It’s called the “Paris of South America.” In many ways it reminds me of New York. Sometimes, I think Beirut. Buenos Aires has everything—it’s my favorite city in South America (so far). It’s intense, diverse, and cocky; it has eclectic neighborhoods, a large artistic community, creative and interesting people. There’s an abundance of color. The Palermo neighborhood is like the East Village meets Havana–cafes, restaurants, bars, bright yellows, blues, and turquoises. People seem to smile more.
In Buenos Aires you can walk into any café, sit down, order an empanada off a menu you’re just seeing for the first time and a waiter—who looks as though he’s worked there for 30 years—will bring it to you, and you’ll take a bite and think it’s be the best thing you’ve ever tasted. There are food carts serving up choripan (like chorizo) sandwiches and 18 different kinds of mustard and salsa. Bife de chorizo in large quantities, all-you-can-eat steak restaurants, pastel de papas, vacio sandwiches, chimichurri everything, afternoon mate, malbec; excuse me while I go make a snack.
There is a sense of lawlessness in the city. Anything related to the government is in disarray. The streets are tattered, the streetlights are broken, its infrastructure is crumbling. Police are allegedly corrupt. Outsiders and Argentineans alike talk constantly about the corruption, about police officers colluding with criminals. When you arrive you immediately look at policemen with distrust; you are sure the policeman with a ponytail is crooked. You notice police officers talking with tattooed men on the street outside your hostel. Everything looks shady.
One evening I stumbled out of a nightclub in the downtown area at 2AM with James, a forgettable Australian traveler from my hostel. We walked toward a line of taxis across the street with a vague notion about another club to head to that night. “Come on, let’s go.”
I approached taxi #1 when the driver looked at me.
“Reserved,” he shouted. He waved us away.
We walked to the next taxi.
“No, it’s reserved,” the driver said.
Third taxi, same result. That’s strange. Who reserves a taxi in Buenos Aires?
“They’re drug dealers, not taxis,” someone said. I looked at him. “You need to catch a taxi over there on that corner.” He pointed.
20 feet away on the street corner were two police women. I looked at them in their uniforms and again at the taxi line, which was in their sight. In a paranoid thought process, I imagined a vast corruption scheme involving 90% of the police force, politicians and local mafia.
A few more days in Buenos Aires and I learned the drug-dealing taxi line was not a unique occurrence. Many taxi drivers sold drugs, or maybe it was that many drug dealers drove taxis. What’s the difference anyway? They sold cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana and drove you from point A to B.
This only added to Buenos Aires’ allure.
Due to an economic crisis, prices are low and fluctuate wildly; money feels frivolous. In a country with two exchange rates, rampant inflation and price volatility, money seems less important. Oh, about that. There are two exchange rates: the official rate, partially pegged by the government, and an unofficial rate, the “blue market” rate, which is much higher. In February 2014, the blue-market rate price for goods was very cheap; at the official rate, they were also cheap.
A steak dinner cost $10, cigarettes $1, the best beef empanadas you’ve ever had, $1. There was inflation. One day your sandwich would cost $20 pesos; the next, $25 pesos. But it didn’t matter. When you’re dealing in these kinds of numbers, when the beer costs $1.50 instead of $1.25, who cares? I offered to pay for things, bought rounds of drinks, didn’t hesitate at any opportunity to go to dinner. I made it rain.
The crisis benefited tourists and destroyed Argentinean household wealth, another in a series of recent economic disasters. In between stuffing my face with $2 choripan and dollar empanadas, I felt vaguely guilty about the situation. Bankers use the word schadenfreude to describe a situation where one takes pleasure in the pain of others. This wasn’t that, but it did give me pause. The worse the economy got, the higher the exchange rate pushed, the further your dollars went, the more fun you could have. I’m digressing here.
Florida Street was where everyone went in Buenos Aires to change U.S. money on the blue market, as they call it. Florida Street is like Canal Street in New York without Chinese people. It’s crowded, touristy, full of knock-off goods and cheap food and street solicitors trying to sell you everything. Every few feet, there is someone shouting “Cambio?” “Cambio! “Cambio!” which is Spanish for “I want to buy your dollars, gringo.”
I walked down Florida Street for the first time with $200 in my pocket on a sunny afternoon. I needed to buy pesos to pay my hostel. I was nervous, wearing sunglasses that shielded my hesitant eyes. I’d spoken with friends and people at the hostel about the blue-market exchange process. Everyone assured me it was nothing to worry about. “Everyone goes there,” someone said. “If you don’t change money on the blue market you’re a fucking idiot,” a Brit at the hostel said. “It’s no big deal.” Still, the back rooms, the unclear legality, the shady currency traders made me feel uneasy.
“Shalom, Cambio!” one man shouted at me. Another standing next to him did the same, “Shalom!” A lot of Israelis visit Argentina. I smiled and moved through the crowded street.
“Cambio!” another faceless man shouted. He locked eyes with me. “Where juu from?”
For some reason, I slowed. “Estados Unidos.”
“How much you want to change?”
“Small amount. $100 bills I can give a good rate.”
The traders preferred $100 bills because they stack easier in duffle bags and safety deposit boxes. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to offer $100 because I was afraid–mostly of receiving counterfeit money on my first try, but also afraid of getting robbed or kidnapped.
“I only want to change $60. How much for that?”
The man took out a small calculator.
“11.50,” he said, showing me the digital display.
(The official rate was something like 7.2 that morning.)
11.50 was about the average rate I’d heard all morning walking along Florida Street. Moreover, the guy seemed harmless. You didn’t get a bad vibe from him.
“OK,” I said.
“Follow me. We have to walk one block.”
I followed the man off of the main street. We took a right onto a small side street and continued for another block.
“The rate is very high now.”
“Yes. Everyday it changes. Last week it crashed 40%,” he said and smiled. “We never know what will happen. That’s why we want your dollars.”
“Crazy.” My heart rate quickened as we continued walking for what felt like a long time.
I’d decided in Chile that small talk was a way to humanize myself in precarious situations. It was a way to make the guy think twice before kidnapping me, or so I figured. I did the same thing with taxi drivers, drumming up small talk, especially late at night, so that I did not seem as some faceless gringo the driver could rip off. It rarely seemed to work.
“Here, this way,” the man said, pointing to a passageway, which lead to an indoor mall. The metal gate at the entrance was halfway closed. We crawled under and walked inside and went into a small shop where another man stood behind a cash register.
The store looked like any other office I’ve been to. It resembled a travel agency or a waiting area at a dentist’s office. However, there were no products for sale; the shelves were bare. A radio played Top-40 music in the background. I stared at a man behind the cash register who was writing on a small notepad.
We walked up to the counter; “$60″ my new street friend explained. The cashier was expressionless as he took out bills from the register and counted them and laid them out on the counter. I handed him three $20 bills. I took the Argentine notes in my hands and, one by one, held each one up to the light and examined them, not sure what exactly I was looking for but feigning seriousness. The solicitor rested his elbow on the counter looking at his phone; the cashier continued writing. I maintained the same “serious” face I make in restaurants when a waiter presents me with a bottle of wine. The bills looked like the other money I’d handled; each one had a continuous strip and holographic face that appeared when you held it against light, similar to U.S. money. They seemed legitimate.
“OK. Thanks,” I said and folded the money and put it in my pocket. I smiled and thanked the men. They thanked me back. I walked out, unharmed, and put my sunglasses back on.
15 minutes later I followed a different street solicitor to a different side street, this time into store that sold baby clothing (of all things) and exchanged another $100 at a rate of 11.60/USD.
On my way back to the hostel, out of curiosity, I walked by the corner where I negotiated with the first man. He wasn’t there. A brief moment of panic, and then a test, I bought a soda with one of my new $100 peso notes. The money worked. They aren’t fakes I guess.
I went to Florida Street two more times that week, exchanging money in small increments. I never received a single counterfeit note; no one tried to rob me. It was just business. I found that I actually liked the process. The chaos, the negotiating, the preference for $100 bills, duffle bags full of cash, being part of an operation I’d read about in the news, the resemblance to the trading floor in New York, the people shouting, and haggling, the price volatility, the corruption, all of it, in a strange way, fueled my excitement and love for Buenos Aires. It was the same feeling one gets at craps tables in Las Vegas.
Each time I went back I’d look for the guys I’d exchanged with previously. I’d walk up and down the street looking for people I knew I could trust, but they could never be found. They were ghost-like, faceless figures, appearing in flashes, collecting U.S. dollars, and then disappearing. I was disappointed each time I couldn’t find my guy and had to find someone new. I didn’t like having to start a new vetting process, putting myself at risk each time.
Long-term travelers in Buenos Aires form relationships with blue-market dealers, or commonly trade with each other. They exchange phone numbers and send a text message anytime they want to make a trade. I told myself I’d do that next time. I tried to imagine what it’d be like to live there.
The blue market became popular in 2011 when the Argentine government imposed restrictions on its citizens from buying dollars. The aim of the measures was to slow the flood of wealth and foreign reserves leaving the country. Earlier the year the government lifted some of these restrictions, and banks are now authorized to sell small amounts of dollars. Over the past month, the spread between the blue market and official rate has tightened, and is now around 10.2 versus 8. When I visited it was around 11.5 versus 7. For further reading on Argentina’s economy, check out this article from The Economist.