Argentina is Cheap Again (If You Follow This Advice)

Argentina travel

Editor’s note – As of December 17, 2015, the dual currency system was swept out by a new government replacing the old one. The Argentine peso is now floating freely so the official and unofficial rates have converged. You can dial back on the cash you’re bringing in now! See this post for more details: Poof – No More Black Market in Argentina. This post is now a historic artifact.

 

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.

Comments
  1. Southern Cone Travel

    I agree with most of what you’ve written, but you do not address the where and how to issues in changing money in Argentina, which I have covered in detail at http://tinyurl.com/nbb7hev and elsewhere at the same site.

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks Wayne. From what I hear, if you’re not willing to go exchange the money on the street yourself, someone at your hotel will usually do it for a small cut of the total. So maybe you get 13.5 instead of 15 after that, but you’re still much better off. It is making the job of a front desk clerk one of the most desirable in B.A, from what a few locals have told me! As another commenter pointed out, Xoom is a good safe choice as well if you can take the time to set it up before arrival.

  2. Michael R

    One way to get money in is through xoom.com, as of today they’re exchanging dollars for pesos at $14.32. Take a little bit of cash and top yourself up.
    https://www.xoom.com/argentina/fees-fx

    No affiliation – but really happy I used Xoom while I was in Argentina

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks Michael. Yes, I should have mentioned Xoom as something most expats there use to get to their dollars at a better rate.

      As for the 10 year thing, I read in some travel trade magazine that only something like 4% of visitors from outside the continent return even one other time to Argentina during those 10 years. So it’s really only applicable to business travelers or people living in South America already. It also assumes you have 10 years left on your passport, which most people don’t. Sounds good on paper, but in practice it’s a red herring.

  3. Michael R

    The reciprocity tax is also good for 10 years. So the bite turns into a nibble with repeat visits.

  4. Franca

    It’s good to know for when we finally get to Argentina! :)

  5. Fabiano G

    ¡Hola! from Buenos Aires, Tim. I am Brazilian and I am living here a while now. As I always lived a couple hours of flight away from here and I don’t even need a passport to stay up to 6 months, I have visited the country over 20 times in the last 10 years. The blue exchange rates have made the country very attractive to anyone with access to dollars/euros/reais. Inflation rates are overwhelming, but living on foreign currency you don’t feel it very much. Taxi rides and public transportation are good and inexpensive. Food is great and also inexpensive, it’s almost double of what it was 3 or 4 years ago in pesos, but the exchange rates overcompensates the rise on prices. Great time to enjoy local products!
    I would add 2 cents of advise to strategies you mentioned:
    – Use plastic, just don’t use it in Argentina. Argentinians are not allowed to withdraw more than 50 dollars on bordering countries, but foreigners are. I take a boat trip to Colonia in Uruguay and get dollars from ATMs there. I spend 500 pesos on the 2 ways ticket and I can cash out up to 500 dollars a day from (each of) my Brazilian debit cards and up to 1200 dollars from my german debit card (1000 euro equivalent). I don’t use credit cards for this just because I’d pay hefty charges, if you credit card has a good money withdrawing policy, that would be one more option. I use this because I can’t use xoom from Brazil or Germany, and I also hanging out in Colonia and Montevideo once every 2 or 3 months.
    – Avoid the Arbolitos (people on the streets yelling “¡Cambio, Cambio!”) and the “cuevas” (caves) on turistic places, they pay the worst rates on any currency. There are hundreds of people living on “blue exchange business” with facebook pages/groups that publish the exchange rates beforehand. You can message them and agree on the price moments before exchange. Some have offices, some go to you hotel lobby. There are plenty of Americans, Brazilians and Aussies doing it here. Read the recommendations and ask for advice on the groups.
    – Use bitcoins – A couple weeks ago I needed some extra cash out of the blue and I had no time to take a boat to Colonia (cheap tickets need to be bought on advance). I bought a couple bitcoins with bank transfer in Brazil, used facebook to find buyers in bitcoin related groups, contacted/called one of them with good reputation, met him on a Starbucks downtown and sold him 1,000 buck in bitcoins, selling process (transfering bitcoins and counting the money took less than 5 minutes). Problem solved in less than 2 hours.

  6. Agnes

    You can get around the fee to enter Argentina, Arrive in Montevideo, come in by ferry to Buenos Aires and its a lot cheaper, then that fee is NOT required if you enter by land!

    • Tim Leffel

      When did you do this? Everything I see online, including from people crossing from Chile or Uruguay, says you must have the entry fee paid up in advance. As of January, 2013.

      • Southern Cone Travel

        You are correct, Tim, and Agnes is very wrong. Today I crossed at a very isolated border post from Chile, and still got asked.

    • Tibor

      Hi Anes,
      Can you send for me some link cheap fly to Uruguay or Argentina .From Budapest or London.
      Thanks.

  7. sarah

    great info! what about the canuck travellers, any tips?

    • Tim Leffel

      Change your money to U.S. dollars before arriving and brings lots of them.

  8. Aimee

    Tim I am planning a vacation from the USA to South America in November. I want to visit both Buenos Aires and Rio. Would you say it’s better to purchase a ticket from Argentina to Brazil once we are actually in Argentina ? I’m wondering if it will be cheaper but even so, would it worth it?

    • Tim Leffel

      Yes, I would wait. You might decide to go to Iguazu Falls and then you could just go overland for far cheaper from there. It’s doubtful you’ll pay more for flights there than buying them at home, regardless.

  9. Brad

    Tim – Traveling to Buenos Aires next month! Do you recommend I just bring cash and do the currency transfer in country?

    • Tim Leffel

      Yes, you’ll get a significantly better rate and won’t have to deal with the low ATM limits.

  10. Marta

    Tim, We are traveling to Argentina next November. It is cheaper buy the tours to Calafete or Ushuai, there or in the agency?

    • Tim Leffel

      Buying locally is almost always cheaper. You could find some B.A. agencies online to check prices ahead of time to be sure.

  11. Liz

    Hello
    Does the tourist tax apply for UK citizens? Haven’t seen anyone from UK on this blog and we leave for BA and Mar del Plate on Tuesday.
    Cheers!

    • Tim Leffel

      It’s reciprocal, so whatever your country charges Argentines, that’s what Argentina will charge you.

  12. Elizabeth

    Is there a limit on how much one can bring into the country in $US? We are trying to arrange to move to Buenas Aires from Jan/Feb to August next year. With 2 young kids, I’d rather pack cash than all the stuff they’ll need. Can one easily sell off stuff when leaving via some craigslist equivalent?

    • Southern Cone Travel

      There is a limit of US$10,000 per person without having to declare the amount. For greater amounts, it’s necessary to declare it, and it’s best not to advertise you’re carrying lots of cash.

  13. Eileen

    Should I bring Australian dollars with me or change to US? Thanks

  14. Rosie

    I wonder if anyone can help (Tim?!) I’m a solo female backpacker about to embark on a slow-backpack trip of approx 7 months around Argentina. I’m terrified of getting robbed carrying lots of my hard earned savings upon my person or in my backpack.

    I will of course use a money belt and am considering sewing pouches into some of clothes to sneak cash away…..

    Advice please!

    • Rosie

      Correction: hard earned saving in USA :-)

      • Rosie

        *$USD*

    • Tim Leffel

      Just use precautions and yes, use things like money pouches, pickpocket proof pants, or Pacsafe items that are tough to slash/rob from. But really, Argentina is relatively safe overall. You won’t be the only one carrying loads of dollars around.

  15. Wayne Bernhardson

    By the way, Brazil does not have a “reciprocity fee” for US residents and some other foreigners. A visa is obligatory, though it can be obtained in border towns such as Argentina’s Puerto Iguazú.

    • Tim Leffel

      Then why is coincidentally the same price Brazilians pay to enter the USA then Wayne? Call it what you will, it’s a way to get back at the yankees, which is why they also fingerprint Americans and then just throw the fingerprints away. Its purpose is purely retaliatory, which is something tourism officials have confirmed with me—off the record of course.

  16. Nikki

    Hey Tim! Love this post!!! I’m wondering if you can help me? I’m leaving for Argentina from the us on Thursday for two weeks. Hotels and transportation have already been paid for. Wondering how much cash you would bring for two weeks of meals, wine tasting and light shopping? We’re pretty moderate in spending, but love to eat. We aren’t used to carrying cash but this sounds SO much better than using the exchange rate on our cards! Just a little nervous. Thank you!!!

    • Tim Leffel

      The short answer is, as much as you feel comfortable carrying. The savings will easily pay 10X over for the money belts and Pickpocket Proof clothing you could buy if you’re really worried…

  17. Andre

    Tim, what is the cheapest way to get to Argentina for a family of 4? Some suggest flying in to Uruguay and then crossing over. We are planning a 3 month trip December- February in order to learn Spanish.

  18. Frank Delgado

    I am loving this cheapest destinations blogs! I am planning on moving to one of the locations you have blogged about, but im not sure where yet.

  19. Janet

    Hey folks! As of March 24, 2016, the Argentine government is suspending the $160 reciprocity fee for travelers staying fewer than 90 days. Here’s the link to show you: http://www.migraciones.gov.ar/accesible/templates/reciprocidad/reciprocidad.htm

    • Tim Leffel

      Janet – that’s terrific news! Well for 90 days anyway. I’ll do a post on some visa changes this week and share whatever else I find out.

  20. Ale

    Hi!! I’m traveling to Argentina in two months. We are 4 people travelling, flight and accommodations are already arrange. How much money for food and entertainment will be enough? I’m planing on around two thousand american dollars.
    And the next question is how do I handle the money? I bring cash or a credit card?
    Thank you for the guidance!

  21. Hernan M

    It’s 2017. Argentina is expensive again, at least for food. Not that anyone should be surprised. A Big Mac costs almost 30 percent more in Buenos Aires than in London. The same bottle of CocaCola is double the price in Bs As vs London. A tin of the same quality of tuna fish, double the price in Bs As. And those are supermarket prices.

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