What are the cheapest South American countries? This is a question that we get asked a lot here at South America Backpacker!
When it comes to planning a trip, it is essential to have a budget. After all, it is pointless compiling a bucket list of things you’re dying to do on your next backpacking adventure if you don’t have the money for any of them!
Luckily, South America is one of the best places on Earth for shoestring backpackers. This incredibly diverse continent is home to an array of enchanting wildlife, astonishing landscapes and welcoming people. And the best thing? It is easy to experience most of it on the cheap.
To help you see how far you can stretch your budget, we’ve compiled this list of the cheapest countries in South America.
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How Did We Decide The Cheapest South American Countries?
Before we dive into how we decided the cheapest South American countries, it is worth noting that the word ‘cheapest’ is subjective. For example, most backpackers would probably class themselves as budget travellers, however, there is a big difference in cost between flashpacking and bikepacking!
To put together this list of the cheapest countries in South America, we looked at the cost of travel essentials (e.g. hostels, beer, food, beer) and called on our intrepid Facebook community to share their experiences.
It is important to remember that we all travel differently and what one backpacker deems a necessity, another may not. This means that there will always be individual differences in what we choose to spend our money on.
To give you a bit of context before we dive into the nitty-gritty, these are the average backpacker costs for the following essential items in the United States.
- Bed in a dorm room: $30-50USD
- A hotel room in a major city: $125USD
- Sandwich: $5USD
- Meal and drink in a budget restaurant: $15-20USD
- Beer in a bar: $5USD
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $75-85USD
Of course, prices vary across different parts of the country so the costs listed are an average and are intended as a guide. (We’ve included USD conversions and exchange rates for any costs listed throughout this article. All exchange rates are correct at the time of writing.)
Note: We chose not to include Venezuela or Suriname in this list as they have some of the highest inflation rates in the world. This means that prices are extremely vulnerable and can change without notice.
Top 5 Cheapest Countries in South America
This list is in reverse order, with number 1 being the cheapest country in South America.
Currency: Paraguayan Guaraní
Exchange rate: 1USD=6,767PYG
- Bed in a dorm room: 80,000PYG ($12USD)
- A hotel room in a major city: 200,000-450,000PYG ($30-$60USD)
- Street food: 13,000-18,000PYG($2-3USD)
- Meal and drink in budget restaurant: 25,000PYG ($4USD)
- Beer: 9,000PYG ($1.50USD)
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $30-40USD
Paraguay is one of the most under-visited countries in South America which could be why so few people know how cheap it is! Much like many other countries, it’s the main cities which are the most expensive to visit, whereas your budget will stretch much further in the countryside areas.
The capital, Asunción, is the most expensive place in the country and even a sightseeing tour here can set you back around $60USD! The key to keeping to your budget is prioritising the tours you want to do and balancing costs when possible.
Luckily, food in the country is really cheap and even more so if you are veggie. Eating street food will help you stay within budget.
Even though hotel rooms can get pricey, dorm rooms are cheap, though don’t expect the standard kind of backpacker hostel you might be used to. As Paraguay has been largely forgotten from the South American tourism scene, it doesn’t have much of a backpacker market.
What our Facebook community said about Paraguay…
“Paraguay – Cheapest country in SA easily :D” – Taru
Currency: Peruvian Sol
Exchange rate: 1USD=3.89PEN
- Bed in a dorm room: 25-50PEN ($6.50-12.50USD)
- A hotel room in a major city: 70-150PEN ($18-38USD)
- Street food: 5PEN ($1USD)
- Meal and drink in a budget restaurant: 12-20PEN ($4-6USD)
- Beer: 7PEN ($2USD)
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $30-40USD
It is easy to lose a few months backpacking around Peru. The enigmatic Inca ruins are what draw most travellers to the country, but the vast landscapes and world-class hiking makes them stay.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about visiting Peru without talking about its world-famous cuisine. Outside of the swanky restaurants, food is pretty cheap in Peru and you’ll save yourself money by eating on the street when possible. Look out for almuerzo deals at local eateries which are basically just set lunch meals. These are a cheap way to get your fill of delicious Peruvian food.
Most day trips across the country offer very good value for money. This is often true of many of Peru’s best hikes too, including the guided ones to Machu Picchu. A budget-friendly 5-day Salkantay trek (one of the most popular backpacker hikes to Machu Picchu) can cost as little as $150USD all-inclusive, however, if you want to stay in glamping style accommodation, expect the price to rise sharply.
As Peru has such a well-established backpacker scene, there is no shortage of cool hostels across the country. For solo travellers, look out for accommodation provided by popular chains, Loki, Kokopelli and Wild Rover. Here are a few of our favourites:
What our Facebook community said about Peru…
“Of those I’ve visited, [the cheapest is] Colombia or Peru, depending on where and what.” – Rowan
“Peru or Bolivia are the cheapest for me (haven’t made it to Colombia yet).” – Emma
Currency: United States Dollar
- Bed in a dorm room: $7-11USD
- A hotel room in a major city: $25-50USD
- Street food: $1USD
- Meal and drink in a budget restaurant: $2.50-3.50USD
- Beer: $2USD
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $30USD (Mainland only)
It may surprise you to see Ecuador on this list of cheapest South American countries at all, let alone in position three! Known for the biodiverse Galapagos Islands, it is no secret that these are what draws many tourists to the country.
There is no denying that the Galapagos Islands are an expensive destination and as a result, many backpackers won’t be able to stretch their budget to a trip here. Don’t write Ecuador off though! The good news is that the mainland has plenty of amazing sights and it is generally cheap to travel around.
From epic volcanoes, exotic wildlife and incredible beaches, this tiny country has it all. Food is generally cheap in Ecuador (with the exception being western dishes) and local beer won’t set you back too much either. Owing to the size of the country, bus journeys are mercifully short which is generally reflected in the price of travel.
The main expense for travellers heading to the country is likely to be tours. Group tours are significantly cheaper than private excursions but you’ll still be paying around $50USD per person for a day trip from one of the cities. Try to get together with other backpackers to keep the costs as low as possible.
As travellers realise Ecuador’s potential, more and more budget hostels are springing up for backpackers. Many of these have nailed the community of travel and offer shared meals, discounted tours, on-site activities and even yoga sessions. Here are three of our favourite hostels in Ecuador:
What our Facebook community said about Ecuador…
“Ecuador is cheap, despite using the dollar (always carry $1 and $5 bills. Anything larger is practically unusable).” – Jeff.
“Ecuador was the cheapest. Yes they use the dollar. But it’s still the cheapest place. You can get a 2 course meal and drink for only $4. That is really cheap.” – Paula
Currency: Colombian Peso
Exchange rate: 1USD=3,740COP
- Bed in a dorm room: 25,000-50,000COP ($7-14USD)
- A hotel room in a major city: 80,000-120,000COP ($21-32USD)
- Street food: 3,000COP ($0.80USD)
- Meal and drink in a budget restaurant: 8,000-15,000COP ($2-5USD)
- Beer in a bar: 3,000COP ($0.80USD)
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $30USD
Colombia is an incredible country for backpackers and for many, it is their favourite destination in the whole of South America. The reasons given for this include the friendly locals, idyllic beaches, lost cities and of course, wild parties.
On our list of cheapest South American countries, Colombia has come in position two but to be honest, it was so tight it could’ve easily pipped the winner to the top spot. Food is cheap and tasty (though we hope you like your snacks deep-fried)! While it’s naturally cheapest to stick to street food, even restaurant food is reasonably priced.
As we’ve already touched on, Colombians know how to party. A beer costs less than a dollar on average (but will be more in posh bars) which goes some way to explaining why this country is a backpacker favourite. If you’re out on the town, don’t miss the chance to try your skills at one of South America’s best dances, the salsa!
Colombia is a great place to learn Spanish for cheap and tours don’t tend to be expensive either. Walking tours are a great way to see new places and you are able to pay what you can afford. As another country with a big backpacker scene, hostels are aplenty in the main cities. As with most countries, the accommodation in the big cities is likely to be more expensive than in off the beaten track areas. Here are a selection of hostels travellers love:
What our Facebook community said about Colombia…
“Colombia seemed to be really cheap for me.” – Adam
“Been to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in the past 3 years and would say all three are the cheapest.” – Luis
Currency: Bolivian Boliviano
Exchange rate: 1USD=6.90BOB
- Bed in a dorm room: 40-70BOB ($6-11USD)
- A hotel room in a major city: 160-400BOB ($24-58USD)
- Street food: 6BOB ($0.90USD)
- Meal and drink in a budget restaurant: 10-25 BOB ($1.50-3.50USD)
- Beer in a bar: 14BOB ($2USD)
Recommended backpacker daily budget: $25-30USD
And the award for the cheapest country in South America goes to…Bolivia! Speaking to the members in our Facebook community, it certainly seemed like most backpackers agree that Bolivia is the cheapest country to travel on the continent.
Food is filling and cheap to buy on the street and in markets. We have plenty of Bolivian dishes we can recommend if you are interested! Beer is also cheap – result!
Surprisingly, accommodation can sometimes be a little more expensive than in other countries but there is a solid backpacker scene which makes for some great hostels. Even though some places might be more pricey, it is easy to make up for the shortfall if you eat and travel cheap. Here are a few hostels we love in Bolivia:
Public transport offers good value for money and the cost of buses between cities tends to work out around $1USD per hour of journey.
Arguably the best part of backpacking Bolivia is the sheer number of incredible tourist attractions which are easy to see on the cheap. Bolivia is the cheapest country from which to access the Amazon rainforest and a standard 3-day tour of the salt flats only sets you back around $150 if you opt for a budget company. Not bad when you consider it is one of the world’s most unique places!
With a suggested daily budget of just $25-30USD, Bolivia is not only the cheapest country in South America for shoestring travellers but arguably, one of the cheapest in the world.
What our Facebook community said about Bolivia…
“Bolivia [is the cheapest]. Survived a year and a half there not working!” – Scott
“I personally found Bolivia to be the cheapest in terms of food, transport and accommodation. Definitely helps to speak Spanish and to do your research beforehand in regards to where to stay, how to get around, and everything else.” – Luis
“Bolivia is cheap once you get there. Flights to and from Bolivia are expensive, however.” – Jeff
You may also be wondering…
What is the most expensive country in South America?
General consensus says that Uruguay is the most expensive country in South America.
Should I haggle in South America?
In most markets across South America, you will be expected to haggle. As to how much varies per country but it is important to remember that while you want to grab a bargain, you also don’t want to rip off the vendor. Although these tips for haggling were written for Southeast Asia, much of the information is transferable so it is worth having a read if you feel a bit uncomfortable when bartering.
What is tipping etiquette in South America?
Much like with the previous question, tipping will vary from country to country. However, there are a few standard practices that it is worth acknowledging right across the continent. The norm at most restaurants tends to be around 10% of the total bill.
Although you are not expected to tip taxis, it will make everybody’s lives easier if they don’t need to give you change. Whilst one of the popular South American scams is for taxi drivers to claim they don’t have any change, many of them do use it quickly so by rounding up, you’re likely to save time for everybody.
In most countries, it is customary to tip guides. If you are doing one of South America’s most famous treks, you’ll usually be expected to tip not only the guide but also any porters and chefs.
How much money do I need to travel to South America?
The amount of money that you need for a trip to South America depends on both how long you are going for and your travel style. Whilst this list will give you a good idea of the cheapest countries in South America that you can travel to, it is worth noting that even in the most inexpensive of these, you can spend a lot of money if you splash the cash.
If you’re planning to stick with the cheaper countries, a rough budget of $1000 per month will suit most travellers. However, bear in mind that if you are planning on visiting some of the most expensive South American countries such as Uruguay or Chile, this budget will not cut it.