29 October 2012

Blue Market Money Exchange in Buenos Aires


Hombre en La Calle here. Let’s talk about bringing money from your native country and exchanging it in Buenos Aires.

Say you have a fistful of Euros that you wanted to exchange when you landed at Ezeiza but didn’t get around to it. You could probably get around by paying for your restaurant bills and mom-and-pop store expenses with your native money, but this will immediately identify you as a tourist, and if you don’t do your exchange rate homework, this is a wonderful way for someone to cheat you out of the right amount of change. So what next?

You could go the safe, legal route and exchange your money at a bank. But due to inflation, the country’s official exchange rate differs from the informal exchange rate. So what if you want to get the best deal on exchanging your native money for pesos?

First, if you have US dollars, check these exchange rates out. Listed there are the official (Banco Central de la República Argentina [BCRA]), actual (private banks), and informal exchange rates for the ARS (Argentinian Peso) and US Dollar. That informal rate will be the one you’re looking for as you begin your quest.

Second, if you interact with people who routinely work with foreign currencies (such as people in hospitality and tourism--like if you’re staying at a hotel), ask them if they’ll exchange with you.

Third, you could walk down to Calle Florida and change your money on the blue market.


Called so because it’s based around blue-chip swaps, the blue market is Argentina’s underground money exchange. In Buenos Aires, the blue market’s representatives can be heard at the lower street numbers (< 500) on Calle Florida, the middle of the downtown shopping district. There, you’ll walk down the busy, store-lined pedestrian street as locals and tourists alike browse around for upscale clothing, perfumes, and gadgets. You’ll want to plant yourself among the throngs of people and listen.

And inevitably, you’ll hear the soft melody of the arbolitos--street-level representatives--who call out “cambio, cambio” without trying to attract attention. Arbolitos come in various guises. Some look a little destitute, but wear jewelry, and they might sport sunglasses. If you think that kind of person looks shady, I don’t blame you. Others might wear business-casual attire or even suits. Talk to whom you feel comfortable with.

If you casually approach one, they’ll speak to you in Spanish, and probably broken English. They will ask you how much you want to exchange and what denomination. You can ask them what the tipo de cambio (exchange rate) is and they’ll probably give you a number that is pretty close to (and maybe a little less than) the unofficial exchange rate that you already looked up.

If the arbolito is happy with you and your intended amount and denomination, he or she will ask you to follow them to a cueva (cave--colloquially like hideout), which will be somewhere close but off the street. Don’t trust anyone who wants to exchange money right then and there. That’s just dumb. Once in the cueva, you’ll be able to exchange your money.

I did cambio azul twice in mid-October, 2012.

The first time, I walked down Calle Florida and listened for the soft “cambio, cambio.” I talked to a woman at the 200 block of Calle Florida who looked about 19 years old. She was wearing worn out clothing and looked like a local version of a meth head. When I asked, she gave me a quote of 6.00 pesos per US dollar. I said thanks and moved on. A second woman, about 20 meters south, on the 100 block, quoted me 6.10. And she was wearing a business suit kind of outfit, like a flight attendant’s uniform, and talked to me more directly. I said I had $100 USD to exchange to pesos. She led me into a small galeria and beckoned me to go to a guy who had a “legit” casa de cambio. He met me in the galeria hallway and then walked behind his money desk window. He counted out my money and showed me the arithmetic on a calculator and then counted out the pesos. I said thanks and exited the galeria.

The second time, I walked down Calle Florida with $150 USD. I heard the “cambio, cambio” from these two meaty looking guys in suits who were standing outside of an electronics store. I got a safe vibe from them so I stopped to talk to one of them. He showed me the quote on his cell phone ($6.10 pesos per 1 USD again) and I said yeah, and he asked me to follow him. This time, I followed him around the block on the street into an apartment/office building. I felt like this was kind of shady but I went anyway. He took me up to the tenth floor in an old rickety elevator. We stood in the hallway outside of a door for about 5 minutes. After a few minutes, the arbolito left. I stood there alone. Two people came out at different intervals. There was an electronic lock on the door. Then finally someone opened it and a guy inside beckoned me in. It was an office with a retrofitted money window (i.e. thick glass and bars). I took out my money and the guy behind the window did the same thing as last time--he counted it, tapped the math on the calculator and showed me, and counted out the pesos. I took them and left the building.

Ultimately, I felt pretty safe doing this, but it is technically illegal. I’m not sure what the consequences of getting caught are, and I don’t want to. So my main advice on getting a great deal for currency exchange is to start by asking other expats that you trust. Chances are, they might even know of a person who comes to your place to change money. That’s convenience.

The Blue Market is not exactly legal, but it’s kind of too big to fail prosecute. If the government were to crack down on this, it would disturb the country’s financial and political economy, and at its current precarious standing, that might be disastrous. So the blue market continues. Just the other day, I watched a short exposé on the exchange at Calle Florida. Check it out.

Hombre en La Calle out, yo.

Guest post by Sandro.

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