Trading blue dollars on the black market

Nothing to see here: black market currency traders hide in plain sight.
Nothing to see here: black market currency traders hide in plain sight.

In Argentina, because of currency controls (a little like those in Venezuela) you can get more for your US dollars if you exchange them on the black market. Admittedly, it’s a little illegal but it’s openly acknowledged. The main newspaper here advertises the rate you’re able to get for ‘blue dollars’ as does this site. And everyone knows the place to go to get the deal done is Florida street in downtown Buenos Aires.

Here’s how it works: Florida street is a pedestrian mall lined with the big retail brands you’d find in any cosmopolitan city. Amidst the hubbub of a busy street you hear a call of “cambio, cambio” – change, change – and look around to try and find its source. Changers are standing about. They’re all acting nonchalant, smoking cigarettes or leaning against the wall. Some are more cautious with their cries than others. But it’s not clear they need to be. There are police who are literally within shouting distance and they don’t seem to care.

We talked to a bunch of changers. They weren’t shady characters and they represented a cross section of society: men, women, young, old. We also checked out a store in an arcade that advertised it bought and sold ‘antique money’ but they were plainly more interested in money that could still by stuff. Good front, though.

There was some variation in rate. Notably the changers would pay a higher price for a $100 US note than for $20. The higher the denominations, we guess, and so more valuable. We settled on a rate for our USD that was a shade under 50% better than what we would have gotten officially at the airport, or at a bank. That makes it much easier to justify the more expensive steak here.

Agreement reached, our changer took us to a kiosk in the middle of the mall, the kind that sells magazines and chewing gum. It seemed a bunch of changers were linked with this kiosk. We were ushered inside a tiny alcove that was out of view, counted out our dollars and exchanged them for pesos. Both buyer and seller checked the authenticity of the notes, though in our case our checking was mostly for show. And then we were off. We headed to the supermarket where we giggled at how ridiculously cheap Argentinian wine and beer is with no taxes here and our black market buying power.

We’ll talk about why there’s a black market for foreign currency soon.