Budgeting Your Trip
South America, in general, is a mid-budget travel destination. It’s far cheaper than anywhere in the United States, Europe, or Australia. But don’t underestimate your expenses either. South American economies have been doing reasonably well in the past decade, and with that economic growth comes higher prices. As always, there is a fair amount of variation between the 10 South American republics. The region can roughly be broken down into three tiers:
The Inexpensive Countries:
The Mid-Budget Countries:
The Expensive Countries:
That being said, Brazil is in a world of its own when it comes to expenses, and without question or doubt ranks as the most expensive country in the region.
The best way to plan your trip is to come up with a reasonable weekly and/or monthly budget, keep a reasonable record of your expenses, and then stick to it. With a little knowledge and planning, you can still have a great time in South America on a budget of $25 a day, or if you really want to rough it, cheaper.
Roughing It ($5 to $20 a Day)
If you don’t think it’s possible to survive in South America on $5 a day, talk to some Argentine backpackers. Argentines are experts at traveling the continent with very little money, so I’ve picked up a few things from them. If you travel with a tent, you can often stay in hostels or campgrounds, for just a few dollars a day. Buy food in supermarkets and cook communal meals with your travel buddies: things like pasta, rice, bread, and fruits and vegetables are cheap and healthy options.
For nightlife, your options are limited, and typically involve drinking with friends, and missing out on clubs and bars. You can also negotiate down the cost of your bus tickets by haggling, or even try to hitchhike. Motorcycles are also a very cheap way to get around Colombia.
$25 a Day
With $25 a day in South America, you can get by if you plan to live like the locals, and don’t need any frills. You can stay in a dorm for $10 a night, eat a $2 breakfast in the street, spend $3 on a simple lunch, $3 on dinner, go out and spend $3 for a couple of beers, take 2 intracity bus trips for another $2, and play an hour of pool at a billiards hall. It’s a tight budget, but you can do it. You will not experience any fine dining, and you will certainly not impress girls. If you really want to go out and experience the nightlife, $25 a day is difficult. But it’s a good strategy and budget for people who come to South America for long trips and have limited funds.
$50 a Day
For the majority of backpackers and travelers (apart from those who are planning multi-month or year trips), I would recommend spending around $50 a day, or $1500 a month. This will enable you to stay in very nice dorms, or even private rooms, or perhaps rent your own apartment, eat nice food and take your special friend out to eat a couple of times a weekend, take one taxi a day, get bottle service once a weekend at a mid-priced club or discoteca, and travel around the country by bus for shorter trips, and even take an occasional plane.
$100 a Day
If you really want to travel in style, $100 will get you pretty far. That being said, with $100 a day in Bolivia you’ll be a high roller, while $100 a day in Brazil gets you the basics. In general, with this budget, you can stay in a nice hotel, eat out every meal, and get bottle service three times a week at a clubs in major cities. You’ll easily be able to afford to take taxis everywhere, or rent your own car from time to time for special trips.
If you want to settle down somewhere, you can rent yourself a one or two bedroom apartment in a luxury high rise in a major city like Lima, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or Medellin. Many foreigners also enjoy special amenities like maid service.
With a $3,000 a month budget, your transportation options are also widely expanded. You can take several flights a month and you won’t have to worry about sweating out long (but inexpensive) bus rides.
South American backpackers generally expect to pay around $10 a night (as of 2014) for inexpensive hostel accommodations. That being said, prices are rising, and in a few years that price may increase to $15 a night. Many hostels also offer cheaper prices for the larger dorms, and more expensive prices for 4 or 6 bed dorms. Also, remember that there is a big difference between high season (generally December/January/July/August/Semana Santa) and low season prices. You may also be able to negotiate a lower price if you plan on staying at a hostel for more than a few days. Especially if you are offering cash up front!
And, if you want the social experience of a hostel, but prefer to stay in private rooms, many hostels offer these now as well. Private rooms typically cost between $20 and $40 a night at a hostel in South America. You can also sometimes get a good deal on a private room if you don’t mind sharing a bathroom.
In every country and city you will find a wide range in prices for hotels. If you’re willing to stay in a dodgy part of town, you can often find incredible deals. But remember, don’t sacrifice safety, cleanliness, or sleep just to save a few bucks. If something seems off about the hotel, look for accommodations elsewhere. Of course, if you want a true Western style hotel with all the amenities you’re used to, expect to pay American or European prices.
In general, the cheapest of hotels in South America start at $10 or $15 a night. On average expect to pay $30 a night for a modest hotel in a decent part of town. A great option is smaller, family-run guesthouses, which typically charge far lower prices than larger or chain hotels.
Renting an Apartment
You can rent a bedroom in a shared apartment in the major cities of South America for $200 to $300 a month, plus another $100 for utilities. Or, if you want to live in a luxury high rise, be prepared to shell out $400 to $600.
Most South Americans eat a simple breakfast: common options include rice, arepas, eggs, toast, fruit, juice, and/or coffee. Eat like them, and you can get a decent breakfast for just $2 or $3.
Lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day, and South American cities are packed with cheap eateries serving up tasty meals to hungry workers: Expect to pay between $3 and $6 to chow down with the locals at lunchtime. Popular options include: rice, beans, lentils, pasta, chicken, beef, fish, pork, soup, and salad.
Dinner is most likely when you will want to spend a little more freely. If you head where the local ordinary people eat for dinner, you can get a decent meal for $10. However, remember that in the “zona rosa” (entertainment district) wherever you are, you will end up paying American/European prices to get your fancy food.
If you’re heading out to a typical neighborhood bar in South America, the beers are cheap: often $1. However, if you’re going to a nightclub, prices increase dramatically. You might pay $3 to $5 for a beer, or more for mixed drinks.
A bottle of liquor usually costs between $20 and $40 in a bar, while a club will charge between $40 and $100.
General rule of thumb: A 10 minute taxi ride is $4, a 20 minute ride is $8, and a 30 minute taxi ride is $12. Most taxis are metered in South America. While most taxi drivers are honest folks, make sure to check your bill when you are leaving, as some taxi drivers, especially in the very touristy areas, may try to charge you more, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
As a general rule, intracity bus transportation will cost between $1 and $5, depending upon the route. For example, the going rate for a bus between Medellin and Bogota (10 hours) is about $30, or about $3 per hour.
Plane fares depend greatly upon how much ahead of time you purchase your tickets. You will always find cheaper prices with domestic (within one country) flights. For example, Manaus to Sao Paulo or Arequipa to Lima.