“Cambio! Cambio!” Tom and I nervously walked down Florida Street in Buenos Aires stereotyping the hawkers as we tried to select which person was least likely to rip us off. There were hundreds to choose from and meanwhile the weight of thousands of US dollars in cash felt heavy next to Tom’s groin. For the first time on our trip we decided to actually use the RFID scan-proof money belt we bought from REI.
We selected our guy and after a brief negotiation for the best rate based on the amount and the denomination of bills we brought (with $100 bills being the most valuable), we followed him into a building, up a few floors, to a small, unmarked 6x6 foot office.
We entered the tiny room. There was no sign, no pictures, and no furniture; just an overweight, slightly sweaty Argentinian man with a stash of cash, an electronic bill counter, and a calculator. The windows were covered by old newspapers; papers that probably reported the ever decreasing value of the Argentinian peso and next to it the unofficial “blue market” exchange rate.
Tom modestly turned to the side to reach down his pants and pull out our stack of US dollars. We received a wad of Argentinian pesos in return; about sixty to seventy percent more than we would have received had we pulled our money out of an ATM or changed money at the airport. We spent the next few minutes carefully looking through the stack and checking each bill to ensure it was not fraudulent. We had studied the lines and watermarks of the real bills so we could spot the counterfeits.
Argentina is experiencing such extreme hyperinflation that there is a huge demand for US dollars. People don’t want to keep their cash in the AR Peso because they experience up to 25% inflation in just one year. We saw swings of up to 10% during just a short 5-week stay in Buenos Aires. As a result, an unofficial "blue dollar market” has emerged in which people pay higher than the official exchange rate to buy US dollars, a much more stable currency.
For example, today the official exchange rate in Argentina is 7.125 Argentinian pesos for every one American dollar. But on the blue market you can get 12.15 for every one American dollar; that is assuming you don’t mind doing back room deals with sweaty Argentinian men.
So once you have your pesos, you can live like a Porteño for about 60% or 70% off. But how do you live, look, act, eat and drink as an Argentinian? Here are a few observations we made:
Act Like A Local
Go out and stay out late. I think I have seen more sunrises in my five weeks in Buenos Aires than the rest of my life combined…and its not because I’ve been waking up early. Most Porteños don’t go out for dinner till after 10pm. Restaurants and bars don’t even open their doors till at least 8pm. It’s not uncommon to see whole families, with kids and all, eating a family meal at midnight. And if you plan to go to the clubs don’t expect the party to really get going till at least 3am. When you stumble out to head home you’ll be shocked that its 8am, the sun is fully up, and music is still reverberating from the still-packed “night club” (if you can really even call it a “night club” at this point).
Look Like A Local
Rock the Mohawk, or a mullet or rat-tail will do too. In an effort to drown out his gringo accent, Tom cut his hair to look like a local. Sometimes he even fools me, until he opens his mouth to talk in Spanish again.
Pull out those 90’s Platform Shoes. The girls in Argentina seem to be obsessed with their height. I can understand the slimming effects of wearing tall shoes. I use this little trick of my own when I wear my heels, but heels don’t appear to be the go-to choice here. Rather girls sport the more practical, but much less attractive option of clunky, flat 2-inch platforms with thick straps. Thankfully, the women are naturally beautiful and it makes up for their hideous shoes.
Eat Like A Local
Indulge in dulce. Try to find dark chocolate in Argentina; I dare you. This is the land of sugar and sweetness and you won’t find a bitter indulgence like dark chocolate without a full search team. Argentinians prefer milky, sugary sweets and dulce de leche (a sweet confection of caramelized milk and sugar) is at the top of their list. They put multiple layers of it between cookies and then roll it in coconut flakes and sugar or cover it in chocolate to make their famous layered cookies, alfajores. I didn’t see one ice cream shop that didn’t have at least 5 different variations of dulce de leche flavors. When you walk through the super market, an entire aisle is dedicated to jars of various types of dulce de leche. I had no idea you could create so much variety with just milk and sugar.
Eat Steak. According to New York Times, the average Argentinian ate 129 pounds of steak per year compared to 57.5 pounds per the average American. In Argentina, there is a parilla (Argentinian steak house / grill) on every corner. Some are high-end fancy establishments, and others are local hole-in the wall oases of perfectly cooked slabs of meat. They keep their steaks simple, seasoned only with salt and cooking them rare or medium-rare. Most steaks come served with other goodies hot off the grill, including provoleta (a round white medallion of provolone cheese with herb seasonings) and calabasas (butternut squash).
Drink Like A Local
Drink malbec and mate. Argentina is famous for their wine. The most famous varietal of the country is malbec, a dark, robust red wine. But when Argentinians aren’t washing down their steak with a large glass of malbec, mate appears to be the drink of choice. It’s not uncommon to see Argentinians walking around with a thermos of hot water under one arm and a gourd full of yerba mate with a bombilla (metal straw with a filter) in the their hand. Even when its 99 degrees out, they still sip on this hot drink. In the market, the section for mate is larger than the coffee section.
Sound Like A Local
Shhhhh. In most all other Spanish-speaking countries, the “ll” is pronounced with a “y” sound. But in Argentina, the “ll” is pronounced with a “sh” sound instead. This subtle change made it significantly more difficult to learn Spanish here, but I grew to like the subtle change in pronunciation and regret that when we leave we must return to using the “y” sound instead.
All in all, we had an amazing time in Buenos Aires. We lived in the city for 5 weeks in an amazing little apartment with a stellar view. It was a much-needed reprieve from city hopping through Europe for nearly 4 months. We took advantage of our consistency of location by taking Spanish lessons and making friends. We found the Argentinian locals to be a charming, friendly and proud bunch. We look forward to spending more time with them in Mendoza and Patagonia in the coming weeks.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!