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.
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.
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.