“Look for the place without a sign..” I was replaying the instructions of my hostel’s receptionist as I walked down the streets of Buenos Aires on my first day in Argentina. With hundreds of American dollars in my bag, a hand drawn map leading to an intersection and directions to an “unmarked” storefront, I was heading to an undisclosed black market “cave” to exchange dollars at the unofficial rate.
As I roamed the streets looking for the subtle cave, I ignored my natural instinct to ask for directions–this was after all technically illegal. After walking around the block I finally noticed an unmarked shop displaying nothing but a hanging Argentine flag in the window. If it wasn’t for the backpackers standing on the other side of the door I would have kept walking but seeing fellow travelers with bewildered expressions, I knew I had found the black market currency exchange I was looking for.
While thoughts of a black market usually conjure up images of back alley deals and shady transactions, the unofficial currency exchange in Argentina has become widely accepted despite happening “under the table.” Because of the current financial climate in Argentina, the government places tight restrictions on trading dollars and euros for Argentine pesos. As Argentines lose faith in the peso and its constant flux in value (ultimately resulting in inflation and the country’s current economic crisis), locals look to acquire foreign currency as a more secure means of saving. The result? The creation of an “official” and “unofficial” dual exchange rate where tourists can exchange foreign money on the Argentine black market. Despite the legality of having two exchange rates, the black market has become a reality of life in Argentina and a necessary evil for visiting travelers to navigate.
As recently as today, the official exchange rate for $1 USD equates to $8 Argentine pesos, while the unofficial rate gives $13 Argentine pesos for every $1 USD! The money lost and gained between the two rates is dramatic enough that it benefits tourists to seek out these “caves” just as much as it benefits locals to buy dollars and euros.
Not being the most savvy when it comes to math (and even worse off when it comes to currency exchanges) I decided against exchanging all my dollars during my first transaction. I handed over $500 USD and received a pile of colorful Argentine pesos in return, realizing that the amount I got back was the equivalent of $700 USD! Thanks to the unofficial rate, the initial budget I had outlined for Argentina (including hostels, activities, food, etc.) left me with hundreds of dollars to spare and enough money to book a last minute flight to Iguazu near the Brazilian border. While exchanging dollars in Argentina was a seamless process, there are practical tips to keep in mind when navigating the Argentine black market.
Ask a Local for a Recommended “Cave”
In the weeks leading up to my visit to Argentina I was given various recommendations by locals in Buenos Aires who advised me on where to exchange my dollars. Some offered to exchange with me directly, others knew of “caves” in the neighborhoods of San Telmo or Palermo, while others recommended the service of Xoom (a money transfer app that allows you to exchange dollars and pick it up a local bank). In the end, the best tip came from the staff at my hostel who were not only well-versed in advising tourists on where to exchange money but knowledgeable of the day’s exchange rates. Regardless of who you listen to, it is best to take advice from a trusted local on where to exchange your currency.
Don’t Exchange Everything at Once
Exchanging dollars to Argentine pesos is one thing, but exchanging Argentine pesos to dollars is another. It was one of my wiser decisions this trip to not hand over all my U.S. currency in exchange for pesos as I ended up not needing all the money I brought to begin with. Once you locate a black market cave, I would recommend only exchanging a portion of the money needed. I was shocked (and thrilled) to find that handing over $500 USD gave me back the equivalent of nearly $200 more–this lasted me much longer than anticipated in a city where the day-to-day expenses of travelers are very reasonably priced.
Knowing What to Do When you First Land in Buenos Aires
As I prepared for my arrival to Buenos Aires, I wondered how exactly I would get from the airport to my hostel in Palermo. I knew from experience that exchanging money in airports gets you the worst rates but I wasn’t sure of how else I could avoid this. For those landing at Buenos Aires’ international airport the answer is simple: Taxi Ezeiza. In the arrivals terminal this taxi stand is impossible to miss and accepts dollars for rides (usually priced around $40-$45) to the heart of the city. The option to pay in dollars avoids the hassle of exchanging currency at the airport, while the taxi service is safe, secure and easily gets you to where you need to go. The price is admittedly steep for a cab ride but considering the distance from the airport to the city (about an hour each way) the cost is comparable to snagging a cab to or from JFK in New York City.
Be Savvy and Aware
While it may seem an obvious tip, your intuition is your greatest asset and has an uncanny way of throwing up red flags in bad situations. As a solo female traveler, I was especially nervous about walking around Buenos Aires with over a thousand dollars in my camera bag in search of a black market cave. Had I sensed anything off or strange about the unmarked storefront I would not have entered the doors, but instead the transaction was smooth, honest, safe and secure.