A few years back I wrote an article for Transitions Abroad that I updated this month: Budget Travel in South America.
It’s not meant to be a comprehensive country-by-country rundown, but rather a strategy guide to where your money will stretch and what you can expect to pay in general terms. Then at the end there are some resources to turn to for more specifics.
Traveling on a budget in this region has gotten a lot more complicated since I did the first version of that article five years ago. Argentina has become a fiscal basket case again and on top of that they added a reciprocal visa fee that’s payback for what we charge them to enter our own countries. A family of four would now pay around $560 before exiting the airport. This same fee is in place in Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil, which is probably part of the reason those countries get far fewer visitors than Peru, Ecuador, and now Colombia.
If you watch financial news regularly, you’ll know that the resource-based economies around the world have been on a roll. Those that have lots of things to extract from the ground have seen their economies boom. In the developed world that means places like Canada and Australia. In South America it means Peru, Chile, and Brazil. Those latter two have gotten far more expensive when their currencies appreciate and Brazilians are now the free-spending travelers of the Americas, buying up a storm wherever they go. (And saving Argentina’s tourism industry in the process.) Colombia has been on a roll—too much of one actually. The government is frantically buying dollars to slow down the appreciation of its currency.
So where would I say you should go if you wanted to backpack through South America for a few months or more? I’d say you should fly to Central America first, because you can do it more cheaply with money or miles, then make your way through Panama and either fly or take a boat to Colombia. Spend a few weeks in semi-expensive Colombia, then go overland to Ecuador and watch your money instantly buy twice as much. (Except liquor and wine, which just doubled in price there this year.)
You’d then continue down to Peru, hitting the highlights in a leisurely fashion from north to south, then enter Bolivia via Lake Titicaca. You’d make your way overland down to the Salar de Uyuni, spend some time around there, then bus it over to Salta in Argentina. Go overland to Iguazu Falls and then Buenos Aires, taking a detour to Uruguay somewhere along the way by land or ferry. Then take a series of very long bus rides down to Bariloche. Explore Patagonia there and in Chile, then fly up to Santiago. From there if you still have money left, you could spend some time in wine country and Valparaiso in Chile or fly to Brazil for some coastal time. Or head home, or back to Central America, or Mexico.
They key in all of this is to take your time! Distances between many of these locations are vast. Chile end-to-end is the distance of the west coast of the U.S. to the east coast, to give you an idea. These bus trips are so long you get a sleeping berth. You can cut off a lot of time flying, but domestic flights are no bargain except for a few routes like La Paz to Sucre. Trying to be a box-checking, bucket-listing, country-counting flashpacker is going to cost you far more money and part of your sanity.
For a country-by-country breakdown of these destinations and others around the globe, pick up a copy of the new 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations.