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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine May/June 2003

Budget Travel in Latin America

To Travel Cheaply, Pick Your Destinations Wisely

Unless you’re on a Travel and Leisure budget, the question of where you travel will have a bigger impact on your plans than anything else. For the price of a one-week vacation at a Caribbean resort, for example, you could spend months in parts of Central or South America.

The way to really travel well on a budget is to go to where your dollars are worth a bundle.

Advantages of Cheap Travel

Several factors work in your favor when you travel on the cheap. First, many of the world's most awe-inspiring sights are located in the world's cheapest countries. In the Americas, these include the Inca splendor of Macchu Picchu in Peru and great Mayan sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. You can explore unspoiled rainforests, raft raging rivers, climb volcanoes, dive at the world’s second-largest reef, or trek in the Andes.

By going beyond the standard tourist magnets and taking your time to get around, you’re more likely to interact with the people who actually live there instead of just other tourists. And by traveling like a local you’ll also get much better deals on everything than your package tour counterparts.

If you visit a country that’s affordable, you'll eat great meals, meet people you'll never forget, and come back with photos that'll amaze your friends and family—probably for less than you spend each month to put a roof over your head at home. If you work, volunteer, or study abroad, you’ll spend even less and get the education of a lifetime.

Cheap Is Not Everything

Of course you shouldn’t go somewhere just because it’s cheap. War zones and places where criminals have more power than the government aren’t worth the risk. The U.S. State Department's "warning list" ( is overly paranoid, but it’s a good place to start. A better bet is the destination page for each country at In the Americas the only place you may want to avoid is Colombia.

What You’ll Need

If you want to spend a few months criss-crossing Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, with a side trip down to Patagonia, you’ll need a fat bank account, even in these days of currency devaluation. But if you were to go to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru instead, you can get by for two or three months on $1,500 after airfare, especially if you share rooms with someone.

If you spend your time in Mexico visiting resort areas such as Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, it won’t cost much less than going to Key West. Also, locals are used to package tourists and will treat you like a walking dollar sign. However, if you avoid the tourist traps and see the real Mexico, you can travel around for $25 to $40 per day.

Take Your Time

How much time you spend traveling will have a major impact on costs, since traveling from country to country is usually far cheaper than the flight from home. Also, if you’re not trying to rush around you’ll learn where the bargains are. So the longer you are away, the lower your average weekly tab.

Taking it slow also means spending enough time somewhere to actually get acquainted with the people who live there. Observing roadside farmers in action is one thing; hearing from one of them about how they make a living gives you a whole different perspective. Adapting yourself to the locals’ schedule opens up a lot of doors. The best bargaining techniques in the world won’t beat a few shared cups of coffee on a lazy afternoon.

Make an Economic Impact

Spending your money in a hotel chain in Rio means you deposit a very tiny drop into a very large bucket. Spending a week in a family guesthouse in Bolivia means you’ve paid the week’s grocery bill for a large extended family. While you live with a family and learn Spanish, take local river rafting trips and hire local guides. You’ll not only gain from the experience, you’ll be providing your own little economic stimulus to people who can really use it to better their life. Their average wage is less than $400 per month.

TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

Cheapest Destinations travel blog
A Better Life for Half the Price

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