Casas de Cambio

November 27, 2014

Oh Argentina, so quirky yet totally lovable.
(interesting that the word ‘lovable’ autocorrected to ‘livable’, not once, but three times …. is the computer trying to tell me something?)

I’ve just done something totally illegal and yes, I am admitting to it and even writing about it. Don’t worry, I’m pretty confident I’m not going to get arrested for it. It is all part of the game you play while traveling (or living) in Argentina.

Before traveling to Argentina I knew there were ‘money issues’. I read several articles about the US dollar value in Argentina. I learned about the blue market and how to check the rate. I understood that there are two different rates in Argentina – the blue market and the official rate. Ok, so I understand that there are two, but WHY? WHY? WHY? Even after reading several articles that explained all the ins and outs of changing money and the different rates I still didn’t understand why.

I had a local explain it to me and here’s what I understood.

There is a shortage of US dollars in Argentina and the government is ‘protecting’ them (or hoarding them). This means that locals are not allowed to use US dollars. It is illegal. This is driving the value of the Argentinian dollar down in other countries, therefore it is not very valuable. It isn’t so bad if you live in Argentina, earn pesos and spend them, but as soon as you want to leave the country, your hard earned money is worthless. You are not allowed to earn US dollars. Your bank accounts have to only be in pesos. The government is very controlling and the Argentinians just want freedom to earn and spend money freely.

Because of this governmental control, the blue market has been created by locals so that Argentinians have access to US dollars, and therefore, ‘freedom’. The US dollar is in demand, therefore local ‘casas de cambio’ or ‘change houses’ will offer tourists a better rate than the banks. In turn, locals can get dollars to use as they wish, although at a higher price, but better than not at all. Or, they can go to one of the bordering countries (Uruguay is easiest and quickest for most) to take out USD from ATMs. Although illegal to operate a change house, it is generally understood that police turn a blind eye to this practice, at least for the time being.

What does this all mean for tourists?

When traveling to Argentina bring only US dollars. Do NOT waste your time or money getting Argentinian Pesos in advance because your American dollar is worth MUCH MORE when you arrive.

Take just $1 USD for example. The official exchange rate is around 8 Pesos per dollar. However, the blue market ranges between 10 and 14 Pesos per dollar. That’s almost double your money if you exchange it locally (and illegally).

For those of you who have issues with doing something illegal, I get it. I’m not a great criminal myself. But, my understanding (although it could be wrong), is that changing your money is not illegal, it is just the people running the Change Houses who are doing something illegal. I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to keep believing this.

If you are only in Argentina for a couple of days, it is no big deal if you get the official 8 to 1 ratio. But, if you are staying for a longer time, you’d be crazy not to use the blue market. If you plan on spending $500 US, that could change into nearly double your money.

It’s a little bit like gambling or playing the stock market. In fact, I’m sure people do just that and make huge profits. For me though, it is just about making my money go as far as possible.

You can follow the Blue dollar rate on twitter at @dolarblue. They are supposed to post the blue dollar rate daily. I don’t always check it, but I have a good idea now of what is good (14 Pesos to 1 USD Or bad 8 Pesos to 1 USD)

There are few ways to get, use or change your US dollars to Argentinian Pesos.

1. Go to a bank in your home country and change Canadian or US dollars to Argentinian Pesos. Safe and legal, but you will get a bad exchange rate. Your money will not go as far.

2. Go to a bank in Argentina. Safe and legal, but you will get the ‘official’ exchange rate which hovers around 8 pesos per $1 USD.

3. Pay for purchases in Argentina with your credit card. You’ll get the official rate of the day, plus pay any fees that your credit card may impose. It’s not horrible, but again, you still only get the official rate, maybe less depending on your fees.

4. Use an ATM in Argentina to withdraw Pesos. VERY IMPORTANT: ATMs don’t always work. They only provide Pesos, not US dollars and they often run out of money, especially on the weekends. Don’t rely on this. Again, you’ll get the official 8 to 1 (approximate) rate.

5. Take US dollars to Argentina with you and use them to pay at stores, restaurants and hotels, whenever they will accept USD. Ask them what their rate of the day is. If it is the same or better than the Blue dollar rate of the day, go ahead, take it! They will calculate it for you and give you back the difference in pesos. I found this to be the best way, whenever possible. I often got a higher exchange rate from the restaurants than from a cambio house.
Note: $50 or $100 bills get the best rate vs $20 or $10 bills. Anything less than $10, don’t even bother.

Do you suck at math like I do? Here’s a step by step:

A) Your food bill is $100 pesos and you want to pay with $50 USD.
B) Ask what the exchange rate is. Today, my restaurant gave me 14 to 1 (which is awesome).
C) Multiply $50 USD by 14 to get the total value in Pesos (50×14 = 700)
D) You have the value of 700 Pesos … subtract the 100 Pesos for your food bill.
E) You give them $50 USD for your 100 Pesos meal and you should get 600 pesos in return.
F) Be proud. That means you ate grilled chicken, potato and tomato salad, bread and a pepsi for lunch for about $7 USD. To put it in perspective, that same 100 pesos, if you paid with your credit card would have been $12.25 USD. Big difference! It all adds up. Hard to understand. You’d think 100 pesos is 100 pesos, but it is not!

6. Ask a local who you know and trust if they can change the money for you. Often they know the places that will give the best rate, or they may have a reason to want the US dollars for themselves. Maybe they are planning a trip away and storing some US cash before they leave the country. They may be willing to give you a very good rate. There’s no harm in asking. Maybe just make sure they aren’t the local police! You know … just in case!

7. Last, but certainly not least, you can take your USD (preferably $50 or $100 bills) to one of the many obscure Casas de Cambio. It sounds sketchy, and it is! If I hadn’t be repeatedly told how normal, acceptable and easy it is, I would never have done it on my own. It is different than any other country that I’ve ever been to, and I’ve now been to 26 different countries!

In Mendoza, I changed $100 USD at a rate of 12.5 Pesos to 1 USD. It was at the local bus station in a store that also sold bus tickets … or did they? There was a man standing outside the door who asked if I needed change. You very quickly get used to listening for ‘cambio, cambio, cambio’. I didn’t ask for any bus tickets, I just got my local pesos and went on my way.

In Buenos Aires, it is the same, but different. You head to the well known ‘Florida’ street in the financial district of the city. It is a pedestrian only area filled with clothing and shoe stores, Starbucks, Burger King etc. You’ll find street vendors selling their wares in the middle of the cobblestone street and a mixture of passersby from tourists to locals, scraggly backpackers to businessmen. If you listen closely, you will hear the streets whisper ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio’. Just as you are honing in on it, it is gone. You look around and wonder where the whisper came from. You probably look a little silly standing still, turning your head. And then a man or woman will catch your eye and say it again … Not interested? Keep walking. They won’t hound you. But, if you need your dollars exchanged, walk up to them and ask what their rate is, don’t yell across the sidewalk, they are trying not to draw unnecessary attention.

In three or four blocks, there were no less than 20 people working the streets whispering ‘cambio’ to passersby. If you aren’t listening for it, it would easily just blend in to the dull hum of the conversations on the street. But, if you are listening for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. You almost can’t escape it.

I passed by about five people on the first street. Not quite sure why. I think I had to build up my confidence. Although they deal with people all the time who speak English (or other languages), it is always best if you can communicate in their language.

On the second street, I approached a guy standing in the centre of the street near a magazine / snack kiosk who had been saying ‘cambio’. I asked in Spanish what the rate of the day was and he told me 12 to 1, if I had a $50 or $100. I told him that I had just gotten 14 at a restaurant and he told me he could not do that high. He said a few other things, but I didn’t completely understand. So, I decided to try elsewhere.

I walked to the next street and it seemed like all of the ‘cambio’ guys / girls were really young. Not sure why but I didn’t feel I could trust the youngsters. They made me a bit uncomfortable. So, I continued on, past a police officer and past the two people near the police officer who were saying ‘cambio’. I didn’t think I would tempt fate by exchanging my money right in front of an officer.

I turned around at the end of the block and headed back. I was still building up courage to do this illegal deal on my own and the police presence had shaken me a bit! I found a lovely older lady about halfway down the block who looked friendly. I approached her and asked what the rate was. She told me 12.80 and I said sure. After all, it was better than the first guy and I liked her. (ha ha because that really matters when you are doing something questionable in another country!)

The pint sized woman walked me a few feet to a magazine kiosk (there are many of them), three men moved out of the tiny doorway and she gestured for me to go in. Really? Go in? I felt like they were going to close the door behind me and I’d never be seen again. Kind of like a magician’s disappearing person act.

I timidly poked my head in through the narrow metal door and before I could see anyone I said ‘Hola?’. I heard someone respond, so I stepped in a little further and the cashier smiled at me. She knew what I was there for, no need to explain or have a conversation about it. She showed me the math on a calculator, gave me my pesos which she placed under a black light to show me that they were real (because I totally know what I’m looking for with counterfeit money, right?). I packed them away, half in my purse and half in my backpack and scurried out of the tiny little metal enclosure hoping that the three men standing near the door didn’t follow me and rob me.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

It really wasn’t that bad … I had just heard a lot of stories about people being robbed in Buenos Aires, people getting fake money and the fact that the whole process is officially illegal. Nothing at all to be concerned about, right?

In the end, I managed to change money all by myself without the assistance of a local or tour guide (who aren’t supposed to help you with that anyway because it’s officially illegal). I got a decent rate, although not the best. And I made it through the afternoon and all the way back to my apartment without getting robbed.

I’d say it was a successful day of adventure for this solo female traveler in Buenos Aires! Hopefully next time I change money I’ll do just as well.

1 thought on “Casas de Cambio

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