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


 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Colonia – Uruguay

Colonia was a gateway town to Bueno Aires – Argentina and who could resist a ferry border crossing. I figured I would at lease check out the small town for a few days since I was going to pass by but stayed one day too many. Jump down the bus and right in front of me was the tourist information centre. Uruguay was really easy to travel I thought and superbly efficient if not expensive for South America. If you read my previous post you would know I was running away from Casino in Montevideo. Tourist map and I spotted 2 casino within 3 blocks of each other ….. shit now I am really fucked …. Oh well

Upon scouting out the casinos I realized they were really small for a really small town. Colonia was a town no larger than 5 km long and 500 meters wide hence if you really wanted one could just walk everywhere. So with a small casino that has only slots I was saved for a while (Slots ain my Poison) but did ended up donating 100 UGY to the Miss Kitty slot machine. Damn Captain and his Kitty ….
 
Colonia
Jetty - Colonia
I made a new friend in the hostel, Pai from Brazil and she ended up behind my scooter that we rented for a day scooting around Colonia. Scooter rental required a motorbike licence so the hard and painful 1 year ( plus 1 year dawdling ) getting that licence was worth it I guess. The scooter was USD 25 per day and required either a credit card or a USD 400 deposit. I choose the USD 400 for I knew if I crash that bike it will be more than that.

Scooting around Colonia we realized it could be done walking but a lot of the town was just houses upon houses. Other than the old town which was I think 300m by 300m there was nothing much to see but it was a nice quint place to zoom and just pass time for a day or two. I was even starting to wonder why the town was even a UNESCO heritage.
End of it we returned the bike 2 hours earlier than expected and the fuel that we tried to re pump to full do not even take 1 litre. Poor gas station attendant barely press for more than a second and everything came spilling out again. Time get into Bueno Aires …..

Bull Fighting Ring in Colonia

Monday, 13 April 2015

Dilemma of a Gambler - Uruguay

Woke up in the morning by the bus attendant serving breakfast and handing back our passports; I sneak a peek out the bus window looking at all the towns passing by on our way to Montevideo. The bus pulled over many small towns along the way and in every one of them, I could spot a casino. I was counting casino though the bus window like counting white horses. I was a bit worried for being in Uruguay now.

The first thing I did once the bus reached Montevideo was get a map from the tourist information office which was located right inside the bus terminal. One … two … three … four …. Casino marked on the tourist map. I was f*cked.
I had not seen a casino for over a month since leaving Lima in Peru and here was nearly 3 Casino within walking distance and 1 that was a short bus ride away. Somehow I feel that tourist map should not include Casino points. If it’s prominent enough a tourist will wander into it surely like me but putting it on the map is just temptation on a whole new level.

First day and I check in the hostel after looking around quite a bit and headed off to visit the city. Nothing that charming but lovely all the same was Montevideo with lovely old classical building mixed with lovely modern building beside, clean roads easy navigation, beautiful coastline but nothing fantastically eye catching. It was just that kind of city, just enough intricate architecture building to shape the city and a nature coastline that makes it’s not boring but not quite charming enough to make it stand out like a jewel.
First day …. First 4 hours and I have walked the whole city plotting the route along the casino lines and visited all 3 of them. It was time to leave the city of Montevideo. Leave and try to keep my meagre winnings of 300 peso (about SGD15). Next day I got up and headed straight for the bus stop and hop on a bus to Colonia. I thought I made it, I survived! Not losing everything and actually manage to earn some pocket change plus satisfied some of the gambling craving but Colonia had two casinos in them …. A walking city no bigger than half a mile had two casino in it.

There is no escaping the devil within you ……

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Border Crossing – Porto Alegre (Brazil) to Montevideo (Uruguay)

The weirdest border crossing I ever had was this one, even the euro border crossing which was non-existence was more understandable than this one hell of a ride. The bus ride to Uruguay was not too bad and I am starting to see the awesome comfort that everyone is talking about bussing around South America. Thou good comfort comes with a price so at 190 BRL about SGD 95 for just 12 hours the bus was superbly nice with working WIFI and hot meals on board.

Crossing the border
Crossing the border however was worrisome for me as I knew the stupid tour in Iguazu f*cked up my immigration process. I had no exit and re-entry stamp when I visited the Argentina side of the Falls but I had an entry stamp from Corumba but at an earlier date. Boarding the bus at Porto Alegre I had to surrender the passport to the bus attendant (Like an Air Stewardess but on a bus) which she said she will return to me once we reached Uruguay.

It was an overnight bus and I was bewildered that I could just sleep through the border crossing but I made sure to tell her that I must get an exit stamp for Brazil and an entry stamp for Uruguay. So the bus depart and everyone went to sleep after late supper was served. The next morning as we were nearing the final destination of Montevideo she started handing back all the passport or for the locals, Identification card.
I got mine back in one piece and checking the passport sure enough I had two stamps,
Exit from Brazil (which was stamp next to the Argentina Visa entry at Iguazu hence I knew the officer was onto me.
Interesting way to cross a border …. Where they don’t even bother to see the actual person to process the passport. The bus attendant did it for everyone so at least 40 people plus per day and there would be at least 10 buses going that route and coming back another 10. You could say the border crossing was non-existence. Risky thing is that if the people make a mistake with your passport you won’t know till you are deep into the country and by then it will a day later and you are seriously in trouble.
Oh well … trust the local system and pray nothing goes wrong.

 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Porto Alegre - Brazil

Porto Alegre a midway stop before heading off to Uruguay. Somehow I got stuck in Porto Alegre longer than I thought. Four whole days I was there doing absolutely nothing other than watching HBO on cable TV in the hostel and playing chess with the hostel owner Marco and receptionist Jue.

Graffiti in Porto Alegre
How it happen was that there was a chess set layout one fine afternoon and I commented … 'Oh Chess!' …. and they asked if I knew how to play and if I would like a game. I ended up trashing them and they would not let me leave. Payback or revenge was on their mind and I played so many games with them while also playing with my computer at the same time till the third day.  

Due and Marco took turns trying to beat me and another girl Lue which was staying there joined in the foray. Daytime was chess and night time out came the Poker Chips. If I trashed them in Chess, they obliterated me in Poker.

The third day ….. the day I was supposed to leave for Montevideo-Uruguay I packed my bags , checked out and walked to the bus station only to find out all the bus was fully booked and I was stuck in Porto Alegre for another day. Back to the same hostel and when I walked in that door they were so happy to see me for one last chance was possible for them to win me.
Porto Alegre was a lovely town in Brazil. Not to popular but still a nice place to stop for a few days. Most people use it as a gateway into Brazil from Uruguay and Argentina or the other way around. Most major bus runs the trunk line and must pass Porto Alegre so even if there was not much to see the town still gets a decent amount of tourist.

Exploring the place thou can be a mysterious wonder. Hidden streets, local markets, and great local food makes up for its lack of singular major attraction. The other nice part was it was safe considering how much Brazilian people are paranoid about safety, the place felt more relax and chill compared to Rio or Sao Paolo.
Porto Alegre - Brazil
 


Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Grand Iguazu Falls & How Brazil Immigration almost F*ck me up

I was not wasting time now that I have about 1 month left in South America. So much things to see and so many place to go and not much time left. So I hustle Iguazu Falls like crazy upon touchdown from the bus. Iguazu Falls was located at a three point border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay but you could only view it from the Brazil and Argentina side.

How Brazil Immigration almost Fuck me up
7 am in the morning I arrived and immediately was sold a day tour ticket to see the falls at the Argentinian side. The bus was to pick me up at 8am and we would reach the falls at 10 am and pick up again at 5pm to be brought back to the Brazil side. First thing the tour company did was check if I needed a Visa to enter Argentina and was soon clear I (Malaysian Passport) required none.

First stop was the Brazil side of the Immigration but prior to that the van driver took all the passengers passport and when we got to the immigration he was the only one to get down and disappear for a few minutes before returning and driving us off to the Argentina side of immigration. At the Argentina side of immigration the same thing happened and we never saw any immigration officer while crossing the border.
Arrive at the Argentinian entrance of National Park of Iguazu Falls and the driver gave back our passports. I opened it up and saw the nice new entry stamp into Argentina. There was no Brazil exit stamp thou. I asked the driver and he said it was not required. Not thinking too much about it for I have been to countries that do not stamp out such as USA, Australia, New Zealand; but still I had a bad feeling.

Later that day after having a great day at the falls the driver picked us up at 5pm as planned and drove back to Brazil crossing immigration again in the same way. This time I was careful and told the driver to make sure we got exit stamps ….. I was taking no chances. We never saw any immigration officer, the same as the first time the driver stopped at the Argentina side getting exit stamps for everyone. Moving on to Brazil side of immigration the driver did not even bother to stop and just drove on entering the country with no immigration crossing.
A month later I manage to exit Brazil with an exit stamp into Uruguay ….. but that’s another story …..

So if someone would to carefully examine my Passport …. It would look like this:
Enter Brazil -> Enter Argentina -> Exit Argentina -> Exit Brazil

I later checked the all wise internet and found out that everyone require an exit stamp from Brazil. That f*cking driver was just lazy. Oh well ….
 
Iguazu Falls ( Argentina Side )
Iguazu Falls
Argentina side of the falls brings you up close and personal, really really close and judging by the way they construct the walkway and some ruin bridge parts that was lying about perched on some rocks saved for its brothers that has went over, it was a little scary but at the same time exhilarating to be so close to the edge.
If you ever love Indiana Jones or lost treasure hunter movies the falls was just like that. Tall and huge with average of 1000m3 of waters feeding and going over the edge every second, just breath-taking. There was three parts of the falls, two of which was like a flat wall of water, spread out so long formed by hundreds of individual waterfalls close to each other and the third was shaped like a horseshoe with a tip protruding like a tongue which they named the devils throat.

Diablo Del Gigante, was the name of the observation deck at the very edge of the falls into the Devil Throat and it was beautiful looking at the tremendous gush of water above just breaks at the edge and fall into oblivion. One could not see the bottom of the falls for the sheer volume of water cause sprays and frequently shooting sprays that is higher than the falls itself and this obscure the base of the river. Nicely named I guess devils throat for if you fall off that edge there was no way to survive
video
 
Argentina side has also the upper circuit track and a lower circuit track which one could hike along designated path to get other views of the falls. They go really close and for the lower circuit, so close that you are bound to be soaking wet from the sprays of water. Five hours and that was all I could do running from one view point to another to get different views of the fall. One could also take the super drench boat ride as close as the driver dares to the bottom of the falls but at a hefty price.

Iguazu Falls ( Brazil Side )
The next day I went to the Brazilian side on my own taking the local bus. You could not see the whole falls together at the Argentina side ….. the big picture was on the Brazil side. Brazil side of the falls however was done in a mere 2 hours for they have only one track leading up to a magnificent view into the mouth of the devils throat. Brazil side I would say is for taking panoramic photos for the falls are seen from a far and a great overview can be seen. Morning seem to be a good choice, for rainbows would form everywhere around the falls due to the water mist.

Lovely Falls ….

One thing for sure … it was one of those places where a photo will not do it justice ….
Rainbow at Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls
 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Beautiful City of Rio de Jenario

Copacabana Beach in Rio
Rio is beautiful as a city with its long white sandy beach, lush tropical jungle in the heart of the city, and marvellous building architecture and not to mention great city planning. The city was organized, structured but also speckled with colourful but dangerous favela. A too structured city is a boring city and a too disorganized city is a messy city so to be beautiful it had to have a perfect blend of all things.

Christ the Redeemer
Christ the Redeemer - Rio
One of the 7 modern wonder and the third one I have seen so far. Now the Coliseum and Manchu Pichu was fascinating but I have no idea how a sculpture became one of the new modern wonders. Frankly I think Angkor Wat should be one of them instead of this one, no offence to Brazil, still I paid the money and visit it anyway.

More than a week I was in Rio and I could see the Redeemer no more than 2 hours a day. Most times it would be covered in the clouds and for some reason the clouds always forms up at that area even if everywhere else is blue sky. L and I took the tourist train up to the peak which was a nice ride through the city ‘tropical jungle reserve’ of Rio and when we got to the top there was a massive amount of people in the small viewing platform.
Way too many people. I guess it’s popular after all and many people was lying flat on the ground trying to get a good picture of the famous monument. If you wanted a picture of only yourself with the Redeemer, good luck. Being up there thou gives a good overview of Rio from above and one could appreciate how beautifully structured the city was. Snap snap snap ….. going down

One Part of Rio from Above

How I got up Sugar Loaf Mountain for free


Sugar Loaf Mountain - Rio
The sugar loaf was a prominent landmark for hundreds of years and Rio decided to build a cable car system for the tourist. Two peaks like a sugar loaf and the cable car span from the ground to the first and then second. L told me that we could save some money and hike up the first one and take the cable car to the second one.

The hike was a 45 minute though a semi jungle with well guided post and little trail path. It was a pretty steep hike but not a very long hike. We saw these cutes little monkeys and plenty of mosquitos. Soon we were at the first cable car station and was rewarded with stunning view of Rio.
The station had a large viewing platform, a helideck for helicopter tours, some souvenir shops and a few food outlet. Then we were stuck there. Thinking we could get a ticket when we reach the top of the first station to go to the second one we did not stop to think that tickets were only sold at the bottom of the station. What once upon a time was a ticket station on the first stop was no longer operational and the rules were changed.

Rio De Jenario
We were stuck there and the only way out was hiking down that steep trail. L went on a frenzy with a local tourist helper and even tried to bribe … I mean pay him the ticket fare to let us on board the cable car to the second stop. Still amazingly the officer would not accept any of the money but instead told us to wait a moment while he tries to do something.
That something was ingenious. He went to the trail path and waited for people who was walking downhill instead of taking the cable car and asked them if he could have their unwanted tickets. He got us one and was advice that one of us could go downhill, buy a ticket for two people and then come back up to the 1st station and proceed together to the 2nd stop. We took the ticket and L pretended to lost the ticket (dropped somewhere) and was eventually let into the cable car heading downwards for free. We ended up with a free ride to the base and never bothered with the second station.