South America is an amazing continent to travel on a budget, though you would be wrong to assume that every country in South America is cheap. 2016 has seen weakening currency in some countries (particularly Colombia in Brazil), though in some cases prices have also risen to match.
The least expensive countries are Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, each attracting large numbers of budget travellers. Colombia is a little more expensive than the aforementioned countries, though it can still be considered a budget destination by Western standards. On the other hand, countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina are relatively more expensive, sometimes approaching Western prices.
This cost overview is based on notes from my own travels as well as extensive current research.
Hostel bed average is the average cost of a dorm bed in a backpacker hostel. This is based on analysis of listed prices on hostel booking sites, using samples from across the country (i.e. not just the expensive capital). Of course not everyone will sleep in dorm beds, but it was my personal favorite type of accommodation in South America. As a rule of thumb, double this value and you’ll roughly know the cost of a basic private room in a hostel, guesthouse, or small independent hotel, possibly with a shared bathroom. Triple or quadruple the hostel bed cost and you’ll have a ballpark estimate for a mid-range hotel room.
Note: currency conversions are dynamically updated based on current exchange rates. Apologies if you use a different currency than EUR or USD – I can only convert to these right now!
Hostel bed average: 31,500 pesos ($11 / €10)
Daily backpacker budget: $35 to $50 (€33 to 47)
Detailed travel info: see my Colombia travel guide
Colombia is mid-range by South American standards — not the cheapest destination but certainly not the most expensive either. The falling value of the peso also makes it cheaper for foreign tourists than it was just a few years ago.
The priciest location in Colombia is the beautiful and historic colonial city of Cartagena, as it is the most touristy place in the country. Beyond this, there are some expected price differences between the cities like Bogota or Medellin and the countryside.
Activities are quite affordable by Western standards. For example, a paragliding session in San Gil costs 60,000 pesos ($21 or €19) for a short flight and 170,000 pesos ($58 or €54) for a longer one. An hour-long private salsa dancing lesson in Medellin costs around 50,000 pesos. Museum entry is often free or only a couple of thousand pesos.
Your biggest expense might be the 5 or 6 day Ciudad Perdida trek near Santa Marta, if this will be part of your itinerary. The price is standardized at 700,000 pesos ($240 or €224) regardless of which trekking company you choose. While it’s a bigger one-off expense, you also won’t have to pay for food or accommodation for almost a week.
Colombia is twice the size of France and bus travel is moderately expensive, so if you will be moving around the country a lot then this will add to your expenses. Viva Colombia is the main budget airline and often has special offers that could work out as good value. For more, read my Colombia budget travel guide.
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Hostel bed average: $12 (or €11)
Daily backpacker budget: $25 to $35 (€23 – 33) not including Galapagos
Ecuador has a fairly low cost of living. It is astonishingly diverse and interesting but it’s also a relatively small and compact country, which reduces the need to spend on long-distance transportation the way you will in neighbouring countries.
Activities are pretty cheap here. For example, a round trip on the stunning Devil’s Nose train will cost $30 (€28). Hiking trips to volcanoes and mountains usually start at around $40 (€37), with bigger groups getting better rates.
In terms of accommodation there are ample cheap private rooms to be found in Ecuador, and often the price difference between a dorm bed and a basic private is minimal. Basic private rooms cost between $10 and $15.
The one thing that can really tip the scale is visiting the Galapagos Islands. This is comparatively expensive as for a visit to these islands you should budget at least $1000 per person (€934), though probably a bit more.
Note: Ecuador uses the US Dollar as its official currency.
Hostel bed average: 36 soles ($11 / €10)
Daily backpacker budget: $35 to $50 (€33 to 47)
More info: my in-depth Peru backpacking guide
Peru can be very affordable with a lot of great value accommodation and food in the amazing places that every backpacker wants to visit; Cusco, Lima, Nazca, Lake Titicaca etc.
Your biggest expense is likely to be a Machu Picchu Inca Trail trek. This will set you back at least $400 (the price is almost always quoted in US dollars) if you book in Cusco and potentially a lot more if you arrange it elsewhere. It is worth bearing in mind that the pricier agencies may offer better food and a more comfortable camping experience. Also, many backpackers view $400 as being a good price for seeing one of the world’s most incredible sights on a multi-day trek. The Inca Trail trek is limited to 500 persons per day and needs to be booked well ahead of time; alternatives such as the Salkantay Trek are cheaper and/or easier to arrange.
Bus travel is not only quite affordable but can be very comfortable as well. Travelling by bus from Lima to Arequipa for instance costs around 247 soles ($75 or €70) for a ‘full cama’ (full reclining luxury seat) and around 176 soles ($53 or €50) for a regular 2nd class ticket.
Many of the costs in Peru will be far higher if you book online while abroad. For example, a short flight over the mysterious Nazca Lines could cost you 530 soles ($161 or €150) if you book it from abroad but well under 350 soles if you do so in Nazca.
You should bear in mind that the overall cost of travelling in Peru can be high due to the cost of the main attractions, which some travellers visit in very quick succession. A short loop around Lima, Nazca, Cusco and Machu Picchu is likely to cost you more than the same amount of time spent in neighbouring countries. However, it makes for an incredible experience with a lot of fascinating culture in a short period of time. The daily backpacker budget listed above assumes a tight itinerary hitting up all the major attractions. You can, however, spend much less on average if you’re slow-travelling through Peru and including more local experiences. For more, read my Peru budget travel guide.
Hostel bed average: 98 bolivianos ($14 / €13)
Daily backpacker budget: $20 to $35 (€19 to 33)
More info: read my in-depth Bolivia backpacking guide
Bolivia is the ultimate cheapie of South America. Although the country’s recent economic progress has seen some prices and the standard of living rise, there are still bargains to be found in food and accommodation. You can go for the very basic approach and make your money stretch a long way, or else pay a little bit more on the higher quality restaurants and hotels that are springing in the most touristy places.
Bolivia tends to offer the lowest prices for accommodation and the cheapest options for food and drink as well, especially in poorer places like Potosi. Bolivia is not always the most comfortable country, though; cities like La Paz and Potosi are rugged and dreary, with the threat of protest marches and blocked roads almost always present.
There are certain tourist activities that you will need to take into account. For example, a popular activity is to ride a mountain bike down the so-called ‘Death Road’ near La Paz, which costs from around 300 bolivianos to maybe 700 bolivianos ($102 or €95) depending on the company and the quality of the bikes. Some of the cheaper companies use old bikes that are probably best avoided on such a demanding and dangerous downhill ride.
A 3-day tour of the Salt Flats of Uyuni costs from roughly 700 bolivianos to maybe 850 bolivianos ($123 or €115), which is a steal for the incredible experience you’ll get. Take a 3-day tour instead of the shorter 1- or 2-day offerings if you can, as it will be well worth it.
Like Peru it can be cold high up in the Andes… but it’s definitely cheap. Overall, it is an adventurous traveller’s paradise at knock-down prices as long as you don’t mind roughing it at times. For more, read my Bolivia budget travel guide.
Hostel bed average: 200 pesos ($13 / €12)
Daily backpacker budget: $40 to $70 (€37 to 65)
Argentina has been undergoing some serious economic turmoil for quite some time now. Stability still appears frustratingly out of reach for this massive country, but the truth is that foreign travelers can get a bargain trip due to these difficulties. The country can be expensive or inexpensive depending on how and when you change your money.
The infrastructure in Argentina is first class and in the past 1 peso was worth 1 dollar, making it one of the continent’s most expensive destinations. Now, the peso has dropped through the floor, meaning that you can get up to around 14 pesos for 1 dollar. Inflation is rife but as long as the peso stays so low it is still cheap to travel in style here. For example, the food here is probably the among the best you will find anywhere but an excellent 2 or 3 course set lunch in a good restaurant should set you back no more than maybe 40 pesos to 80 pesos ($5 or €5).
The country’s policies on foreign exchange rates has varied recently, so be sure to check the up to date information before travelling. It used to be that the “grey” rate for dollars was far better than the official one but at the time of writing it is pretty much the same. However, ATMs here don’t always seem to give you a great exchange rate, so taking cash could still be a good move.
Buenos Aires is a bit more expensive whereas outer cities like Salta and Mendoza are cheaper. Overland travellers beware: distances in Argentina are huge and long bus rides are not uncommon, so be sure to factor bus travel into your budget. For instance, a long trip from Buenos Aires up to Salta will take you the best part of a day and cost you at least 1400 pesos ($88 / €82). The good news is that the long, flat roads here mean that you can choose a comfortable overnight bus and save on your hotel bill without too many worries.
Entry to the Iguazu Park costs some 260 pesos ($16 / €15) on the Argentine side and you get up far closer than on the Brazilian side (although it is really best to see it from both points of view if you can).
Travelling in Argentina is probably the closest that South America offers to the experience of travelling in Europe. Provided that you are smart about how you get hold of your pesos you will see a magnificent country in comfort for a bargain price. While Argentina costs more in absolute terms than some other countries, it also offers some of the best value for money on the continent.
The higher end of my daily backpacker budget assumes you will cover many regions of Argentina, rather than focusing only on one or two areas.
Hostel bed average: 12,000 pesos ($18 / €17)
Daily backpacker budget: $50 to $70 (€47 to 65) (not including Easter Island)
Chile is the country that most often surprises people. It’s often thought of as a developing country yet a traveller will find that parts of it are very modern and not very cheap at all. If you are on a tight budget, consider cooking your own food rather than eating out.
Transportation can be a major cost especially if going down all the way to Patagonia, in which case flying could be a tempting option. If you make it down to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park then the current entrance fee is some 18,000 pesos ($3 or €3), which you need to pay for in cash. Camping is relatively cheap here but the size of the park means that you are likely to need to pay to hop on a bus, boat or horse at some point.
The poorer north of the country is usually cheaper than the south, but overall it is a country where you will want to keep a close eye on your spending. The Uyuni Salt Flats tour can be started in San Pedro de Atacama, taking you across the border into Bolivia. A 3 day tour should set you back from 90,000 pesos to 140,000 pesos ($213 / €199).
One place where you will find it impossible to travel on a tiny budget is Easter Island. This wonderfully enigmatic island with its incredible stone moai is officially part of Chile but is very far from the mainland. At the time of writing, only LAN fly there and you will be paying anywhere between 21,000 pesos and 80,000 pesos ($122 / €114). Once you are there, you will be doing very well indeed if you manage to keep your daily living costs under 35,000 pesos ($53 / €50).
Hostel bed average: 47 reais ($15 / €14)
Daily backpacker budget: $40 to $60 (€37 to 56) (not including Easter Island)
From the dirt poor favelas to the high-rise offices of Rio, Brazil is clearly a country of contrasts and has one of the highest levels of social inequality anywhere on the planet. However, make no mistake; prices in Brazil are close to ‘Western’ prices and you should budget accordingly.
While the north of Brazil (for example around Manaus) is a good deal cheaper, most backpackers follow a trail in the south, either looping back to Rio or Sao Paulo to go home or else crossing the border into Paraguay or Argentina to seek out new adventures. Accommodation and food costs are usually higher in Brazil than elsewhere in South America.
Budget sufficiently for sightseeing as well. A cable car trip up to Sugarloaf Mountain to see the bay of Rio de Janeiro costs 71 reais ($22 or €21), which would almost be a day’s budget in Bolivia. Access to the Iguacu Falls park costs about 52.50 reais ($16 or €15). This is well worth it of course, especially if you aren’t going to see the Argentine side.
Those on a bigger regional backpacking trip tend to keep up a decent pace in Brazil in order to keep costs down, but then take it easy in one of its neighboring countries.
Paraguay & Uruguay
In brief: prices in Paraguay are very low and you should be able to get by on a backpacker budget of up to $30/day. Uruguay is very expensive; use Brazil’s prices as a rough reference. The trendy resorts on the Uruguayan Atlantic coast – such as Punta del Este and José Ignacio – are gorgeous but the prices are eye-wateringly high. These places are aimed at the local and international celebrities who vacation there, not backpackers on a tight budget.
First ask yourself if you really want to go to Venezuela right now, as it’s experiencing a lot of political and economic upheaval. Inflation is rife, certain products become unexpectedly unavailable, and crime is a real issue, making Venezuela far from a mainstream travel destination currently. That said, at the time of writing Venezuela can be mind-bogglingly inexpensive if you bring in hard Western currency and exchange it on the grey market. Some travellers report spending under $10 a day. The situation in Venezuela is highly changeable however.
Guyana, French Guyana, Suriname
As these countries are the least-visited in South America and completely off the backpacker radar, I will cover them only briefly. All of them are on the expensive end of the scale, with French Guyana being possibly the most expensive on the whole continent (as it is part of France and Euro is its official currency). Budget travel is on the whole more difficult in these countries as there is not much of a backpacker infrastructure, which means having to stay in more expensive hotels more often, or having to use taxis where no public transportation is available. Friends of mine travelled these three countries on a budget by mostly sleeping in hammocks, though this was not always possible and some € 50 / night hotels had to be included as well.
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Further reading on budget travel
- 9 Amazingly Cheap Backpacker Destinations You Should Go To
- How You Can Take The Leap & Travel Long Term
- A Guide To Hostels And How They Work
- 12 Money-Saving Tips for the Shoestring Backpacker