I had vaguely fantastical notions of being robbed, but really, I just wanted to pay what equated to a dollar for a liter of beer. My friend had told me about the system. Once, a burly dude escorted him up a dark flight of stairs and into a dimly lit room with an official money-changing tray and a thick glass barrier. Other times he had been led into a basement or even did it right out in the open. … With all of this in mind, I walked through the street doing my best to look as touristy as possible without tipping my trepidation and excitement. The street was filled with arbolitos and my initial anxiety of not finding a partner was placated quickly. The man at the magazine stand altered his sales pitch when he saw me approach. I heard the “Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!” I was looking for and shot back a hopefully nonchalant come-hither look. We went inside his stand and counted out our respective amounts to trade. I checked the authenticity of the bills, shook his hand, and was on my way in under a minute. The rate of the day was 8.4 pesos/dollar, a cool 3.3 pesos higher than Argentina’s official rate.
With its volatile currency and dysfunctional banks, the country is the perfect place to experiment with a new digital currency. ... His occupation is one of the world’s oldest, but it remains a conspicuous part of modern life in Argentina: Calle Florida, one of the main streets in downtown Buenos Aires, is crowded day and night with men and women singing out “cambio, cambio, cambio, casa de cambio,” to serve local residents who want to trade volatile pesos for more stable and transportable currencies like the dollar. For Castiglione, however, money-changing means converting pesos and dollars into Bitcoin, a virtual currency, and vice versa. ... That afternoon, a plump 48-year-old musician was one of several customers to drop by the rented room. A German customer had paid the musician in Bitcoin for some freelance compositions, and the musician needed to turn them into dollars. Castiglione joked about the corruption of Argentine politics as he peeled off five $100 bills, which he was trading for a little more than 1.5 Bitcoins, and gave them to his client. The musician did not hand over anything in return; before showing up, he had transferred the Bitcoins — in essence, digital tokens that exist only as entries in a digital ledger — from his Bitcoin address to Castiglione’s. Had the German client instead sent euros to a bank in Argentina, the musician would have been required to fill out a form to receive payment and, as a result of the country’s currency controls, sacrificed roughly 30 percent of his earnings to change his euros into pesos. Bitcoin makes it easier to move money the other way too. The day before, the owner of a small manufacturing company bought $20,000 worth of Bitcoin from Castiglione in order to get his money to the United States, where he needed to pay a vendor, a transaction far easier and less expensive than moving funds through Argentine banks. ... Avalancha offers customers a 10 percent discount when they use the virtual currency, because accepting credit cards generally ends up costing Avalancha more than 10 percent as a result of the vagaries of the Argentine financial system.
Bringing people back from death’s door is Catena’s moonlight gig – she is on shift from 6pm to 2am six to eight times a month. By day, she is the managing director of Catena Zapata, the flagship brand of a family-owned company that sells bottles worth over $140m a year, making it Argentina’s second-biggest wine exporter. The firm was founded in 1902 by her great-grandfather Nicola Catena, and she assumed the reins from her father Nicolás in 2009. She spends four months a year in Argentina overseeing the winery’s operations, and two more as the olive-skinned, pony-tailed “face of Argentine wine”, promoting her products at tastings and dinners across the globe. She manages her staff of 120 via Skype and WhatsApp. ... Catena insists she sees her role as that of a detective, not an inventor. And she has modelled the CIW not after the development arm of a pharmaceutical firm, synthesising precious new compounds from scratch, but rather the upstream division of an oil company, searching for natural treasures the Earth has hidden away. ... how can destroying wine help Catena Zapata make its tipples taste better rather than worse? The answer is that the CIW is using baking as a kind of stress test: all wines subjected to this treatment will suffer, but some will suffer more and others less.