Walk down the main tourist street in Buenos Aires and you’ll encounter dozens or perhaps hundreds of people who seem to be hanging around, doing nothing. Listen carefully when when you pass and you’ll soon realize they are in fact “working” people. Yes, Florida Street from Belgrano to Santa Fe is where you go if you’re in Buenos Aires and looking for a certain service. And you’ll find all types offering it – from teenaged boys in football jerseys and Nikes to 30-ish moms in tight yoga pants – and they’re all just trying to make a buck. If it’s not the oldest profession in the world, as some claim, it’s definitely close.
I have a confession to make. Yesterday I spent a pleasant day in Colonia, Uruguay, but when the return ferry docked an hour earlier than expected and it was way too early to go back to the hostel, I flagged a cab and asked the driver to take me to Florida Street.
I’m not in the habit of doing this sort of thing and I was nervous to say the least, but I reassured myself that most of my dorm-mates have done this once if not twice or even three times in the last week! It was high time I joined the club.
I got out of the cab at the corner of Florida and Corrientes and walked north on a cobblestone street lined with bars, cafes, clothing boutiques and the odd tattoo parlor. Before I reached the second block I had been audibly propositioned by no fewer than four athletic-looking guys in their early 20s, one handsome but disheveled man of about 30, and what appeared to be a mother-daughter tag team. The daughter was my age.
The sporty guys in Nikes and Boca jerseys looked a little shifty, I thought, so they were quickly ruled out. The guy in his 30s appeared to be agitated and was likely on something so he too was an easy out. Granny Clampett was so hard of hearing that negotiation was going to be impossible, and there’s no way I was going to do this without negotiation, so the daughter it was. She was no Ellie Mae but she would do in a pinch, I said to myself.
After introducing herself and striking a deal on the street, “Gloria” led me into a nearby shopping arcade, down a flight of stairs to a basement concourse occupied by a shoe repair shop, the ticket office for a local bus line, and several nondescript offices. Gloria motioned to the back corner of the mini-mall where she kept an “office” that was cleverly disguised as a tailor’s shop. She opened the door and ushered me into a room lit with a single 100-watt bulb.
“Right here?” I asked.
“Si, my boss needs to inspect it first. Let’s see it.”
And with that I reached into my inside jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope containing 10 crisp US $100 bills.
“Got ’em this afternoon at the Banco de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay in Colonia,” I said. “They’re legit.”
Gloria’s boss emerged from a back room. He was a short, balding man of about 60, wearing a stained undershirt and trousers pulled up impossibly high. One by one he held my bills up to the light, and after determining that they were indeed legit, he counted out 14,000 Pesos and pushed the stack across the table. I crammed the Pesos into my money belt and was halfway up the stairs when I heard a voice that was about two-packs-a day richer than Patty or Selma Simpson’s call out, “Gracias, honey. Pleasure doing business.”
“Thanks, Gloria,” I replied. And no, she didn’t get a kiss.
Now you’re probably wondering why tourists like me go to great lengths to avoid Argentine banks and ATMs, travel to Uruguay and back on a regular basis, and change money with shifty characters whispering “cambio, cambio, cambio” to every tourist who walks by. The answer is simple: Argentina is the economic basket case of South America and it pays to skirt the rules.
Until the 1930s Argentina was one of the most stable and conservative economies in the world. Since the Great Depression it has shifted to the other end of the scale. It’s a country that in January 2002 had five (5) presidents in the span of two (2) weeks. Between 1975 and 1991 prices rose 300% per year or by a combined factor of 20 billion. That’s inflation! The latest meltdown came in July when the country defaulted on its debt for the umpteenth time. One of the responses from the corrupt and inept Kirchner government has been to cut off access to US dollars, effectively creating a black market, known as the Dólar “Blue”.
People with savings are so eager to get their hands on US currency – which is seen as a reliable hedge against inflation – that they employ multiple layers of staff to obtain the cash from anyone with a foreign bank account and the time to travel to Colonia, Uruguay where US dollars are available from every ATM. Gloria, her mother, and the man in the undershirt and hundreds of others are the street level workers who buy the US currency from people like me. They currently offer an exchange rate of 14-1, which is twice the official government (bank) rate of 7-1. Use a credit card or withdraw Pesos from an ATM in Buenos Aires and you’ll get the government rate of 7 Pesos for a buck. Deal with people like Gloria and the man in the undershirt and you’ll get 14-1. For the mathematically challenged, that puts everything in this sophisticated European-like city on sale at 50% off.
The steak dinner with wine that costs 200 Pesos or about $28 will actually cost you $14 if you bought those Pesos on the black market. The hostel that charges 84 Pesos or about $12 for bed and breakfast now costs about $6 a night. The breakfast isn’t much but at that price…
So after maxing out my daily withdrawal limits from several accounts, I spent yesterday afternoon strolling the quiet, tree-lined streets of Colonia, Uruguay. There isn’t much to do in this sleepy little town except take photos and poke around the antique and trinket shops. By mid-afternoon I was ready for a beer and so too were a young Aussie doctor and his wife who was fresh off a six-month placement at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. Later I had dinner with a couple from Seattle and a university student from Dublin. We strolled back to the ferry together and passed the time on the return voyage swapping hostel recommendations and horror stories.
At 50% off an already low price, even the worst of the Argentine hostels is pretty easy to take.