By Ailish Casey
On the whole, South America is a low-cost destination that’s great for budget backpackers and their wallets. However, costs vary a lot between countries (your money will stretch twice as far in Colombia as it will in Brazil) and even between regions of the same country (good luck visiting the Galapagos islands on a mainland Ecuador budget!). Most travellers find that their money goes far in South America, and that they can sleep comfortably, eat well, and see amazing sights without breaking the bank. And the occasional splurges (such as a tour of Machu Picchu, partying the night away at Carnival, or a trip into the Amazon) are usually well worth it!
The lowest budget for cheap countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay is around $25 per day, or $775 per month. This will cover accommodation, transport, food, and most activities. Though guided multi-day excursions will bump costs up significantly.
For the more expensive countries of Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, you’ll need at least $30-35 per day, or around $930- $1,085 per month.
Hostels are the cheapest form of accommodation in South America. Most hostels are of a high standard, with clean dorms, kitchens, hot showers, and a sociable common area. Many offer private rooms at very reasonable rates, too.
It’s best to book accommodation a day or two in advance during the busy seasons, and for events such as Carnival it may be necessary to book weeks or even months in advance to be sure to get a decent place.
In low seasons, however, it is very possible to arrive at a hostel without a prior booking. In large cities, a taxi driver should know of a cheap hostel to take you to, and in smaller towns and villages you can simply walk until you find accommodation that suits you (quite often, the hostel owner will find you before you find them).
Budget Tip: For a fun experience that also keeps accommodation costs down, try Couchsurfing, where you can stay with locals for free.
Argentina – Hostels throughout Argentina cost between $7 and $15. Most are of a good standard, though in cities you may find that the cheapest places are dingy dives- it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it!
Bolivia – A dorm bed in Bolivia will cost $6-10, and a private room costs significantly more.
Brazil – Prices vary throughout Brazil. In Rio, for example, a hostel may cost as little as $6, but a similar hostel in a beach town outside the city may cost twice as much. And during Carnival, you can expect prices to skyrocket to a minimum of $40 per night for a dorm. Book online to compare prices.
Colombia – Dorms in Colombia usually cost $7-10, or you can sleep in a hammock for as little as $5. Double rooms often cost the same as two dorm beds.
Chile – A dorm bed in Chile will set you back $12-20.
Ecuador – Hostels are less common in Ecuador, instead you’ll find guesthouses with double rooms for around $16. On some trekking routes, a double room will cost $30, but will include meals.
Peru – Dorms cost roughly $10. In Cusco, dorms are less common, and private rooms start at around $20 per person.
Uruguay – While Uruguay is cheap overall, accommodation is surprisingly expensive, at $15-20 for a dorm, and a minimum of $20 per person for a private room.
As in most places, the cheapest way to eat in South America is to do as the locals do. In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, a cheap set lunch will only cost $2-3 (though expect to get sick of rice and beans pretty quickly!). In Brazil, buffets are charged by the weight, so it’s easy to fill up for under $5.
The street food is also pretty cheap in most countries, and you can usually grab an empanada or a meat skewer for a dollar or two.
When you feel like splurging on a restaurant meal, you can usually do so for under $10 (maybe $15 in an expensive country such as Chile).
Budget Tip: Cooking in your hostel’s kitchen is a great way to keep food costs down, especially if you join up with other travellers to make group meals.
Buses are the main mode of transport for both domestic and international journeys, though short flights can be fairly cheap, too. Major cities have decent public transport systems, and taxis are used for short journeys within cities and towns.
The buses in South America are very comfy, with many operators offering semi-cama (partly reclining) or full-cama (fully reclining seats). Taking a long journey overnight is a great way to both pass the time by sleeping, and to save on a night’s accommodation.
These buses aren’t always as cheap as you would expect, however. While you may find a ten hour journey costs just $20 in somewhere like Colombia or Ecuador, a similar journey may cost up to a whopping $70 in a country such as Argentina, Brazil, or Chile.
Some operators offer domestic flights that are the same price as long distance buses. Bear in mind, however, that you need to factor in the costs of getting to and from the airport, and some airlines have a very small baggage allowance, so you may get slammed on excess baggage fees.
The price of taxis varies from country to country. In countries such as Peru, Uruguay, and Ecuador, taxis cost around $1 per kilometre, but in Brazil and Chile, they cost at least twice this. In some places, taxis drivers adhere strictly to their meters, while in others you can bargain the price down.
Many major cities have decent public transport links. Local buses usually cost just $1-2 per journey, though they can be confusing to figure out. Metro systems are usually the easiest way to get around a city, as they have easy-to-read maps and cost a similar price to buses.
Budget Tip: If you find yourself walking alone late at night, get into a taxi. No amount of money saved is worth putting yourself in danger.
The price of excursions will depend on whether you can undertake them independently or whether you need to go as part of a tour. The Pantanal in Brazil, the salt flats of Bolivia, and the Lost City Trek in Colombia are just three examples of amazing regions that can only be reached via a guided tour. These tours can take an massive chunk from your budget.
Sometimes you’ll just have to figure out if it’s worth it. A four-day tour of Machu Picchu, for example, costs around $600, but is a once-in-a-lifetime tour that can obviously only be undertaken in Peru.
Other times, you’ll find you can do a similar tour in a cheaper place. While a tour of the Amazon wetlands in Brazil costs around $250 for a three-day trip, a similar tour in Bolivia costs less than half of this.
Of course, there are countless independent excursions to be undertaken in each country, and most are completely free. So, when budgeting, you’ll need to determine your priorities. For example, is it worth paying $200 for a guided trek to the Lost City in Colombia, or should you trek independently and for free around Salento instead?
Why South America Can Become Expensive
The biggest hit to your budget in South America will be undertaking expensive guided trips, or visiting expensive regions. For example, one week in the Galapagos can cost as much as a month in a cheap country such as Uruguay.
The other major expense is transport. If you decide you want to see all of a massive country such as Argentina, the costs of getting around will quickly add up. If you stay in one area for longer, however, you’ll keep costs down substantially (as well as getting to know the region better).