Unfortunately for us, BA didn’t so much stand for Buenos Aires but more for Boring Admin which somewhat deflated the experience of what was my very first day ever in Argentina. Mind you, it was never going to be a great day given we had lost a night’s sleep as we had flown from Cartagena in Colombia and were on our way all the way down the continent to Ushuaia in Argentina. This entailed a 4 hour or so flight to Lima in Peru with a few hours and then another 4 hours or so in the air arriving in Buenos Aires around 08.00 local time with a 20 hour layover there until our rather unsociably timed 04.50 flight the next day to Ushuaia (entailing a 02.00 wake up call: Ugh).
As usual, a new country gave us the challenges of obtaining local currency as well as getting a local sim card (or “chip”) for our mobile. Neither should have been quite as hard as the headache they in fact were.
First up, getting cash. Wow, this is just difficult and ridiculously expensive. For a start, not all banks (including Santander which can be found on every UK High Street) take international bank cards. An additional frustration here is that you only find this out once you have patiently waited for quite a long time as we found the queues in all the banks we visited (and boy did we visit a lot) really long. Then of course there were a number of machines that despite appearing to be operational simply didn’t have money in them: “No tiene dinero” became an all too oft heard phrase.
And finally there’s the big sting in the tail: the double whammy of tiny withdrawal limits and the eye watering huge ATM withdrawal fees. We had of course read a bit about this online in advance but it didn’t really hit home until we standing in front of an ATM experimenting with ever decreasing amounts when it asked us how much we wanted to withdraw. Our worst transaction was only being allowed to take out 4000 pesos (c£82) which cost us 389 pesos (c£8) thereby reducing the exchange rate effectively from 48 pesos to 43.5 pesos to 1 GBP. Our best was 8000 pesos (c£166) for the same charge – but any which way you look at this, a charge of over £8 per withdrawal is just painful. And for some reason the machines seemed to prefer our Visa card rather than our Mastercard (the latter often returning some sort of nonsense message about our daily limit having been reached despite there being no such thing).
I particularly liked the signs above the ATMs telling you the functionality of the individual machines. In the circumstances, the term, “extracciones” seemed particularly appropriate given the whole process was akin to a nasty trip to the dentist for a tooth extraction (or worse).
So what are the alternatives? We’d read that cash (particularly US dollars) is king in Argentina and that visitors should essentially load up and bring enough US dollars to see them through their trip. While I am sure this is good and well-meaning advice, it wasn’t particularly practical for us given we are on an extended trip and had no practical way of obtaining dollars in Colombia the last country we visited prior to Argentina. However we still had some dollars from our time in Panama and at Lima airport had managed to find a dollar dispensing ATM but clearly not enough funds to see us through a potential 4 or 5 week (maybe more?) trip to Argentina. Clearly you don’t want to be carrying around thousands of dollars in cash for obvious reasons. And also the only dollars we could get were used 20 USD bills and we’ve read that money changers can be pretty strict and prefer USD 50 and 100 dollar bills in absolutely pristine condition (which is somewhat ironic as many of the peso notes we’ve handled are some of the tattiest I have ever seen although these seem to circulate happily). While we haven’t actually tried changing USD cash yet, we did rather alarmingly see one sign saying only 50 and 100 dollar bills were accepted so I can see another headache coming on shortly.
One silver lining is that, so far (and without wishing to jinx this in any way), our credit card has been pretty widely accepted and without surcharge so that has thrown us a lifeline. But I guess only time will tell if it is possible to use this everywhere. Fingers crossed.
And so onto the second challenge of our somewhat trying day in Buenos Aires: getting a sim card. Clearly going shopping on the Saturday before Christmas was never going to be a relaxing experience and we were caught up in some phenomenally lengthy queues which all added to our pain. But by the time we had queued for over 20 minutes in 3 Movistar mobile provider shops only to be told that they didn’t have any sim/chip cards and also that international calls (other than via WhatsApp) were not possible, our patience was beginning to wear rather thin. Finally, we went to Movistar’s chief competitor, Claro, and at least there they could sell us a sim card and we could load our mobile with enough credit to call back home and have a bit of internet access. But just like with the cash, this just took way longer than it should have done and we had to be really patient with the never ending queues.
We are due to return to Buenos Aires shortly and am sure our next trip will be full of far more positive experiences; by that time we will also be rested and will have worked out the best way to face these (and any other) administrative challenges put in our way!