“And now we enter a Coen brothers film,” said my Argentine friend Tony.
He wasn’t kidding.
We turned off a noisy street into a plain unmarked office building in the center of Buenos Aires. Leaving the blazing sun behind, we entered a dark lobby. It wasn’t cool inside but it was eerily quiet.
Our mission: change our dollars into pesos.
I was excited.
Tony checked in with a man behind a desk. He mumbled a code word and just like that we were ushered into a rickety-old elevator — the kind in which you have to open and close the doors yourself. It looked like any pre-war office building
We stopped and stepped off onto the third floor. Tony led me to the left to a door marked El Morro Haba. (I wondered aloud later what it meant. “Actually, it means nothing,” Tony said.)
We tapped a bell and were buzzed into an entryway the size of a walk-in closet. On our left was a large bank teller-like window with no one behind it, and on our right was yet another locked door. A young man with a messenger bag was crammed into this closet with us, waiting.
I glanced at the closed-circuit camera hanging from the ceiling in the corner. That’s when I realised we were trapped.
But since Tony didn’t seem nervous, it all seemed normal. I came to learn that ‘normal’ in Argentina doesn’t exist. Surreal moments lurk everywhere.
We waited some more…
I had arrived in Buenos Aires just five hours earlier and needed some pesos before dinner and a show.
I had $US400 to change.
But in a country like Argentina, few people are naive enough to do this through official channels or exchange bureaus like you would in other countries. Strict capital controls, aggressive monetary policy, and blazing inflation rates have distorted exchange rates.
The official Argentine Peso-U.S. Dollar exchange rate that day was around 7-to-1. Not so bad at all compared to 2013. But Tony insisted we could do much better. So we entered the murky environs of the black market exchange world.
A gringo like myself can easily do this by flagging down one of the dozens of people on the pedestrian-friendly Calle Florida who is shouting out “cambio!” which translates to”‘change!” But every Argentine has a “guy” who can give you an even better deal at what they call the “blue” rate. I imagine some people in Argentina are making a decent, albeit illegitimate, living playing off the spread between the “official” rate and the “blue” rate. Newspapers like La Nacion publish the spread daily.
Tony put a call in to a friend who put him in touch with his “guy” — who was actually a woman. She was offering the best exchange rate Tony could find that day: 11.50 pesos for every dollar. Sounded good to me — that was about 3 pesos more for my dollars than the official rate. So we headed east across town on the Subte (the city’s subway system).
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
Back in our tiny holding cell, I thought about taking a photo but didn’t know if that would get us thrown out. Changing money outside the “official” exchange is technically illegal.
Before I was able to ask Tony what I could and couldn’t do, we were buzzed through into the main office by a young woman with dark hair who greeted us with a smile and escorted us to another room. The journey was underway.
We passed through a few rooms set up like waiting areas at a dentist’s office. We also passed a pantry full of old computers — the kind you may have used in 1993.
The woman motioned us over to a couple chairs, said something I didn’t catch to Tony in Spanish, went through a door, and closed it behind her.
Again, we waited.
Across from us on a white couch was an older man with white hair and a beautiful mustache. At his feet was a big backpack full of something. Dulce de leche? Empanadas? Dollars? I was intrigued. He ignored us — staring straight ahead.
Tony and I passed the time by catching up. We hadn’t seen each other in a year. We traded stories for 10 minutes or so.
A mysterious mustached man was called into a room next door on our left. The door was only halfway closed, and I could see that he was exchanging a stack of dollars for pesos. Just like we were supposed to. It seemed painless.
A Maze Of Doors And Blank Walls
The mustached man left.
Again, we waited.
Five minutes later it was our turn. Tony and I were called into the room next door where we were once again greeted us by the woman who first walked us in. Tony had our combined money — $US600 — in one stack and handed it to her. She stood up and left through yet another door behind her.
So many doors in this place!
But there was nothing on the walls. Just a desk and three chairs. Tony turned and winked at me. She came back just a moment later with a receipt highlighting a conversion rate and our peso total. The total was the number we had agreed to before on the phone. We nodded and smiled. She left again and returned immediately with our pesos which she re-counted using a money counting machine — the same kind you’d see at a bank.
This woman was all gestures, no speech, and if I had to pick her out of a lineup tomorrow I’d fail. Tony had called her by name when he spoke to her on the phone earlier, but I had already forgotten what he called her. The office space we were in was so plain — from the white walls to the beige carpets and generic office desk and chairs — that it seemed to encourage forgetting. The details didn’t matter. Faces blended into each other.
We had our cash in hand. Tony and I echoed “muchas gracias” and it was done. We walked out past a group of people waiting their turn to change money.
The Bottom Line
I ended up with 5,000 pesos at a fantastic rate. Plenty of money to spend on our week-plus vacation in Buenos Aires and in the northwest province of Salta. Tony and I and our wives enjoyed wonderful meals with fine regional Torrontes and Malbec wines for about $US50 a day — for all four of us. What a deal! It’s a really cheap travel destination for Americans right now.
The currency exchange was just a minor, almost forgettable part of the trip. After so much anticipation, the final process was disappointingly anticlimactic because it was so quick.
More importantly, the country is beautiful top-to-bottom. And Salta (near the Bolivian border) is like nothing I’d ever seen before — large cactus plants (cardones) loomed over lush vineyards. Llamas and goats frolicked across dusty roads. Mountains crowded around us. It really is paradise.
You should go. And I know a “guy” who can hook you up with a great rate.