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.
ATMs 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?
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. We 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!
However, 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.