Sometime in the first fortnight of November, I will fly to Santiago to begin updating Moon Handbooks Patagonia. Over the months to come, I will spend extended periods in southernmost Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands, revisiting as many places as is logistically possible before submitting the manuscript early next year for publication in the fall (spring in the Southern Hemisphere, of course).
In the process, of course, I will frequently need to tap my back account to meet my expenses. This is not a problem in Chile, where ATMs are abundant and give reasonable exchange rates, nor in the Falklands where British pounds, euros and dollars circulate widely in Stanley shops, which are sometimes overrun with cruise ship passengers. In Argentina, though, things are more problematical.
In Argentine Patagonia’s open spaces, ATMs can be few and far between and, moreover, they pay the official exchange rate which, as of today, is roughly 5.8 pesos to the dollar. Today's informal “blue dollar,” however, was available in Buenos Aires about 9.8 to the dollar, making the city almost 60 percent cheaper with bargain-basement pesos.
In Patagonia, however, the blue dollar less easy to come by. Xoom is not the option it is in Buenos Aires, because it no longer has any cash pickup point south of Mar del Plata, and destinations such as El Calafate and Ushuaia have only a handful of exchange houses and lack the cuevas (“caves”) that are so abundant in the Argentine capital. In Ushuaia, writes a friend who owns a small lodge there, “there is only one exchange house and, obviously, it changes at the official rate and there are no street changers as in Buenos Aires. Local businesses take dollars at the official rate or a little more,” though she herself offers guests who pay cash discounts of 10 to 30 percent, depending on the season.
My cousin and her ex-husband, who are guides in El Calafate, tell me that there is no informal market there, either, in a town where prices are often quoted in US currency. What does happen, he says, is that “various businesses accept the dollar at the blue rate, such as Planet Patagonia and the Safari Náutico” (pictured above). That said, not so long ago a friend of mine waiting in line at Banco Santa Cruz there managed to exchange his cash dollars with an Argentine customer, though the rate was less advantageous than the best blue rate.
All this suggests that, if you’re traveling to Patagonia, you may find it worthwhile to change dollars for pesos in Buenos Aires first (unfortunately in this case, I will be passing through Santiago, but I may be able to purchase cheaper pesos on the Chilean side, in Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas). The problem, of course, is that I would prefer not to have to carry so much cash; even though Argentine Patagonia is not crime-ridden, there’s always a risk of losing things.
That’s another distortion that the unrealistic official exchange rate brings but, even then, your mileage may vary there or elsewhere in Argentina. In a recent phone conversation, a friend who owns a small B&B in the northern town of Puerto Iguazú told me it’s easy to exchange informally there, though the rate’s not quite so good as in Buenos Aires. Iguazú, of course, is part of the anything-goes “Triple Frontera” zone where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.