Posted by: tylereddy | July 25, 2014

Cambio, Cambio!

Changing American dollars to Argentine Pesos on the black market is a common practice in Argentina. With banks offering an exchange of five to one and the black market offering up to ten to one exchanges, it makes financial sense to exchange dollars on the black market. The best rates are in Buenos Aires, but if you look hard enough elsewhere there are either Cambios, legitimate businesses that will exchange currency, or perhaps not-so-legitimate people on the street that will exchange money. Many businesses will also offer discounts on goods purchased in US dollars. Thanks to our blog friends at Indefinite Adventure we knew about the Cambios (Spanish for “Change”) beforehand and decided to take as much American money as we felt safe carrying.

There are some risks associated with exchanging funds on the black market: receiving counterfeit bills, dealing with unfamiliar people, and carrying significant amounts of money. For a couple of newbies with very little familiarity with Argentine currency getting ripped off seemed like a very real possibility. Receiving a 10:1 ratio on bills leaves one with a wad of cash, exchanging a single US $100 bill equals ten 100 peso notes, so exchanging $1000 US dollars (10 bills) means ending up with 100 bills in your pocket, it’s a fat stack of cash. The act of exchanging bills, although done (mostly) in the open, and not ‘illegal’, had a feeling of bad-assedness about it. Not being a thug I’ve never really carried quantities of cash or had to do business in a back alley, so for me I felt like I was a gangster for a day. Here are a couple of our experiences in exchanging money:

Buenos Aires, day two in a foreign land, we had a few thousand pesos with us, but they were dwindling quickly, time to hit the Cambio. But where, and how? Thankfully our rental owner was an American living in BA so we turned to him for advice. He gave us an address, and description saying that there were windows covered in green film with a button beside the door. Below the button it says ‘we do not exchange foreign currency.’ We were told to push that button, open the door, go inside and ask to exchange our bills. Simple enough.

This was a mission for a young thug like me trying to make a name for himself in the mean Latino streets. Just navigating the chaotic streets of BA on day two was a challenge, never mind diving into the gritty underworld of drugs and money laundering. Okay exaggerating, but that’s what I felt like I was wandering into. I get inside the door and fumble with my American money, ask the question (like I had any room to negotiate) and they run the money through the counter, run the equivalent pesos through the counter, hand the money over. I quickly examine the bills,   like I know what I’m doing, then I turn and bolt. Feeling relieved that I didn’t end up in the big house or have some wise guy send me for the big sleep I strode back up the hill, a giant mound of bills bulging from my secret jean pocket. A few paranoid shoulder checks later and I’m safe and sound.

Back at the apartment Kelly is relieved that I’ve returned. We spread the tattered bills on the table, excited to examine their authenticity. Seconds later our excitement turned to devastation. Half of the bills had barcodes that ran vertically while the rest were horizontal. They were frauds! We moped for a few minutes calculating the cost of our rookie travel error, how could we be so foolish?

100 peso bill with horizontal serial number.

100 peso bill with horizontal serial number.

 

100 peso note with horizontal serial number

100 peso note with vertical serial number

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turns out (like many things in Argentina) many products, in this case currency, aren’t very consistent in their ways. All of the bills were legit, even though many of them looked completely different. Disaster averted, wait ‘til my boys back in Chicago hear about this.

Another money exchange happened in the back of an outdoor gear store. A guard paced outside and I had it on good intel that there was a Cambio in the back. I marched in confidently and made my way to the back of the store, looked right into the two way mirror and stepped through the curtain hanging next to it. It was like dropping into an underground gambling room in New York. There was dark with a red light glowing in the corner, two old guys wearing leisure suits and sunglasses in the dark were sitting at a card table sipping matte. I turned to the left and there was a man sitting in a booth with a sign that had the exchange rate. This time I didn’t even speak, just slid the bills under the glass, he counted them in front of me and slid the pesos back to me. Being the veteran hoodlum I am I grab the lettuce, thumb it all, glare back at him menacingly and tuck it away.

A final notable exchange happened in a city where there were no Cambios. I had to use my streets wise and call up some favours from a few of my connections. I told him how much I had and the rate I needed on the black market. The Don says to me ‘We don’t call it the Black Market, we call it the Blue Market. It sounds more polite.’ A few days later one of his wise guys shows up and says he has the money. I reached for my coat to grab the US money. Suddenly he gets this nervous look, shoulder checks and steps quickly towards me. ‘Not here’ he says shortly and leads me to a nearby office, kicking the worker out and closing the door behind us. I’m wondering what’s about to transpire. Has my luck run out? Has the deal gone south? I nervously hand the money over, count, re-count, exchange. I turn to leave and he grabs me by the shoulder, he pulls me close to him and points menacingly at his cheek bone and then draws his index finger down toward his jaw (this is a common hand signal in Argentina which means look out, or watch yourself). He says to me ‘this is a lot of money in Argentina and you need to be careful.’

Ahhhhh! Surely it was more money than I would ever carry at home, and certainly I needed to be cautious. There were several occasions where we were given such warnings to be cautious in Argentina, even though we didn’t see so much as a drug deal, pick-pocket or shoplifting. We didn’t feel overly vulnerable and with kids in tow people were more than happy to help…..even if we were a couple young gangsters just trying to make a buck.

 

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Responses

  1. This is exactly why it is so important to travel: the realization that people around the world exist in a very different day-to-day reality than yours. Nicely done, Eddys.

    • Thanks Adriene – So true, and we appreciate home more then ever!


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