I just traveled to Argentina — and doubled my money with a 'black market' exchange rate

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The author in Argentinian Patagonia in February 2023. Here, the Spegazzini Glacier cascades into Lago Argentino, the third largest lake in South America.

Waiting in an hourlong line at a Western Union wasn't on my initial itinerary when planning a recent trip to Argentina.

Yet there I was, in the bowels of a shop on Calle Florida in downtown Buenos Aires, sweating in the 95-degree heat along with local Argentines and other tourists, patiently waiting to pick up cash I had forwarded to myself from the U.S.

This might sound odd — maybe even dumb. Why waste valuable vacation time when there are often speedier ways to get money: withdrawing cash from an ATM, exchanging money at a bank or airport counter, or even just putting charges on a credit card?  

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But the exchange rate here was too good to ignore — almost twice as good. This legal strategy is one that's based on a black market rate. Here's how it works.

A legal exchange rate influenced by the black market

In Argentina, waiting for a cash transfer isn't strange at all. In fact, it's custom — and an oft-recommended way to stretch your dollar there.

There are two main drivers: While the broader world has become increasingly cashless, cash is king in Argentina. Hyperinflation has also distorted the nation's currency market and led to the creation of multiple exchange rates.

When I visited in February, the "official" exchange rate — the one quoted by online currency calculators — gave U.S. tourists about 190 Argentine pesos per dollar. But the unofficial, "blue dollar" rate was nearly double that.

El Caminito, an "open-air museum" of colorful houses in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Greg Iacurci

Put another way: Your money goes almost twice as far with the "blue dollar" exchange rate. This rate is set by underground exchange houses operating on the black market. Western Union is a legal workaround to get a similar rate.

You won't get the better conversion when transacting at an airport counter and, depending on the situation, may not when withdrawing from an ATM or using a credit card.

I learned this the hard way, only discovering how to get the better rate after exchanging $150 at the airport — and getting about half the pesos I otherwise could have.

Hence my trip to Western Union a day later, where, after watching a short video on how it works, I exchanged $350 for about 128,000 Argentine pesos on Feb. 13 — a rate of 366 pesos per dollar.

The author's digital Western Union receipt after picking up cash in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The exchange rate for the transaction was 366 Argentine pesos per U.S. dollar, almost double the official exchange rate (190 pesos per dollar) at the time.

These dual rates aren't a new phenomenon in Argentina, or Latin America more broadly, economists later told me. But for me — a first-timer to South America who was unaware of this system— navigating them was curious and extraordinary.

"If you go back 40 years, you'd find multiple exchange rates in Argentina," said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It's just something that keeps coming back."

Why Argentina has more than one exchange rate

Argentina is a 'cash-demanding' environment

Meanwhile, Argentines are distrustful of banks and financial institutions, economists said.

They fear another "corralito," or a "little corral," a period in the nation's history when the government seized deposits during economic crises.

In 1982 and 1989, for example, it froze bank deposits and confiscated savings to finance operations and pay debt. In 2001, the government restricted access to deposits. The freeze lasted a year; when customers regained access to funds, they discovered their dollar deposits has been converted to pesos, which had depreciated significantly in value.

So, many Argentines like dealing in cash and stashing it away from banks, experts said. Sometimes, that influences behavior that might seem strange to a foreigner. For example, some lower-earning Argentines use part of their paychecks to buy a pallet of bricks; they can build a house brick by brick, which they view as a better store of wealth than holding on to pesos, Zuegel said.

For tourists, this distrust of financial institutions is important to know because many merchants may not accept credit cards as a result — meaning visitors should expect to need some cash for their purchases.

"Travelers from the U.S., Canada and Europe are incredibly accustomed to flipping out their debt card and tapping the credit card charge machine," said Jed Rothenberg, director of LandingPadBA, a travel agency focused on Buenos Aires. "You come to Argentina and it's the complete opposite."

"You're in a very cash-friendly environment," Rothenberg said. "Cash-demanding, in fact."

How to get a good exchange rate in Argentina

Tourist credit cards have a new preferential rate

The cruel irony of the black market


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