Friday, 1 May 2015

Puerto Madryn - Argentina

I am on a bullet train (metaphorically) now flying through places without really getting to know them. Buenos Aires for only 3 days and hopped onto the bus to Puerto Madryn skipping everything else in between. 18 hours bus ride and only for 2 nights in Puerto Madryn before I hopped onto the bus again bounded for Rio Gallegos for another 18 hours.

Puerto Madryn was a nice cosy town. If I had time I would have probably stayed there a week given it was the perfect town to just chill. Food was good and cheap and the Hostel La Tosca had a kitchen which further helped since a good supermarket was nearby and given time I would have been in the mood to cook. Petite little hostel with great rooms big size cage lockers below the bunk beds, very clean and amazing cake breakfast. I really wanted to stay longer and in fact I am regretting not staying longer in Puerto Madryn.
For entertainment there was tours, not pricey but not dirt cheap either. I hopped on the Peninsular Valdes tour for 560 Peso plus an entrance fee of 180 peso. A whole day trip seeing wild animals.

The count
  1. Huanchaco
  2. Amiridalo
  3. Witch Something Bird
  4. So many birds
  5. Snake
  6.   Lizards 
  7.   Sea Lions
  8. Elephant Seals
  9. Penguins ….

Poor thing we did not see an Orca (Killer Whale) which was said to be spotted around that region quite frequently. It was even in season said the guide but then again with global warming you never know nowadays. Luck! It always has to be a little luck to see any real wild animals. Penguin colony was a small one and the viewing platform was from afar so one could only see and watch. No petting, no bagging a penguin for a pet although I was asked by quite a few people from b
Sea Lions at Puerto Madryn
ack home to do so. I was content I guess and did not pursue to Puerto Tombo which I heard would have ten of thousands penguins and you would be walking among them wear a bowtie and click glasses of champagne together. No time I thought and gave it up for Ushuaia thinking I could see some there too.

Night time was spent passing in the Puerto Madryn Casino. Only one casino which was rather small but they had those electronic roulette machine at a dirt cheap rate. Put it 100 peso which is about SGD 10 and played for many hours (at night) and numerous days (two) only to walk out with a profit of 100 peso. Good entertainment.

Puerto Madryn, the town was a short walk of 1 hour and you will see everything there is to see. Outskirt are lovely neighbourhood but can be boring to death. It was the type of town you just do nothing and watch the world skip by.

Somehow when rushing the things you enjoy is not as much as when you are travelling slowly.
Penguin at Puerto Madryn .... Can you see it ???

Saturday, 25 April 2015

My Adventure with the Argentina Black Market Blue Dollar

Like any ignorant traveller …. “Travel first … figure out the details along the way” was the motto and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Argentina was on my list of places to go but it was pretty far away in my mind so I did not pay it much thought. Along the way I met fellow travellers in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil and the usual question of “where next?” always pops up sooner or later. One common advice everyone did gave me when they realized I would eventually set foot on Argentinian soil was to bring hard cash USD Dollars.

Bring as much as you can …. thousands if possible, the advice would go. So I started researching on the internet about the black market blue dollar in Argentina.
Argentina Peso
I of course at that time only had USD 100 stash away as emergency funds but luckily you could get hard American dollars from ATM’s in Peru and Uruguay. When it was time to set foot into Argentina I had slowly accumulated 700 USD through withdrawal from ATM and money changers. 700 USD was the approximate amount I would need for the little time I would be spending in Argentina.

To give a perspective of why it is called the blue dollar below is the comparison of what I actually exchange in Argentina.

Withdrawing using international ATM Card in Iguazu Falls Argentina

I withdraw ARG 1000 (Peso) = SGD168.94                   
However there was ARG 52.11 ATM Charges & SGD 5 International Withdrawal Charges
(With USD – SGD based at 1.35)
The exchange rate I got from using international ATM =>    1 USD = 7.99 ARG

Exchanging Hard Cash with Black Market Money Changer

I exchanged USD 700 for a total of ARG 8940

The exchange rate I got from the Black Market => 1 USD = 12.77 ARG

The Black Market Adventure
The internet is an amazing thing and it really makes travelling much more efficient today. Not only can you find information about the Blue Dollar in Argentina and the step by step guide, you could also get a current up to date blue dollar exchange rate.
I met my partner in crime Pai in the hostel soon after arriving in Bueno Aires. She took the earlier boat from Colonia and I the afternoon boat but we both pre-set to stay at the same hostel hence meeting up was easy. First item before anything else was to get Argentinian peso …. Can’t travel if you don’t have money :)
Consulting the hostel staff they referred us to a street called Florida St. Just go there and take a walk she said, and open your ears. Along the way Pai being a Brazilian was paranoid of everything in concern of danger, and knowing that it was a black market thing she was worried that we would be mug, rob, kidnapped, given fake money, or cheated in some way we could not perceived yet. I won’t change money with them, Pai said. Brazilian dollars to Argentina Peso exchange is not much diff anyway so it won’t matter she said.
Calle Florida
We arrived in Florida St which was a beautiful long stretch with lovely old style architecture buildings left and right with shops mainly catered for tourist high end shopping. The streets were busy with people all walking along and we blend in walking along and kept our ears open as advice.
People were blatantly shouting “Cambio” “Cambio” (which means money changer) or when the police watch was around, they just said the word softly from time to time but it was still glaringly obvious.

I choose a few asking for the rate for USD to ARG and the first offer was 12.4 ARG to the dollar, keep walking and shop around asking from one guy to another looking for the highest bidder. One smart ass guy offered me 12.6 and I refused trying to walk on. He asked the basic question of how much I was willing to exchange for. 12.9 I said. You’ll never get that rate, everyone exchanges at the highest 12.7 and that’s also if it’s by the thousands. Do you have a thousand the guy asked with a smirk? I have 200. 12.6 The best rate you’ll get in this street he said.
No thanks I said and walk on not even five steps when another guy in a nice suit and tie walked up to me with a calculator flashing 12.9. I smiled …. Time to change money.
Pai and me followed him walking along Florida St and entering one of the big office building, up the stairs into a tiny corridor where the paint were peeling off the walls. People were about and obviously nervous and some just looked like the brute muscle. Everyone eyeball everyone else thinking all the while this place is dodgy as hell. Into a small room at the end of the hall and drawing a curtain close the transaction begins. I took out USD 200 big notes and received ARG 2580.
Pai was watching all these while and although she refused to change money herself, she was in that suspicious small room with me when I change money. It was time to get out and get lost. When we got out safely and unharmed Pai said with a sly smile, the money might be fake and it looks fake.
How People Take Risk for more Money
Paranoid Brazilian Pai, still needed to exchange BRL to ARG and she was insistent to look for a legal money changer. It was so hard to find a single legal money changer that was not the blue dollar money changer. Eventually we found one inside a huge regal high class shopping centre.
Exchange rate for Brazilian Real to Argentina Peso was 2.5

Looking at the exchange rate, Let’s go find a Cambio, Pai said …..
I could not help myself and replied with a sly grin …. This is a Cambio

Alas money is a great motivator I guess and we went back out hunting for another Cambio to change Brazilian dollars. We asked a few for the rates but always letting Pai call the shots since it was her money. I did told her to look for someone that looks harmless, and not out to gut you. My idea was if the person conduct himself professionally it was better than one with chains around his neck and tattoo everywhere which might just screw you upside down. Granted that the professionally well-mannered could do the same thing but at lease he would do it in a polite way if you get what I mean.
Pai finally decided to pick one after asking a few people of the exchange rate and manage to get an exchange rate of 4.15 for BRL to ARG
Then it was the walk to the shop which this time was located in a posh shopping centre brightly lighted awesomely clean and we were guided to a harmless looking shop front that was selling a few clothes, bag and some ornaments. Going up the cashier Pai did her money exchange while the person worked under the table. Happy for our extra found money we left with a grin on our face and a light skip on our feet.

Let’s try that fake money if it works I said to Pai with a stupidly big grin on my face.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Border Crossing from Colonia to Bueno Aires ( Uruguay to Argentina ) with a Malaysian passport

I couldn’t resist when I found out there was a ferry boat that takes you from one country to another. Somehow crossing a border by boat just gives me the excitement of something different. Land crossing and aeroplanes are so normal but sea crossing even for a short one is so exciting.

The Ferry terminal in Colonia was just next to the bus station and a stone throw away from the old town. Walking in I notice only three companies which was Colonia Express, Busabout, and Seacat. All their counters were next to each other and lacking the diplomacy of discretion I asked the price and time from one counter to another openly showing them I was scouting out the competition. They weren’t bothered at all and gave me all the prices showing them on the computer and they all had the same price. Dammit so much for trying to be smart.
I ended up with Colonia express on the 11am boat the next day for the timing was preferably for me. Others were either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Boarding takes an hour earlier where after receiving the boarding pass one will need to go through immigration. No check in luggage for boats, you carry everything with you.
At the immigration counter there were two officer line up next to next with each other. My turn came and I walk up and the lady processed the exit stamp from Uruguay with excellent efficiency. No dumb questions about Malaysia Passport and after stamping the passport she passed my passport to the next officer down the line. I was to side step to the next officer and then I realized she was the Argentina side of immigration. Before I could process things in my head the entry stamp for Argentina was done and passport handed back to me.
Walk on to the waiting area and within 5 minutes we were next to board the small little vessel bound for Bueno Aires. On the boat it was free seating, fairly combatable and barely rock the whole 1 hour journey to Bueno Aires. Upon arrival in Bueno Aires we departed and went through customs checks which was just a walk by. No immigration.
Hello Bueno Aires.

Ferry From Colonial to Buenos Aires