Is South America an amazing continent to travel on a budget? YES!
But is every country super cheap? Hmm… not exactly.
As I experienced while backpacking through South America, not everywhere is amazingly budget-friendly. However, if you plan your route well you can certainly benefit from low cost of travel as well as favorable exchange rates against Western currencies.
What are the cheapest countries in South America?
Some of the least expensive countries in South America are Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. If you are on a tight budget, go here! Keep in mind organized tours to major attractions (e.g. Machu Picchu, Galapagos Islands) can still add up to a lot of expense, but the day-to-day costs in these countries are very low. Colombia is kind of mid-budget, though due to the extremely good exchange rate against currencies like USD and EUR it can be said to be almost cheap at the moment.
Argentina always feels like it should be more expensive since it’s very developed, but its economic situation has long made it very cheap for travelers. Bring USD, GBP, or EUR in cash as hard currency gets a huge premium to local pesos in inflation-plagued Argentina.
What are some expensive countries?
Watch out for very high costs in Chile. Travel can also get pretty expensive in Brazil, though it depends. There are big differences between the major cities and the countryside in Brazil. In 2022 it’s also a much more favorable time to go than in years past.
How much should you budget on average?
The annoying answer is… it depends!
It makes a huge difference if you’ll be traveling in backpacker or budget style. This means traveling primarily overland, eating mostly the local cuisine, staying in hostels, guesthouses or budget hotels, and booking day tours mostly from local providers instead of online platforms. All this can bring down your costs a lot.
A good rule of thumb is you’ll need about $1100 a month for traveling on a budget in South America (for one person).
Of course, your average could get a lot lower if, say, you end up staying in a rural village in Bolivia to volunteer. Or a lot more if you splurge on flights, spend your time in the most expensive countries, or go crazy with booking special trips (Galapagos cruise, Machu Picchu trek, etc.).
That said, let me give you an idea of the costs in each country, based on my own trips there as well as recently updated research. Due to the pandemic the situation has changed a fair bit, though you can use this as a rough guide.
South America travel budgets
|Country||Suggested Daily Budget|
|Colombia||$35 – $50|
|Ecuador||$30 – $40|
|Peru||$35 – $50|
|Bolivia||$20 – $35|
|Argentina||$40 – $50 (see notes)|
|Chile||$50 – $70|
|Brazil||$40 – $50|
Travel costs in Colombia are mid-range by South American standards. It’s gotten cheaper for many travellers over the past few years, as the falling value of the peso versus currencies like the US dollar has made it more favorable.
To save costs, don’t stay in Cartagena for too long! This historic colonial city is undeniably beautiful but it’s also the most touristy and expensive. Cartagena is increasingly filled with boutique or luxury hotels.
Outside Cartagena, Colombia instantly gets a lot more budget-friendly. While Colombia doesn’t have a major “bucket list” place (at least not on the level of Machu Picchu or Iguazu Falls), this also prevents any overly high tour expenses. I love Colombia and consider it one of the best destinations in South America. It’s also much safer than people think.
Activities are very affordable by Western standards. For example, a paragliding session in San Gil costs around 100,000 pesos ($20 or €20) for a short flight and 200,000 pesos ($41 or €39) 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.
If you’re travelling on a budget, you can save on your food expenses by getting the cheap menu del dia or menu executive offered by many restaurants around lunchtime. These set meals cost about 10000 pesos (about €2 or $2) and typically include a hearty and filling soup, a main dish, and fresh fruit juice.
Colombia is twice the size of France and travel costs can add up if you explore every corner of it. Viva Air is the main budget airline and often has special deals that may let you hop between distant locations more cheaply than using overland transportation. Many South American countries are lacking in good budget flights but Colombia is a big exception.
Ecuador is a fantastic budget-friendly destination and is widely regarded as a great introduction to South America.
Ecuador’s cost of living is fairly low. Since it’s also a relatively small and compact country, there is less of a need to spend on long-distance transportation. If you want to travel in South America on a budget and have Amazonian jungles, Andean mountains, and the Pacific coastline within (relatively) short distance of each other, then Ecuador is a perfect choice.
Activities are reasonably priced in Ecuador. For example, a round trip on the stunning Devil’s Nose train will cost $40 (€38). Hiking trips to volcanoes and mountains usually start at around $40 (€38), 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 highly protected nature area is best visited on an ecotourism cruise; add to this the costs of flights to- and from the islands and your budget can skyrocket. Expect to need at least $1000 per person (€960) for Galapagos, though it may end up costing more.
If you are on a multi-month trip through South America on a budget, you may wish to save the Galapagos for the future — perhaps for a dedicated holiday to Ecuador with a bigger budget — as just a short week there can cost as much as one or two months of traveling elsewhere on the mainland.
Peru as a country is very cheap. As a travel destination, it can nevertheless be a bit expensive, at least when doing the typical Peru itinerary.
Day-to-day costs such as food or transportation are low, though there are so many highlights in Peru that you may end up spending a lot on tours. A typical loop that includes Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Nazca, Lake Titicaca, etc. will likely have you quickly hopping between various paid organized activities. Some of these, most notably Machu Picchu, have become so popular that visitor numbers have been strictly capped and prices have increased.
If you plan to do the Machu Picchu Inca Trail trek, it’s likely to be your biggest expense. This will set you back at least $600 (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. Still, many backpackers view $600 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 the Peruvian coach buses are known for their comfort. Travelling by bus from Lima to Arequipa for instance costs around 135 soles ($35 or €$34) for a ‘full cama’ (full reclining luxury seat) and around 100 soles ($26 or €$25) 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 over $250 if you book it from abroad, but well under 270 soles ($70 or €67) if you do so in Nazca.
Despite the cost of tours, Peru makes for an incredible experience with a lot of fascinating culture in a short period of time. Away from the standard itinerary (such as in the north or in the Amazon), Peru is even among the cheapest areas to travel in South America.
Pssst, don’t forget your travel insurance!
Traveling South America for a while? Then I recommend Heymondo. It covers you for medical emergencies, theft, travel delay, cancellation, lost luggage, and much more. (If your trip is under 60 days, consider their affordable Annual Multi-Trip Insurance.)
Bolivia is the ultimate cheapie of South America. Sometimes called the ‘Tibet of South America’, this mountainous landlocked country is among the least developed, but this also makes it a real bargain for travelers. 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 often has the lowest prices for accommodation and food, especially in poorer places like Potosi and Oruro. But keep in mind Bolivia is not always the most comfortable country. Cities like La Paz and Potosi are rugged and often 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 500 bolivianos to maybe 860 bolivianos ($125 or €120) 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 €106), which is absolutely a steal for this incredible experience. Take a 3-day tour instead of the shorter 1- or 2-day offerings if you can, as it will be well worth it.
Overall, Bolivia is an adventurous traveler’s paradise at knock-down prices, as long as you don’t mind roughing it a little at times.
Argentina has been undergoing serious economic turmoil for years 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.
Inflation runs at a staggering rate in Argentina has left the locals shell-shocked, but as long as the peso stays low it is cheap to travel in style here. For example, the food in Argentina 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 120 to 150 pesos ($1 or €1).
The situation in Argentina changes fairly regularly, so it’s best to hit up some online forums and ask about the best approach right now. You may get a great exchange rate from getting money from ATMs, though it also used to be recommended to bring reliable currencies like Dollars or Euros in cash and change this locally.
Costs such as food and transportation (taxis, buses, etc.) can be extremely cheap in Argentina. However, hotel or hostel prices are often quoted in foreign currencies (especially through booking platforms), hence you stand to benefit less from Argentina’s economic situation here.
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.
Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Bariloche are more expensive places to stay, whereas outer cities like Salta and Cordoba are cheaper. Distances in Argentina are huge and long bus rides are common, so factor this 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 around 2000 pesos ($12 or €12). 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.
Recent regulation of the domestic airline industry has added low-cost airlines as an alternative option on some routes.
Entry to the Iguazu Park costs some 800 pesos ($5 or €5) 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).
Chile is the country that most often surprises people. It’s sometimes thought of as a developing country, yet a traveler 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 28,000 pesos ($23 or €22) in the high season and 11,000 pesos ($12 or €11) in the low season. You need to pay 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 ($152 / €146).
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 up to 700,000 pesos ($759 / €729) or more for a return flight. Once you are there, you will be doing very well indeed if you manage to keep your daily living costs under 35,000 pesos ($38 / €36).
From the dirt-poor favelas to the high-rise offices of Rio, Brazil is clearly a country of contrasts with some of the highest levels of social inequality. But make no mistake; prices in Brazil are often close to ‘Western’ prices and you should budget accordingly.
That said, as of writing this in 2022, the costs in Brazil are a low lower than they used to be. This is due to currency fluctuations, the pandemic, and other factors. When I traveled in Brazil some years ago, I had to pay at least $20+ for a hostel dorm bed; now you can find beds for $7 – $10 even in São Paulo. Now may be a great time to go to Brazil and enjoy it while it’s relatively cheap.
The north of Brazil tends to be much cheaper to travel, though most backpackers follow the classic trail in the south, usually including the epic waterfalls of Iguazu and the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Be sure to keep some space in your budget for sightseeing. A cable car trip up to Sugarloaf Mountain to see the bay of Rio de Janeiro costs 120 reais ($22 or €21), which would almost be a day’s budget in Bolivia, but is nevertheless highly worth it. Access to the Iguacu Falls park costs 72 reais ($13 or €13).
Paraguay & Uruguay
These countries are considerably less-visited and don’t feature often on overland trips of South America.
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 and many travelers complain their wallet takes a real hit there even on a short stay.
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.
Firstly it should be said that Venezuela has been experiencing political and economic upheaval for years now.
Hyperinflation is a fact of life, many locals struggle to get by, and crime is a real issue. These factors make Venezuela far from a mainstream travel destination currently.
That said, adventurers who enter Venezuela find that it can be mind-bogglingly inexpensive if you bring in hard Western currency and exchange it on the grey market. Some travelers report spending under $10 a day.
The situation in Venezuela is always changing though so be sure to check travel advisories as well as the present level of stability in the country.
Suriname & Guyanas
The countries of Guyana, French Guyana, Suriname are among the least-visited by backpackers and budget travelers.
All of them are on the expensive end of the scale, with French Guyana being possibly the most expensive on the whole continent (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 traveled these three countries on a budget by mostly sleeping in hammocks, though this was not always possible and some € 50 per night hotels had to be included as well.
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