Mar 2013

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 17 Comments

Dirty Money, Clean Getaway

It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to realize that I was not sitting face to face with a stock broker, as I had been told, but with a boss in a money laundering ring.  After five months of selling illegal currency on Argentina’s black market I should have been less naïve, but clearly I was no more than a stable boy in this rodeo.

The building was nondescript, sandwiched between skyscrapers in downtown Buenos Aires, its windows mirrored and unmarked.  The blank hallway on the fourth floor was punctuated by nothing more than a green button on one wall.  The heavy deadbolt let out a metallic clunk, and we entered the office.

A deflated-looking receptionist sat on a flimsy chair behind a bare desk.  The meeting room where we waited for the money launderer contained a cheap desk, four chairs, and a telephone.  There wasn’t a computer in the whole building and what furniture there was seemed rented and cheap; the place could be evacuated in no time flat if the cops showed up.

We handed the man our stack of US dollars, and he handed us a bigger stack of Argentine pesos.  And just like that we saved ,411, or 35%, on the shipping container in which Nacho and two motorcycles would travel from Buenos Aires to Malaysia.

When it comes to beauty, Argentina comes up aces.  We are envious of its mountains.  We are envious of its rivers, streams, and its lakes.  We are envious of its gorgeous women and its handsome men with their slender bodies, perfect faces, olive skin, and long, dark, voluptuous hair.  But when it comes to its economy, Argentina is in shambles, swirling faster and faster into an uncontrollable toilet dive.  For this, we are not envious.

A few years ago, Argentina enjoyed a prosperous economy.  Its currency was tied to the US dollar, trading one to one.  The Argentine people vacationed to “cheap” places like Europe and the USA.  Then, in a series of botched economic moves, Argentina devalued its currency, inflation became rampant, the government went through a bond default, and the people’s bank accounts instantly vaporized.  With unbridled  inflation, the people began rebuilding their savings in US dollars; by keeping their savings in pesos, they would effectively lose ten, twenty, thirty percent per year due to inflation.

Then, in 2011, the government made it illegal to obtain US dollars in Argentina.  This, of course, gave rise to a black market for US currency.  When we arrived in Argentina five months ago, the official exchange rate between the peso and dollar was 4.7 to one.  Since we had US dollars with us, we were in a position to sell our dollars on the black market to Argentine people who needed them.  We made our first sale at 5.875 pesos to one dollar, effectively reducing the price of everything we would buy in Argentina by 25%.  We would make a sale every week to keep up with inflation.

Sitting in the money launderer’s bleak office in Buenos Aires five months later, we would make our last trade at 7.5 pesos to one dollar, while the official rate had only risen to 4.9.  In five months, the peso had inflated 28%.

Over the course of our stay in Argentina, we would save over $2,000 by selling our dollars to ice cream shop owners, parking lot attendants, auto parts dealers, and money launderers.  To use an ATM was to throw perfectly good money in the trash.  The rivers and streams are pristine, the lakes and mountains are awe inspiring, the women and men are steamy hot, but there is no hope for Argentina’s economy.

A few weeks prior to arriving in Buenos Aires, we had been in El Chalten, the town at the base of Mount Fitz Roy.  While eating breakfast one morning, someone knocked on our door.  It was Kevin, a Canadian motorcyclist who reads our blog; he recognized Nacho and came over to say hello.  We got to talking, and learned that he and his riding partner, Jan, were also nearing the end of their trip South.

“So what are you doing next?”, he asked.

“Once we get to Buenos Aires we’ll ship Nacho to Malaysia, and then drive from there to Europe,” I said.  He considered it for a moment, and then pitched an idea.

“Mind if we come along to Malaysia?”

And just like that, Nacho would have two BMW motorcycles to use as padding in the shipping container for the long crossing to Malaysia.

When we reached Buenos Aires, the four of us rented an apartment in the San Telmo neighborhood.  It would serve as our basecamp while we drove around town for shipping broker meetings, customs visits, container loading, and meeting with money launderers.  While we were at it, we decided we might as well see what the city had to offer, and to our delight Buenos Aires turned out to be totally excellent.

Day after day we explored the city.  In la Boca we admired the urban art and street performers,  in San Telmo we explored the antique market and sampled restaurants, we found an extensive beer cave in Microcentro, and explored the most elaborate graveyard on the planet in Recoleta.

On the very last day before loading our shipping container, I decided that Nacho needed some tender loving care.  I cleaned our air filter and swapped out our water pump, which was on its last legs.  Last, I wanted to give Nacho a bath so that he would be shiny for the new continent.  First impressions.  I filled a couple of buckets with water, grabbed some dish soap, and went down to the street, where Nacho awaited.

I cleaned up the front, side, and back of the van, and then moved to the last side, which faced the street.  I set the bottle of soap on our folding chairs and went to work.  A few seconds later I came back around, and found my soap in the planter, and our folding chairs missing.

Some rat bastard had stolen our weather-beaten, dry-rotted, faded, rickety folding chairs right in front of my eyes!  He would have had to lug them a half a block before he’d be out of my sight, but I never saw a thing.  I asked the bystanders at the bus stop, but they didn’t see anything either.  All I could do was shake my head.  Why couldn’t people just earn money the honest way, like the money launderer?

Finally, after 24,000 miles of driving through 14 countries over the course of 13 months, we drove Nacho one final time to the port.  In our attempt at driving in a westward course around the world, we had finished the first year of driving over 3,000 miles East of where we started.  We clearly had a lot of work to do.

As we came to a stop inside of the shipping container, I glanced at the odometer; it read 299,999 miles.  The very first order of business when we open the shipping container in Malaysia will be to roll this puppy over to 300k.  Sounds like a good omen to the start of a new adventure.


  1. eric schamber

    yep, sounds like argentina haha overall i can feel you had a great time :) Good luck in Malaysia!
    – Eric

    Comment by eric schamber on March 14, 2013 at 7:20 pm

  2. Rob

    299,999 on the odometer is an incredible picture!

    Comment by Rob on March 14, 2013 at 10:21 pm

  3. So did you arrive in Argentina with like $5k USD on you? Just wondering because I would be a little freaked out carrying that much cash for so long. I mean I guess you could pick some up in Ecuador or at an exchange place at a bordering country but that would cause you to lose money as well to doing the exchanges.

    Sorry to pry, love the detail about the laundering of the money to get a break, just wondering how you got the USD down there to do it.

    Comment by T-roy on March 15, 2013 at 12:07 am

  4. Good question, @T-roy. Before leaving Peru, we went to the ATM a bunch of times and pulled out $2,500. We use Charles Schwab for banking, so all of the ATM fees are reimbursed, no questions asked. Cost of getting the cash: $0. We used this money until it ran out, and then had to use ATMs for about a week before we made it to Chile. Once in Chile, I was unable to get $USD from an ATM, so I decided to try to get the equivalent of the black market USD rate by selling Chilean pesos for Argentine pesos. Theoretically there’s no reason this should have worked, but after asking 8 money changers in Chile, I found 2 that would give me the black market rate. This means that instead of selling me Argentine for 99:1, they sold them to me for 78:1.

    I changed $2,000 more at that rate in Chile, which got us to Buenos Aires. The shipping process cost us another $1,400 or so, which meant I needed more pesos. I could have gone to Uruguay and gotten USD from an ATM, but I would have lost around $250 in getting there on the ferry and paying the return visa fee. Instead, I had Kevin take out an advance on his Visa card in Chile and lend me the USD. I didn’t know this was possible before, but you can actually do this at major banks in Chile if you have a US bank account.

    So there you have it. You’d think life would be easy once you reach Argentina, but we had this hanging over our heads every damn time we wanted to buy something! Dah! Still, well worth the savings in the end.

    Comment by Brad on March 15, 2013 at 12:24 am

  5. KJ

    Good Morning Sheena & Brad,

    I just had a moment to read this story of the USD Black Market….It brought me back to 40 some years ago when it was similar in Mexico and Belize….as I was traveling then with a money belt carrying a substantial amount of US Dollars….I was able to fund the entire trip at a Black Market rate as well. Back then there were no atm’s and plastic cards were not in vogue outside the US. The entire trip (New York to Belize and back), came in at almost 45% lesser cost than anticipated due to the Black Market on US Dollars. It’s a great memory, I have very few pictures as my camera, lenses, and film were stolen, along with clothing etc at a customs check. I had mailed one or two rolls of film back home those are the pics I have.
    I also should let you know, I had an Argentinian couple stay at my New York Row House, B&B… Fabiana and Manuel for 13 months in the early 90’s. They were just a wonderful couple and were seeking sponsorship to become US citizens. They both had jobs and were looking to get their families out of Argentina because of economic conditions back then. I ended up sponsoring. Fabi and Manny were with me for approx. a month…we had begun to know our routines of daily living. One morning I got up to use the bathroom, planning on going back to bed. I came out of my bathroom and my bed was made!….from that point forward Fabi would clean the entire house, do all the laundry, and cook meals for all of us on a daily basis. They were a pleasure to have at my home. I also remember them drinking “Mate Tea” almost constantly. The Argentine’s are a beautifully people!
    I’m excited that you have your Canadian friends going to Malaysia with you. I’m looking forward to your blog and the excitement yet to come. As I said before…I’m traveling with you through your eyes…something I would surely do if I were younger. Safe travels to you all throughout your journey!…Bon Voyage!

    KJ of Lakeview, Michigan

    Comment by KJ on March 15, 2013 at 8:24 am

  6. zebra

    I used the black market quite a bit for pesos. I brought a lot of USD with me to change. The problem is that the black market rate is not the same all over argentina. The highest rates are in BsAs. The lowest rates are in the tourist towns like El Calafate (only the official rate available here!). So it makes sense to change as much as you can in BsAs. Almost all travel agencies and money transfer type businesses also trade black market money. It is known as dolar blue and there is a few sites on the internet which keep track of the rate in BsAs on an hourly basis. when you find a place that changes your money, ask them if they have a recommendation of a place in the other cities you are going to. A recommendation will always get you a better price at the next place. I also used Brad’s trick in Chile. I went to a town in Chile which had a lot of Argentine tourists, i took Chile pesos from the ATM, and i changed them at a casa de cambio for argentine pesos at a rate slightly below the BsAs dolar blue rate. You have to understand the that dolar blue rate is totally a local phenomenon, driven by the supply and demand of pesos versus dollars locally. I also used the Uruguay trick to get some more USD. It costs about $60 for a round trip ferry ride to Colonia if you use the cheapest ferry. Then you have to go to the BRU bank at 9AM. You may have to wait for the staff to fill the ATM with dollars. BRU does not charge withdrawal fees and you can take out as much as you like. If you can’t get USD in Colonia, then you can easily get uruguay pesos and then change them for Argentina pesos at the casa de cambio in Colonia for a good price.

    Comment by zebra on March 15, 2013 at 10:15 am

  7. TG

    FYI: below is a link to a Popular financial newsletter that this wk focuses on Argentina, and begins with a brief 100-yr economic history – may need to add email address to access, but it’s legit, more than 1M readers. It’s a not uncommon requirement for SEC regulated entities to require email for access. In a few days this article will be replaced by a newer one and you’ll need to search the index to find the Argentina article. Am enjoying the ride, thank you


    Comment by TG on March 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm

  8. ernesto

    Que bien Malaysia, que aventura………….300 000 millas wow sigue la odisea. Ustedes se van en el mismo barco en que va nacho???

    Comment by ernesto on March 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm

  9. @Ernesto, Nacho va en un barco de contenedores, y hemos ido en avion. Ya llegamos a Malasia, y Nacho llegue la Lunes.

    Comment by Brad on March 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm

  10. Gren

    Hi both, thanks for the blog, great reading I look forward to your updates.
    Good luck on your next continent.
    Bon route.

    Comment by Gren on March 16, 2013 at 3:38 am

  11. Joan

    How very interesting! I am so clueless about these things. How did you find out that you would have to do this when you started planning your trip? And how safe is it to carry cash and how did you know which launderers to trust?

    Comment by Joan on March 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm

  12. tom flinn

    as always… i love catching up on your travel tales!
    i’ll have to look into transfering our funds into chuck schwab…
    we are gearing up to leave new england in the next month, to see if we can make it to the southern tip too!

    Comment by tom flinn on March 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm

  13. Gaston

    Dear Brad & Sheena, I´m so glad to see that you´re again on the road, enjoying your “no ending honeymoon” … so my friends, continue doing this travel, I´ll follow your posts every week

    Cheers from BUE

    Comment by Gaston on March 21, 2013 at 8:45 pm

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  15. […] the Silk Road- The Coprophiliac's Fruit- The ApprenticeMarch 2013- Hand to Mouth- Malaysian Invasion- Dirty Money, Clean Getaway- Meeting the Magellanics- The End of the Road- Falling Buildings and Tidal Waves- The Worst Day of […]

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  16. hey guys, been following for a while now. would you mind sharing how much you paid for the container to malaysia?


    Comment by baron van huisen on June 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm

  17. Baron,

    After exchanging the money on the black market and splitting a 40′ container with 2 motorcycles, our portion was $1,600. This is about $400 less than what we paid to ship from Panama to Colombia (200 miles).

    Comment by Brad on June 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm

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