EspañolBuenos Aires has one of the largest and most active bitcoin communities on the planet. It also has the third highest concentration of bitcoin meetups, behind New York and Tel Aviv.
But is the city ready for its residents to subsist on bitcoin payments alone? My quest was to find out.
I wanted to live the experience — leaving the philosophy and economic theory of the cryptocurrency aside for a day — and enjoy, or suffer, the reality of its user experience.
With this in mind, I began to walk the streets of Buenos Aires, to purchase goods and services exclusively with this exotic mode of payment.
This is easier said than done, however, and took some preparation. The day before, I utilized Embassy, a shared workspace that hosts bitcoin workshops.
I met up with Agustín Aguilar of BitPay on the second floor, and we began to design a map of locations and services where bitcoin could be used. We decided to call the adventure the Bitcoin Tour Buenos Aires.
We based our arrangements on CoinMap, and the advice of other bitcoin enthusiasts in the room. Everyone offered up different options: from hotels and spas, to bicycle rentals, and even a food-delivery location.
“It’s spectacular. You have to order from here,” referring to Trifl, a website that offers three meals a day, that can be paid for using bitcoin or cash.
I tore a page from my journal with information about all the suggested businesses and services for the next day, and I marched on.
(07:50) Bitcoin Tour Begins with Disappointment
The alarm sounded Wednesday at 7:50am — hour zero. I got dressed, grabbed some cash, just in case, unplugged my cell phone (a full battery was crucial), checked that my virtual-wallet app was working properly, and left enthusiastically.
First step, load bitcoins. I had a total 0.17 Btc. (around US$76.20 at $448.80 per 1 bitcoin), more than enough for a day in the city, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I checked my GPS for the closest Ripio kiosk, a location that allows you to easily and automatically exchange Argentinean pesos for bitcoins.
The closest location was 20 blocks from my house. I scribbled the directions, and began my journey in good spirits, given the beautiful weather that day. But the kiosk was closed. Undeterred, I continued on to the next location.
There I was greeted by an employee who apologized for not having enough funds to offer me bitcoins.
I had lost the battle, I thought, but not the war. Head high, I met my friend Agostina at her office, and invited her to have breakfast at Subway. I needed some coffee.
(10:30) Successful Breakfast at Subway
The sandwich shop was empty at this hour. We ordered two coffees with milk, a chocolate muffin, and a cookie. “Can I pay you with bitcoins?” I asked nervously. “No problem, since no one’s here, it’s perfect. In the middle of the day this can cause a long line because it takes a little longer to pay this way,” the employee told me.
This was the first time I had ever done this, so I waited for his instructions. He told me the total was $3.40 (0.0076 Btc.) and that I should scan my app’s QR code and press send. Done.
But the 3G on my phone didn’t work — the internet here is very slow and 4G won’t exist until 2016 — so I had to ask for the wifi password to complete the payment before the coffee got cold.
After the third try, I was able to complete the transaction, and win the first battle. Now with a solid dosage of caffeine and sugar in my veins, I said goodbye to my friend and met up with Aguilar, who came to join me on the monetary adventure.
We both agreed that my Windows phone (Nokia) was not facilitating the Bitcoin experience, given that the Blockchain app — one of the few for this operating system — is very basic and leaves much to be desired.
(11:30) To the Dentist
A dentist that accepts bitcoins? How can that be? We had to see it to believe it. Marcos Huanambal Giménez, a graduate of Buenos Aires University, is the only dentist in the country who does.
In the waiting room of his tidy office in the charming neighborhood of Belgrano, there was not a single sign that bitcoin was an accepted form of payment. But almost without prompting, he told the story of his first experience with bitcoin more than a year and half ago.
“I have family in Peru, and a while ago, before opening this office here, I was getting ready to move and trying to figure out how to transfer my money, and a friend told me about bitcoin,” he said happily.
While he hasn’t had many patients who have opted for this form of payment, he supports it because of the philosophy behind the currency, and insisted it is a good investment.
The dentist visit came to a total of $21.80 (0.0487 Btc.) and we completed the payment on the computer in his office.
(13:00) 3D Printing
Printing a 3D plastic name can be an unique gift. We decided to go to 3D Lab, a business on Costa Rica street in the Palermo Soho neighborhood, to see if it was actually possible to pay with our electronic currency.
When we arrived, the blinds were drawn, and there was not a single sign that the establishment was open to the public. A young lady came to the door and let us know the business was undergoing renovations; but after demonstrating our insistence and curiosity, she invited us inside the two-story location.
As I gazed at the enormous Mac computer, she kindly told us that the majority of her customers are movie producers and design students. The price of each 3D piece is determined by the amount of time it takes to produce: $7.27 (0.016804 Btc.) per hour.
I said goodbye to Aguilar and continued the tour on my own. There was still a lot to see.
We were in a neighborhood full of dining establishments, but not a single business in the area accepted bitcoins; and by that time I had insatiable thirst.
I decided to make a stop at Hotel Prodeo, which according to my bitcoin map, would sell me a bottle of water in exchange for the virtual currency.
Unfortunately, bitcoins could only be used to pay for a room, not a drink from the bar — a true shame, since the hotel was absolutely beautiful.
(14:00) Bitcoin for Taxi Travel
“Hey Javier, Can you hear me?” (Based on my experience, one in three phone calls is dropped or interrupted in the city). “Yes, yes, you’re cutting out, but it’s fine. I’m in Serrano Plaza in Palermo. Can you come get me?” I asked Javier, the owner and driver of a Bitcon Taxi, who says he is the only taxi driver in Latin America who accepts bitcoin.
Javier arrived five minutes later. “I only work during the day, and when I want to,” he said as he kept his eyes on the road.
I asked him to bring me downtown. “I’m headed to Pirate Bar, which also accepts bitcoin,” I told him, before asking him what we all want to know: where did he get his bitcoins?
“Daniel Alós, the owner of a restaurant called Antidomingo. The bar has a bitcoin kiosk. I have bitcoins thanks to him.”
During the short time I was in his car he told me he has had at least 10 passengers who have paid with bitcoin, but he has yet to exchange them for pesos. He added that not too long ago he was part of a Korean documentary about bitcoin.
“I love bitcoin,” he said, as we transfereed the $2 (0.0044 Btc.) for the ride. “But you have to have a little patience, because sometimes the payment gets delayed, and the passenger has already left.”
(15:05) Wiener Schnitzel (Milanesa) and Fries
I arrived at the corner of Reconquista street and Marcelo T de Alvear, then headed to Porto Pirata, a restaurant nearby. It was quiet at that hour, and I asked the waiter for the biggest bottle of water they had.
Soon my dad, Eduardo, arrived, and I told him about my morning’s adventures with the cryptocurrency. We discussed the volatility of bitcoin, and its current exchange rate with the Argentinean peso, which suffers from an inflation rate of roughly 40 percent annually.
Argentineans don’t fear bitcoin’s volatility nor a potential for a declining value. It will always be safer than the already deteriorated and depreciated bills from the Central Bank of the Republic of Argentina, which this year alone have dropped in value by 51 percent.
The wifi was down when the bill came, and I commented to my dad how annoying it was to get up from the table and go to the counter to pay.
We waited for them to restart the modem, so I could pay the $5 (0.0111 Btc.) bill. The restaurant manager smiled at my father, who watched incredulously as I left without using cash or cards.
(20:00) Much Deserved Rest and Celebration
I returned home, now shuffling my feet. After a rejuvenating bath, I set out on the last leg of the journey: Rot.
Rot is a bar that opened in November 2013, whose owners are familiar faces in the Argentinean bitcoin scene. I couldn’t help but include this on the day’s list.
I met up with my boyfriend Kevin, who agreed to accompany me to this last stop of the night. We arrived, and finally sat in an environment where you could breath bitcoin.
I introduced myself and chatted for a few minutes in front of the cash register. The place was covered in candles and Bitcoin decals.
Before closing the check — a fruity drink with a little whiskey — I had to ask the waitress to charge my phone, so I didn’t have to stay and wash dishes.
A Journey Through a Broken System
The experience was fantastic, and each anecdote was better than the last. But Buenos Aires is not ready for one to exist on bitcoin. At this stage, it remains an appropriate form of savings and investment, rather than a currency for daily use.
While there are several well-established bitcoin locations where the currency can be used, a cashless life is still a ways away. If you want to try it, I encourage you to do so. It is a very real, not just virtual, adventure.