Here’s some advice you don’t hear very often in the travel world: when you fly into the country, bring as much cash as you can, preferably in $100 bills or €100 notes. That’s because we’re talking about the strategy to visit Argentina, where your money is worth twice as much than if you use a credit card or take it out of an ATM.
I’m traveling in Argentina right now, my fourth time here, and it’s a bit strange this time. It’s cheaper than it’s ever been, with lower prices than I’m used to in Mexico on most goods and services, but that’s only if you’re getting the “blue rate” of close to 200 pesos per dollar and not the official exchange rate that’s around 100. At the official rate, prices are still reasonable—my Uber ride through the app was $4.20 in central Buenos Aires—but at the blue rate in cash that ride would have been $2.10.
Yes, if you thought the black market in currency exchange was a thing of the past, or only seen in crumbling countries like Venezuela, you’d be wrong. It’s blue instead of black because it’s out in the open and published on news sites, but Argentina has two exchange rates that follow their own logic. Find an article from an economist about why the official rate is artificially low, but the most logical answer is that Argentina still has a lot of debt and if they float their currency freely, the price of that debt will double. There are also import/export considerations, budget considerations, and other factors, but the bottom line is the government is projecting a fiction that keeps their financial crisis from looking as bad as it really is.
For the locals, it is a crisis, though you wouldn’t know that from looking at the busy cafes and the busy domestic airport. Argentines are used to being in a state of crisis and it’s not going to keep them from having a good time. Most with money have bank accounts abroad, in Uruguay or Chile at least, and they’re used to converting their pesos to dollars on a regular basis. Most have learned that real estate is a safer place to put money than a local bank, so I’m not seeing great bargains to buy something like I did when I first visited the country 15 years ago.
Blue Rate Prices in Argentina for Travelers
I can’t give a very exhaustive list of prices yet for when you visit Argentina, so I’ll do that later in a more detailed article. I’ll be here a few weeks. Instead, this blog post is one of those quickly knocked-out ones I used to post on here in the ’00s before I had to start thinking about keyword research and the Big G all the time. (Back then, people used RSS readers to revisit their favorite blogs, before Google killed that off to make people rely more on search.)
I just wanted to give a quick rundown, with some photos, to give an idea of what a bargain Argentina is right now for travelers. Sure, it can cost some money to get there unless you cash in points for a free flight as I did, but then after you peel off a few $100 bills at a street exchange place, you’ll be loving life for a while.
The best deals right now are on food and drink, which is great since you’ll be spending money on that a few times per day. The first thing I saw when I walked in a supermarket was bottles of wine for sale for 355 pesos, or roughly $1.50. Wondering if those were an anomaly, I went over to the wine shelves–the biggest section of the supermarket it seemed–and found a few dozen more brands that were less than US$2 at the blue rate. I bought one from Mendoza and was quite pleased.
The fruit and vegetable section was another land of bargains, with many items costing $1 or less per kilo, sometimes a lot less. Cheese, yogurt, and meat were all less expensive than what I usually see in Mexico, which leads me to a conclusion: if you buy something produced in Argentina, not imported, you’re going to make out well. Since there’s a lot of agriculture in this country, it’s a long list.
If you’re willing to eat the typical Argentine breakfast, which is a coffee and two medialuna pastries (like thin croissants), then you can get that for less than a buck at a lot of cafes. Spend two or three bucks and you can get something more substantial and in any case, the coffee will be good. They take their coffee very seriously here and it’s nearly always freshly made in an espresso machine.
In stores and in bars, I’ve been thrilled with the beer prices also. It’s usually less than $2 for a pint of beer. The only time I’ve paid more ($2.50) was at a Patagonia Beer taproom, which also had the highest food prices.
Check out this photo from the domestic airport in Buenos Aires. When’s the last time you saw a craft beer or a bottle of detox juice for two or three bucks…in an airport?! The beer is 400 pesos and the juices are 450 to 490. (For comparison, my wife stopped in a juice shop in Houston before we flew down and an equivalent one was more than $10 there, before tax. She kept walking.)
Prices are lower at happy hour and are universally low in restaurants. We went out to one place in Buenos Aires and it was too early to order a $4.50 pizza. So we got $4 burgers with fresh-cut fries instead and got glasses of wine for $1.50 each. Most meals have come in at $8 to $15 for two and that’s without trying to be careful about where we eat. You could spend two or three times that at a nice steak or seafood place, but what you get will be very good.
We didn’t take the Buenos Aires subway yet, but I think when we do it’ll be less than 10 cents for a ride. When we caught a taxi from the Calafate airport to downtown, a 20-minute trip, it was $12 for two. Getting around in central B.A. should only cost you a few bucks.
I did get a haircut while I was in the big city, at a fancy barbershop in Recoleta, where they gave me a craft beer while I was waiting. It was $16 by local standards at the official exchange rate, but came out to eight bucks for me.
Cashing in Money in Buenos Aires
How easy it is to cash in your money depends on where you are when you visit Argentina. In the shopping districts, the touts will find you or be shouting “Cambio, Cambio!” Otherwise you need to visit an exchange kiosk and make sure they’re giving the blue rate. Restaurants have that rate posted though, so if you want you can pay in dollars and get a rate close to 200, then they’ll give you change in pesos. You may also find some hotel clerk or waiter who is ready to do an exchange. Count the bills of course, but usually people aren’t trying to scam you.
Just be advised that your best bet is to bring recently minted $100 bills in good condition. They may take $50 bills, but it’s difficult to exchange 20s or you’ll get a lower rate. Smaller bills you can still use for tips and restaurant payments, of course. No old bills though. I once got some old 20s from my bank and didn’t notice until I arrived. Nobody wanted them and I ended up taking them back home.
On top of getting a lower rate from an ATM, you also have to deal with restricted amounts. It’s not uncommon for a bank ATM to limit your withdrawal to $150 or so. Add in the fees and it’s a raw deal all around. Just bring cash and be done with it.
One last note on that though. You may want to pack a pair of Pickpocket Proof Pants, preferably the ones with cargo pockets. Because you’re going to be carrying far more than you can fit in a wallet. The biggest bill the exchange places give you is 10,000. That’s equivalent to five bucks. So you’re going to be carrying a big stack of bills around even before you get smaller ones as change.
Understand that you will still get stuck paying the official rate on some items, like hotels and flights. If you rent an apartment though, you’ll probably see bargains galore. I’ll post the one we rented in Buenos Aires when we return when I do another prices post.