I arrived at the time that he’d said, on the corner of the street that he’d specified but our guy was late. I waited nervously, checking my watch and surveying the parked cars to see if anyone was watching us. Suddenly a man appeared, I didn’t see where from but he was as wide as he was tall and looked like some kind of a beast. He glanced around and signalled for me to follow him. He didn’t look like the kind of person that you could say no to. We were led quickly down a small, dark back-alley lined with disused garages on either side and my palms began to sweat even though we were now out of the harsh glare of the sun. The beast slowed as we approached the only garage that was open, the doorway was filled with cigarette smoke so I couldn’t see all the way inside… That’s how I imagined the process of changing money on the black market might go. The reality was even more surprising to me.
14,400 Argentine Pesos
I’d heard about the so called “Blue Dollar” before arriving in Argentina, essentially an underground currency exchange, and had been advised to bring US dollars rather than Pounds as they would command a much better exchange rate. I knew it wasn’t strictly legal, so had imagined a shady industry that took place behind closed doors, carried out by scary looking Mafiosa types. What I found couldn’t have been further from this.
A brief bit of backstory – The Blue Dollar was born out of a complete distrust of the Argentinian Peso following the financial crash of the early 2000s. Many businesses and Argentine citizens began to use the far more stable American dollar both for savings and their everyday interactions. The government’s response was to largely ban the purchase of US dollars within Argentina to try and stem the rise of inflation, but as with anything that gets banned, all this served to do was to push the trade underground.
A high street Cueva in Buenos Aires
The offices, or cuevas, where these illegal trades in US dollars take place are often high street shops with full glass frontages. Some are loosely disguised as legitimate businesses – one I went to had paintings hanging on the walls and was masquerading as an art gallery. They have buzzers on the doors so only a couple of people can come in at any one time, but this is partly for the privacy of their customers and actually many regular high street shops in BsAs have security buzzers.
The newly elected President, Mauricio Macri (who took office on 10th December 2015), has swiftly removed these restrictions, allowing Argentine citizens to purchase dollars freely at a market led rate. The blue dollar hasn’t completely died but there’s only about 1 Peso difference between the rates now, with the longer term effects of this still to be seen. And us being non-citizens may still have to make use of the cuevas to get a competitive rate.
I never did meet the beast or any other unsavoury characters, I was never in any danger when illegally changing my dollars into pesos and it was in fact, a wholly professional service. The experience has made me a lot more appreciative of the strength and stability of the Great British Pound, which is something I’ve never had reason to even consider previously.