Ahhhh the question that drove me up the wall prior (and during) my viaje! I raided all the blogs that have written on the subject, but of course things were turned out differently for me. I discovered it is not as cheap as it used to be, and if you’re a poor ol’Brit like myself the fallen value of the pound will bite you in the ass. So just to add to the pool resources, here’s how much three months in South America cost me…
First things first – is my budget relevant to you?
First things first, this post will exclusively be in GBP (£). I considered going through and working out the dollar and the euro, but given how unstable exchange rates have been lately that seemed like a waste of time… As you can see I did not make it to major hot-spots such as Buenos Aires, La Paz, or Montevideo. Neither did I go to Patagonia, the north-east coast, or to Machu Picchu as I had already visited there in 2013.
I almost exclusively stayed in hostel dorms with at least a rating of 8/10 on Hostel World, in locations close to the city centre. I couchsurfed a few times, but only with female hosts (which are not readily available). I was able to fit in a 1-month workaway. I only took a flight over a bus once because I deemed the price difference to be worth it at the time. If a bus journey was longer than 6 hours I always went for a semi-cama. For the first month, I lived off 2 very basic meals a day, the first one being the free hostel breakfast. When vegetarian menus del dia started to cost under a fiver, cooking for myself was no longer worth it and I mostly ate out. I ‘partied’ only a handful of times (a few house parties in Taltal, two nights in Rio, and once in Valparaiso, Sucre, and Peru) but I did enjoy a beer or two in the hostel on an almost a daily basis. I went on free walking tours, to free or very cheap museums, and had to be very picky when it came to checking out major tourist attractions. The only souvenir I got was a pin of the Brazilian flag (that later broke) and in Peru I bought a lot of knitted goods as Christmas presents for friend’s and family.
Does that sound like the kind of trip you had in mind? Then yes, my budget is relevant to you and keep on reading!
The following prices should only be taken as approximates. The GBP fluctuated dramatically during my time in South America: so much so that when I landed in Rio it was $1.29 and by the time I got to Paraguay it had plummeted to $1.21. In November and December, it jumped up and down between $1.23 – $1.26. Although in theory this was only a few quid to every £100 spent, when converting into the much more highly inflated currencies such as the Guaruni, Argentine and Chilean Pesos, it was a noticeable difference and made budgeting extremely difficult (thank you Brexit).
To make this breakdown I have used notes and receipts where available, but it is mostly through checking prices online and looking at my bank statements – which can be misleading. For example, I have a note written in my diary that my total spend in Brazil came to £480, however, when I add up the information I have on my bank statements it comes to £546.94… This could be down to a number of reasons (being charged a few days late, card charges, who knows…), so I have decided to round the costs up or down to give you a rough estimate to work from…
9 days – £60 per day / £540
Flight from Rio de Janeiro to Foz do Iguaçu (£92.41)
Airport transfers (£37.88)
ATM charges (approx. £5 per transaction) and food.
Cristo Redentor £14.71
Museo do Amanhã £5.25
Iguaçu National Park £16.89
I ate out four times in Brazil: the rest of the time I lived off of free hostel breakfasts, basic rice and pasta dishes, and generally only ate 2 meals a day. Food in the supermarket was similar in price to the UK. I went out twice to Lapa which was a little pricey, and on one free walking tour (which I tipped obviously). The only times I spent a bit of extra money where I believe I could have saved was on the flight from Rio to Foz, however, the bus was only £30 cheaper. The airport transfer upon arrival (booked by my hostel) cost twice as much as the Uber I got there on the way back.
7 days – £22 per day / £154
Bus Ciudad del Este to Asuncion £12.44
Bus Asuncion to Cordoba £41
Urbanium Hostel £6.40 pn / £44.80
ATM charges approx. £4 per transaction
Paraguay was obscenely cheap. My hostel had a pool, bar, and a restaurant for £6 a night crying out loud! After transport, my actual daily spend was closer to £15. I did go to the Museo de Ferrocarril and Mirador and although I can’t remember how much they cost (they can’t have been more £2). I was able to eat, drink, and be merry and every day I was surprised by just how little I had spent.
6 days – £30 per day / £180
Bus Cordoba to Mendoza £41
Bus Mendoza to Santiago £41
Turning Point hostel £10 pn / £10
ATM charges approx £5 per transaction
Museums Emilio Caraffa, Ferreyra, Dionisi £1
Bike rental Mendoza £6.22
I couchsurfed 4/6 nights I stayed in Argentina, but I made food and bought drinks for my first hosts and at my second host I chipped in for pizza and empanadas. I’d say I spent £20 on ATM fees alone as for the first day as the only bank that would accept my card was charging me £5 a time with a maximum withdrawal of £5! This mixed with crazy inflation made Argentina unpredictable and difficult to manage. I rented a bike and cycled around Mendoza with some people I’d met (rather than book a guided tour) to save money and it was so worth it.
42 days – £20 per day / £840
Bus Santiago to Taltal £23.90
Bus Santigo to Valparaiso (return) £8.62
Bus Taltal to San Pedro de Atacama £17.55
Salar de Uyuni 3D/2N tour > £125 +£34 (in Bolivianos) = £159
Valle de la Lunar Tour > £10
Everything in San Pedro de Atacama.
4 out of the 6 weeks I spent in Chile, I was doing a Workaway in Taltal and had my accommodation and 2 meals a day paid for. In Santiago I did couchsurfing for two nights, but went out to dinner with my host. Chile was about as expensive as Argentina, but since inflation isn’t so sporadic I found the costs more manageable. I went to museums during their free hours and on free walking tours to both Valpo and Santiago. It should be noted that by this point in the trip I had grown tired of pasta and rice, and caved at the sight of vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I also used Uber a lot. The Salar de Uyuni tour is over double the price coming from San Pedro than it would have been had I started in Uyuni. For what we got I don’t think it was expensive and the companies on the Chilean side are much more highly recommended: we had decent and plentiful food, wine with our dinner, 1 hot shower, and an incredibly safe driver, so I think it was worth it…
18 days – £25 per day / £450
24 hour intensive Spanish Course £120
Bus Sucre to Copacabana (via La Paz) £15
Bus Copacabana to Cusco £30
I did not cook myself a single meal in Bolivia as vegetarian menus del dia cost just £3 for 3 courses and a drink. On my bus from Sucre to La Paz I got a full cama, but there were definitely even cheaper options. I can’t for the life of me remember how much tampon cost but I know it was enough to make me stop buying them. Copacabana was a little pricey by Bolivia’s standards as it is a major tourist trap, but nothing on Rio or Cusco.
9 days – £55 per day / £495
Bus Cusco to Lima £40
Private room w/ en suite for Christmas £57
Airport Transfer £17.23
Pariwana Hostel £10 pn / £70
Aeropuerto Hostel £8.50 pn
Although I ate free breakfast, I ate out for the rest of my meals in nice eco organic vegan restaurants that didn’t use plastic so they definitely were not the cheapest option. I went clubbing one night. Honestly, I have no clue in hell where my money went over those 9 days, but what I do know is that as my trip came to a close I gave up on budgeting and focused on enjoyment instead – C’est la vie!
6 hour Stop over – £18
This included airport transfer to the city centre, a 4-course vegetarian meal for lunch, dinner at the airport, and sleeping pills.
Making that a grand total of…
For exactly 3 months and 4 days*
Average Daily Spend: £28
Average Hostel Price: £9.50 pn
*Except insurance – that was valid for 9 months. 3 months of the same Explorer coverage from world nomads would cost £197.98.
Could I have done it cheaper?
Short answer: yes. I could have stayed in even cheaper hostels. I could have continued to live off two meals a day. I could have spent 20 hours on busses without reclining seats. I could have not studied Spanish. I could have skipped Chile and Argentina and stayed longer in the cheaper countries instead. I also could have only bought 3 months worth of insurance instead of 9, and I could have spent more time doing workaways and couchsurfing.
Something I realised after my first month (as expressed in this blog post) was that there was a fine line between quantity over quality. Travelling on a strict budget meant in the end I was able to do and see more, but that did not necessarily mean I could have had a better time.
I stayed in the cheapest hostels and got on the cheapest buses I could without sacrificing comfort. Everyone has their own idea of comfort, so what is comfortable for me won’t be the same to everyone. For example: in a hostel I am happy to stay in a dorm of 18 people so long as it is clean, as I know that noisy and rude roommates are usually unavoidable and luck has more to do with it than the price tag attached to the dorm. Other people can’t stand the idea of a dorm altogether, and others are happy to camp. I enjoyed a night on the town here and there but I certainly did not party has hard as some other gringos, and I did not go horse riding, skydiving, or on any of the other alternative tourist excursions. Being a vegetarian meant the whole ‘eat where the locals eat’ way to make savings was more often than not off-limits to me.
It is also worth noting that when I left for Rio de Janeiro, my plan was to backpack for three months then go to work in Colombia for 6. Had I left with the £2,677 without planning to go to Colombia, I could have easily stretched that to 5 months as I would have travelled more slowly and spent more time doing Workaways. That said, I don’t think this would mean I could have afforded to go to more destinations and do more: staying in one place for a longer period of time lowers food and accommodation costs, but not on transportation, excursions, or entrance fees. Regardless of the fact I spent 4 weeks with free accommodation and a substantial amount of free food in Taltal, the bus there, then to San Pedro, the excursions etc still would have come out the same. In fact, one could argue that had I not gone to Taltal I would have saved approximately £300 which, for example, could have gone towards Rainbow Mountain or the Colca Canyon.
But THEEEEN that money would have run out sooner, so it’s all variable and depends on what you want to get out of your trip. 6 months of couchsurfing, camping, hitchhiking, and doing workaways will come out as about the same as 2 months in hostels and using public transport. It will also completely depend on what parts of the continent you spend most time in: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile being the most expensive of the Gringo Trail (especially the southernmost parts of these countries), and Paraguay and Bolivia being the cheapest. For example, a month’s budget in Bolivia could be blown in a week in Patagonia.
- Take notes. I had a mini notebook on me at all times and for the first few weeks of my trip I wrote down my daily spend. This was especially useful in helping me wrap my head around all the different currencies and conversion rates. As the trip went on my mental maths improved and I didn’t need to write everything down, but it definitely helped get me accustomed to it at the beginning.
- Check different search engines. The same hostel might won’t necessarily be listed as the same price on Hostel World and Booking.com, and the same goes for plane tickets. When searching frantically for a flight home I could afford, an extremely cheap flight with Aeromexico disappeared off Skyscanner just as I was about to book. I managed to find it again on Momundo, and bagged a flight home from Lima to London for just £375! BARGAIN.
- Don’t use a Debit card. The rates are AWFUL and will cost you hundreds, and that is mo exaggeration. My bank (Natwest) cheekily wait until you land back in the UK to take off AAAAALL the charges off in one lump some, rather than deduct them as and when you use your card. I learnt this harsh lesson back in 2013 when I came back from Peru: when I got home I thought I had £200 to get me by until I started work uuuuuuuntil Natwest decided to take over £150 of charges off in one go. Every bank is different, but as a general rule of thumb it is better to use either a pre-paid Travelcard or a credit card. I went for the Fair FX Global travel card and found its app a very useful tool for tracking my spending and ATM charges.
- Couchsurfing and Workaway are great for saving money, BUT they are not very reliable so do not budget assuming you can do them the whole way through. Hosts cancel last-minute, sometimes they’re impossible to find in time, and workaways usually have a one-month minimum.
- Go local. The best way to keep costs down is to eat where the locals eat, travel how the locals travel, and stay where the locals stay. If the minimum wage in Peru is less than £200 a month, then there is definitely a way to do it cheaper. Whether you want to do that is a different story and depends on you and what you are comfortable with.
Any final pointers to add?
Always. The most valuable piece of advice I could give you is when planning your trip do so according to your budget, be flexible, and always budget for more than you need. My trip vastly improved once I accepted I was never going to be able to reach Colombia without sacrificing major destinations on my bucket list. When the value of the pound plummeted over summer and I lost the equivalent of $400 in my savings, I should have surrendered and never signed up to Colombia in the first place. BUT we all make mistakes and once I finally gave into being more flexible my experience vastly improved as a result.
Finally, FOMO is an illness as real as homesickness and I hate to break it to you but unless you have a bank of pure gold, there is no cure for it. Every person you speak to will say you just have to go here and you absolutely MUST go there. As a general rule of thumb I found most of the backpackers I met in SA who were doing the whole shabang were in the late twenties or early thirties, had all been saving for their trip by working well-paid jobs, and each had a “once in a lifetime” mentality. I, on the other hand, flew to Brazil having been saving for only 6 months and always knew I would be back before I’m 30. Our budgets and mindsets were totally different, so I kept reminding myself this to remedy the guilt, and added every recommendation to the ever-expanding list of “Reasons to Come Back”.
I will detail how I saved for this particular trip in another post, but as always if you have any questions about my trip do leave a comment below. In the meantime, check out the posts that helped me:
Along Dusty Roads –
16 Ways to Survive on a Backpacker’s Budget
Money Matters Guides
Bunch of Backpackers –
Money Matters: How much money do you need for 2 months backpacking in South America?
Coffee With a Slice of Life –
How much money do you need to travel 6 months in South America?
Travel Independent –
Guide to South America
Uneven Sidewalks –
Managing Money While Travelling