For various reasons – a brief illness and a work assignment that kept me anchored to the computer for about ten days – I’ve spent less time on the Argentine side of Patagonia than I had hoped or anticipated. That said, it’s still given me some insight into the continuing complications of the exchange rates here, both for foreign visitors and for Argentines and their businesses.
Two weeks ago, I crossed the border from Chile’s Torres del Paine to the Argentine tourist town of El Calafate, where I usually stay in my cousin’s house. She was out of town, though, and my other usual contacts (her ex-husband and my nephew) had no available space, so I had to spend money on a hotel. I found a simple but pleasant place for 490 pesos (about US$55 at the official exchange rate).
I had a supply of Argentine pesos that I had purchased at the “blue” rate of roughly 13 to the dollar in December in Buenos Aires, but thought I might need more, so I asked the owner what rate she paid for US dollars. I knew it would be lower here, where the tourist economy puts quite a bit of foreign currency in private hands – my cousin and nephew are guides who often get tips in dollars – but accepted the offer of 11.50 pesos per dollar, which made the effective room rate about US$43. I also got some change in return, augmenting my peso supply.
That wasn’t as good as the Buenos Aires rate and, at dinner with my nephew and my cousin’s ex that night, I learned that Calafate’s only foreign exchange house had closed. That leaves the banks and ATMs, which pay only the official rate, or negotiations with hotels or other businesses, such as tour agencies. En route to El Chaltén, I made a brief stop at the historic roadhouse of La Leona (pictured above), where the rate was 11 pesos (as pictured below). Friends at El Chaltén, who operate a hybrid hostel/B&B, told me they were reluctant to involve themselves in money-changing because of the recent fluctuations in the market (the dollar reached as high as 15 pesos in the not-too-distant past).
As I reported in the previous post, I had to make an unexpected detour to the town of Gobernador Gregores as I drove north on Ruta 40, and there the YPF gas station (pictured below) was offering 10 pesos – not much of a premium on the official rate. I had plenty of pesos to fill the tank, though, so I didn’t have to change money there.
Shortly thereafter, I returned to Chile and, a couple days ago, I crossed the border from Futaleufú to Esquel, where a friend told me the market there had pretty much dried up because of a government crackdown. I proceeded north, with a brief stop for empanadas and ice cream at El Bolsón, before arriving at Villa La Angostura, my last stop before returning to Chile. My pesos were running a little low.
Unfortunately, I arrived too late to visit Cambio Andina (pictured at top), an exchange house that was paying the blue rate last year. I went to find accommodations and learned that, unfortunately, this is the weekend of a big moto-cross event (something I loathe) and rooms would be hard to find. The first place that had a room (which I knew from an earlier visit) would accept dollars at nine pesos, barely above the official rate.
Another place’s prices had skyrocketed – even in dollar terms – since I stayed there last year, but its owner would change dollars at 12 pesos. I decided to try one other place, where an apologetic receptionist told me that Andina would still change at the blue rate for tourists, but only the official rate for locals, so she preferred not to do so. I ended up returning to the previous option, but paying a bit more than I had hoped.
What’s the moral of this story? Argentina continues to be unpredictable, and is likely to be so at least until a new government takes office at year’s end.
MEANWHILE, ACROSS THE ANDES
There’s also news in Chile’s foreign exchange market, where the dollar stood at roughly 620 pesos when I arrived at the end of January, then rose upwards of 640 before recently returning to the 620 level. This contrasts, however, with the rate of 540 pesos a year ago, so that Chile has actually gotten a bit cheaper (unlike in Argentina, inflation remains low). Also, in Chile, there’s no parallel market, so you can withdraw from ATMs without an exchange rate penalty (preferably BancoEstado, with very low user charges).