From Dollars to Pesos to Pounds: The Dolar Blue and the Real Cost of Argentina

From Dollars to Pesos to Pounds: The Dolar Blue and the Real Cost of Argentina

In Argentina, things are often not as they first appear.

This is no more so the case than with its currency. Officially, US$1 is currently AR$5.29 and £1 is AR$8.10, but this does not reflect the true value of the Argentine pesos in the country. Ever since around the middle of 2012, when the government has made it basically impossible for Argentinians to get access to foreign currency (in an attempt to keep money within the country), there has been a parallel market (known as the blue market, and the rate as dolar blue) in operation for buying and selling foreign currency, with a focus on US dollars.

This, while technically illegal, is very well established and, like many things that are technically illegal in Argentina, a blind eye is turned to it. You can, for example, check the current rate on the blue market on the Buenos Aires Herald website, a prestigious English-language newspaper for the country’s capital. Currently, it’s at AR$8.60 to the dollar. That’s almost 50% more pesos for your dollar than the official rate.

This is great if you’re a tourist and are able to bring US dollars with you when you travel to Argentina. Because of the restrictions to Argentinians by their government on how they can legally get foreign currency, anyone who brings cash in to the country will have a very easy time of changing it, and it will work in their favour. Below, I’ll go in to more detail of we actually changed money.

at first, it can feel a little shady, this money changing business

At first, it can feel a little shady, this money changing business

Because it’s currently not possible to manipulate the exchange rate used in the app we use to track our expenses, Trail Wallet, all of our previous spending reports have used the official rate, and are therefore an inaccurate picture of what we actually spent. Working out what we did spend required some Excel gymnastics from Zab, and much questioning and second-guessing of his expertise from me. We got there in the end though, and this is the fruits of our labour: an accurate look at what travelling in Argentina really cost us.

I have divided our time in Argentina in to four parts, either because they were broken up by crossing a boarder into a neighbouring country, or because there was something distinctive about our travel style for a certain time period.

Period I

  • Dates: 16th January – 3rd February (weeks 3, 4 and 5 of 2013)
  • Visited: Buenos Aires, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Los Antiguos
  • Total spend: £1315.80
  • Number of days: 18
  • Averages per day: £73.10 for 2 people; £36.55 each
  • Exchange rates: USD:ARS 4.94; GBP:ARS 7.90
  • Gain on official: 0%

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires in January, we hadn’t read up enough and didn’t fully understand the situation with foreign currency exchange on the blue market, and we hadn’t come with any cash (except for about US$100 as emergency backup money). Therefore, all our spending was with money we withdrew from ATMs on the official rate, meaning we gained nothing and that we spent rather a lot. We also visited Patagonia in this period, which is probably the most expensive part of Argentina, so this was a contributing factor too.

Period II

  • Dates: 28th February – 15th March (weeks 9, 10 & 11 of 2013)
  • Visited: Bariloche, Bahía Blanca
  • Total spend: £718.33
  • Number of days: 16
  • Averages per day: £44.90 for 2 people; £22.45 each
  • Exchange rates: USD:ARS 7.30; GBP:ARS 10.95
  • Gain on official: 38%

It was in Valdivia, Chile, that we met a couple from the US who convinced us that it was a good idea to take US dollars with us to Argentina when we crossed the boarder to get the dolar blue rate, and we were so glad we did, as because of this, we ended up spending almost half what we had spent on our first period of travel in Argentina, though we also saved money by couchsurfing and travelling overnight a few times.

In Bariloche, it was extremely easy to change dollars to pesos, as several shops on the main street advertised the exchange rate they offered in their windows. At first, I thought this was just the rate they offered if you bought something with dollars, but it was also the rate they’d give you for cash, and many also advertised favourable rates for Euros and Brazilian Reals.

All these numbers are making my head hurt a little. Here's a pretty doodle to distract you for a moment.

All these numbers are making my head hurt a little. Here’s a pretty doodle to distract you for a moment.

Period III

  • Dates: 25th March – 3rd May (weeks 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 of 2013)
  • Visited: Buenos Aires
  • Total spend: £1357.81
  • Number of days: 41
  • Averages per day: £33.12 for 2 people; £16.56 each
  • Exchange rates: USD:ARS 8.15; GBP:ARS 12.25
  • Gain on official: 54%

This period was spent entirely in Buenos Aires, where we rented an apartment. That alone meant that it was a cheaper time, as we got a good deal on our place there and weren’t spending a lot on transport. This, together with the fact that we had several hundred US dollars that we’d withdrawn while in Uruguay (where most ATMs give the option for withdrawing Uruguayan pesos or US dollars), made it one of the cheapest periods during our travels so far, and certainly our cheapest in Argentina. The total that we actually spent for our 41 days in Buenos Aires (£1357.81) is actually less than we reported spending in just the month of April (£1411.99), which was only 30 days but for which our spending was calculated on the official rate. Now you see how that 54% gain worked in our favour.

In Buenos Aires, there is no shortage of options for changing money. Walk down Florida, the main pedestrian shopping street, and you’ll come across hundreds of people broadcasting their ability to cambiar dolares (“change dollars”). These guys are known as arbolitos (“little trees”), and have an untrustworthy reputation, as they are apparently the source of many fake 100 pesos notes. We had a recommendation from a local for a shop in downtown Buenos Aires where we went and were given the latest exchange rate with no fuss or trouble, and if we didn’t like the look of one of the notes (if it was torn or very creased, for example), they did not hesitate to change it for a newer one for us.

Period IV

  • Dates: 4th – 20th May (weeks 19 and 20 of 2013)
  • Visited: Córdoba, Capilla del Monte, Carlos Paz, Cafayate, Salta
  • Total spend: £843.19
  • Number of days: 17
  • Averages per day: £49.60 for 2 people; £24.80 each
  • Exchange rates: USD:ARS 9.13; GBP:ARS 13.70
  • Gain on official: 71%

Although I (Sam) did not cross any boarder between periods 3 and 4 (Zab did go to Uruguay overnight just before, where he withdrew yet more dollars to get the dolar blue rate), I have separated this period out from that which was spent entirely in Buenos Aires because we were travelling around the country rather than being stationary in an apartment the whole time. It’s therefore no surprise that our spending was slightly higher during this time, considering as well that we took an unexpected flight from Buenos Aires to Córdoba due to a nationwide bus strike.

We started out with some money that we had changed in Buenos Aires, but we also exchanged dollars in Córdoba, Cafayate and Salta. In Córdoba, we were given a recommendation from a local for a street to wander down and see who offered to “change money”. We were a little wary of this at first, as we had been told to avoid such people in the country’s capital, but again when we didn’t like the look of one of the notes, there was no hesitation in changing it, which built our confidence a little. In Cafayate, we met an Argentinian who was interested in buying dollars from us personally, which worked out well, and in Salta, we took the simple approach of walking around the main square, looking like foreigners until someone noticed us and offered to change our last few dollars.

13 pesos to the pound? Yes please!

13 pesos to the pound? Yes please!

So the total cost of our time in Argentina was £4235.14 over 90 days, which is an average of £23.53 per person per day. Not too bad, in the end.

If you’d like to ask us more specifically exactly where we changed money in Argentina, contact us.

Have you travelled to Argentina recently? How did you deal with the money situation?