Do you want to travel South America on a budget? Well I’ve got a few time-tested ideas on that subject since I’ve been there many times for extended periods. The continent can be a great value if you do it right.
I’m getting excited because after visiting Argentina a few months ago, in September I’m flying down to Colombia for what I think will be my 13th or 14th trip to South America. Sometimes it has been work, sometimes a vacation, but it’s never been boring either way. Most of the time it has been a terrific travel bargain too.
Traveling on a budget in South America is hard to generalize about because of widely varying economies and continual exchange rate changes. Argentina is especially unpredictable, going from cheap to expensive to cheap again in the past decade, depending on how their financial crisis of the day was playing out. Right now it’s the best bargain in the Americas if you bring plenty of cash to Argentina.
Over the years, three of the countries that charged a lot to enter have dropped their reciprocal visa fees too, which lopped $160 per person off of your South America vacation cost. The only country still socking visitors for this now is Bolivia. Fortunately, after you get in, Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries to travel in on the continent.
In general, South America is a pretty good deal for shoestring travelers, but an excellent deal for mid-range travelers. Even in the capital cities you can get a decent hotel room for $40 or less per night. Most of the middle-class locals are not rich either, so it’s easy to find budget places to stay and day tour prices are usually reasonable.
If you’re past the point of traveling on a shoestring budget and your travel style requires more comfort, you’ll get a lot for your money in most of these countries and a rather average vacation budget will stretch a long way.
Meal time is usually a good value throughout this part of the globe. More on that further down.
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Best Places to Visit in South America on a Budget
There are a few countries that have appeared in every edition of my book, The World’s Cheapest Destinations. If you spend most of your time in these, adding on the ones where the dollar is currently extra strong, you’ll get able to cover a big chunk of South America on a typical backpacker budget of $1000 to $1,800 per month for a single, $2,000 to $3,000 for a couple.
So what are the best places to visit in South America on a budget? If you wanted to backpack through South America for a few months or more?
I’d say you should probably 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. Or find a flight deal to Cartagena or Bogota—two of the cheapest places to fly to in South America—and start your South America itinerary there.
Spend a few weeks in Colombia, taking advantage of a historically weak local currency, Limit your time in Cartagena as it’s the most expensive city by far. It’s much more reasonable in the Coffee Triangle, Santa Marta, Medellin, and the mountain towns.
Then go overland to Ecuador and watch your money instantly buy even more. (Except imported liquor and wine.) Quito and Cuenca are worth spending time in and are good bases for exploration of other towns and the Andes Mountains. Then you’ve lots of adventure activity options, beaches at the right time of year, and hot springs areas.
The big draw of South America for many travelers is Peru, which is thankfully quite a bargain after you get past the Machu Picchu costs that are going to break your budget for a few days. Suck it up and go, but then spend some time in cheaper, less crowded areas like Colca Canyon, Arequipa, Amazonas, or even the Sacred Valley towns and mountain villages where nobody else bothers to spend the night.
If you get away from the tour bus locations, Peru can be a very cheap place to travel. It’s a great value.
After Peru, you can head to Bolivia overland via Lake Titicaca or elsewhere, reaching what is in many respects the cheapest country in South America. Thanks to its hefty visa fee and general lack of promotion, it’s also one of the least developed for tourists, which is a good thing for budget backpackers.
The only area getting a sizable number of visitors is the Salar de Uyuni salt flats area, the star of many an Instagram feed. It is a trippy, otherworldly place indeed. Try to spend more than a day there, maybe even going overland through the desert to Atacama if you’re headed to Chile. (Chile is no bargain though, so I’m not including it on this list.)
The cheaper option from Bolivia is to head over to northern Argentina, to the dry Salta Province area, a sparsely populated region that looks somewhat like the American Southwest, but with more wineries. See a Salta travel story I wrote here.
Then explore the rest of Argentina as you wish, keeping in mind that the distances are vast and you’ll spend a lot of time on overnight bus trips if you don’t have splurge money set aside to fly now and then. Also remember there’s a high season and a no go season for Patagonia and plan accordingly. Your budget will be higher for Patagonia as well, especially when visiting the Perito Morena Glacier.
Overall though, costs are historically low in Argentina as I write this in 2022 and what you get for your money is unbelievable sometimes, especially for eating and drinking. Argentina craft beer just might be the best-priced on the planet right now, thanks to the exchange and the fact that Argentina can grow hops and barley, unlike its neighbors further north.
If you had your heart set on getting a Chile passport stamp, it would be an easy crossing in the Patagonia region, which is shared by both countries. Or you can cross to Santiago from Mendoza overland to visit wine regions and Valparaiso. Assume your daily budget is going to double as soon as you cross the border though, so you’re probably going to want to make the Chile part a quick in and out.
A few years ago I would have said to end it there, but once-expensive Brazil has gotten reasonably priced for now if you’re coming with U.S. dollars. That’s partly because of a currency drop, but also because, as I mentioned earlier, they dropped their expensive and cumbersome visa fee. Brazil has a completely different vibe than the Spanish-speaking countries and some of the best music in the Americas. See the post I did earlier on travel prices in Rio.
From a logistics standpoint, if you’re heading to Rio de Janeiro from Argentina, you can now stop on both sides of Iguazu Falls, seeing them from the Argentina side and the Brazil side. Before the visa change, you had to cough up a lot of money to do this. But when I was on an Intrepid Travel tour a few years ago that went through here, it was quite easy, no extra fees beyond park admissions.
You’ll probably want to see more of Brazil, maybe checking out some of the great beaches along the coast. Then head home or onward from where you can find a good flight deal. That’s more likely to be from Brazil than Argentina these days, though you may be better off flying from Brazil to another country to the north and then getting a second ticket from there. Scope out the options on Google Flights or Skyscanner.
To recap, the best countries to visit in South America, if you’re on a tight budget, are Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. If you stick to those you can get by for quite cheap–though understand that the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island are out of your budget range. If you do have some splurge money set aside, visit the Galapagos and add more expensive countries (though still not terrible) like Chile and Uruguay. If you’re a nature buff looking to get away from other tourists, you could head to Guyana.
Take Your Time on this Continent Meant for Slow Travel
Way too many people hurry through Peru and only see the sites thronged with tourists, or they try to cover vast distances in a short time when they travel in South America. As a result, they are handing much of their money to transportation companies every day or two. Slow travel is much cheaper travel, especially here.
The easiest way to keep your South America travel budget low, besides picking the right destinations, is to spend some quality time in each place before moving on to the next spot. It can literally cost you twice as much to be on the move every day or two, especially since there are so many long bus rides or more costly flights to deal with to get from A to B. You’re often crossing the Andes Mountains or traversing vast desert or pampas regions, so you want to settle in for a while after the journey.
To give you an idea, driving Chile end-to-end is roughly the same distance as driving from the west coast of the U.S. to the east coast. Driving from the top of Argentina to the bottom is the equivalent of driving from Calgary in Canada through the USA and Mexico to Guatemala City. And Brazil is much bigger than both of those added together!
These bus trips cover such long distances in South America travel destinations that you sometimes get a sleeping berth. Many of them in Argentina and Chile are 24 hours, like Buenos Aires to Bariloche.
You can cut off a lot of time by flying, but domestic flights are often no bargain. They’re quite reasonable in Bolivia (from La Paz especially) and among the cities of Colombia. There are plenty of budget airlines to choose from. Flights can feel way overpriced in Argentina in Peru, however. (In the latter, foreigners pay more than the locals do). Trying to be a box-checking, bucket-listing, country-counting flashpacker is going to cost you far more money–and part of your sanity.
If your time is limited and you want to cover a lot of ground on a short trip, I would strongly advise signing up for an organized tour with a company like Intrepid Travel or G Adventures. You’ll know in advance what your budget is and they’ll take care of all the logistics for you, which is worth a lot. You’re usually looking at $80-$150 a day per person with them. A lot for a long-term traveler, but pretty cheap for a vacationer.
Eat a Big Lunch When Traveling in South America
The meal of the day goes by many names on hand-written signs and chalkboards in Latin America, like menu del dia, comida corrida, la comida, or simply almuerzo. Or you may see something different on a sign that shows multiple courses and choices in local restaurants.
The way it works is, you usually get a soup or starter; a main course with a few options to pick from; rice, potatoes or pasta; something to drink; and maybe dessert.
That picture to the right is from a lunch just two blocks from the main plaza in Cusco. It was $3 counting the soup I had already devoured, a drink not pictured here, and a tip. See more examples of Cusco travel prices here.
These afternoon meal deals can range from very humble market stall meals that are literally two or three dollars up to fancier ones meant for office workers that are still only $5 or $6. Whether simple or fancy, these are your most economical choices when eating out. So it’s often best to get into the habit of eating your largest meal in the middle of the day, then having a lighter dinner. Hey, it’s probably better for your weight management too.
Take advantage of street food stalls and local markets as well. Maybe not the first day you arrive, but in general they’re safe when places are busy and you can see the food being prepared. They’re mostly serving working-class locals, so the price is right.
Learn Some Spanish to Travel South America
If most of your international travel has been in Asia or Europe, you may be under the impression that anyone who works with tourists around the world speaks English. There are plenty of areas where this is still not the case though, like any vast area where millions speak the local language. That applies to South America with Spanish.
Someone could travel from San Diego all the way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego without speaking anything but Spanish—as long as they avoid Belize, Brazil, and the Guyanas. In Mexico I got cable TV with my internet service and I have 200 channels that are Spanish only. It’s the same when I travel in Peru, Argentina, or Ecuador. Since these countries get so many tourists from neighboring countries, it’s not essential for them to have a strong command of English to survive.
Then when you get outside the main South America travel spots that are big tourist destinations, it gets worse. Bring a phrasebook or good app, load up Google Translate or Deepl, and try to learn a bit of Spanish before you leave with a self-study system like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Duolingo.
Maybe stay in one place for a week or two and take some lessons. Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador are known for speaking relatively pure Latin American Spanish. As in they don’t drop letters at the end of words, they don’t speak with an Italian accent, and they don’t use an abundance of slang and idioms in regular speech. So they’re good places to learn and prices are reasonable. Backpacking South America becomes much easier and cheaper once you can communicate at a basic level at least.
If you’re going to spend extensive time in Brazil, learning some (very different) Portuguese can help too. I got by in Iguacu Falls and Rio okay without it: sometimes I could switch to Spanish and they understood that if not English. It’s tougher if you get away from where the tourists are though.
When to Visit: Outside of High Season if Possible
What’s the best time to visit South America? Well there’s no one answer that’s going to cover all of this vast continent but known when and when not to go can have a big impact on how much money you end up spending. The more the vacation place is a popular destination, the more likely you’ll see big seasonal price swings.
I have written before on how much of an impact there can be on prices depending on when you arrive. Low season can have awful weather or everything is closed, while high season can hit you with peak prices and low room availability. When possible, if you can land in town when it’s shoulder season, that’s a great time to find a middle ground with good conditions and good prices are both in play.
Naturally, the seasonal variations are not going to be the same across all of South America at any given time. Between May and September, Patagonia empties out and many lodges close up for the winter unless they’re in a ski area. You don’t want to go to Peru in February when it’s the height of rainy season and the Inca Trail is shut down.
Then there is a high season in Peru, however, when it’s sunny and dry and everything is green from the past few months of rain. If you want to avoid peak crowds and prices in the mountainous parts of Peru, it’s best to plan on May or Autumn. December can be iffy, but I only got rained on one day when I went on a hiking trip there in early December.
Apart from known weather patterns like these though, most of the continent is warm all year and just has fluctuations in precipitation, though of course the higher the elevation, the colder it will get in their winter. It doesn’t much matter when you go to the Amazon Rainforest since it’s hot and close to sea level. In Colombia though, the Caribbean coast has different weather than the Pacific coast beach on the other side—and very different water temperatures.
So the key advice is to avoid high season, or at least try to catch the beginning or end of it. Fortunately, the national parks in South America are not nearly as crowded as the U.S. ones, especially in vast Patagonia, so for those you mainly need to look at the weather patterns. Only Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina) and Torres del Paine ever really feel crowded. If a place doesn’t get many tourists, you don’t have to worry much about fluctuations in the price of a private room when you are off the beaten path.
Two periods are uniformly busy across South America. Easter, known as Pascua or Semana Santa, is a bigger holiday than Christmas in most of these countries, with vacations lasting up to two weeks. A month before that you’ve got Carnaval in Brazil and elsewhere, when lodging prices shoot up and rooms can get scarce.
Also, this being the southern hemisphere, the big “summer vacation” period is January and February, sometimes bleeding into Christmas on the front end and early March on the other. This is a terrible time to visit the beaches of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, or Ecuador unless you love the high-season energy and want to mix it up with vacationing locals. Plan accordingly.
Work on Your Patience in the Southern Hemisphere
In much of the USA, Canada, and Europe, efficiency and convenience are prized attributes. No wasted time, get to the point, don’t be late. Things work differently in most of Latin America. Nobody ever seems to be in a hurry, business is done at what seems like a glacial pace to us, and relationships trump logic every time.
Things usually get done eventually, but probably not as fast as you were hoping or expecting. Get used to waiting around, accepting some Spanish form of “later” as an answer, and going with the flow.
On the plus side, most people in South America are gracious, patient, and not all that bothered about you butchering their language. Once you slow down and lower your expectations, it’s kind of nice to let go. Hey, what’s the rush?
For a country-by-country breakdown of these destinations and others around the globe, pick up a copy of the 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. This post contains affiliate links, though you will never pay more by using them than you would if you went direct to the site. I just make a small referral commission that helps keep the site running.