Florida Street near LaValle on downtown Buenos Aires’ pedestrian mall, it’s inevitable to come across some shady-looking characters yelling out or whispering, ‘cambio, cambio!’
These ‘unofficial’ (read: illegal) money changers, are known in Lunfardo as arbolitos. Until Argentina regularized its currency situation in late 2015, these money changers did offer dollar and euro exchange rates that were much better than the banks. Between the years of 2012-2015 travelers to Argentina could get up to 50% more value from money changes for their foreign cash than at the bank.
Black Market Exchange Versus the Bank
Soon after winning the election in November 2015, Argentina’s PRO party regularized the currency situation. Today, banking is more stabilized in Argentina and the parallel currency market is much smaller. The arbolitos who remain in business give about 4-5% more for dollars or Euros than at the bank or an atm. With that small of a difference between the official and black market rate, travelers are no longer coming to Argentina carrying wads of foreign cash, but the money changers remain because Argentines prefer to save in dollars instead of the inflationary peso. If you do decide to change money at an arbolito, make sure to go to a reliable exchange house and not do the transaction in the street.
The worst-case scenario is that one may find oneself in an intimidating situation or stuck with a pocketful of fake pesos notes, but that is not likely as Argentina’s major counterfeiting ring was busted a few years ago and today there are not many fake bills.
To do some sightseeing and (legal) money exchange all at once at an official bank, try the nearby historic, Standard Bank.
Using Xoom to Transfer Money
The main problem with using an atm to withdrawal cash while in Argentina is that the withdrawal limits are low and the fees are high. Expect to pay about a US$7 fee per $130 or $150 you withdrawal, unless your bank reimburses fees. Many with U.S. bank accounts use Xoom to transfer money at a much more favorable rate, if taking fees into account. To learn how to use it the most painless way possible, read our post ‘How to Use Xoom in Argentina‘ on our sister site, Wander-Argentina.org. Those who have bank accounts from other countries and would like to avoid the ATM fees, check out the free money transfer service on this website.
Sex Show and Brothel Scams
These clandestine ‘cabarets’ such as those Julio Cortázar once encountered nearby in Galeria Güemes have existed in this area a long time but are today rather predatory in nature.
Those who enter into these ‘whiskerias‘ as old timers call them, will almost certainly find some unpleasant surprises, and possibly get roughed up and shaken down for money they weren’t planning to spend.
Although customers are usually invited to take a look around for free, signs in many of the establishments state that there is ‘a minimum drink charge’ and that ‘management can’t be held responsible for any valuable personal items that go missing.’
Local men who enter these places are typically charged inflated prices for drinks — one for them and one for one or more scantily clad bar girls. Tourists who are generally unfamiliar with the swindle are the holy grail for these businesses and the prices quoted to them will certainly be excessive. The higher the price demanded, either for services or to extricate oneself from the situation, is an indication of how dumb, rich or scared they judge the customer to be.
The strippers and prostitutes in these establishments, generally women from poorer provinces or countries such as the Dominican Republic, are sometimes trafficked women. Generally they charge upward of US$100 (on top of the drink charges) and should be considered a high health risk as the sex industry is a legal grey area and is unregulated, with no std screening in place.
As with money changing around Florida Street, if you are the victim of a swindle of seduction it almost certainly won’t help to go to the police — it’s an open secret that they receive a cut of the profits and some top politicians have been accused of being involved in the industry.
In short: nothing good can come from following strangers on Florida Street unless you know the turf. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
For those who understand Spanish, this hidden camera exposé from the popular local TV program, ‘Fuera de Foco‘ shows how the cabaret bait and switch works: