Exchanging Currency is a Covert Affair in Buenos Aires

20th January 2015
In: Travel
The financial crisis is Argentina and the government's restrictions on the purchase of US dollars have created an alternative or parallel black market exchange called "blue rate". The blue rate is at least 50% more than the official exchange rate which makes your money go a longer way when paying for hotels, restaurants or goods. This is a boon for tourists travelling to the country, if you are carrying physical green bucks. In order to get the blue rate, you need to go to an underground "cueva" to change your dollars to pesos. Going through the cueva can be a daunting experience almost like going through a covert mission .

My experience (may have been slightly exaggerated):

I have a contact in Buenos Aires. His name is Rodrigo (name changed to protect his identity). He sent me a message after arriving at my rented condo to go to a cueva address to meet a guy to exchange our money. The cueva was on a busy part of Recoleta district, only a few blocks away so I didn't feel that I'm in any danger. After walking the uneven sidewalks and avoiding a few doggie doos (it appears that poop & scoop is not mandatory here), I arrived at the address and realized that it was an art store. I was confused and double checked the address . After verifying that it was the correct, I looked inside the store and saw only a couple of paintings hanging on the wall. It looked bare for an art store. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. There was a buzzer on the right side of the door and I hesitantly pressed it. No answer. I looked up and noticed a camera pointed in my direction. I pressed the buzzer again and I still did not get an answer. After the third try, I gave up. I feel I've been compromised that's why I was not let in.

I texted Rodrigo about my failed mission and he sent me back another address. He said to ask for Nadia (I figured she must be Russian), and I have to be there before 4:00 pm. I looked at my watch. I had less than half an hour to go to the cueva, which was fifteen blocks away. I started walking fast, almost running. I got there with a few minutes to spare. The cueva is a small women's clothing store, but this time, I was not surprised to find a business fronting the cueva. There was an old man sitting by the door and I nodded to him. He gave me a suspicious look as I went inside. A lady approached me and I said that I'm looking for Nadia. She led me to the back of the store and signaled me to go through a black door that looked like a change room. I pulled the door but it was locked. A moment later, I heard a buzzer and the door was unlocked. I went inside . The room was painted black and only big enough for one person. It was dark except for a small window which was protected by glass. A woman was standing behind the glass and did not look friendly. I pulled out hundred dollar bills and counted them in front of her. I slid them under a small opening in the window. She quickly grabbed the cash and started punching numbers in her small calculator. She showed me the numbers on the display screen, and I nodded okay. She disappeared to the back of the room with my cash and for a minute, I wasn't sure if she'd be back. The small dark room was hot and I could feel sweat beading on my forehead. I took a deep breath and wiped the sweat off with my sleeve. She showed up after a couple of minutes (although it felt like an eternity) and started counting the pesos in front of me. I smiled as I put the money in my pocket and was buzzed out of the small room. The store was closed by then and the old man unlocked the door to let me out. I felt relieved as I smelled the fresh air outside, feeling the pesos in my pocket and hoping not to get robbed on my way home.
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