Dollars to Pesos
The first thing you need to know about Argentina is that there are currently two exchange rates – the official rate (currently 6.2) and the ‘black market’ rate (currently 9.5). Due to some questionable (read: ludicrous) decisions on the government’s part, inflation currently stands at about 35% a year (pro tip: if you want to make fast friends, just say you hate the current government). This means that Argentine citizens are desperately looking for dollars or euros as a store of value for their savings. Thus there is what’s called the ‘Dollar Blue’ rate (check it at your leisure at dolarblue.net), which is what you can expect to get on the street when you want to change dollars. If you’re using an ATM or your credit card (or a currency exchange house – never use these, they will give you the worst possible rate), which convert at the official bank rate, you are losing a LOT of money and forfeiting what makes being in Argentina so great right now. The only time you should use an ATM is when you first land at the airport and need to pay for a cab – that’s it.
There used to be exchange houses (Casas de Cambio) that would exchange at the Dollar Blue rate, but these have been cracked down on. In Buenos Aires, you can head to Calle Florida, a big tourist street, and you’ll hear people yelling “cambio cambio” (get off at the Catedral stop, the last stop on the Green/D line of the subte). Ask them what their current rate is, and if you’re satisfied tell them how much you want to change and they will take you to a nearby change house and change your dollars for you (feel free to walk away and compare rates from a few different people). This process sketches some people out, but I’ve never had any problems, and they usually take you to a nearby shop or magazine stand and just get pesos out of the cash register for you. Note that you will get the best rate if you have U.S. $100 bills – they will give you a lower rate if you only have $20s or $50s, since this starts to be a logistical problem for them. Plan ahead before you get to the airport, since most U.S. ATMs only dispense $20s. I’ve also heard that there are some reliable moneychangers in Belgrano, but you’ll need to ask some barrio locals for details.
If you didn’t bring enough U.S. cash with you, the easiest way to get more dollars is to take the ferry to Colonia, Uruguay, where the ATMs dispense U.S. $100 bills (book a round trip same-day ferry at BuqueBus, Sea Cat Colonia, or Colonia Express, which is the cheapest – usually around US$20-30 round trip). The fast ferries take an hour and all leave from the BuqueBus building, here. I budgeted around $50 a day for life in Buenos Aires, although you can definitely get by on less – I had a lot of steak and wine dinners.
A better way to get pesos is to find a local friend who is looking for dollars. If you end up getting an apartment in BA your landlord is a good bet. You can also ask workers at your hotel or hostel.
Finally, the magic of the internet has given us xoom.com. Xoom is an international money changing service that lets you send money from your U.S. bank account to an Argentine bank account, or to be picked up as cash at a More Money Transfer location, which is Xoom’s business partner in Argentina (see More’s locations here – most people I know use the location at Libertad 1057). Xoom offers a lower rate than the Dollar Blue (currently 8.4) and charges a fee of around US$8 per US$250 sent, but if you want to beat the bank rate and don’t want to go to Uruguay, Xoom is still great. Note that the lines at More can get a bit long (20-30 minutes), so bring a book. Or just chat with a fellow traveler!
Final tip: If you absolutely have to use an ATM, at least make sure you’re using a bank that doesn’t charge ATM or foreign transaction fees. Check out Charles Schwab’s High Yield Checking Account. For credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, I recommend the United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer Visa Card or the Chase Sapphire Card (Visa or MasterCard), both of which come with great signup bonuses. The CapitalOne VentureOne Rewards Credit Card also has no foreign transaction fees.