Browsing Posts tagged Argentina travel

Frida Mexican money

Don’t look now, but you just got a little richer. There’s just one catch: you have to go traveling.

Trying to explain why the U.S. dollar is going up or down is something even experienced economists have trouble with, so I won’t bother trying. Just know that it involves the perception of our economy’s health, the relative strength of other economies’ health (especially Europe and China), and what’s going on with the corresponding economy of the currency it’s trading against.

The bottom line is, we’re in a golden period right now where the dollar is relatively strong, which is good news for travelers. It takes a little sting out of the most expensive places and makes the cheaper ones even cheaper.

Here are a few key places where you’re better off now than you were a year or two ago.

Argentina

I discussed this one in detail already recently, so go check out my cheap Argentina post. Today the “blue rate” is 14.7 to the dollar, compared to under 9 for the official rate. Take lots of cash.

living in Salta

Mexico

I arrived at the Guadalajara airport a few nights ago and laughed as I saw the exchange booth giving a rate of 10.9 pesos to the dollar. I walked over to an ATM and got 13.4 to the dollar. This is a great time to be in Mexico, but unlike in Argentina, don’t come with a briefcase full of cash. There are exchange restrictions and in most areas you’ll get a worse rate than just taking money out of your own bank account with a debit card. If you can find a CI Banco machine, they have the lowest fees. BanNorte has the highest.

Thailand

This country has been a political mess for a while and that is (probably temporarily) pushing down the value of their currency. Right now the official rate is 32.4, which is 10% better than where it was in late 2012. Avoid the protest zones in Bangkok and enjoy.

Thailand travel

Hungary

The first time I went to Hungary the exchange rate was around 215 forint to the dollar, the second time it was around 240. That approximate 10% move made a significant difference in how cheap it felt for a beer, a meal, or a locally priced hotel. It’s back up to that point again, so this is a good time to spend a few days in Budapest and then hit the countryside.

Peru

This time two years ago a U.S. dollar got you 2.6 new soles. Now you get 2.9. Peru can be an expensive place if you go during high season and you’re on the tourist trail shared by people with loads of money checking something off a bucket list. Take a side trail though or go between October and April and your soles will go a long way.

Peru travel

Chile

This is not one of The World’s Cheapest Destinations by any means, but when I wrote this post about how expensive Chile was when I was there two years ago, a dollar got you 480 Chilean pesos. Now a dollar gets you 590. That’s a 23% increase in purchasing power. It’s still going to be more expensive than it’s neighbors, but it won’t feel so out of whack as before.

Other Countries

The swings are less than 10% in the following in 2014, but right now the dollar is at or near a two-year high in Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey, and Egypt. I expect you’ll see most of Africa’s currencies plunge in the next few months because of the ebola effect, even if they’re 2,000 miles away from the outbreak.

If you’re a traveler and you want to keep up with exchange rates, there’s an app for that. I use one called Exchange Rates on my Android phone and one called Currency App on my iPod Touch. In either you can set up which currencies to follow and it’ll update when you refresh.

Argentina travel

When I put out the first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations at the end of 2002, Argentina was one of the best travel values in the world and it stayed that way for quite a while. Reeling for a huge banking collapse and currency crisis, the local peso went from parity to the dollar to a rate of three to the dollar when the dust settled, without any change in prices.

After a while though, even though the exchange rate kept widening, inflation galloped even faster. As tourism picked up and hotels were able to fill their rooms, rates for those went up as well. With an inefficient and pricey airline system, combined with very long distances for buses, eventually Argentina drifted out of budget travel territory and I had to drop it from the book when doing updates.

This is a country that can’t get out of its own way though and you can almost bet money that every 10 years they’re going to be in trouble again. That time is now. They have defaulted on debt, robbed the public pensions, strangled international business, and practically outlawed a whole range of imported goods. It keeps getting messier and nothing is working as intended though.

tango dancers

Another Collapse, but When?

The prevailing wisdom from people who live there is that one of two things will happen before the next election at the end of 2015.

1) The government and economy will collapse, the opposition will come in and make rescue moves, and in a few years they’ll get all the credit for the turnaround. The current government won’t regain power.

2) The current government will somehow keep limping along and will stay in power long enough to hand the whole mess off to the opposition, then the old guard can blame the whole mess on the opposition since it will take a while to turn things around. Then eventually the pendulum will swing and they’ll be back in power.

Either way, few are predicting good news on the horizon anytime soon. There are so many red flags right now that it’s hard to see anything positive to point to.

There’s one big red flag though that’s really a gold one for travelers: a dual exchange rate for those with dollars.

Official Rate vs. Blue Rate

Nobody wants to call the real exchange rate a “black market” rate, so they’re calling it a “blue rate” to make it sound prettier. The official rate is a little more than 8 to the dollar. The real rate you’ll get on the street is more than 15. This rate is so open that it’s printed in the newspaper and you can look it up online each day.

What this means for you the traveler is this: cash is king. Forget the ATM, forget using your credit card. For both of those you’re going to get the lousy official rate. You can almost double your spending power by bringing cash.

Blue rate Buenos Aires

Your Argentina-bound carry-on bag

Yes, I know this goes against everything you’ve learned about safety, theft prevention, debit card back-ups, and the like. But really, you are better off acting like a mobster and coming in with rolls of $50 and $100 bills (clean and recent of course) than you are trying to use plastic. Then you simply exchange these dollars for pesos and use those pesos to pay for your now-much-cheaper hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and bus tickets. Use those pesos to shop for now-cheap leather goods and to buy good wine for cheap.

If you do this, you’ll be copying what the wealthy Argentines are doing now. The country has slapped a 35% international travel tax on anyone leaving the country to try to stem the outward flow of money, but it’s not keeping the rich from traveling. That’s because they can easily justify it as a business expense: they’ve stowed their money in Montevideo, Panama, or Miami. So it’s a banking trip. It’s also the only way they can shop for items not made in Argentina: the import restrictions have gotten so tough that most of the best-known international brands have pulled out of Argentina. The ones who stayed are having to buy buildings to have something to do with their profits since they can’t get them out of the country.

In short, its a big mess. But when there’s upheaval, that’s often the best time to visit. You have a hard currency in a land where that hard currency is extra valuable.

Just be advised there’s one big expense you can’t get around: the hefty reciprocity fee to enter the country. Chile dropped it recently, but not Argentina (or Brazil). You need to apply in advance and pay $160 per person if you’re American, $92 if you’re Canadian, and $100 if you’re Australian. Stay a while to make up for this tax on tourists.

Living Buenos Aires

Many a traveler has landed in Buenos Aires and within less than 24 hours started to ponder the question, “Could I find a way to live here?” Some don’t just ponder it; they actually move to Argentina.

I spoke with Lisa Besserman, who lived in New York City most of her life and was facing the prospect of looking for a new apartment in Manhattan because her lease was up. “The rental prices were absolutely ridiculous, super-expensive,” she says. “My company was going through some changes and my job position didn’t feel stable. I didn’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on rent without being secure about my job. I was up for a promotion though and proposed a deal with my boss where I would work remotely for a few months instead, at the same pay rate, and I would go live somewhere cheaper. They said yes, so I looked at a map for places with a similar time zone and ended up in Buenos Aires.”

She did her three months of work for her old company, then decided not to come back. She left the job and now she runs her own company in Argentina: Startup Buenos Aires.

A large number of people who visit Argentina seem to dream of living there for a while at some point in their life. Buenos Aires is a major tourism magnet, but that’s just the beginning in a country that has more land than Mexico or Indonesia—but with a much lower population density.

The good news is, it’s relatively cheap here, especially if you’re earning dollars or euros somewhere else. “I didn’t want to have to work two jobs and have a crappy apartment back in the U.S.,” says writer and mother of three Cathy Brown. “I can freelance here and make it work, spending a lot of time with my family.” She lives in laid-back and beautiful El Bolson in Patagonia. About two hours south of Bariloche, it’s a land of gorgeous mountain scenery and some of South America’s best microbreweries.

Living El Bolson

El Bolson

There’s a lot of diversity in these landscapes. Up north you have a dramatic desert on one side and Iguazu Falls on the other. There are seasides, cities and farms in the middle, down to glaciers and freezing cold in the jumping off point to Antarctica.

Once you get settled in, prices can be very reasonable, especially if you have a way of bringing in lots of U.S. dollars or euros in cash. That’s because there are two exchange rates in Argentina’s fragile economy: the official rate and the “blue rate” you can get on the street from money changers. The latter is typically 20% to 30% better than the official one and both are printed in the local newspapers. Getting to your money electronically is almost like a hobby here though: many banks limit ATM withdrawals to around $150, so you end up hopping from one bank to another or using a service like Xoom to take out larger amounts of pesos. Hold onto your home country Paypal account because the banks here are too unstable to work with that service locally; the best bet is to get a debit card you can use to pull money from in Argentina using your original country account.

The Argentina Visa Situation

They’re not real big on rules in Argentina and that includes visa rules. It will probably cost you a lot to enter for the first time because this is one of those countries (like Brazil and Bolivia) that has a retaliatory visa fee policy. Whatever Argentines pay to enter the country on your passport, that’s what you’ll pay to enter theirs. It’s good for 10 years or the life of your passport, however, so after that you can come and go without paying again. Many renew their tourist visa indefinitely, leaving the country every three months for a short hop to Chile or Uruguay.

People who have come to work for an international company tend to get a work visa, but many others just leave four times a year. If something happens and they overstay their visa, it’s not the end of the world. “Argentina is one of the most lax countries for visas,” Cathy says. I don’t want to do anything wrong because I’ve got kids, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that if you overstay your visa, you just have to pay 300 pesos (less than $40 at the official rate)—whether you overstayed a day or five years. They sign off and you’re on your way.

If you’re only going to stay six months at a time, you may be able to renew your tourist visa locally without leaving the country. That’s generally only going to work once though, so it’s best for people not planning to spend the whole year here.

Getting a business visa requires a letter from an employer, a specified time period, and the employer’s acceptance of financial responsibility for the traveler. For obvious reasons, they have to really want you to make this happen. If you get one though, multiple-entry business visas are valid for four years.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

Housing Costs

As in many countries, living in the biggest city is going to cost you more than living in the countryside. For Lisa though, coming from Manhattan made this country seem like a screaming bargain. “I pay $700 a month for my duplex apartment in Palermo Hollywood, a great neighborhood, and it’s a doorman building with a pool. If you transplanted this place into Soho in Manhattan, which is a pretty similar kind of feel, it would easily cost $10,000 to $15,000 per month.”

Naturally the prices drop when you settle in a smaller city or town. While $300 to $500 a month is a good deal in the capital for an apartment, that will get you something furnished and modern in Salta, Mendoza, Cordoba, or Rosario. Where Cathy lives in Patagonia, $350 gets her a four bedroom, two bath house on 15 acres, beside a river.

Lining something up ahead of time is quite difficult though; hardly any agencies list prices online. The best plan is to rent a short-term apartment or stay in an apart-hotel at first so you can take your time looking around. Get recommendations from others (both locals and expatriates) on which agencies are trustworthy and look at plenty of apartments to assess what’s a good value.

If you’re going to buy a house or condo here, figure on paying the whole amount in cash, in dollars. People literally bring bags of money to a closing. In theory you can get a mortgage, but with interest rates running at 18%, you probably don’t want to. You can’t find the bargains here you could 10 years ago since Argentines view real estate as one of their reliable investments and there have also been buyers from Brazil coming in too. If the financial system collapses again though like it did in the early 2000s, who knows?

living in Salta

Other Costs

Leigh Shulman and her family live in Salta, Argentina. They own their house outright and other costs average out to $1,500 a month. “One of the biggest expenses is medical insurance, which is about $300 a month for good care. If you pay $60 more a month that includes plastic surgery once a year!” Private school costs around $100 a month and “we pay our maid far more than the market rate,” still $12 or so a visit.”

Thanks to subsidized electricity, Argentina has some of the lowest monthly utility costs in Latin America. Lisa pays $5-$8 a month for her apartment of around 1,000 square feet. “I thought it would go up a lot when we were running the air conditioning in the summer, but it was only a couple dollars more,” she says.

Cathy Brown pays even less in her small town. “My last electric bill was around $4,” she says. “And that was for two months.”

Leah Shulman and her family live in a large house they own in Salta, but still only pay $10-15 per month in electricity and $8-$10 per month for gas and water combined.

Cable and internet together are $15-$18 per month depending on the package. “In New York City I paid $150 per month for about the same bundle,” says Lisa.

If you like a good steak dinner accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, you’ll be in heaven here. They take their grilled meats very seriously in this country and it’s considered a God-given right to sip wine with every meal. Prices are quite reasonable on both, to the point where a group of people can go out and eat to their heart’s content for $10 a person or less. The things Argentines do well they do very well: barbecued meat, wine, Italian food, coffee, ice cream, and pastries.

The recent financial problems have wreaked havoc with prices and supplies though. When the peso fell by 19% in January of 2013, many store shelves were bare and prices for what was available skyrocketed soon after in local currency terms. The country is a financial basket case and inflation is very high. Who knows what will happen in a few years or even a few months. This is probably not a country where you want to swoop in and buy a place without knowing what you’re getting into. But if you have the kind of job where you can earn hard currency elsewhere and spend it here, this is currently one of the world’s great arbitrage opportunities.

The bottom line? If you’re able to exchange dollars for pesos at anywhere close to the street rate, you can live pretty well in Argentina as a single person on $800 or quite comfortably for $1,000—even in Buenos Aires. If you’re sharing a place, it’s even easier. For a couple or family, $1,500 a month will put you at the upper range of middle class here.

Argentina travel

Why did you leave me all these pesos instead of dollars?”

Getting ready to travel somewhere for a few weeks or months of independent travel? If you want a great value, put these countries on your short list:

Argentina

India

Indonesia

Mexico

Why these? Not because of their “friendly locals,” “charming towns” or “pristine beaches,” yada yada yada. And not because they’re a hot destination this year. You should go if you like to get a lot more for you money there than you did in the past. If you like traveling well while spending less than you do just existing at home, a plunging exchange rate is a surefire ticket to savings.

Most travelers approach exchange rates backwards. They don’t even think about them until they get to where they’re going, then fret about how everything is more expensive than they expected. It makes a lot more sense to see where your timing will be right and go there. Heck, even if you’re going somewhere expensive this makes sense: the pain of Canada, Japan, or Australia stings about 10% less right now than it did a year or two ago.

Argentina’s Pain, Your Gain

I took Argentina out of the last edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations because high inflation, high import duties, and a slew of nutty economic policies were making it an unfriendly place for tourists. You’ll still face a hefty visa cost before you even exit the airport if you’re American and there’s still a crazy small limit on how much you can take out of an ATM each day. If you arrive with U.S. dollar wads in your pocket though, you are going to tango your way across the land in much better shape than even just a few weeks ago.

That’s because the peso has plunged badly for a whole host of reasons and the government’s injection of $115 million to buy up pesos isn’t helping much. Here’s how Reuters put it:

“The local currency weakened on the black market to 12.15 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the official exchange rate was unchanged at 8 per dollar in thin trading. Last week, the official peso slid nearly 20 percent as investors scrambled to make sense of the new currency regime.”

rupee decline

India’s Rupee in Decline

Two years ago this month, a dollar got you 50 Indian rupees. Today it gets you 62. That’s a 24% increase in what you get for your money. And you could already get a lot.

The government is intervening to try to keep this figure from falling further, mostly by raising interest rates. Who knows how well that will hold or not. But if you’re already planning on going there, happy days are ahead. (If you were going to Nepal, you’ll also get more for your money there, in what’s already probably the cheapest destination in the world. As the Indian rupee goes, so does Nepal’s currency.)

Let me take you to Indonesia

Two years ago a buck got you 9,000 rupiah. Today that same greenback will get you around 12,000. For those of you who flunked math class, that’s a 1/3 increase in your purchasing power. Maybe not in a chic Bali resort priced in dollars, but you weren’t planning on doing that anyway, right?

Indonesia was already one of the world’s best bargains, especially as soon as you leave Bali and head anywhere else. Yes, the country is getting wealthier and the middle class is rising fast—thus the horrible traffic jams in Jakarta—but if you stroll in with an ATM card linked to a bank account in a country that uses the US dollar, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, euro, or yen, you’ll be feeling flush. Head to Sumatra and you can check out for months on a couple grand.

Unfortunately, the flight price is going to kill you for any of these if you’re coming from the USA or Canada, so it’s better if you’re already on the move and can get there from somewhere closer. At this time of year it’s hard to find a flight to any of the three for under $1,000, so sometimes you’re better off with a package deal that includes hotels.

Which leads us to the backyard choice:

Guadalajara

Mexico, Mexico!

I guess I moved back to Mexico at a good time. The exchange rate hasn’t dipped below 12 to the dollar since I got here this past summer and it just hit a new high of 13.3 when I took money out of the ATM yesterday. That means my “What you can get for a buck or less” list keeps expanding. Here’s a partial list

Two kilos of oranges or bananas, a large beer in a store, 12 ounces of fresh squeezed orange juice, a kilo of fresh tortillas, 2+ local bus rides, a few street tacos, a bootleg DVD, an ice cream cone or fresh fruit popsicle, a tamale, four breakfast buns, four sandwich rolls, y mucho mas,

A cheap meal of the day lunch in the market here is 30 pesos, which is now less than $2.50. A taxi from one side of Guanajuato to the other is less than $3. The average museum admission is $2 or less. As I always say though, those are prices in the real Mexico, not Cancun or Los Cabos.

Check flight prices here and go!


Today's best prices on international flights!

Frida Mexican money

One of the most exasperating things a traveling person can deal with is having plenty of money to spend, but not being able to get to it. Or use it.

That’s not just a scenario for old movies where people used traveler’s checks and got an advance at the American Express office. It’s a reality in many countries today, including my new adopted home of Mexico. Sure, you can change dollars here just fine—as long as you only need to change $300 a day. And as long as you only need to cash $1,500 over the course of a month.

It’s a restriction put into place to curtail money laundering and nefarious trade from the drug cartels, never mind the collateral damage to the 20 million tourists who visit each year. And oddly enough, if you’re a drug dealer savvy enough to deal in euros or pounds sterling instead, no limits!

At least there’s a pretty easy way around it in Mexico though. Actually two ways: use a debit card instead of bringing cash and use a credit card when making major purchases like a hotel room or week-long car rental. Sure, there are still restrictions on ATMs from normal banking limits, but you can take out as much as you want in a month.

argentina atm money travelers

In Argentina, the situation is almost the opposite. In fact if you go to Argentina without huge wads of first world currency in your pocket you’re pretty screwed. That’s because the official rate is only about 2/3 of what you get in the black market these days—a sure sign that the economy is in big trouble there. On top of that, you can generally only get 1,000 pesos at a time from most ATM machines, which even at the official rate is less than $200.

Follow the link above and you’ll find ways around it, but many of them involve paying another fee each time. If you’re there for any length of time, you’ll need a credit card for big purchases.

In Burma/Myanmar, you had better come with entirely crisp and new U.S. dollars and you might want to encase them in the kind of folders baseball card collectors use in transit. As this Planet Money story on NPR pointed out, even the tiniest flaw or mark on a bill will make it worth less than face value.

Keep in mind too that many currencies have a built-in fee for foreigners (like the Cuban convertible pesos in Cuba) and many are practically worthless outside their home country. While the Thai baht is practically a hard currency in Cambodia or Laos, the Cambodian money is so useless you hardly even see it outside of local markets. Tuk-tuk drivers don’t want it and even the grocery stores post prices in U.S. dollars.

And if you ever want to see a backpacker come close to tears, ask them what it was like dealing with getting change and using torn banknotes in India

My advice? Read a guidebook well before leaving. Those paper things are still really useful and thorough resources, with real research involved. Then as soon as you arrive in a place that’s not part of the G-8, ask another traveler if there’s anything you should know about money and ATMs. Then sit back and listen for a while.

 



cheap living abroad