My colleague Nick visited the Argentine capital Buenos Aires back in October before the government lifted currency controls on the peso. Below he shares his experience. Best wishes, Mark.
On the night bus from Córdoba to Buenos Aires, the conductor mumbled something incomprehensibly Spanish and so I shrugged and smiled in reply. He was back a moment later with a huge slug of cheap whiskey which thankfully knocked me out for the remainder of the bumpy journey. I woke a few hours later to a cold but sunny morning in the Argentine capital refreshed and ready to start my day of price collection. My trip was scheduled just prior to the inauguration of Mauricio Macri as the new president of the country. As my colleague Andy has blogged about in detail at the ECA Money Moves Blog, Macri’s appointment has brought the end to the restrictive currency controls placed on the peso by the previous government.
However, during the preceding years, foreigners and Argentines alike used to head to Calle Florida to change currency at the ‘blue dollar’ rate. This parallel market for US dollars had emerged because of the devaluation of the peso, restricted access to foreign currency and the national statistics agency’s unwillingness to publish accurate inflation rates. Trading on the black market was common practice and the authorities were seemingly turning a blind eye to this illegal trade.
So, rather than withdrawing cash from the closest ATM, I headed to Calle Florida, one of the main pedestrian drags in the city centre where a large proportion of brokers conducted business. The process of changing money on the street was slick and didn’t feel intimidating at all. Money-changers were abundant; you couldn’t avoid hearing the repetitive echo of “cambio, cambio, cambio” bounce around as you walked down the street. The rate was agreed upon with a moneychanger (an ‘arbolito’ – some of whom are impeccably dressed) and I was then taken to a ‘cueva’, as they are locally known, to complete the exchange. However, as the official and black market rates have all but converged under the new regime, the fate of the arbolitos and their cuevas remains to be seen.
One of the items in ECA’s cost-of-living basket that we’re required to price is a take-away meal, so we inevitably end up heading to McDonald’s whenever we visit a new city. But there is a curious omission from the advertised meals in Argentina – the ubiquitous Big Mac is kept somewhat under the radar. The Economist magazine publishes the ‘Big Mac Index’ which compares prices for the burger the world over – it is a “light-hearted guide to whether currencies are at their “correct level”. There were reports that the Argentine Big Mac price had been manipulated to an artificially low price in order to understate the country’s real inflation rate and to bolster the country’s position in the index. Although the Argentine Big Mac price has since increased to sit closer to other sandwiches on the menu, it is still very tricky to find.
Despite the uncertainty of the peso, there is a generally good availability of groceries, clothing and electricals in the city although there are a few things to be aware of for anyone relocating to Argentina. Generally speaking, there is not a huge array of imported produce in the supermarkets but the quality of everything is still high. There have been some shortages; in 2014 McDonald’s ran out of ketchup and I noticed that there was a restriction on the amount of cooking oil each person could walk away with per purchase in the supermarkets.
Nearly all of the wine available in supermarkets is produced in Argentina and beef dominates the meat sections but I can’t imagine too many grumbles from expats on this front. The steaks that the ‘land of beef’ is so famous for didn’t disappoint and any carnivore can’t pay a visit to Buenos Aires without visiting one of the parrillas. Good news for steak-fans across the globe, Argentinian beef may become more readily available worldwide following the new President’s decision to lift export taxes on beef.
I found the city to be a very vibrant, beautiful place. The neighbourhood of San Telmo, in particular, caught my eye; it is a bustling area filled with markets, cafes, live music and moody tango dancers. It is easy to find your way around the city on foot and by using the metro (the ‘subte’). An interesting point about public transportation in the city is that, after a law passed in 2014, all rail, water, road and air public transport must contain a sign stating “Los Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Falklands Are Argentine). Over thirty years on from the British/Argentine conflict, the two heads of state, Macri and Cameron, are to meet this week where the ongoing dispute over sovereignty of the islands is due to be discussed.
Whilst ducking in and out of malls and supermarkets I kept noticing a white scarf design stained on the floor and painted on walls. It is a symbol representing Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of female activists who began protesting against the disappearance of their children and other human rights violations during the ‘Dirty War’ (1976-83) at the hands of the country’s military dictatorship. To this day the organisation carries out weekly marches outside the Casa Rosada to keep alive the memory of those lost and to support action on other social injustices. One mural that I did immediately recognise was that of Carlos Tevez, the ex-premier league footballer, who has returned to his old club in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors, to the fans’ delight. And much like ‘Carlitos’, I too, would very much like to return to Argentina one day.