Budget Travel in South America
By Tim Leffel
| Visit the Iguazu Falls from the Argentinian side.
South America has a lot to offer budget
travelers, but it takes some planning and prioritizing to
keep from breaking the bank. Just as Mexico’s costs
are far lower than in the neighboring U.S. and Hungary’s
are far lower than those in Austria, regional differences
in South America can be dramatic. Urban Brazil, Chile, the
Galapagos, and celebrity-filled beach areas of Uruguay can
be surprisingly expensive. On the other hand, stretches
of Peru, Bolivia, and mainland Ecuador are some of the least
expensive places on the planet for backpackers.
Long-term travelers find enough variety
in South America to keep them occupied for months or years,
both in the population and the geography. There are the
Andean people descended from the Incas, the Spanish and
Portuguese descendants of the conquerors, Brazilians whose
ancestors came from Africa, and those who have made their
life in the jungles along the Amazon. Throw in immigrants
from around the world who have been coming for centuries
and it’s an interesting mix.
From the sea plains and steamy jungles
the elevation proceeds all the way up the scale to Aconcagua,
the highest mountain outside of Asia at 6,962 meters (22,841
feet). In between there are vineyards, Inca ruins in the
mountains, Spanish colonial towns, pulsing cities, deserts,
beaches, and otherworldly Patagonia.
Travelers will use bits of three main
languages if traversing South America, though dozens of
others are in play in the Andes and deep in the jungles.
Spanish will get you by from Venezuela down to Tierra del
Fuego, except for that 800-pound gorilla in the middle called
Brazil. The largest and most populated country on the continent
speaks Portuguese. English is widely understood in tourist
areas, especially in Argentina, Colombia, and Chile.
In terms of budget planning, there are
three general levels of expense in the region, but the picture
is not always clear since currency fluctuations can make
previous assumptions go out of date. Brazil, for example,
has become one of the more expensive countries for Americas
because their currency is not tied to the dollar and it
when it bounces up because of strong growth, the cities
of Brazil become more expensive than New York City. Tack
on the hefty visa fee and it is out of the budget range
of many backpackers. Chile, already the most expensive sliver
of land, has also experienced a currency rise against the
dollar and French Guiana uses the euro. Colombia's government
continually buys dollars to try to keep their currency from
appreciating, but it isn't working very well and many costs
in the country are on par with those in the U.S.
The best bets for backpackers remain
Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, though more rural areas of nearly
any country besides Brazil or Chile can be a great value.
Paraguay is also quite cheap, but most travelers don’t
find much reason to stick around. In these areas, costs
generally average $20-$40 a day as a backpacker. As always,
the actual cost depends on whether you’re sharing
a room with someone, how much comfort you require, and how
much you are moving around. Ecuador is small and bus trips
are not long, but in Argentina it can take 20 hours of travel
to get from one city to another—and that’s in
the express bus! Don’t forget to factor in attractions
and adventures. It would be a shame to come all this way
and skip Machu Picchu or avoid river rafting trips because
of a $45 tab.
The top-tier destinations in terms of
cost are Chile, Easter Island, the Galapagos, French Guiana,
the cities and beach resorts of Brazil, Cartagena in Colombia,
and coastal Uruguay in high season. Argentina has gotten
continually more expensive each year for backpackers as
high inflation, import restrictions, and a high visa costs
have had a big impact on visitors' budgets. Currency restrictions
and financial mismanagement are leading many to predict
another monetary crisis. If that happens, things could change
overnight. Expect costs to average out to $40 to $80 a day
per person in the cheapest areas ($60 to $90 for a couple)
unless you’re really careful about budgeting or are
living like a local. Add a bit more for Argentina and Colombia,
a lot more for Brazil and Chile. In any country, big capital
cities will cost more than outlying rural areas and popular
beach resorts will command a premium in season. A jungle
tour requires a premium no matter where you take it—and
in a place like Guyana that's the main reason to visit.
Coming from the U.S. or Canada, there
is no jet lag to worry about, so you can hit the ground
running after arrival. Flight prices are generally on par
with those to Europe or less, but with frequent sales throughout
the year, few fuel surcharges, and a low threshold for frequent
flyer flights. Coming from Europe, it can be difficult,
however, as many flights to South America first must pass
through the U.S.
Accommodations in South America
Budget accommodations are plentiful
throughout South America, though the quality and selection
will vary greatly from place to place. In tourist magnets
such as Cusco, Peru or Baños, Ecuador, there is a
huge variety of lodging in all prices ranges. In the small
dusty towns off the beaten track, travelers take what they
can get. A private double room with a shared bath can be
as little as $4 in some parts of Bolivia and Ecuador, but
something of the same quality can be $25 in Lima, Santiago,
or Buenos Aires—if you can find one that’s not
full. In San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, you'll spend as much
as you would in Europe. As in Central America, spending
another $5 or $10 a night is often enough to move up to
a vastly superior room with maid service, a private bath,
and a shared courtyard or garden in a restored colonial
treasure. Rooms at the middle level are often the best value.
Memorable rooms in small hotels owned by locals are frequently
$30 to $75 a night throughout South America.
Most package deals that include accommodation
are centered around a theme (wine country, skiing, Patagonia
exploration, the Galapagos) or are tours hitting one or
two cities. There are very few of the all-inclusive, sit-on-the-beach
affairs you find further north. Most of the beach packages
that exist are marketed to locals during the school holiday
summer period of January and February. These can be a great
value if you can surf the local websites in Spanish or work
with a travel agent in that country.
Food & Drink in South America
The cuisine of South America varies
greatly because of geography, latitude, and culture. Empenadas,
tamales, and other dishes made with corn stretch over a
long region, but so do ceviche and steak. The countries
that have a long coastline naturally serve a lot of fish,
while Argentina is also the undisputed king of beef. For
lunch you can usually find some variation of the “meal
of the day” anywhere. You sit down at a simple restaurant
or market stall, figure out what’s on offer, and get
a hearty meal somewhere between $1 (rural Ecuador) and $8
(urban Chile). In general you’ll get a serving of
meat or seafood, rice or potatoes, a small bowl of soup
or other vegetables, and maybe a slice of bread or tortillas.
Beyond the simple restaurants and market
stalls, high cuisine in South America is as high as many
other parts of the world, especially in Buenos Aires, Lima,
Santiago, and Montevideo. Locals are quite demanding in
these cities, so it is not just the tourists creating a
demand for finer food. Naturally the wine regions of Chile
and Argentina are also centers of gastronomy.
With the climate ranging from tropical
to arctic, it’s hard to generalize about fruit and
vegetables in South America. It is best to pay attention
to what’s abundant and in season and base your diet
around those staples to keep costs down. Ecuador offers
the best bounty: tropical fruit from the coast, berries
and apples from the highlands. In most towns, bakeries offer
some substantial breakfast options and snack stands on sidewalks
and in markets are good spots for filling up on the cheap.
In a lot of areas there are juice stands, with fresh-squeezed
versions of whatever is available in the local markets at
that time of year. Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador all
produce a substantial amount of coffee, but most of the
quality beans get exported. In some countries, a quality
cup requires a visit to a gringo-owned coffee shop or a
coffee farm. It’s a different story in the southern
part of the continent though, where a European-style café culture
The wine is excellent in Argentina
and Chile, decent in Uruguay and Peru, and wildly inconsistent
elsewhere. Every country has its own array of beers. Many
are boring pale lagers, but surprisingly good dark beers
turn up here and there, especially in Chile and Argentina.
Pisco (a type of unaged grape brandy) is a staple of bars
and homes in Chile and Peru. All of this is a great bargain
throughout, but the really hard-up turn to homemade hooch
sold by the side of the road, from a mild corn beer called chicha to
a type of high-alcohol moonshine that can be lethal.
There are major cultural differences
in South America when it comes to bars. Some are solely
a male affair and a place to drink until you can’t
walk. At the opposite end of the spectrum, discos in Buenos
Aires don’t get hopping until 2:00 a.m. and are major
pickup scenes, gay or straight. Outside of obvious tourist
zones, scope out the situation in advance to avoid sticky
situations. Overall though, it's pleasantly easy to find
a cold beer or glass of wine almost anywhere for a reasonable
Transportation in South America
Internal flight prices can be a steal
or an onerous burden depending on local competition and
the government’s attitude toward foreigners. In Argentina
and Peru, for example, foreigners are forced to pay more
on the state-owned airline and competition is slim. To make
matters worse, you have to travel back through Buenos Aires
to go anywhere—and pay for each leg of the trip. Flight
prices in Chile are on par with those in the U.S. As a result,
travelers on a budget are forced to take very long overnight
buses to get from place to place. Rates are a bit better
in Peru and Brazil, though still high enough to make a serious
dent in your budget. Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia have
reasonable budget flight prices except for the route to
the Galapagos Islands. For now, there is little of the cut-rate
airfare competition you see in Europe and Asia apart from
a few routes in Brazil. Your best bet is to find the website
of the particular airport you're flying out of to see which
airlines go there or use a local travel agent to uncover
options you weren't aware of.
Train service is an endangered species,
but the situation is improving in Ecuador: the government
is pouring a lot of money into restoring the rail line between
Guayaquil and Quito, opening in mid-2013. Another great
exception for travelers is Peru. There are several classes
of service on scenic lines running between Machu Picchu
and the Sacred Valley, Cusco, and Puno—on Lake Titicaca
bordering Bolivia. You can travel to many Chilean areas
south of Santiago on excellent, well-maintained trains that
will make you forget you are in Latin America. Argentina
is making an effort to revive its passenger train system,
with an eventual bullet train promised between Buenos Aires,
Rosario and Córdoba. A slow train runs that route
now, and to Mar del Plata. The old Patagonian Express is
now down to bits and pieces in different parts, leaving
it more for entertainment than transportation. There are
a few scattered train lines in Bolivia, Brazil, and Uruguay.
If you travel through South America,
you will undoubtedly spend time on a bus. Buses range from
overnight coaches with bunks to old school buses turned
into crowded “chicken buses.” The latter will
stop for anyone or anything, but they cost next to nothing.
You definitely get what you pay for, so opt for a better
class when it’s available and the budget will allow.
Taxis are inexpensive except where lots
of tourists on a short vacation congregate, like beach resort
zones. Otherwise you will seldom pay more than a few dollars
for a ride across town. You can often hire a car and driver
for the day for the same or less than renting a car on your
own, especially if you don’t need one who doubles
as an English-speaking guide. To rent a car, expect to pay
as much or more as you would for a car in Europe, Canada,
or the U.S.
Resources and Links
In terms of guidebooks, they
all have their ups and downs and it’s hard
to recommend one specific series for all countries
of South America. Also, many of the guidebook publishers
now offer information primarily on their websites. Lonely
South America is the obvious choice
if transversing the continent.
Guides's South America section offers excellent
background and cultural information. Footprint
guides are quite good when they’re current, but
check the publication date as some others are so
old as to be useless. So leaf through
a few and see which suits best.
Many independent tourism-related
websites for a region are nothing more than hotel
and agency listing services and it’s tough
to find quality travel information on places like
Paraguay and Suriname on the web; you’re
better off sticking to books. The following are
all useful, country-specific sites for trip planning:
Travel Web is an exhaustive and authoritative
guide to Peru, with detailed information and
direct links for trekking, inexpensive hotels,
adventure activities, and more.
Brasil is the official tourism site and
has plenty of resources.
Argentina is a slick site covering adventure
activities, wine, and tango.
Visit Columbia is the official tourism site and provides good overviews.
Cone Guidebooks blog is run by Wayne Bernardson,
who writes some of the best guidebooks for the
bottom of South America. Great updates, news,
links, and travel tips.
Chile is a good resource for outdoor adventures
There are very few budget airlines
in this region, but try Skyscanner to
see if any new ones have popped up.
Numbeo.com is a crowdsourced database that provides fairly accurate cost comparisons to help you determine your travel budget.
Want to figure out what kinds
of shots or meds you might need? Go here for more up-to-date info:
TIM LEFFEL is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, a Better Life at Half the Price, and editor of Perceptive Travel.