Blue Dollar Blues

by Nathan James Thomas

A traveler hops between Uruguay and Buenos Aires in search of Argentina’s mysterious ‘blue dollar’

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Busy burger bars and grand theaters line Calle Florida, Buenos Aires’ famous pedestrianized shopping street. The ground is paved with light gray tiles, and every fifty meters or so a small garden pops out, held in place with green metal bars. The street smells of beer and steak and the sweat of thousands of shoppers, tourists, and arbolitos – literally meaning “little trees,” the term refers to the illicit yet ubiquitous black market currency traders that my wife and I have come here to visit. 

I try to read intention in the faces of the people who crowd the street, calling at me as I walk by. “Cambio! Cambio! Change money! Cambio.” There are young women with dark skin who look like they’ve come from up north, perhaps from Brazil. There are old men with pale, Slavic-looking faces who could be descended from Russian or Polish emigres. There are pot-bellied men scratching their scraggly beards, leaning on benches in the middle of the street. They are all eying me and all saying the same thing: “Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!

One man seems more relaxed than the others. He leans casually on the bars of a small garden. He is old and has white hair and a white beard. We make eye contact. 

Cambio?” 

Sí.

“Come with me.”

He leads me off the street into a long corridor lined with small, second-hand clothing shops. We enter one, and he goes behind the counter.

“How much?”

“Two-hundred US dollars.”

He pulls out a calculator and shows me the amount: Somewhere in the region of 58,000 Argentine pesos, more than double the official exchange rate provided by banks and credit cards. The mythical “blue dollar” rate was about to be mine.

I nod and hand my arbolito two one-hundred dollar bills. He holds them each up to the light, examining them closely, then smiles, places them on the table, and pulls out a slab of pink, one-thousand peso notes. He places them in a machine, which rapidly counts out 58. He folds the wad of cash in half and ties it with a rubber band. He hands it over and then gives me his business card. “I am here every day,” he says.

For a supposed black market currency exchange, it all seemed rather wholesome. Argentina’s economic turmoil means locals are desperate to get rid of their pesos. At the same time, the government is desperate to stop them from doing so. From this contradiction arises the phenomenon of the blue dollar, an informal currency market that is as vibrant and accessible as the street on which it is centered. Blue dollar rates are widely published online and seem to be honored pretty much everywhere except for official banks and the airport. The result? A delicious meal of rare flank steak and a bottle of fine malbec for about $10. 

In order to make the most of this strange little “hack,” you need to bring USD into Argentina with you. Greenbacks are, of course, basically impossible to get your hands on in the country. If you run out, the easiest solution is to hop the boat to neighboring Uruguay. There, the ATMs dispense crisp $100 USD bills at the push of the button. You just need to be a little bit careful on the streets…

Montevideo, Uruguay

The ATM doesn’t give in without a fight, grumbling through various loading screens, rejecting a few withdrawal attempts, and making more noise than a leaf blower, but eventually it yields and disgorges our entire budget for the six-week trip in crisp $100 USD bills. Cash goes into my wallet, wallet goes into my pocket, and I stride out, trying hard to act like someone who doesn’t have a Benjamin Franklin portrait gallery on his person.

It’s morning in Montevideo, and the streets are still largely empty. Large beer bottles with names like “Schneider” stand on the unkept streets, which smell like the whiff of a cigarette on a beach — gritty pollution mixed with the sea air coming in from three sides. 

Just a few streets further to the hotel and, so far, no one in sight. Well, no one conscious anyway. A couple of people passed out among dogs and bottles, paying me and the world no mind. And then he appears. Tall. Black hair in a ponytail. Same scruffy clothes he was wearing when he approached me and my wife a few nights ago outside the convenience store, making some kind of offer in Spanish that we politely yet firmly declined.

He doesn’t seem to recognize me, but I must look like an outsider because he greets me in English. “Hey, hey! Good morning.” He’s about 20 meters away and getting closer, cresting the bulge in the empty street and approaching with the sea behind him. “Good morning,” I reply without breaking stride. My route will take me to the street adjacent to the one he is emerging from. He is changing his path to intercept mine.

“Hey! You wanna buy some weed?”

“No thanks, mate!” I reply. 

“Where are you going?” he asks. His tone is conversational, casual, as if we were old friends.

“I’m going to meet a friend,” I lie, using an old trick to make myself seem less foreign and helpless.

“Oh ok,” he says, sounding disappointed but still friendly. “If you want anything, you come to me, OK? My name is Damian.”

“Nice to meet you, Damian,” I say, hurrying off. 

“It wasn’t always like this,” said Matt. “Three years ago, it was different. Now, the fucking government… so right wing like Brazil. It all changed.”

Matt is Brazilian and has come to Montevideo to hang out with a local friend and take full advantage of the country’s liberal marijuana laws. I was there for just a few days to check out the city and hoard US dollars to exchange in Argentina.

I met Matt at a small coffee shop where he’d noticed the English cover of the book I was reading and had come over to chat. We ended up exchanging WhatsApp numbers and arranged to meet the following day for beer and steak.

In the small, seedy restaurant, we battled with the tough meat and drank Schneider beer, and Matt told me how perfect his ex was. He was recovering from a bad breakup and seemed to be fusing his personal nostalgia with a general sense that things used to be better.

After lunch he walked me back to my hotel, chain smoking. We passed a park surrounded by a walled metal fence made of curved iron bars.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

“What?”

“They call this ‘dick park.’ The architect got in a fight with the council, so he made little dicks in the fence. See…”

Looking with better informed eyes, I could see he was right: Phallic shapes appeared in the fence that looked a little too explicit to be accidental. I laughed at the strangeness of it. Googling the park, I found various explanations for the phenomenon. One website had it that the architect had been homoesexual and was protesting the country’s restrictions. Another said that the resemblance was just accidental. 

Like Argentina’s blue dollar, here too strangeness and casual mystery was just part of the architecture, something easy to miss at first glance, but once you start to notice, it’s almost impossible to look away.

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