Monday, February 9, 2009

Breaking the Bank in El Calafate

In 1990, when I first visited the Patagonian town of El Calafate, tourists were still a relative novelty. Seven years earlier, Argentina had emerged from the Southern Cone’s nastiest 1970s military dictatorship, but the gateway to the Moreno Glacier was still barely a blip on the international travel map. In the process of writing my initial guidebook to Argentina, for a publisher best left unnamed, I castigated the town as “an oversized encampment of rapacious merchants fixated on making a year's income in a few short months by maintaining high prices rather than increasing sales.”

One reason for that comment was the difficulty, and disadvantages, of changing money here. At that time, Argentina’s currency was the austral and, after years of hyper-inflation, the exchange rate had reached 10,000 to the US dollar. The only place to change money officially was the Banco de la Provincia de Santa Cruz and, after it closed on Friday afternoon, local shops were the only option. There you were lucky to get 9,000 or even 8,500 per dollar, with local merchants reaping a tidy profit at the bank on Monday morning.

The very concept of globalization has taken a hit over the past few months, but one undeniable advantage has been the proliferation of the ATM, which has liberated visitors from the need to visit banks or exchange houses during opening hours, and to go through the laborious process of changing travelers’ checks (a few people still do so). Today, El Calafate has four banks and half a dozen ATMs, and that’s helped make it a more welcoming place (so has the new airport, and a critical mass of quality accommodations and restaurants). Immigrants from elsewhere in Argentina have given it a youthful vitality.

But changing money is still a problem, if not in the way it once was. In fact, it’s an Argentine problem: following a high-profile “express kidnapping” in which the victim - opposition politician Margarita Stolbizer - was forced to attempt to withdraw money from her account at various ATMs in Buenos Aires province, authorities have placed a withdrawal limit of 300 pesos (about US$85) at cash machines throughout the country. In a town like El Calafate, where there is no crime problem whatsoever and it’s easy to spend that much daily, this has meant long lines at ATMs and, on weekends, they often run out of cash until Monday morning.

According to Hostel del Glaciar owner Danny Feldman, who’s vice-president of El Calafate’s Chamber of Commerce and would like to see the policy changed, customers can withdraw money up to three times per day, even consecutively. Still, that slows down the process and keeps the lines long - especially as foreign visitors make multiple efforts before finally realizing they can’t take more than 300 pesos per transaction (it also means multiple ATM fees at many overseas banks). At my suggestion, the Chamber has requested that banks post notices at their ATMs, in various languages, to minimize the confusion.

Unless the policy is reversed or modified, though, it will be a major nuisance for Patagonia travelers in particular. Towns are few and far apart and, northbound along the legendary Ruta 40, it’s more than 600 km to the next ATM, in the town of Perito Moreno. Motorists, in particular, need to insure they have sufficient cash to pay for fuel and repairs.

N.B. After I castigated Calafate’s merchants for their greedy 1990s behavior, I received a handwritten note from the late Mariano Besio, then the Santa Cruz provincial tourism representative in Buenos Aires, suggesting that “We’re trying to do better.” In fact, they have done much better in El Calafate since then, but a situation beyond their control is an obstacle to tourism development here and elsewhere in the country.

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