Many if not most visitors on a Patagonia excursion visit two countries, Argentina and Chile. Unlike Europe, there is no currency union between the two, so it’s important to know what’s happening with money – especially the notoriously fluid situation in Argentina. Like many foreign travelers and Argentine tourism operators, I welcomed the recent end of Argentina’s cepo cambiario, the “currency clamp” that forced visitors into a surreptitious foreign exchange market – the so-called “blue dollar” – instead of exchange houses and ATMs. With a 40 percent differential between the formal and informal rates, playing by the rules made Argentina expensive, but visitors had to carry cash – preferably US dollars – and change when they could.
At the moment, foreign visitors can get a more realistic exchange rate with their ATM cards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of carrying cash. That’s because Argentine ATM transactions come with a penalty, as I learned when I attempted, failed at first, and finally succeeded in withdrawing pesos on New Year’s Eve in El Calafate, gateway to the famous Moreno Glacier (shortly after doing so, I headed to El Chaltén, Argentina’s “trekking capital” whose ATMs are often down because of poor Internet service).
Initially, I went to an ATM belonging to Banco de Tierra del Fuego and, after introducing my card, I chose the option to withdraw 2000 pesos (roughly US$154 at the new official rate). The machine, though, claimed that I had already exceeded my withdrawal limit for the day (even though I had not withdrawn money since the week before, in Chile). I then tried for 1000 pesos but, after getting the same message, I went elsewhere.
Down the block at Banco Santa Cruz, the machine worked (though the lines were longer), but there was a glitch. It would not let me withdraw more than 1000 pesos and, if I wanted to do so, I would incur a charge of 79.80 pesos – eight percent, nearly US$6, on a withdrawal of roughly US$70. In Chile, by contrast, I was able to withdraw 200,000 pesos (nearly US$300) with a charge of 4000 pesos – two percent, about US$5.50. I’d rather not pay that either, but it’s reasonable (I might add that Banco Estado, whose ATMs I use in Chile, charged foreign customers nothing at all until very recently).
What this suggests is that, for the time being at least, carrying US cash makes more sense than using Argentine ATMs. As the photo outside a Calafate restaurant indicates, many businesses are willing to accept US dollars and other currencies in payment, and will not skim eight percent off the top. When possible, it also makes sense to use foreign credit cards, whose international charges are considerably lower than Argentine banks.