Buenos Aires on American Airlines’ $25 a day.

Graffiti ("KILLERS") on a shuttered bank in downtown Buenos Aires
Graffiti (“KILLERS”) on a shuttered bank in downtown Buenos Aires
Bustling Florida Street in downtown Buenos Aires
Bustling Florida Street in downtown Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES—It was some time before grim reality pierced through my sleep-deprived fog: The baggage carousel that had been steadily emptying had ground to a halt with a single bag left on it—a bag that wasn’t mine. Scanning his computer screen, the sleepy looking American Airlines baggage agent had little to report that inspired confidence. “Your bag is either still at JFK, or it is in Uruguay,” he said. Pondering these two options, it was hard to decide which possibility gave me a better chance of ever seeing my bag again. The news seemed only to get worse. American Airlines pays out only $25 a day to angry travelers separated from their bags, hush money that buys the airline time to search international luggage purgatory. The American Airlines agent gave me an unconvincing assurance that my bag would show up the next day and sent me out into downtown Buenos Aires with $25 to buy everything I needed until I was reunited with my possessions. But this is Argentina in 2003, where an imploded economy has converted my measly $25 a day into a princely sum. Buenos Aires, known as the “Paris of the South,” once extracted prices for food, clothing, lodging, and alcohol that would make Parisians blush. It is now one of the world’s biggest bargains. The Argentina peso, once pegged to the U.S. dollar on a one-to-one basis, has tumbled in value to roughly 2.8 pesos to the dollar. For American travelers whose dollars are buying less abroad these days, Argentina has essentially become one big two-thirds-off sale. In the late 1980s, Argentina decided to peg its currency to the U.S. dollar to rein in the hyperinflation that had crippled the economy for a decade. Things seemed fine during most of the 1990s, when a soaring U.S economy made the dollar (and hence the peso) strong against international competition. But the peso’s strength was essentially a bubble, since Argentina wasn’t experiencing nearly the same economic growth as the United States. When Greenspan began raising interest rates in 1998, Argentina plunged into a three-year recession. In December 2001, sinking tax revenues and the increased cost of paying down its debt forced Argentina to take the drastic step of defaulting on its loans. At the same time, the government let the peso float on the international exchange market. It immediately sank. The labyrinthine world of international finance thus turned my $25 payout into serious cash. I set out in Buenos Aires to get everything I needed before I had to meet friends for dinner. The first stop at the pharmacy took care of the essentials. For about $8, I replenished my toiletry bag with enough items to take care of that all-night-flight smell I was still walking around with. My next stop was Florida Avenue, a bustling downtown pedestrian street that likely boasts more dead cow parts per square foot than any other street in the world. For miles, high-end stores hawking leather goods trade off with restaurants advertising world-famous Argentine beef. In search of a decent unwrinkled dress shirt, I stopped in a department store. There I struck gold—I came across a rack of button-down shirts selling for about $3.25 each. Admittedly, these were not Brooks Brothers quality, but after I bought one and wore it around town, I discovered that the shirts were made of an astonishing material that didn’t trap cigarette smoke, no small thing in a country where people smoke while waiting in line at the bank. With a new shirt, a new razor, and a new lease on life, I was finally socially presentable. I met two friends at a restaurant where we all ordered steak, polished off three bottles of wine, and lingered over dinner until 2:30 a.m. The cost per person was about $15. So, to recap. Toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, razor, shaving cream: $8. Dress shirt bought in a downtown department store: $3. A three-course, four-and-a-half-hour dinner with free-flowing wine: $15. Going out in Buenos Aires not smelling like the red-eye flight from JFK—and sticking American Airlines with the bill: priceless.