Written by Kieran Proctor

Tourist Scams In Buenos Aires & Argentina

In this article, I cover the most common scams you will encounter while traveling in Argentina. The Argentine tourist scams ...

In this article, I cover the most common scams you will encounter while traveling in Argentina. The Argentine tourist scams covered are not just common in Buenos Aires. These tourist scams are prevalent across Argentina and you will encounter at least one of them while you’re here.

Before getting into what the scams are and how to avoid them, or how to get yourself out of these scams if you happen to be suckered into one of them, I cover the basics. Then I go in depth on what they are and how to spot the scams. So you can avoid them.

is there crime in Argentina?

Yes. Argentina has crime. Buenos Aires in particular has much of the crime that is present in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is the capitol and largest city in Argentina. Its official population is around 16 million. Buenos Aires is a large and vibrant city often compared to Paris or New York. And with that size comes the crime you would expect of any large metropolitan city.

is there Violent Crime in Argentina?

Yes, Argentina has violent crime. Argentina is a country in South America and it has land borders with Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

With that said, the homicide rate in Argentina is around that of the United States. And it has been decreasing year on year, for over a decade.

Is Argentina safe?

Argentina is quite a safe country and the likelihood of encountering any form of violent crime is low. In the unlikely event a tourist does encounter crime, it will likely be a non-violent scam covered below.

Most crimes affecting tourists and foreign visitors to Argentina are petty and opportunistic in nature. Don’t wander around wearing a Rolex in a dodgy part of town, late at night, and you will be fine.

I’d also point out that Buenos Aires in particular, has more police officers stationed around popular parts of town, than most cities that I’ve traveled in any country. There are almost always uniformed police officers standing around on the street. And in parts of Buenos Aires like Puerto Madero and the zone around Obelisco, they have police monitoring surveillance cameras 24/7.

Safest suburbs in Buenos Aires

I’ve always found Palermo Hollywood and Belgrano to be the safer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. And I’ve found areas around Microcentro and San Telmo to have more scams, pickpockets and beggars than most other suburbs.

Once out of Buenos Aires, the overall likelihood of encountering crime decreases the further you get from the city. Rural Argentine towns like Mercedes and Suipacha, which are approximately 2 hours from Buenos Aires, are incredibly safe and worth a visit.

Scams | The main scams you will encounter in Argentina

Exchange rate scam

The biggest scam you’ll encounter in Argentina is perpetrated by the government. It’s the exchange and interest rates set by the Central Bank of Argentina. And it’s these rates that give rise to a vibrant black market for foreign currency in Argentina.

The ‘dolar blue’ is the local Argentine term for the informal black market USD/Peso exchange rate. And I’ve previously covered how travelers can access the blue dollar exchange rates in Argentina.

Any transaction that goes through a payment processor or bank in Argentina, is applied at the exchange rate set by the government. Transactions through Western Union are at or near the dolar blue rate. As are cash transactions at any reputable casa de cambio.

At it’s most basic, if you avoid transactions through Argentine banks and ATM machines you’ll get the dolar blue rate. The dolar blue is always around double the official rate.

To avoid this scam avoid using your foreign card in ATMs or payment processors. And avoid using Argentine banks for currency exchange.

Argentina currency cash or effectivo
Argentine Peso

Mustard or bird poo scams in Argentina

This is a distraction scam for pickpockets and bag snatchers. You’ll most likely encounter this one in places with higher densities of pickpockets and bag snatchers if you look foreign.

This one is hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll get it the day you arrive in Argentina. Sometimes you’ll encounter it long after you’ve arrived in Argentina.

Working most commonly as part of a three person team, somebody will spray you with mustard or garlic mayonnaise. Or they will spray you with some other equally gooey substance. Generally it comes from a man and woman couple directly behind you.

Then a ‘Good Samaritan’ and maybe the couple too, will come to your aide with napkins to help you clean off the offensive mess. In the process of helping you clean off the mess they sprayed you with they will pat you down, lift your valuables and snatch your bags.

How to avoid the Argentine bird poop scan in Buenos Aires

To avoid this scam try not looking like a foreign tourist and avoid locations like Avenida Florida in Microcentro and the walkway under buildings across from the Centro Cultural Kirchner on Av. Leandro M. Alem.

If you do encounter this scam in Argentina, step back from the people and smell the mess you’ve been sprayed with. I’d suggest you loudly say what you think the goo is in Spanish such as exclaiming ‘es mayonesa!‘.

When the thieves know you’re aware it’s not bird poop and are aware that you know it is a scam, they won’t approach to help you clean it. In my experience they will disappear quickly when they know the scam is not working. And you should get out of there as quickly as possible and go home and shower.

You can somewhat prevent this scam by making direct eye contact with the individuals around you. Once they know you’ve seen them or have looked right at them, they generally find an easier target elsewhere.

Scammers and other criminals are opportunistic. You don’t have to be the hardest target. You just have to look more difficult than the next person. But even then, they might be having a slow day and you’re the only tourist they’ve seen.

My experience with the Argentine bird poo scam

I’ve personally been hit with this scam on Av Alem near the building housing the Argentine National Intelligence office. I was sprayed by a couple. The light skinned couple that sprayed me were a balding male with a pony tail and his female partner. Then a Good Samaritan of Bolivian or Peruvian ethnicity just happened to have napkins.

The trio who tried this scam on me got nothing from me and were just a nuisance. I sniffed the goo, exclaimed ‘es mayonesa!‘ and walked off.

Pickpockets in Argentina

If you have Argentine friends the first thing you’ll hear them say if you’re going into Microcentro or to a casa de cambio in Argentina is ‘watch your wallet’. Pickpockets are an ever present nuisance in Argentina.

With that said, pickpocketing is only really common in Argentina in crowded areas. Such as Microcentro, busses and the subway. The pickpockets target location where everyone is in close proximity and where people bump into each other.

To avoid pickpockets be alert in crowded areas. Keep your hand in your pocket and on your wallet when people are in close proximity. Be aware though, from watching which pocket you have your hand in or if you instinctively tap your pockets, the thieves will know which pocket has your valuables.

Also, be sure not to leave your wallet or phone on the table in a bar, restaurant or cafe. Somebody walking past will be likely to snatch items off your table while you aren’t looking.

Taxi scams

At all terminals where tourists enter or leave the country you will encounter taxi scams. Sometimes from registered taxis and other times from fake taxis. The basic mechanics of these scams are simple. They will quote you a ridiculously inflated price for your trip.

The cab driver will either not have a functional meter in the cab or will choose not to use it. To avoid this scam always insist on using metered cabs and going by the meter.

Choose cabs from within the airport grounds or inside the Boquebus gates. It also helps to know in advance the rough price you should be paying for a trip of your intended duration.

Buenos Aires Taxi
To identify a legal registered cab look for the meter (red) in the windshield and company logo on the rear door.

Short changed scam

You can expect to be short changed in Argentina. The person you’re paying will either not have enough money to give you change, for example if you’re in a taxi or have ordered a food delivery. Or they will just not give you the correct change in a busy store and you will be halfway down the street before you realise you got short changed. 

To avoid this one carry smaller notes and have close to exact change for any item you’re paying for.

Personally, I never worried too much about this scam as its relatively small change. And if you have exchanged money at dolar blue rate in Argentina it’s a tiny amount. If you’re exchanging at the official rate it can add up.

Beggar scams in Argentina

There are a lot of beggars in Buenos Aires. And the rest of Argentina has beggars too, but in lesser numbers.

While the economic situation that gives rise to begging in Argentina is sad, there are a lot of individuals engaged in begging as a business. You can expect to be routinely approached to buy socks, tissues and other random items from people with sad stories.

If you don’t want to buy a pair of socks mid hamburger, they’ll then proceed to give you a sad story and ask for money or anything else that they can get from you. Some will use their children and have young kids or babies as props, to help them solicit money.

The choice is yours as to whether you give them money or buy their products. But be warned there are a lot of beggars and you will go broke in a day if you buy socks every time somebody approaches you.

Don’t go with any beggars to shops in order to help buy them products. The baby milk common in other countries, does operate in Argentina along, with its derivatives. They’ll have you buy something they ‘need’ only to return it for cash the second you leave.

Travel Tip: If they put their wares on your table, be mindful that they don’t pick up anything your items when they leave, like your cell phone. They will use the sale of items as distraction to try and steal from you.

Free drink scams in Argentina

Free drink scams in Argentina have been around for decades. And yet everyday more tourists stumble into them. This one will involve an offer of free entry and a complimentary drink at a club. Unsuspecting tourists will take up the offer and when inside, a lady or two will sit with them and also have a drink.

When the tourist goes to leave, their drink will be free. But each of the drinks, that the lovely ladies who sat with them consumed, will be $50-$100. The tourist will be confused, try to leave and find that there are suddenly a bunch of gorilla sized bouncers, preventing them from exiting. A which point the bouncers will shake the tourist down for cash.

In order to avoid this one do not go with random strangers to bars or restaurants. In latin America you should never go to a club or bar that somebody walking up to you on the street is promoting.

If it’s a random person who has approached you on the street, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a scam. It there’s something coming for free or near free in Argentina, it’s definitely a scam. 

conclusion – scams in Argentina

Scams are a common part of life as a foreigner in Latin America. The scams you will likely encounter in Buenos Aires covered above are a nuisance at first but they become less frequent as you get used to Buenos Aires.

The longer you stay in Argentina the less you’ll look like a tourist and less like a target. With that said, the beggars are prolific and you can expect to be offered a pair of socks mid meal almost every time you go out.

For those interested in other scams operating throughout South and Central America, I’ve previously covered the scams in Cuba.

Where Can I Get More Information About Buenos Aires?

If you’re planning to visit Buenos Aires on your next vacation, or you’re simply interested in Argentina in general, you should read my Buenos Aires City Guide.

My Complete Buenos Aires City Guide is updated regularly. And it seeks to answer all of your questions regarding Buenos Aires and Argentina in one place. Read my Complete Buenos Aires City Guide.