January 10, 2015
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
Narrated Audio Blog
Entering Argentina meant returning to a country with a black market exchange rate significantly different to the government official rate. We had learned a lot from our experience with parallel rates in Venezuela so there were no feelings of apprehension this time and we did our research online to find out what we should be getting.
At the time, the official rate was ARG$8.5 to US$1. Research online and chatting to travelers indicated a good black market rate was ARG$13.5 to US$1. To be able to change money on the black market you have to have all the US dollars you need before entering the country. Paraguay has banks with ATM's where you can withdraw US dollars but only in lump sums of $300, every time charging a 6% transaction fee, ouch!! We'd also heard something similar about Uruguay which was our Plan B if we had difficulties in Paraguay.
We first crossed in to Argentina from the Paraguay border near Asuncion. The Cambio's at the border were all working together and wouldn't negotiate which forced us to accept a much-reduced rate of AR$12 to US$1. Anything is better than the official rate (what you get when you to any ATM) so we changed only enough US dollars to get us to a Buenos Aires where we knew we'd be able to negotiate a better rate.
As luck would have it, we took a wrong turn on our way south and ended up taking the road that ran along the border with Uruguay. This mistake was a blessing in disguise. We didn't have enough US dollars for the amount of time we wanted to be in Argentina. Our plan had been to take the ferry to Montevideo, the capital of Urugauy, to withdraw funds but as we were so close to Uruguay now, it made more sense to cross by land now rather than be tied down to a ferry trip later on. In fact we never returned to Urugauy again. The one night we spent there was really expensive (food, accomodation and fuel) then when we looked in to the cost of the ferry to Montevideo for 2 people, 2 motorbikes and a dog it was hundreds of dollars both ways.
We crossed over the border into Uruguay near Salto, as it was an unplanned border crossing it was late in the afternoon and nearly dark when we finally pulled in to the nearest town in Uruguay so we found accommodation first. The banks were all closed so the three of us went for a walk through the town to get some dinner. It was a really pretty town with
After breakfast the next morning we went back to looking for banks. Because of the holidays the banks were all operating reduced hours and would not be open until 1pm. So we decided to ride south within Uruguay and exit the country at Paysandu after withdrawing money (assuming the hours would be the same elsewhere).
After visiting a few banks and asking about withdrawing US dollars, we were eventually pointed in the direction of Banco de la Republica. There was a long line leading into the bank, but closer investigation showed that this was for the ATM just inside the door, what we wanted was face to face contact to allow us to withdraw a large sum of money (rather than the US$300 available at the ATM).
Inside the bank was like going back in time. The building was from early last century, the tellers sat behind glass screens and behind them were offices housing the managers with large glass windows overlooking processing. The lines were long but moving quickly. Stuart lined up with everyone else and was served before long, the teller didn't speak English but using Google Translate on the mobile phone he understood what Stuart was after. Stuart was referred to another line. This line was much shorter and he was served more or less straight away. Again Google Translate was used (even though signs were posted everywhere prohibiting the use of mobile phones), the transaction was simple but needed to go through a number of people to get the required rubber stamp before the funds could be released. After about 20 minutes of standing back watching the paperwork make its way around the office from in-tray to in-tray, Stuart was called forward and the money handed over. Before going anywhere the money was counted, with everything in order The Pack Track could continue the journey south the Buenos Aires.
We arrived in Buenos Aires as night fell. The hostel we were staying at had not reserved a room for us, but were very apologetic and freed up a bigger room with en-suit for the same price. We were more then happy with this, but to make sure there was no hard feeling they gave us a liter bottle of beer. We grabbed a quick dinner in one of the many restaurants nearby and got our heads down ready for a big day to follow.
The next day we made it our priority to change money and so headed to Florida St. We'd been told to change a little to start with and ask around. We knew US$100 would last us for the day and so started with that. We took the first offer of 13:1 which would allowed us to get a coffee and see a few things while asking around some more. We'd been told that 13.7:1 was achievable so for large amounts this was our target.
We set our target high, asking for 14:1 to test the water. Most people laughed at us and that was fine, but we had time. Eventually a lady offered 13.8 and we were a little shocked but said yes we'll change $2k please. We went into a small office and told no dogs, so Weeti (our security dog) and Janell had to wait outside. Stuart went up alone. The lady spoke to a man inside the office and discussed the rate, he clearly wasn't happy. The lady returned and said he wouldn't take any less then 13.75, Stuart wasn't happy that the agreed price had changed but it was still better then anything else offered. So we agreed. Stuart went to the counter and handed over the money, he watched very closely as the money was being counted. As the man counted, Stuart clearly saw a $100 note being dropped under the table and when he finished he said he only had $1900 and started to calculate the Argentine Peso's based on that amount. Stuart quickly accused the man of throwing the money on the floor but couldn't get into the cubicle to prove anything. There were other people in the room now waiting for their turn to change money and Stuart was starting to make a scene, the man counted again and apologising saying it was all there, but clearly this was not true as he did not retrieve the money he had dropped and just wanted to calm the situation before he lost potential business. Stuart was told to wait as there was not enough Peso's present in the office and so he took a seat. After a long wait the man came out and said he could not change the money and handed back a pile of money. Stuart counted it to make sure it was all present, the notes were not the same that he had initially handed over but the amount was correct. He counted twice just to make sure and then left. On the way out, the lady took him to another changer, but only offered 13.65. Being annoyed at being brought in on false pretense, he refused.
Once back on the street and together again, we continued to ask. The initial lady caught up with us very quickly and said there was another way. She said to follow her and she could get 13.7, just 2 blocks away. After walking about 7 blocks we finally came to a bank, we were told that only Argentine citizens could change money here and if we gave her friend the $2,000 they would change the money and come straight out. We said no, we would not hand over that kind of money on trust. They offered their phones and bags as insurance but we still were not happy and rather then trust this lady who had been so dishonest on a number of occasions that morning we just walked away.
Eventually we accepted a rate of 13.65 in a safe environment (Weeti allowed) and continued our exploration of the city.
On the day we left Buenos Aires we decided to change some more money, unfortunately it was a Saturday, and we had been told that the rate always dropped over the weekend since no one could predict what would happen with the US dollar come Monday morning. The difference was more than we had expected and we changed at 13.35 after some negotiating. This was still much better then waiting around until Monday so we made the change and started the next leg of our journey, the ride to Ushuaia.
Note: every .05:1 is AR$50 per US$1000, that doesn't seem like much but it can be enough for dinner for one person (or almost two, we paid AR$55 for a pizza in Buenos Aires). It just depends on how much your time is worth and how realistic it is that you can get a better rate. There were plenty of people that day changing large sums of money at 13:1, they would have been very well looked after and not cheated I'm sure.
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