How to Budget Travel In South America

Graybit - RTW Travel South America Digidreamgrafix

South America is hot right now, especially with the world cup in Brazil 2014 and the 2016 Olympics in Rio. But don’t let Brazil steal all the limelight, there’s plenty to see and do for the budget traveler in South America. In fact there are cheaper backpacker options for travelers in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia with just as many fascinating sights. So what are the options for budget travel in South America and how can you get the most for the least amount of money?


The cost of a bed varies massively across South America, with budget accommodation in Brazil coming in at around US$10 for a cheap bed in a dorm in Rio – cheap private rooms start at around US$20 for a basic room. Similar prices apply in Chile and Argentina, as the more expensive destinations in the region.

By contrast a bed in Quito can be got for US$6-7 in a dorm or $10-15 for a private room. Dorm rooms in countries like Peru and Bolivia are cheaper still, around $5 per person. Prices tend to be cheaper away from urban centres and cheaper again off the tourist trail.

Getting Around:

In the cheaper countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador using a taxi tends to be cheap and efficient – remember to haggle though as taxi drivers will routinely over charge gringos. Once you’ve been in the country for a while you’ll get a good idea of the going rate for an inner city taxi journey. Cities like Rio, Sao Paulo, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aries have good metro services which offer cheap transport around town.

Travel between areas is cheapest on buses – which applies across the region from Argentina to Colombia. There are different services in most countries and the economy option is obviously the cheapest but doesn’t necessarily always include luxuries like air con or comfy seats. Obviously longer journeys may require an upgrade to a more deluxe bus service where small hops could possibly done economy.

In areas such as the Brazil/Bolivia/Paraguay border area – or across Chile or Argentina there are also train services which are not always faster than buses but can be a little more comfortable. A train from Buenos Aries to Cordoba for example will set you back in the region of US$5 for a slow train (Pullman service) but around US$25-30 for the more comfortable express service.

Air travel in South America is notoriously expensive and still not very reliable, but the budget traveller will mostly use buses and on occasion trains. Exceptions are cities like Iquitos in Peru or Manaus in Brazil which are either a trek through the jungle for a few days on boat/van or a flight. A cheap flight to Iquitos from Lima will be around US$100 – one way – similar price applies for flights to Manaus from Rio, Salvador or Recife.

Graybit - RTW Travel Machu Puchu Arvind Balaraman

Eating and Drinking:

Average costs vary but generally speaking enjoying the local cuisine in South America is, thankfully, uniformly cheap. A meal at a cheap restaurant in Peru will be around US$3, Colombia $4-5 and in Brazil around US$7, the best steak you’ll ever eat in Argentina is likely to be $9.

A local beer in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia will set you back $1 – $1.50, Brazil and Chile $2 and in Argentina and Venezuela nearer $3-4.

Essential Sightseeing:

The point in your holiday is no doubt to see those mythical sights; to stomp the Inca trail to Macchu Piccu, go white water rafting at the foot of a volcano in Chile, visit the Ecuadorian Galapagos Islands or trek to Angel Falls in Venezuela. Yes, these are essential but they will set you back a large chunk of your budget – so if you are on a tight budget the best thing to do is work out what you want to do and write that off and spend the rest of the holiday being the budget backpacker.

A 4 day trek to Macchu Piccu for example is going to set you back no less than US$300. Probably more – but this does include accommodation and food whilst you’re on the trek.

The Galapagos Islands will incur a flight around US$350-400 return from Quito, $100 park entrance fee and around $20 a night accommodation. Plus of course food and other essentials.

If you visit Rio for the carnival a ticket to the Sambadrome is US$125 and upwards, but cheaper street parties can be found all over the city during the week of the Mardi Gras. Bear in mind also that accommodation prices skyrocket in Rio over the week of Mardi Gras, so add at least 30 – 50% to your hotel bill.

The truth is when your holiday is done you’ll only remember the best bits, not the money involved, so take the plunge and do at least one of the must do trips whilst you’re there. It is after all a once in a lifetime experience!


So Which Are The Best Budget Destinations In South America?

The budget traveler in South America will do well to spend more time in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay and Bolivia – Chile can be done on a budget too but is more top end. In these countries you can get by on around US$25 – 30 a day, not including any massive sightseeing or partying.

Countries like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are pushing the US$40 – 50 a day – and more if you party hard or do a lot of activities.

Photos courtesy of Arvind Balaraman & Digidreamgrafix from