South America is a great choice for backpackers. Nature lovers will find beguiling flora and fauna, majestic waterfalls, and wild landscapes, from volcanoes to deserts. There is plenty for city slickers too. The continent hosts world-class museums, delicious gastronomy, and nightlife galore. So, how much does it cost to backpack South America?
While the continent is generally pretty budget-friendly, this isn’t true of every country. Read on for our guide to planning a backpacking trip that hits all the best places while still staying within your budget. We’ll break down the cost of backpacking in the most popular countries as well as offer you our top tips to travel South America cheap. ¡Vamos!
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Travel Costs for Backpacking in South America
Daily Cost of Backpacking in South America – Quick Answers!
- Cost of street food in South America: $1-5USD
- Cost of local restaurant food in South America: $5-30USD
- Cost of food in a tourist restaurant: $10-30USD
- Cost of water in South America: less than $1USD
- Cost of beer in South America: $0.50-3USD
- Cost of hostel bed in South America: $4-30USD
- Cost of private room in South America: $15-60USD
Cost of Backpacking South America by Country
Costs in South America can vary widely depending on where you are, both within countries (e.g. cities versus countryside, mainland versus islands, etc.) and between countries, depending on exchange rates and other factors.
When planning your trip, consider a combination of countries depending on what sights you most want to see – this will allow you to plan a trip that suits your budget accordingly. South America’s islands tend to be universally expensive regardless of the country but don’t dismiss them right away!
Overall, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are considered to be the more expensive backpacking destinations. However, many of the continent’s must-sees are located in these countries, such as the Patagonia region and the Atacama Desert.
Also read: 1 and 2 week itineraries for Patagonia.
Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia are often considered the cheapest, largely due to favorable exchange rates, and are also packed with things to see. Mainland Ecuador is quite economical, but the Galapagos Islands can get very expensive. The above-mentioned countries are often the most popular with backpackers, but there are a few more to consider like Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. These aren’t necessarily budget destinations, but don’t rule them out entirely!
Conversely, Venezuela is extremely cheap, but this is largely due to the political instability of the past few years. The decision to travel here shouldn’t be taken lightly, so make sure you check with your State Department equivalent prior to traveling.
Recommended daily backpacker budgets are in the table below (scroll left and right to see the full table on mobile).
|Country||Shoestring Backpacker Daily Budget $ (USD)||Livin’ it Large Backpacker Daily Budget $$ (USD)||Flashpacker Daily Budget $$$ (USD)|
Note: Exchange rates can change quickly and should always be used as a guide. All exchange rates are correct as of March 2022 but we recommend seeking an up-to-date conversion when planning your trip.
Argentina Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 110 Argentine peso
- Daily budget: $30-100USD
Argentina is one of the top destinations in South America, and for good reason! It has gorgeous, chic cities like Buenos Aires and Rosario, the sprawling countryside in La Pampa, the beautiful wine country in Mendoza, and of course, a major bucket list item: the Perito Moreno Glacier in the one-of-a-kind Patagonia region. Argentinian beef is considered one of the best meats in the world, and you can’t miss an asado with a nice glass of wine while you’re there.
While asado can get fairly expensive, there are lots of places where you can buy cheap eats, like Argentine empanadas, choripan, pizza, and other local treats. Food prices increase quite a bit in the towns around big tourist destinations, like El Calafate, so consider grocery shopping here.
There is a wide variety of accommodation available, from dormitory-style hostels (from $12USD per night) to a private room (from $50USD per night), or lots of camping opportunities in the national parks (from $5-7USD per night.)
Argentina has great public transport, from the Buenos Aires metro (the Subte) to an interconnected web of buses spanning the whole country. When planning your travel, keep in mind that Argentina is huge, and large distances between major attractions mean that it may be best to fly to places like Patagonia or Ushuaia.
Even on budget airlines like Aerolineas Argentinas, the popularity of these trips mean that these flight prices are expensive even in the off-season. It is definitely worth putting on a flight alert when you know your dates!
Activities vary widely in cost – entrance to Los Glaciares National Park to see the Perito Moreno glacier costs $13USD, but many parks are much cheaper or free in other places. Similarly, a winery tour in Mendoza can cost as much as $200USD per person, but the individual wineries often have much more reasonably-priced tasting fees.
Bolivia Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 7 boliviano
- Daily budget: $15-60USD
Bolivia is often considered the cheapest country for backpackers in South America, and it is packed chock-full of wonderful adventures to be had. From cycling Death Road, marveling at the Uyuni Salt Flats, hiking in the Amazon, or visiting Lomas de Arena, there is so much to explore for outdoor enthusiasts. Gastronomy fans will love the foodie scene in Cochabamba and don’t miss a ride on cable car Mi Teleférico to see La Paz from above.
While most things are very inexpensive, lodging isn’t quite as bottom-of-the-barrel as you may think. A dorm bed will cost $6-9USD per night, and a private room starts at about $15USD.
Food and transportation, however, are indeed super inexpensive, so be sure to take advantage of eating the delicious fare at local markets. The best way to get around is by bus or taxi but beware of common scams and pickpockets while doing so.
Brazil Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 5 Brazilian reales
- Daily budget: $30-110USD
Brazil is an intimidatingly large country, which makes it a marvelous destination for backpackers. From Carnaval or a soccer match in Rio de Janeiro, hiking in the Pati Valley or Tijuca National Park, learning samba or capoeira, and trying the country’s many delicious cuisines, Brazil is a feast for the senses.
However, depending on the time of year and destination, Brazil gets expensive fast. Unless you have your heart set on Carnaval, consider skipping it. Prices skyrocket during this time, up to quadruple normal levels, and peak season (December to March) is very costly.
As in other countries, street food like pão de queijo or pastéis is very budget-friendly. Restaurants can get expensive, so consider grocery shopping, but definitely make sure to try feijoada (a meat stew, Brazil’s national dish) while you’re there– typically served for lunch.
Due to Brazil’s vast size, there are many options for accommodation, ranging from hostels (from $11USD per night) to Airbnbs or budget hotels (from $20USD per night) or camping near the beaches (from $8USD per night.)
Public transport is widespread and convenient, but perhaps best avoided at night. Keep in mind that pickpocketing, carjackings, and other forms of theft are sadly very common in Brazil, and always pay close attention to your surroundings. We recommend investing in a money belt or alternative to keep your valuables out of sight.
Chile Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 800 Chilean peso
- Daily budget: $35-100USD
Chile’s long and slender shape provides an astounding amount of biodiversity, from the peaks of Torres del Paine in Patagonia to the high-altitude, other-worldly Atacama Desert. National parks scatter the country leaving you with some tough decisions if you’re short on time.
Moai sculptures and volcanic craters dot the intriguing Easter Island, and Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar offer beautiful parks, museums, and architecture to admire. You can visit poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda’s homes, explore the serene Lake District, and visit a variety of wineries that rival neighboring Argentina’s Mendoza.
Dormitory-style hostels and Airbnb rooms range from $10USD per night, with a private room starting at about $40USD. Take advantage of set lunch menus, starting at $6USD or so, as well as the abundance of reasonably-priced seafood due to Chile’s long coastline. Note that (similarly to Argentina) food prices increase sharply in towns bordering tourist sites.
Relatedly, food often must be imported to these areas, which leads to high prices. Traveling by bus is comfortable and affordable, but due to Chile’s length, not always doable time-wise. There are several budget airlines, and renting a car and driving yourself places is largely considered safe. In fact, Chile is actually one of the safest countries in the whole of South America!
While many outdoor attractions are free, note that entrance to Torres del Paine specifically is about $25USD per person for non-Chileans. This can be a wallop to your wallet if you don’t know ahead of time. Chile also has a less-developed tourism infrastructure in Patagonia than Argentina does, making an off-season visit to Torres del Paine very challenging (and perhaps impossible.)
Colombia Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 3810 Colombian peso
- Daily budget: $20-90USD
Colombia has a big and bold backpacker scene, with hostels, parties, and excursions galore. It’s one of the most popular places for backpackers for good reason, and your money will go quite far here.
It’s a great place to take Spanish lessons and boasts gorgeous beaches, beautiful colonial architecture, and great weather. Bigger cities include Bogotá, Cartagena, Cali, and Medellín, and there are great beaches in Santa Marta, Rosario Islands, and Playa Blanca.
Colombia is known worldwide for its coffee production, as well as its wonderful musicians, like Juanes, Shakira, Fonseca, and more. Outdoor enthusiasts can trek to the Lost City, sail to Isla Gorgona, or explore Tayrona National Park.
A bed in a hostel dorm room can cost as little as $4USD per night, but keep in mind that budget accommodation is often not air-conditioned, and mosquitoes may prevent you from opening windows. A private room with AC is likely to cost between $10USD and $20USD per night depending on the time of year.
Street food like arepas or empanadas can cost as little as $1USD, and set lunch menus are also common for $3-4USD.
Mini-buses, called colectivos, are the best way to get around internally, and intercity (charter) buses are also common. Budget airline Viva Air has great deals on flights– often cheaper than the bus, though certainly with more environmental impact. Be careful of pickpockets and robberies, and avoid renting a car or walking around too much at night.
Ecuador Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Ecuador uses the US Dollar
- Daily budget: $30-100USD
Ecuador’s size-to-activities ratio truly can’t be beat, with all sorts of sights eminently accessible to backpackers. From outdoor adventures in Baños or Ibarra, to the cool, urban vibe in Quito, and the natural wonders of Cajas National Park, Ecuador has something for everybody.
That said, mainland Ecuador is also much cheaper than the Galapagos. If spending time in the Galapagos is a dream destination for you, keep in mind that it’s very pricey, and likely will cost over $1000USD for just a few days. However, hostels on the mainland can cost as little as $6USD, and budget hotels or Airbnbs around $20USD.
Food from street vendors or markets, as well as a set almuerzo menu, can cost as little as $2-3USD, and many attractions are relatively inexpensive. Be sure to try Ecuadorian empanadas and arroz con pollo, or perhaps (if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous), guinea pig, or cuy.
Buses are comfortable and very inexpensive, and there are also budget flights for longer distances.
Paraguay Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 7000 guaraní
- Daily budget: $25-70USD
Paraguay is one of the lesser-known destinations in South America, and many make the mistake of skipping it. You shouldn’t! It’s very budget-friendly, less touristy, and offers you the rare opportunity to get completely off the “gringo trail” for some new and different experiences.
Asunción is a lovely mix of old and new, with horse-drawn carriages pausing in front of modern shopping malls and Encarnación is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Jesuit ruins, and the Itaipú Dam.
If you haven’t visited Iguazú Falls in Brazil or Argentina, it’s often cheaper and easier to do so from Paraguay – the falls are very close to Ciudad del Este in eastern Paraguay. There are ample other opportunities for nature, from Eco Reserva Mbatoví to the vast Chaco wilderness or Paraguay’s most-visited park, Parque Nacional Ybycuí.
Dorm beds cost around $6-10USD per night, or $20USD plus for a private room. Public transportation is very cheap, but (as in other areas) beware of pickpockets. Meals at local restaurants can start at about $3USD per person, and $10-20USD can get you a very nice dinner with drinks.
Note that Paraguay is known for being quite conservative, and many travelers recommend refraining from too much PDA while out and about.
Peru Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 3.70 soles
- Daily budget: $20-80USD
Peru is best known for the iconic Machu Picchu and the aptly-named Inca Trail leading to it. While these are absolutely transformative experiences and must-sees while in the country, Peru has many other fabulous experiences to offer!
Hiking in Colca Canyon, relaxing at Lake Titicaca, sightseeing in lovely Lima, and exploring Cusco’s old town and one of the rainbow mountains are all budget-friendly and fun. There’s definitely a reason why Peru is such a popular destination for backpackers!
Peru is another place to try guinea pig if you didn’t try it in Ecuador, and many of their speciality dishes are filling and substantial, featuring root vegetables and lean protein. Ceviche is from Peru and a must-try dish. Peruvian food at a local restaurant can be almost mind-bogglingly cheap, as little as $2USD or so for a full meal. It’s quite doable to eat out for practically every meal in Peru without overdoing your budget, provided that you stick to local places.
Accommodation is also quite cheap: you can get a dorm bed for as little as $7USD per night, or a private room for about $20USD. It’s easy to travel around the country by bus or colectivo, or a budget flight for longer distances. Flights aren’t necessarily cheaper but will save you a lot of time. Also read: Best hostels in Cusco, Peru.
What begins to add up in Peru is the excursions. Machu Picchu will cost at least $50USD per person, and if you choose to do the Inca Trail, this can cost close to $1000USD per person for a multi-day trek.
Uruguay Backpacking Budget
- Exchange rate: Approx. 1 USD = 40 Uruguayan pesos
- Daily budget: $45-120USD
Uruguay is often considered the most expensive country for backpackers in South America. However, this doesn’t mean you should rule it out! There is plenty to see in Montevideo, plus opportunities for relaxation in Punta del Este or small-town charm in Colonia del Sacramento (also the jumping-on point for the quick ferry to Buenos Aires.)
Check out artist Carlos Páez Vilaró’s gorgeous seafront Casapueblo, catch a performance at Teatro Solís, or enjoy horseback riding or hot springs along the Río Uruguay.
Lodging in particular in Uruguay can get pricey fast, with even a dorm-style accommodation costing upwards of $20USD per night. The big tip for budgeteers visiting Uruguay is to head there in the off-season, as you will save a lot on lodging. In the high season, expect to pay upwards of $35USD per night.
The cheapest set lunch menu will cost about $7-8USD per person, and a cup of coffee is likely to cost more than $2USD. It may be best to go grocery shopping while in Uruguay rather than eating out. Traveling by bus is relatively cheap, but again, not as cheap as other destinations in South America.
8 Tips to Travel South America for Cheap
- Keep an eye out for free days at museums and cultural attractions, and prioritize which higher-cost activities are must-sees for you. A lot of outdoor attractions are very inexpensive, often just with a nominal entrance fee, but major attractions (like the Perito Moreno Glacier) in Argentina, are much more expensive.
- The best way to save on lodging is to book a dormitory-style room with a shared bathroom. While you may be sharing with lots of people, each bed is very cheap and breakfast is often included. Be sure to bring a padlock for your belongings.
- If dorm life isn’t for you, be sure to check prices for small hotels or locally-run B&Bs, called hospedajes. They are often cheaper than private rooms in a dorm and sometimes even include meals, with lovely and welcoming proprietors.
- If you’re planning to stay longer-term in a place, consider a work-exchange program like Workaway or Worldpackers. Here, you exchange a few hours of labor at a hostel, farm, store, etc. for free lodging. Couchsurfing (while less popular than it used to be) is also a great option to save money and meet people.
- Eat local! There is an abundance of delicious, cheap street food and lunch deals in South America. Sometimes a set lunch menu (almuerzo) can cost less than $1USD.
- When visiting somewhere outside a city for the day, bring your lunch, as the restaurants surrounding parks and popular day trip areas have super inflated prices and often subpar options.
- To keep costs low, independent travel is far cheaper than tours. While sometimes a day tour can be the best way to see a place, overall stick to planning your transport and transfers yourself. Public transport is very cheap and largely safe and reliable in South America, an easy way to save money.
- If you do decide to go somewhere on a tour, be sure to price-compare. There are almost always multiple tour operators running the same or very similar tours. Read reviews and check what each tour offers– maybe similarly-priced tours offer different things, like an included lunch or an extra excursion.
South America is often depicted as being an ultra-cheap destination for backpackers. However, depending on where you go, the continent can get expensive quickly – an unpleasant surprise if you’re not prepared ahead of time.
You needn’t worry though, it is very possible to travel cheaply with some planning! Taking advantage of free walking tours, public transportation, and mixing higher-priced must-sees with free or cheap options will save you a lot of money.
And, as always, getting off the beaten path can lead to you making some of your best memories. Exploring the countryside and prioritizing cheaper countries is perhaps the most reliable way to save, and don’t forget those almuerzo deals!
What are your tips for a budget-friendly South America backpacking trip? Let us know in the comments!