Apr 19, 2010 1:03:52 AM
Welcome to Argentina! Scammed in Buenos Aires
Twenty-four hours on a bus can dull the senses of even the most scam-wary traveller. My boyfriend Joe and I were in the final month of a six-month world trip. It was my birthday and as a result of extraordinarily bad planning we’d just spent it on a cramped and smelly coach travelling from Santa Catarina in Brazil to Buenos Aires in Argentina.
We were desperate for a hot shower and a lie-down and had booked a half decent hotel in Microcentral. We knew the hotel was only a few blocks from the bus station but in our weary state agreed that it was a few blocks too many and decided to catch a cab. We were on a tight budget, but catching a cab was hardly a splurge for foreigners in Argentina. (Since the peso lost 75% of its value in 2001, Argentina was every travellers dream).
As we emerged from the bus station, a cab driver pulled up and waved us over with a friendly grin. ‘Welcome to Argentina! My name is Matias. Your first time here?’ His excellent English and hearty welcome immediately put us at ease. We sank into the back of the cab, grateful to be off the bus and moments away from a comfortable hotel.
We’d barely left the station before Joe and Matias were in full conversational swing. Matias offered to drive us around the main sights close to our hotel. So we spent the next 20 minutes sightseeing as he drove us up Av De Mayo past grand Victorian architecture and blushing pink Casa Rosada, and past the Obelisk in Plaza de la República. It was great to have an instant tour but I was tired and less than attentive, and getting more and more anxious to get out of my dirty clothes.
Matias sensed our restlessness and offered to take us to his ‘friend’s’ hotel, which according to him, was much better value than the hotel we’d booked. ‘Oh, here we go’, I thought. We’d come across this scam a million times before. I exchanged glances with Joe, whose eyes persuaded me to humour his new friend by letting him to take us to the hotel.
When we got there, Matias and Joe went inside to speak to Matias’s ‘friend’ while I stayed in the cab. Without the distraction of Matias’s constant chatter I noticed that the meter was still running. And it wasn’t just clicking over slowly, it was spinning like a one-armed bandit and we’d already clocked up over 50 pesos! Having just arrived in Argentina, I had no idea what the exchange rate was but something told me this wasn’t good.
After what seem like an age, Joe and Matias emerged looking grim-faced and got back in the cab. The previously congenial atmosphere had evaporated and we drove silently to our booked hotel.
By the time we got there, our fare was over 70 pesos, which we paid without question, thanking Matias for the tour. As he drove off we could see him in the rear-view mirror chuckling to himself. Later that night, after a well-needed rest, we asked the hotelier how much a cab from the bus station would normally cost.
‘You caught a cab?’, she exclaimed. ‘It’s so close most people just walk. The most you would expect to pay is about 3 pesos’.
‘3 pesos!’ Joe whistled out loud while my jaw hit the floor. ‘Well, there goes your birthday dinner’, he joked.
Somehow I failed to see the funny side.