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The Price of Traveling South America

20 somethings approach a South American budget with the enthusiasm of a sloth on heroin. $5,000 and an open ended plane ticket home – that should be enough, right?

You can’t really blame the aspiring backpacker for their apathetic approach towards budgeting. It’s hard to stay focused with the thought of climbing the Andes, pounding some pisco sours, nights out with the women in Medellin, and…sorry lost my train of thought.

Ah, right. Budgets. Seriously, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of creating a backpacker budget. It is no fun coming down from the adrenaline rush of a skydive with a humbling call home to Mom asking for an advance on this years’ Christmas present.

Guide books like Lonely Planet and popular travel blogs are a great place to start. But really, only a fraction of their content focuses on costs. Those generic costs are just foreplay; you know you want to go further. One great way to gauge your spending is to look at an example from guy who has done it all before.

After four months in six different countries across South America, here’s how I spent my money.

Grand Total: $4,551.43
Total Travel Time: 4 months
Budget Goal: $35 USD per day

**I did not include the price of international flights, travel insurance or visas. These three items are particularly subjective dependent on your passport, risk tolerance (don’t travel without insurance!!!) and how good you are at finding flight deals online. Domestic flights were included, however. For example, I did include the $98 for my flight in Brazil, while I did not include the price of getting from the United States to Peru. If you’re curious, I spent $160 for a visa to enter Bolivia and about $250 for travel insurance.**

But since you can’t eat it, this pie chart is pretty boring. Further below I’ll add some more information about my personal spending habits for anyone with a bar chart fetish. How I choose to spend my money compared with how you’ll spend yours will likely be similar. But first here’s some overall stats.

First the elephant in the room. So yeah, I went a little wild in Brazil and basically threw my budget out the window. Part of it certainly was being in a more expensive city. Compared to the other more developed economies in South America, Brazil is a more expensive outlier.

Cloudy with a chance of Jesus
Cloudy with a chance of Jesus

But more importantly, I made no real effort to save money. I splurged on a nice apartment next to the beach and ate the best dinner of my trip here. My time in Rio was amazing! While $70 per day will be plenty for most budgets, $50 per day would be a much more realistic yet definitely doable budget backpacker amount.

Second, GO ME! While I made a concerted effort to spend $30 per day throughout my entire S. America trip knowing there, I did pretty well coming in around $35. And Argentina, well, the wine got in the way there.

For a bit more context let’s add a line chart just for good measure. The x-axis represents time and for a little reference, I spent 36 days in Peru.

Here’s some more insight about my travel style and spending habits
Transportation

IMG_0064-Edit
Buses, buses and more buses. Sometimes I’ll mix things up with a taxi or subway if I’m in the a city. But yeah, usually buses.

I’m a middle of the road type of guy. I’m not riding with the cheapest/shadiest/deadliest company just to save a few dollars on an overnight bus ride – it’s good to wakeup knowing my bags are still going to be under the bus. But I’m hesitant to shell out 3x’s the going rate for a seat in first class, too. Taking my queues from Goldilocks and I’ll choose something just right with a second class blend of comfort and price.

My two flights cost only a fraction more than the going bus rate. A two hour flight from the Atacama desert to Santiago, for example, was a steal at $30 USD. If you plan on taking second class buses for most of your journey, these numbers are very accurate.

You’ll likely notice real quick that Brazil is almost off the charts expensive. Part of that is true. At least in Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro (the only two places I visited) things were noticeably more expensive than the other more developed countries like Chile and Argentina.

More likely however was my off the rails “it’s the end of my trip throw it on the credit card hands in the air don’t care” attitude. It was the end of a five month world trip for my last week I wasn’t about to pinch pennies in a city as stunning as Rio. That and I bought an expensive flight.

Accommodation

I can count on one had the number of times I stayed in a hostel. Not because I’m some prissy introvert who freaks out at the sight of human hair in the shower, but because most hotels were just so cheap. Splitting the cost of a hotel room with a friend was often cheaper than staying in many dorms. Hotel rooms were usually basic, with great or excellent reviews on sites like booking.com. There’s a comfort in knowing that the gross mess in the bathroom is also your gross mess.

And don’t neglect Airbnb! If you have the luxury of splitting costs between a group of friends, Airbnb beats the value of both hotels and hostels. While you’ll rarely get the convenience of just showing up, if you’re planning an extended stat in one particular place, this is often a phenomenal option. In Buenos Aires, for example, we rented a beautiful apartment for week at the same price as a top rated hostel.

Yup, Brazil still leading the way. To be fair, having an apartment two blocks from the beach was totally worth it. But definitely not budget friendly.

Food

I love cooking. But, like, I’m on vacation mahn. And there’s all the delicious street food outside from that cute abuela going total beast mode on the deep fryer. How can I say no to her?

Let me climb up into my ivory tower for a second. I’m the self appointed king at finding great local food at bargain prices. In Cusco for example, free breakfast at the hostel, $3 set lunches, and an all you can eat buffet and steak restaurant for dinner completed the holy trifecta of eating like a prince at pauper prices. Know where to look and ask a bunch of locals for some great food cheap.

If you do like to cook, well! Markets markets markets. And not the touristy ones you saw on your walking tour, either. Rather, farmers markets outside the city center have great local produce that you can pay for in coins. In Cusco, a hearty lunch of vegetable stir fry and cheese omelettes came in at less than $1. Similar situation in Bolivia, too. (Just be sure to wash your food!)

The situation does change a bit in the more developed economies of Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I noticed almost immediately that eating out every days was simply not a possibility. Prices were just as much, if not occasionally more than the equivalent back in the United States. Here, a great strategy is to stay in places with access to a kitchen. Be sure to check reviews of the kitchen in hostels, and Airbnb becomes an excellent value as well. If you’re on a budget, hanging out in the kitchen just comes with the territory of traveling South America’s ABC’s. (Argentina, Brazil, Chile. Did you get it?)

Alcohol

Here’s where we’re likely going to differ. I know, I know, we were doing so well!

MendozaWineBarrelsI’m 31 and the immutable laws of science and anatomy simply don’t allow me to drink like I did 10 years ago. Two day hangovers are a thing. Anything past 2am and my mind starts to wander off into thoughts of warm milk and a comfortable bed. If there’s any silver lining to getting older, it’s that I certainly spend less on booze.

Nonetheless, I’m hardly a nun when it comes to nights out. A few local beers is high on the list after crossing a new border and a massive rager in Rio de Janeiro just might be more important than visiting Christ the Redeemer. Physically however I can’t incorporate a habit of shots into my nightly routine. 2-3 beers per day at $3-4 total was normal.

One huge way I saved money was to stop drinking almost entirely in bars. If it wasn’t the weekend I bought my daily beers in the supermarket. Much much cheaper! A A few dollars every night in the bar across the street really adds up. However I did find the bar prices in most hostels to be very reasonable.

Entertainment

Big ticket items on the cheap was a common theme. Much of my time was spent organizing how to get that coveted photo at a fraction of the price.

But the Rolling Stones were right; you don’t always get what you want. The glaciers in Argentina, rain forest trips in Brazil and a trek through the Andes in Peru just weren’t doable within my $35/day budget.

Makes Niagra look like a log flume
Makes Niagra look like a log flume at the local water park

But Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, the Salar de Uyuni and some great sites in all the major cities definitely were – but I did have to choose my excursions carefully. And no, I didn’t have to walk all the way to Machu Picchu like these guys.

Much of this all depends on how comfortable you are with not doing everything that is offered to you. Some days, especially after a big spending day, I did nearly free activities like strolling through parks, working on my photography, trying some street food and practicing my Spanish with anyone will to speak with me. These days were great for bringing down my average costs and saving my almighty dollar.

Still, don’t let a frugal habit interfere with opportunity. I splurged on food like it was my job and every country had a special high-end excursion. In the end, it was all entirely worth it!

The asterisk here is Bolivia. Bolivia was certainly the cheapest from all the South American countries and most of my entertainment costs were park of package tours, creating on paper the illusion that it’s more expensive. From a cost per day perspective, Bolivia is quite cheap.

Misc.

Meh. Laundry, cough medicine, and altitude sickness pills are almost negligible. Really nothing that will break the bank.


Final Thoughts

Take out Brazil and most of the continent is doable on $35 per day. It would be disingenuous to say it is easy however. There were several instances where I though “you know, maybe the experience doesn’t exactly justify the cost.” At this price point, you’re going to be having that conversation a lot.

Don’t think a $35 per day budget will keep you confined to a convalescent home lifestyle; beast mode on adventure is definitely possible. I gave up adventure and opportunities substantially less than the moments that I pursued it. Exploring Incan ruins through the Sacred Valley, watching the thunder of Iguazu Falls and chasing sunsets in the Atacama were weekly experiences. Just be comfortable taking a few days off. 😉

SalarMoon

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