

Argentine PesosThis is where things get really painful for us to look back on. We did not start taking advantage of the Blue Dollar rate at all until the third time we entered the country.

The total amount we spent in Argentina comes up to 44,018 Argentine Pesos. In US Dollars, that is $8,910 (at the official exchange rate of around 5.0 we got during our stay). This is roughly $3,000 per month for the two of us, the same amount we would spend traveling through the US or Western Europe.

Had we gotten the Blue Dollar rate, we would have spent roughly US$6,290 at 7 Pesos or even US$5,500 at a rate of 8 Pesos to the Dollar. We essentially donated over $2,600+ to the government of Argentina.

If you are traveling to Argentina today, you can cut your expenses almost in half by exchanging your money at the Blue Dollar rate of 9-10 pesos per $1 instead of 5 pesos per $1 at the bank, plus you’ll save on all those ATM fees.

How to get the Blue dollar rate

Normally, we would never, ever recommend this, but… you could bring a giant stack of US Dollars, in cash, to Argentina. If you have this cash, what to do with it?

In Buenos Aires, you’ll have to find an ‘arbolito’, or little tree. These are the men with ‘green leaves’ or dollar bills, most of whom stand on Calle Florida and will take you to a ‘cueva’ (cave) to exchange your money. Sound shady? It is. These are illegal places, often looking like completely legit stores, in nearby shopping arcades.

A local Argentine friend told us to stay away from them since they often give the wrong change or even fake bills, but BA expats seem to use them. You’ll recognize them easily since they are yelling out “cambio, cambio” (exchange, exchange) constantly, especially when foreigners walk by. You can read more about the arbolitos and the underground dollar market in this Business Insider article.

Arbolito Alternative: Xoom

If you don’t want to travel with handfuls of cash and exchange them in caves with little trees or aren’t able to stock up on US dollars at your previous destination, there is another way to get Argentine Pesos at the Blue Dollar rate: Xoom, a digital money wiring service. xoom argentinaWe did not do this but we know many foreigners based in Argentina who use it. You sign up for Xoom online and wire money into the account from any bank account or even just a debit card and then pick it up in cash at one of their affiliated offices (in Buenos Aires, the most convenient located office is More Money at Libertad 1057). The only requirement for opening a Xoom account: you need a U.S address. A similar service for UK citizens is Azimo, and Exchange4Free offers a similar service for almost any nation in the world.

In order to pick up your Xoom cash, you need to show documents that prove you are the same person who wired the money. In other words, this isn’t a service for US residents (or people using a US address) to wire money to Argentine residents. This is a way to wire yourself cash. The small transaction fee Xoom charges is minimal and the service will end up saving you bundles of cash in the long run.

You can see their fees and exchange rate here. Apparently it takes only 30 minutes to wire the money, but in reality you should allow 24 hours for the transaction. If you are using Xoom in other places in Argentina, make sure these towns have a place where you can pick up the cash – not all cities have a Xoom affiliate.

Is the Blue Dollar rate legal?

With Blue Dollar caves and companies like Xoom, how illegal is this all, really? Even though the rate is technically illegal, it is official enough to be printed in Argentina’s major newspapers and websites. Some shops and restaurants put signs with the blue dollar rate they trade for on their door and windows. The Blue Dollar rate even has a Facebook Page with 20,000 likes and tweets the updated rate daily!

dolar blue twitterHowever, you can look up trustworthy exchange offices on websites like the Buenos Aires expat forum or ask the receptionist at your hotel, your taxi driver at the airport or the guy at the newsstand – they’ll most likely know where you can get the Blue Dollar rate or refer you to someone who knows someone.

Our daily budget: Official Dollar vs Blue Dollar 

Let’s talk numbers now. As I mentioned already above, we spent ARS 44,018 between the two of us, or US$8,910 at the official rate. We spent 80 days in Argentina, so our daily expenses were $111.40 together, or $55.70 per person.

Now, let’s say you exchange your money at the Blue Dollar rate (at 9 Pesos per Dollar). You can travel Argentina right now, spending the exact same amount of pesos as we did, for $30.57 per person per day, or $61.14 per couple. During the six months we spent in and out of Argentina (we traveled Chile and Uruguay in between), inflation was tangible – you could actually see it happening. We watched restaurants change their prices within a few months and prices of products in the supermarket had risen by a few pesos or more after our two months in Chile.

Our actual travel expenses

There are quite big differences in prices depending on where in Argentina you’re traveling. We found the northwestern part of the country (around Salta) to be considerably cheaper than Buenos Aires, Iguazu, Patagonia or the Lake District (around Bariloche).

Here is what we spent on average for transportation, accommodation, food and entertainment. The prices will be in pesos, because as you have seen the dollar rate is completely relative.andesmar bus argentinaTransportation

We flew only once in Argentina despite the great distances we covered. That is because flights were double or more the cost of overnight buses. The most expensive bus we took was the overnight bus from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile at ARS820 ($170 roughly) per person for a First Class seat. All other overnight buses were around ARS600 for Second Class. Expect to pay around ARS100 more for a 1st class seat.

Buses within Buenos Aires were ARS4. A taxi from the airport was ARS200, a direct shuttle bus to the city center was ARS85.

Accommodation

On average, we spent around ARS250 (officially, that would be US$50) for a double room in a hostel. In some places, we paid much less (ARS180 in Tilcara, northern Argentina), in popular places like Patagonia and Ushuaia we paid up to ARS325 for fairly basic accommodation.

Food

The most we spent for dinner at a restaurant was ARS240 for the two of us, and we often paid around ARS200 in BA. We usually tried to stay under ARS150 for both of us, and in cheaper places we were able to eat out for around ARS60 per person.

Set lunches and lunch buffets were much cheaper, with lunches (including a starter and a drink) for ARS45-60 and the vegetarian takeaway buffet lunches we went to in Buenos Aires frequently were usually around ARS50 for the two of us.

When we cooked for ourselves, we never spent more than ARS100 in the supermarket for fresh groceries and wine, but we usually managed to buy some veggies for a soup or pasta for under ARS50.

When picking up pastries at the bakery, our bill ranged from ARS6 for a couple of medialunas to $30 for several sweets for the two of us.

Coffee was usually around ARS15, or ARS25 for a café con leche with three medialunas (coffee with milk & three Argentine pastries) in Buenos Aires.

cafe con leche y medialunasWine was available for ARS15 (the cheapest bottles), and good wine was around ARS40.

A large bottle of beer in a restaurant (usually Quilmes, the national brand) was between ARS30-40 in Buenos Aires, and around ARS15 in the supermarket.

Entertainment / Activities

We visited national parks, took some tours and a cooking class, visited several museums and went on some major hikes during our travels through Argentina, and prices varied greatly. The most expensive thing we did was visiting Iguazu Falls (which was well worth it) and the cheapest activity were the museums in Buenos Aires which were usually around ARS15.

Touring the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia was ARS300 per person, visiting Perito Moreno Glacier was ARS310 per person (transportation, boat ride and National Park entrance fee), Nahuel Huapi National Park was ARS50 and our guided tour of the Quebrada De Las Conchas was ARS100 per person. We splurged on an empanada cooking class in Buenos Aires (US$55) and went on a graffiti tour there ($25), but most of the things you shouldn’t miss in Buenos Aires are actually free.

Conclusion

Our time in Argentina cost us more than we had expected, but it can be done on the cheap once again. Use Xoom, or if you choose to, visit the ‘arbolitos’. See if you can exchange directly with your hostel/hotel or with local friends who will likely give you the blue dollar rate. And if you do use an ATM, make sure to have an account that reimburses all international ATM fees.

dani and jess at the border

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29 Comments

  1. This is excellent advice for people either about to travel in Argentina or those already there! Sam and I made the same mistake and our time in Patagonia cost us a small fortune. Luckily we learnt from an America couple whilst in Chile, who advised us how to change our Chilean Pesos into US Dollars and taught us how to ensure the Dollars were genuine. On returning to Argentina prices were now reasonable, though in our 6 weeks in Buenos Aires the price of a Starbucks coffee rose twice. I knew several people who successfully sent themselves money. My small piece of advice would be not to change money on Calle Florida as money is notoriously fake but ask a local for a recommendation. We were recommended a jewellery shop!
    Zab recently posted..From Bean to Bar: Learning to Make Chocolate in Lima

    1. You guys definitely were a huge influence on us and we couldn’t be more thankful for the advice to take some cash back into Argentina after our detour through Uruguay! That made the third ‘installment’ of our Argentina trip soooo much cheaper. I would love to go back now and get 10 Pesos per Dollar 🙂 And isn’t it crazy how fast prices were rising?! Starbucks was the first place where we noticed it, too.

    2. You are a little out reality, first are a Country of corruption, and are big, much who here, also a tourist are a big deal for many. I was born and live there until to 1979, and back in 2000, and real surprise in over 20 years, a crime was 1000% more high, and if you not talk well Spanish with no accent, you be will need watch over shoulder 24-7 and not trust nothing, in especial woman. Nothing happening to me, I no have any accent when speak Spanish and I know a City to well. After liberals get in power all became much more worse, crime and Police, who must be to carefull, because are FED and not respect nothing, Police are more danger who criminals.Fake money? Police are involve, if you became victim crime, not trust Police, I can told you a lot history about COP there, but not now.

  2. Thanks so much for this post, I’m heading to Argentina in six weeks as the start of a six month trip through Latin America. I’ve been trying to figure out the best option for paying for things and exchanging money, particularly as I’m doing a Spanish course when I arrive.

    I’ll be bookmarking this for future reference!

    1. Glad to hear that this post is helpful for you, Kerry! The perfect time to head to Argentina, btw, just in time for the perfect spring weather 🙂

  3. Great post! For what it’s worth, on a trip to BA in August I was told that the government is cracking down on the blue market. Apparently they are enforcing a law which provides for the seizure of the dollars being exchanged if you’re caught (the exchanger also can have his/her business shut down and/or go to jail), although it’s worth adding that this is what I was told and not something I’ve looked into beyond that. To people looking to take advantage of the rate despite this, I’d suggest getting a recommendation from the expat forum you linked or from a local rather than just heading down to Calle Florida as before.
    Emily in Chile recently posted..Why I like Athens

    1. Thanks, Emily! I actually came across an article about the closing of the Casa de Cambio in Salta recently – it seems like they are definitely trying to crack down the Blue Market. That exchange office in Salta looked like any other offical exchange office and was right on the central plaza – it seemed so weird how official it looked but still offered the Blue Dollar rate. We have always gotten great recommendations from the hostels we stayed at or couchsurfing hosts, and we’d recommend a personal recommendation over the arbolitos, too.

  4. I went to Argentina in 2008 and it was quite pricey back then, but I think prices have rocketed even more in the past few years. I have never heard of the blue dollar rate, but I am shocked how much money it can actually save you. Thanks for pointing this out, as I might head to Argentina again next year.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..My Cambodia homestay experience

    1. Tammy – I hope you’ll get to take advantage of the great current rate should you head to Argentina next year. We never thought about how much money MORE we spent until I finally sat down and did the math.. and then cried a little bit. 😉

  5. Thanks for sharing, excellent advice. Sorry it had to come at such a high cost. Being from Central Europe, where exchanging money on the street burned plenty of people not so long ago, I will probably avoid the arbolitos. But Xoom sounds like a great alternative, will check it out for the upcoming trip (March ’14).

    Safe travels!
    Peter Korchnak | Where Is Your Toothbrush? recently posted..Finding travel bliss in the tourist vortex of Santorini, Part 2

  6. I used a service that was very safe for us and gave me much better rate than dolarblue.net is call exchangeinargentina.com the good part is that they ship the money to your hotel so you dont have to go looking for a cave or “cueva” i stay at plaza hotel and recieve the pesos in the lobby from a guy of the company is somebody need advice let me know i was to concern of counterfit bills in argentina but this person was very polite and serious

  7. Oh man.. the best a tourist can do it’s to come to Argentina right now.

    Seems that any currency it’s stronger than Argentinean Peso.

    I’ve been living here in Buenos Aires since 2009 and i find really cheap traveling with dollars here.
    miguel recently posted..Hostel in Buenos Aires

    1. But be to care full, not all show gold are gold in reality. I was born and live for 29 yeas, sure are a nice Country, but so much corruption from liberals and crime, Police Federal Argentine are much more danger who criminals and deep corrupt, here with all corruption Police are better, never believe or get friend any CP there. Out side Buenos Aires and in any State are much worse, I have two brother in Law was COP in Santiago del Estero, but is retire now. Also get good health insurance, you be will need. No carry any weapon, are illegal and be will go in jail, who I not recommend that, remember are not USA.

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