I started traveling a lot in Latin America after I had a child and needed to hit the ground running when returning from a trip. With two continents only varying by a few hours for time zones, staying in this hemisphere has obvious advantages if you’re American or Canadian. You also only have to wrestle with one language for most of it except for Brazil, which you should probably avoid anyway. (See tip #2.)
Much of the region is a great value too. If you’re on a low budget and want to maximize what you have to spend, here’s how to do it right.
1) Pick the Right Destination(s)
This is going to have a bigger impact than anything else on this list, so I’m putting it first. Saving $100 by flying to Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua is going to be offset by much higher prices once you get there, for nearly everything. Most countries from Mexico on down fit into one of three tiers: very cheap, not too painful, and Ouch! Read The World’s Cheapest Destinations for details, but that bottom rung includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru, though that last one depends a lot on when you go and where you go. Lately Argentina has dropped into the very cheap category again, but only if you’re bringing in lots of cash. Mexico is borderline cheap too, depending on where you go within the country. Panama is not too bad once you get out of the capital.
2) Avoid Brazil
This is the most expensive country in Latin America by far, the expense compounded by the fact that hotel supply has not nearly kept up with demand. Add long distances, high taxes, and a reciprocal visa fee, and this is one to save for later when you’re loaded.
3) Make Lunch the Big Meal
If you’re going to eat one restaurant meal a day, make it lunch. A “meal of the day” goes by different names in different places, but it usually means a multi-course sit-down meal for somewhere between $2 and $6, sometimes including a drink. It’ll be filling and reasonably nutritious and can sometimes be downright great. If you want the very cheapest version, then…
4) Head to the Market
I think it’s safe to say that any Latin American town with more than 1,500 people or so in it has some kind of local market that has food stalls. This is where you’ll sit next to local workers and chow down for the equivalent of a few dollars. You’ll probably find a set meal here, but also you can order whatever the local cheap and filling food happens to be: big sandwiches, stuffed tortilla variations, rice & beans, stews, or whatever else is popular locally. While you’re there you can stock up on fresh fruit and other staples that will load you down for a few bucks.
5) Drink What’s Local
Look around at what most everyone else is drinking in a bar and that’s probably what you’ll be ordering too if you’re on a budget. That means tequila or mezcal in Mexico, wine in Argentina, rum in hot countries, and whatever the local beer is everywhere. The one place you can throw this aside is Panama, where anything you want will be a bargain because it’s a duty-free zone.
The opposite is Ecuador, where only rum and local beer are anywhere close to affordable. On the non-alcoholic side it’ll be fruit juice (or fruit juice mixed with water), cold jamaica tea, or coca tea perhaps. Don’t assume that if you’re in a coffee-producing country though that the coffee will automatically be good or cheap. The best beans often get exported, so you have to seek out a real coffee shop to avoid the drek.
6) Don’t Book All Your Hotels in Advance
Yes, I know it’s oh so easy and comforting to just pull up HostelBookers or HotelsCombined and reserve places to stay all along your route, but it’s often a bad idea financially. A huge percentage of hotels in Latin America are not listed through any booking agency (they don’t want to pay the fat commissions) and some low-budget ones still don’t have a web page or working e-mail address. Unless you’re flying through the region in a blur, which is a bad idea (see the next tip), you’re usually better off looking around after you arrive. Or at least for night two onward. You can actually see the room this way and you have the power to negotiate for a better price or a better room.
7) Take Your Time
If you look at how far it is from Lima to Cusco or Buenos Aires to Salta, you should figure out quickly that it’s going to take you quite a while to get from point A to B. Even when distances look short on a map, however, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get there quickly on the roads you have to travel on. If you’re going to spend 36 hours in transit, it’s pretty silly to then turn around and go somewhere else just 48 hours later. You can even do budget travel in Patagonia if you don’t try to rush through this vast area checking highlights off a list.
Take your dream itinerary and cut it in half: fewer places, but twice as much time in them. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll have a much richer experience.
8) Learn Some Spanish
Now that we’ve skipped Brazil, that means you can get by with Spanish or English everywhere except the Suriname countries and remote villages in the Andes or Amazon. Since Spanish is so useful in such a vast territory though, don’t assume you’ll be able to muddle through in English like you can in Southeast Asia or Europe. Learning the basics will save you money and make your travels less frustrating.
I went from zero to bumbling with the Pimsleur course and still use it now and then—I’m on Level 4 to help my intermediate fluency along. I especially like using it on a solo car trip because it’s audio only, now in app form. Hit play and let it rip. I’ve tried a fair number of podcasts for the same reason. I sometimes use SpanishDict, Spanish Verbs, Hola Flashcards, DuoLingo, and a few others on the apps side. And of course a good old-school phrase book is one of the best learning tools out there—for less than $10.
9) Check the Transportation Competition
There’s no cut and dry advice on how to get from place to place in Latin America. In Mexico the buses are really comfortable, but they’re not all that cheap now and prices are pretty uniform between companies for specific classes of service. Sometimes it can be less money to fly on a promotional fare on an airline like Volaris for long distances and you’ll save a day or two of travel.
Same for Avianca within Colombia. In Argentina, however, flight prices are a total rip-off and in Peru you’ll pay two or three times as much as the locals do for most airlines. Both those countries have several competing long-haul bus companies though, so it pays to do some research and shop around.
10) Book Adventure Excursions Locally
This is a no-brainer for most backpackers, but unless you’re trying to book something with limited permits, like the Inca Trail in Peru, you’ll nearly always be better off waiting until arrival before booking an adventure tour. Ask around for who’s good and find out what’s worth doing from people who just went. This is true for rafting, trekking, biking, or just touring outlying villages. I’ve heard of several people getting half-price Galapagos trips by just flying to Baltra and finding an open cabin to fill.
11) Hit Big Cities on a Sunday
I did a whole blog post on why Sunday is a great day to be in a capital city. Free museums, closed-off streets, and outdoor music performances are common on Sundays in Latin America.
12) Don’t Skip the Culture
When you’re in Europe, you have to be really picky about which cultural attractions are really worth splurging on. I can’t remember ever paying more than $8 to enter a museum anywhere in Latin America and more often it’s a dollar or two. Live music and dance performances are often 1/5 what they would be for a comparable show in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Take advantage of it!