Friday, January 3, 2014

In Varas, a Cuban Sandwich? Plus, How Argentines Evade Currency Curbs

In Puerto Varas, on New Year’s Day, it was hard to find a restaurant at dinnertime - most of the handful that were open were so full that finding a table was impossible. My top choice was closing just as I started to open the door but, walking a little farther down the lakeshore, I found a new restaurant, Mi Cuba, that wasn’t nearly so crowded.
More a bar than a restaurant per se, Mi Cuba wasn’t exactly what I’d planned but, at the same time, the idea of a mojito (instead of a pisco sour) had some appeal, though the cold wet weather was less than tropical. I also remembered the hilarious song “Cuban Sandwich” by Barrence Whitfield and Tom Russell. After a relatively large lunch, I ordered a simple pork sandwich which was more than enough evening meal in a place that had friendly staff, good service, and great music (though not Whitfield and Russell).
In the course of writing guidebooks, I can rarely revisit a restaurant multiple times to do a thorough review while sampling various dishes (the way a food writer would), so this was clearly a small sample size. Still, Mi Cuba passes the “would I go back” test and, when my brother-in-law Carlos arrived in town with a limited budget, we did so last night.

Once again, the informal rate for Argentine pesos has risen above ten per dollar but, despite the exchange restrictions on Argentines, my brother-in-law Carlos and his family are vacationing on the Chilean side of the Andes, and yesterday he joined me in Puerto Varas. Wondering whether he had enough cash to be able to stay at my Casa Azul accommodations – most Argentines have to pay with credit cards because of the difficulty in obtaining foreign currency – I asked my hosts here about the situation if Carlos had no Chilean cash (Casa Azul does not accept credit cards).

They don’t get many Argentines at Casa Azul– owner Andreas La Rosé is German and most of his visitors are European – but Argentines have found a way to obtain cash here even if they can’t use their ATM cards at Chilean banks. Instead, they go the supermarket and wait at the checkout line for somebody who’s making a large grocery purchase, and then offer to make the payment with their Argentine credit card.

In return, the purchaser gives them Chilean pesos for the amount they have paid by credit card so that, with typical Argentine ingenuity, they have managed to evade the foreign exchange controls imposed by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. They still have to pay the onerous 35 percent tax on foreign credit card purchases, however.

As it turned out, Carlos already had acquired sufficient cash to pay the bill here, so he didn’t have to resort to the supermarket strategy. His cabaña rental in Chiloé required him to make a 20 percent down payment but, when exchange restrictions made that impossible, a Chilean friend in Osorno did it for him, and Carlos brought him half a dozen bottles of good Malbec. Meanwhile, every time he fills up with gasoline, he asks the attendant to add 20,000 Chilean pesos (about US$40) to the bill – the change is the equivalent of a cash advance on his credit card, which he could not do at a Chilean bank.

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