A realistic South America travel budget for backpackers in 2021
Thank you for reaching out! I know it’s really hard to assess your South American travel budget most especially when you are still in the planning of your trip but I will give you the most realistic South America travel budget to make your trip planning successful. Did you know that I saved over $4,000 USD for one year of travel in South America? I didn’t pay for any accommodations because of family stays, Couchsurfing, and volunteering.
In this post, I only included countries in the West – those that are popular in the South America travel route. Thanks a lot and I hope you and your friend will have a great trip to South America!
Who is this South America Travel Budget Guide for?
This South America travel budget guide is for backpackers who are looking into traveling South America for 1-6 months. It is very important that you know that tours are not included in this guide as backpackers tend to do tours by themselves. The prices in this post are also based on the capital cities of each country, which mostly apply to big cities, too. In South America, small towns and cities tend to have cheaper prices but it’s good to have a baseline.
All accommodations in this post are hostels only. There are no mid-range, bed, and breakfast, or luxury hotel rates here. Not even Airbnb. It is also very important that you understand that the hostels here are top-rated – meaning, their star rating on Booking.com or Agoda are 8.5 and above. Personally, I don’t like recommending or staying in hostels lower than this rating so please try to understand the quality of the accommodations in the price range in these posts. There are a lot of hostels in South America that are $8 and below. Sure, that could work for you but take note that you get what you pay – some are really shitty and unbearable, it will possibly spoil your travel.
The quality of food in this budget guide is more of street food and cheap eats. Although really cheap, I made sure the food prices in this post are not shitty and are still in line with experiencing each country’s gastronomy.
All public transport prices will be discussed including inter-city busses. Flights are not included in this post as they are usually expensive in South America. Collectivos and taxis are also in some parts.
South America Travel Budget at a glance
Now that you have an idea what this South America travel budget post is about, let’s look at the following countries in terms of daily costs estimates. Please take note that the prices below are only for accommodations, food and transportation. Tours and entertainnment (like beers, wine, bars, pubs, etc) are not included in this summary.
- Argentina: $35 USD per day
- Bolivia: $22 USD per day
- Brazil: $46 USD per day
- Chile: $38 USD per day
- Colombia: $17 USD per day
- Ecuador: $17 USD per day
- Peru: $25 USD per day
Argentina Travel Budget
Low season in Argentina is between June to August. This is wintertime in Argentina so expect lower prices. From November to February falls Argentina’s summer. Expect really high, probably 20-40% more than usual.
In Buenos Aires, you can get a decent dorm in a hostel from $15 – $25 USD. But this still depends on the season/weather mentioned above. For example, during August, Selina Palermo in Buenos Aires offers a bed in a dorm room for $18 USD per night while in the high season (November), they charge $20 USD per bed with a free cancellation option. There isn’t a big price difference but you will see where the price ranges are. But note that my hostel sample, Selina is a high-rated one. You can get a basic hostel from $5 – $8 USD but please don’t expect a fantastic environment nor service.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $6 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $5 USD. Not only that Argentina is home to amazing meat but it is also proud of its Argentine wines. If you buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket, a good red starts at $5 USD. Mid-range restaurant dining starts at $27 USD for 2 pax. This may include appetizers, main course, wine, and dessert. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $2.50 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $2 USD.
Argentina is a large country but transportation is quite efficient. Trains, tramways, first-class long-distance buses, taxis, commuter trains, subways (Subte in Buenos Aires), ferries (Boquebus & others), Remises (private taxi service) and airports (with airplanes); there are many ways to get around while visiting or living in Argentina. You can travel long-haul with a sleeper bus that normally costs less than $100 USD. Below are estimated rates for inter-city bus travel in Argentina:
- Buenos Aires to Rosario: $10 – $21 USD (4-5h ride)
- Buenos Aires to Cordoba: $22 – $50 USD (8h ride)
- Buenos Aires to Calafate: $128 – $204 USD (43h ride)
- Cordoba to Mendoza: $15 – $65 USD (8h ride)
- Mendoza to Salta: $60 – $120 USD (18h 45m ride)
There are also inter-country busses where you can travel Argentina’s neighbors by land. I once traveled from Lima, Peru to Buenos Aires on a 72-hour bus ride that cost $140 USD. If you fly this route, it ranges from $244 – $368 USD. Montevideo, Uruguay is also close by. You can take a ferry from Colonia for $26 – $40 USD. The ferry ride lasts 2 hours.
Argentina travel budget tips
- Hitchhike. It’s not pretty common in the north but it is easily done in the south. If you’re heading to Bariloche from Buenos Aires, there are a lot of people who can take you for a ride.
- Buy your own bottle of wine. Argentina is a wine capital and in local wine shops, you can get a decent bottle for $3 USD. Restaurants charge double (which, for me, is not so bad every once in a while) but buying your own will save you money and experience the Argentine wine culture at the same time. I swear, they’re all good! Doesn’t matter what the price is!
- Find the cheap eats. These ones are not necessarily super healthy and I wouldn’t if it myself every day but the street empanadas are very filling and tasty. One piece of empanada is barely $1 USD while choripán is at $2 USD. Local pizza places and burger joints offer meals at $3 – $5 USD.
- Rent a bike. Bike rentals in Argentina are pretty common. They have it in most of the major cities. This will cost around $10 USD per day.
- Don’t take local flights. Flights are really expensive but buses will save you a lot of bucks. Argentina’s buses are very comfortable and reliable so you won’t need to worry about efficiency, especially for little money.
Bolivia Travel Budget
Low season in Bolivia is from November to April. This is rainy season in Bolivia so prices are low but expect a very wet (and cold) weather. From May to October falls Bolivia’s high season where big festivals draw crowds from all over the world. Expect higher prices for tours and accommodations, too.
A decent hostel in La Paz, Bolivia costs $8 USD. You might think this is too low but based on my judgment and standard of hostels I stayed in Bolivia, say, for example, Adventure Brew Hostel, the sleep quality for this price is not top of the line but very comfortable. Hostels in La Paz are usually bigger and the most common dorm-type is a 12-bed dorm. There are smaller dorms but they cost $1 – $5 USD more.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $5.26 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $5.53 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $3.11 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1.73 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $2.88 USD.
I personally didn’t like Bolivian food so I cooked a lot for the 90 days that I was there. Hostels usually have kitchens so if you don’t want to eat out all the time, please see below, just for you to have an idea about that costs:
- 500 grams of boneless chicken breast: $3.13 USD
- One dozen eggs: $1.83 USD
- 500 grams of local cheese: $3.87 USD
- 1 kg of apples, potatos, tomatoes: from $1 – $1.64 USD
Transportation in Bolivia is not the best but is very cheap. By not the best, I meant that their transportation is not updated compared to their neighboring countries. Bolivia still uses a lot of its old buses. Taxi costs $10 USD for every 8km (ouch!) while inter-city buses, which I couldn’t believe myself start from $5 – $15 USD.
Bolivia travel budget tips
- Credit card charges 3% more. The standard rate for using credit cards in Bolivia is 3% while the withdrawal charges are at $5 USD per transaction. Bolivia is a cash country so better take cash with you when you arrive.
- Eat in markets. Every Bolivian town/city has its own local market where people also sells cooked food. Eateries in Bolivia are cheaper and way better than the normal restaurants.
- Bargain. Bargaining is a thing in Bolivia especially in markets. You can’t, however, do it in places where the prices tags are fixed. In my experience, I tried bargaining with tour companies and it worked!
Brazil Travel Budget
Low season in Brazil is from May to September. Prices are low but expect locals traveling in July because of the school holiday for kids. This is also a good time to visit the Amazon. December to March is Brazil’s high season as it’s their summer. Huge volumes of people visit Rio de Janeiro and the coasts. Expect higher prices than usual in these seasons.
In Sao Paulo, you can find $10 – $15 USD hostels during low season. Conforto Madá Hostel in Vila Madalena, Sao Paulo charges $12 for a standard 8-bed mixed dorm. It is very central and is close to public transport. Rio de Janeiro, however, can carve a different story when it comes to hostel rates. Copa Hostel is literally in Copacabana and charges $11 USD per night for a 10-bed dorm. Breakfast is included in this price.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $8 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $7 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $3.42 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1.24 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $2.30 USD. A bottle of good table wine (red) starts at $11 USD.
While Brazilian food can be great, cooking in hostels can really save you some cash. Breakfast is usually included in hostel (very basic, I should warn you) but for your other meals of the day, you can go to the market and get some ingredients for cooking. I personally think that supermarkets in Brazil are still quite expensive compared to other Latin American countries. But it’s way cheaper than dining out all the time.
- 500 grams of boneless chicken breast: $2.07 USD
- One dozen eggs: $2.12 USD
- 500 grams of local cheese: $4.81 USD
- 1 kg of apples, potatos, tomatoes: from $0.91 – $1.91 USD
Transportation in Brazil is also very comfortable. I once took a bus from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and it cost me less than $100 USD. In Sao Paulo, a 30-day subscription for busses and trains is at $56 USD (avg) while inter-city buses range from $25 – $125 USD.
Brazil travel budget tips
- Visit during the low season. May to September is Brazil’s low season and is the good time to see the country for less. You can spend as low as $20 USD per day (hostel, food and transpo only) if you plan it well.
- Go to unlimited meat restaurants. Churrascaria is a Brazilian’s favorite and there are a lot of restaurants all over the country that offers unlimited meat for as low as $7 USD. This is sort of an unspoken agreement when any of my friends are celebrating their birthdays.
- Agree on the taxi fare. Buses in Brazil are really convenient but if you ever have to take a taxi, bargain the price with the taxi driver before hopping in.
Chile Travel Budget
Low season in Chile is from June to August, a good time for ski resorts. Prices are low but mountain passes can be blocked by snow. The high season is from November to February, also known as the Patagonia season (Dec-Feb) where prices are really high. This is the most expensive season in Chile so consider traveling during low or shoulder season (September–November, and March-May).
Hostel rates in Santiago start at $18 USD per night. Some can go up to $25 USD but you can also find decent ones for $8 USD. Rado Boutique Hostel is my favorite as it’s not that expensive and it is really pretty! During the high season, the normal prices can be up to $20 USD per night for a mixed dorm. Most Chilean hostels offer very basic breakfast so count your first meal of the day in that hostel budget.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $9 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $6 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $4.07 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1.30 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $3.31 USD. A bottle of good table wine (red) starts at $5.73 USD.
Chilean food was not something I raved about. I also found Chile very expensive in general so I opted to cook in the hostel for most days. I only went out to eat in Chile if I was going with friends, let’s say twice a week or during the weekends. To have an idea what supermarket shopping in Chile’s like, check some sample products below:
- 500 grams of boneless chicken breast: $3.29 USD
- One dozen eggs: $2.70 USD
- 500 grams of local cheese: $4.81 USD
- 1 kg of apples, potatos, tomatoes: from $1.07 – $1.27 USD
Chile travel budget tips
- Buy wine in supermarkets. Like Argentina, Chile is also home to the finest wines in the world so wine shouldn’t be that expensive. However, they can raise the prices in touristic areas. In the supermarket, you can buy a good bottle for $6 USD (est).
- Take colectivos. Colectivos are shared taxis not only in Chile but all over South America. It’s like an Uber ride sharing but in a form of a mini-bus. It’s super cheap and can also take you door to door!
- When shopping for food, go to La Vega Market. This market in Santiago has everything and they sell it for cheap. It’s way cheaper to shop here than your local supermarket so hoard away!
Colombia Travel Budget
Low season in Colombia is from October to November. Watch out for rain and floods in the Andean region plus the northwest coasts can be a little wet. During this season, prices everywhere are very low. From December to February is high season where it is dry everywhere except for the Amazon. Expect a lush, green and sunny vacation in Colombia during this season but prices are also at their highest in the whole country. Personally, I don’t really take into consideration the high and low season in Colombia as people from everywhere flock at any time because of its tropical weather (except Central). For me, Colombia can be visited at any time of the year.
During the low season, Viajero Cartagena Hostel starts at $15 USD per night with a good breakfast included. For the higher seasons, it can increase up to $3 USD more. In the capital, Selina Chapinero Bogotá is at $10 USD per night without breakfast. 10-bed dormitories are also common in Colombia while 4-bed dorms are very rare. This might be the result of the great South American backpacker culture that has evolved over the years. The more beds they have, the more customers they can gain.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $4.37 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $4.74 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $1.50 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $0.80 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $1.93 USD. A bottle of good table wine (red) in the supermarket starts at $13 USD.
Colombian food is super cheap and tasty – I barely cooked in hostels during my travels in Colombia because eating out is very affordable. Yummy street food like arepa con queso is less than a dollar in Colombia. There are a lot of eateries all over Colombia where you can eat for cheap but the north coast of the country where there are beaches can be really expensive any time of the year.
Colombia travel budget tips
- Avoid booking accommodations in touristic neighborhoods. They are always double the price! Cartagena’s Old Town, Park 93 in Bogotá, and Poblado in Medellín are some of the areas flocked by gringos so they have a different currency in those areas.
- Do a lot of DIY and don’t book with tour agencies. I never signed up for a tour agency in Colombia because you can pretty much do everything yourself. Unlike Chile and Argentina where you really have to go with guides and tour companies, Colombia’s terrain is manageable and can be explored on your own.
- Uber is illegal in Colombia but you can take it anyway. Uber is not legally recognized in Colombia though you will find a lot of drivers, expecially in big cities like Bogota and Medellin. They are way cheaper than regular taxis and are more convenient if shared with friends or hostel mates.
Ecuador Travel Budget
Most South American countries’ high seasons fall between November to March but Ecuador’s is the opposite. Low season in Ecuador is from December to May where the weather is cooler and rainier. It is also the best time to visit the Galápagos as it can be cheaper. From April to July, heavy rains are very common in the orient. High season falls from June to September, but the coastal towns and beaches are also high season from December to July. At this time of the year, Ecuador is sunny and warm.
In Quito, hostels price ranges from $7 – $10 USD per night. Community Hostel can charge up to $13 USD per night for a 6-bed shared dorm during the high season. Guest houses are more common in Ecuador than hostels where you can get a private room for $10 USD per person. If you are traveling with a partner and wants some private time, bed and breakfast prices don’t have much difference than that of the hostel dorms.
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $5.55 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $5.48 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $2.53 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1.55 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $3.34 USD. A bottle of good table wine (red) in the supermarket starts at $14 USD.
Ecuadorian food wasn’t my favorite so I rarely ate out. When eating out, it’s more of going to Western restaurants as they are popular countrywide. It would really save you money inn Ecuador if you cook in hostels. Below are the estimate prices of supermarket items for you to have an idea on how much to allot for supermarket shopping:
- 500 grams of boneless chicken breast: $2.49 USD
- One dozen eggs: $2 USD
- 500 grams of local cheese: $4.15 USD
- 1 kg of apples, potatos, tomatoes: from $1.16 – $2.18 USD
Ecuador travel budget tips
- Don’t enroll to Spanish classes. A lot of people go to Ecuador to learn Spanish by enrolling to a school but staying with local families or volunteering in hostels will cut the costs.
- Stay in guesthouses. Family-run hospedajes are not necessarily cheaper but are more comfortable, most especially if you want privacy. They are equal to the price of a shared dorm.
- Eat set menus. Set menus and packages are very common in Ecuador. For $2.50 USD, you can fill your stomach with a more variety of treats!
Peru Travel Budget
Low season in Peru is from December to February where rainy season in the highlands is very often. The Inca trail is closed all February for a cleanup and maintenance but Machu Picchu remains open. Though this is a low season for the mountainous regions, it is high season for the coast and beaches. High season falls from June to August and is the best time for outdoor activities, including treks. It is also the busiest time due to US and European holidays so expect prices to be higher than usual.
Kokopelli Hostels have branches in Lima, Paracas, and Cusco. During low season, a bed in a dorm with breakfast starts at $10 USD while it can go up to $20 USD during the high season. This is my favorite hostel in Peru as I’ve worked here for months as a volunteer and as a bar manager. I’m staying in these hostels all November (2019) so please come say hi if you will be in Peru!
A basic lunchtime menu in the business district starts at $4.81 USD. Combo meals in fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start at $4.45 USD. For beer drinkers, you can get a bottle of beer in a downtown pub for $2.75 USD. If you buy it in the supermarket, it costs $1.39 USD. Coffee drinkers can enjoy a cappuccino in a cool cafe for $3.59 USD. A bottle of good table wine (red) in the supermarket starts at $10 USD.
Peruvian food is considered the best in the whole of Latin America and eating out is always affordable. You can get set meals for as low as $4.50 USD. This includes a meat dish, rice, beans, vegetables, and a drink. Of course, if you’re staying long in Peru and wants to cook in the hostel, below are the prices for supermarket basics:
- 500 grams of boneless chicken breast: $2.41 USD
- One dozen eggs: $1.77 USD
- 500 grams of local cheese: $3.41 USD
- 1 kg of apples, potatos, tomatoes: from $0.86 – $1.24 USD
Peru travel budget tips
- Take a one-month pass from Peru Hop. Peru Hop is a bus company that will take you throughout the country for a fixed cost. You can get a one-month backpacking pass for $250 USD which I think is cheaper than taking separate inter-city buses. They also pick you up door-to-door which will save you money on taxi costs to bus stations.
- Eat set meals in markets. Peru’s food tradition is set meals in big markets and they only cost $4 USD!
- Do-it-yourself tours. Most outdoor activities in Peru don’t require guides so you can do it yourself!