16th June 2018

How To Budget For 3 Months in South America [Updated for 2024]

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

Girl Quilatoa Crater Ecuador

How much did I intend to spend on 3 months in South America?

Well… when I started planning my three month adventure to South America, I had good intentions of sticking to a super strict budget. At the time, I wanted to spend around £1,000 per month, which, in theory should have been easily doable in 2018. However, I might have got a little bit carried away once the trip began…

I was in a very fortunate position to be given a three month sabbatical from work. As my sabbatical directly followed my super busy period at work, I had worked plenty of extra hours before the trip and was allowed to take these hours as paid “time off in lieu” meaning I was still receiving a wage throughout some of my trip – result!

The sabbatical was a celebration for becoming a Chartered Tax Advisor a year prior, and I know that I won’t be given this opportunity again, so I really wanted to make the most of it (hence why I ended up spending a bit more)!

RELATED: Want to see my entire itinerary? Lucky you, you can find a HUGE breakdown of my trip here!

Girl Canyoning Banos Ecuador

What’s My Travel Style? 

Accommodation:

I stayed mainly in hostels with only a few “upgrades” throughout the trip. Hostels worked well for me, a 24 year-old solo traveler wanting to meet new friends along the way. However, this was my first ever 3 month trip and always staying in hostels can get a little bit tiresome! I suggest that you read my guide on how to pick the best hostels/hotels for you in South America here.

On one occasion, I stayed in an airport hotel (which is always pricey) as I had a late night flight into Santiago one evening, and then an early morning flight out the next day. If I were super budget-conscious, I could have found a safe space in the airport to sleep. Alternatively, I could have used public transport to stay in a hostel in the city center (which would have taken up a fair amount of my already limited time).

My real luxury treat accommodation-wise was a 3 night stay in an eco-lodge in the Amazon Jungle. I had been camping on many multi-day hikes prior to my trip into the Amazon and fancied a little bit of luxury! I don’t regret the experience at all.

Food: 

If I were a true budget-backpacker, I would have cooked more meals for myself. Most hostels have great cooking facilities which can really help reduce a budget conscious traveler’s spending.

In reality, I only truly cooked for myself on Easter Island, where food prices are known to be extortionate. I would have also cooked while in the Galapagos Islands if I had access to a kitchen while there.

Otherwise, I was simply too lazy and I enjoyed sampling the local cuisines too much! My itinerary meant that I was on the move almost constantly – factoring in time to shop for food and cook would have limited my time for real experiences.

Breakfast was the one meal that I tried not to pay for as it’s often included in the price of your hostel. Almost all hostels in South America only provide bread and jam for breakfast, which does get tedious quite quickly!

Activities: 

South America is FILLED with incredible bucket-list experiences and I simply couldn’t say no to any of them – oops! In my eyes, activities and experiences are always worth every single penny. If I’ve already spent money flying halfway across the world, I want to make sure I experience everything that the destination has to offer.

Many backpackers that I met on my trip were a lot pickier and only spent their hard-earned money on a few top activities.

In addition to wanting to do everything, I faced a lot of fears during my trip (e.g. “Death Road”) which also often led me to pick the more expensive tour operators which had better safety ratings etc.

Destinations:

Like with experiences, I can’t say no to visiting more destinations. Budget conscious travelers should avoid trying to avoid far-flung destinations like Easter Island or expensive bucket list destinations like the Galapagos Islands. While I have no self-control and visited both of these destinations, you could have an incredible trip while sticking to the cheaper mainland.

Transport:

Buses are the best mode of transport in South America and generally they are fairly cheap. However, to best use my limited time across the 3 months, I sometimes picked pricier options which made life easier. For example:

Girl Galapagos Islands Las Grietas

Updating my costs for 2024

My big trip to South America was in 2018. Of course, prices and exchange rates fluctuate over time, so this post has been updated to estimate the the current value of the items that I purchased along the way.

Based on data published in March 2024, each of the relevant countries inflation rates suggest that it would actually be cheaper now to visit than it would have been in 2018! I’ve therefore not updated the figures in this article, so you can see the “worst case scenario” – realistically, it might be slightly cheaper now!

How much did I spend in 3 months in South America

Across the 3 month trip, I spent a total of £6,621.65 (just over £2,000 per month). That figure makes me want to cry a little bit, especially given that I am normally such a thrifty traveler on shorter trips, but I can assure you that it was worth every penny.

If you are looking to complete this trip on more of a budget, you should read my buddy Ellie’s breakdown of her costs on a very similar trip here! She spent £3,787 in three months during 2015.

Breakdown of my spending

Just telling you how much I spent isn’t very helpful, is it? So, here’s a complete breakdown of what I spent my money on and how you can do it cheaper!

Argentina (£347.29 over 4 days = £86.82 per day)

My very short experience in Argentina potentially isn’t representative of the country as a whole. I simply hopped over to Mendoza for 4 days as I had some time to kill while waiting for my flight to Easter Island from Santiago.

Firstly, I had to book a return bus from Santiago (an 8 hour journey) for £68.40. If you were travelling through Argentina, it is unlikely you’d need to go back on yourself during any journeys.

Secondly, I lost some money as I booked a hostel before I arrived and cancelled it at the last minute – I met a lovely couple on a bus who recommended their hostel rather than the one I had originally booked! When making your accommodation bookings, be aware that HostelWorld often has more affordable accommodation option, but Booking.com often has better cancellation options.

Lastly, I used these 4 days to complete some really great day trips and tours. I barely saw the city of Mendoza and instead enjoyed the surrounding areas, the nature of which organised day tours) were inherently more expensive than just wandering around the city. You could easily have a much cheaper lovely day in the city!

Read about my time in Argentina here:

Bolivia (£366.81 over 7 days = £52.40 per day)

Bolivia is a VERY cheap country! I did pick the most expensive sightseeing and transport options available (explained below), So you could absolutely have an incredible time in Bolivia without breaking the bank.

I completed an amazing three day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats (highly recommend!) and opted for a well reviewed company who were more expensive than their competitors (Cordillera Traveller). We had heard horror stories from other companies who had drunk drivers/guides and gave their guests food poisoning during our stay – so I’m glad I spent a little bit more! I paid $185 (USD) for this tour.

Secondly, I was TERRIFIED of “Death Road” and therefore picked one of the best rated tour operators with stellar safety ratings (Gravity Assisted Mounting Biking), there are much cheaper options but once again, I am happy with my decision!

As I was in a rush to get to Peru for my Inca Trail booking, I had to fly from Uyuni to La Paz rather than take the bus. The flight cost £64 and took 45 minutes, compared to the very cheap 10 hour night bus! Most other travellers took the bus with no issues.

Finally, due to some warnings about travelling in Bolivia as a solo female, I booked the Bolivia Hop bus to navigate from La Paz to Lake Titicaca and cross the border into Peru. I booked this trip for £45. Using local buses would be much cheaper and on reflection, I felt very safe in Bolivia, so the added expense wasn’t entirely necessary (although hostel pick ups and drop offs are a dream)!

Read about my time in Bolivia:

Chile (£727.36 over 11 days = £66.12 per day)

For Chile, I recommend not getting ill (ha – easier said than done). I learnt the hard way that medicines are super expensive in Chile and it’s hard to get the right medication without a prescription.

As already mentioned, when travelling between Santiago and San Pedro De Atacama, I took the more expensive option (a quick comfortable flight, rather than a 20+ hour bus ride).

Restaurant food in Chile is more expensive than other countries (and in my opinion, not as exciting). So I did cook with hostel friends a few times rather than eating out. Groceries were affordable and very easy to find, especially in Santiago.

Hostels were more expensive than in other countries but the quality was also better (for the most part). I started my trip in Santiago and Hostal Forestal was probably one of my favourite hostels of the whole trip! And that’s not just because the hostel serves more than just bread and jam for breakfast.

Read about my time in Chile:

Easter Island (£926.62 over 6 days = £154.44 per day)

Not many backpackers find themselves on Easter Island (in fact, I only met one native English speaking couple during my time there, and they were significantly older than me). If you’re looking to visit South America on a budget, you should wave goodbye to Easter Island!

The flights are SUPER expensive. I was lucky and managed to get some for £560 return. Yep, you heard me correctly, I consider that to be “lucky”! All of the return flights around the time of my trip were around £1,000. You only need 4 – 5 days to see the island, so the cost per day for the flights is extortionate!

Without a doubt, the cheapest way to stay on the island is to camp. I stayed at Camping y Hostal Tipanie Moana which has camping spots, dorm rooms and private rooms. As I wasn’t carrying a tent on my trip and the dorm rooms were sold out, I booked a private room (the cheapest on the island). Make sure you book your accommodation quickly if you want a dorm room!

Food is very expensive on the island and most people purchase food from the mainland and bring it to the Island; I’ve never seen so many cool-boxes filled with food circling the baggage reclaim belt! I generally would eat lunch at a restaurant (“Club Sandwich” became one of my favourite places due to their super cheap empanadas!) and then cook myself dinner to save some money.

Most of the “sightseeing” costs are paid upfront when you are forced to buy a $60 ticket to enter the Island. This ticket needs to be on your person at all times and will allow you to enter all of the Moai archeological sites.

The best way to save money on Easter Island when it comes to transport is to find some friends! Car rental isn’t particularly expensive on the island, but splitting the costs will always help your budget. When booking car rental through our hostel, we paid approximately £35 per day (just over £10 per day when split between the me and the couple I began travelling with)!

Read about my time on Easter Island:

Ecuador (£493.20 over 17 days = £29.01 per day)

Bus travel in Ecuador is extremely cheap. Most journeys average $1 per hour which should make any backpacker super happy! I had heard that the buses were a much lower standard than other countries but I was pleasantly surprised – one of our buses even had WiFi!

Hostels and food in Ecuador were both reasonably priced and decent quality.

Guided tours are increasingly more expensive in Ecuador than in the surrounding countries. I treated myself to a private tour of a chocolate farm on my last day and the tour guide explained to me that items deemed to be owned by “wealthy” people were being taxed highly and this includes cars, meaning tour guides were having to charge higher prices – buses however are tax free!

Read about my time in Ecuador:

Galapagos Islands (£879.09 over 9 days = £97.68 per day)

Another set of islands = another expensive destination. The Galapagos is more frequented by backpackers than Easter Island, but is still on the pricey side. The good news is that flights are fairly reasonable – I paid £147 for return flights from the mainland which were booked 3 months in advance.

The bad news is that everything on the island comes at a cost. You’ll need to pay $20 to have extra scanning on your bags at the airport, $100 to enter the islands, $30 for “ferries” between islands, countless coins on all of the “water taxis” you’ll need to take to access the ferries/day trip boats…. the list goes on and on!

If you are “DIY-ing” a trip to the Galapagos (i.e. not taking an organised tour or cruise), there are three inhabited islands that you can stay on. Each one has a few really great free activities that you can partake in but you’ll need to pay big-bucks to partake in guided tours (which you absolutely should do as they are incredible). I took three organised day-trips, so of course, you could take less!

Food is very expensive on the islands, so if you can find a hostel/hotel with cooking facilities, do it! Supermarkets are easy to find on Santa Cruz (the main island), so stock up there before you head to the likes of Isabela where supermarkets are much harder to find.

Travelling in a couple or a group will reduce your hotel costs significantly. I was solo travelling and there are very few true hostels to stay in, so I ended up in private rooms on each island. I heard from other travelers that AirBnB is a great option for cheap accommodation – I don’t know why I didn’t look there at the time! The official entry requirements state that you will need to provide proof of your accommodations for the entire trip before entering the islands, so I booked in advance. However, nobody ever asked to see my proof of bookings or even asked me where I would be staying. There are lots of accommodations that don’t take online bookings, so you might be able to find cheaper prices if you are willing to phone the accommodation or turn up and hope they have availability.

Peru (£2,100.35 over 34 days = £61.77 per day)

I did some pretty epic things in Peru which have pushed the “price per day” up significantly. First up was the classic 4 day/3 night Inca Trail! I booked through Alpaca Expeditions for $690 (USD). Due to the permits and guidelines on the classic Inca Trail, this is the most expensive option to reach Machu Picchu. There are cheaper treks you can do, many travelers that I met hiked the Salkantay Trek and opted for the Inca Jungle Tour (a mixture of hiking, hiking, zip-lining etc.) and both were very highly reviewed!

After the Inca Trail, I treated myself to a $40 massage at the very well rated Paramatma Healing, there are tonnes of women standing in the main squares of Cusco offering dirt cheap massages but I hadn’t heard great things about them and I have a long-standing issue with one of my shoulders, so opted for better quality to not injure myself further.

My next “treat yo-self” moment came in the form of a trip to the Amazon jungle… as it fit into my schedule nicely, I opted to fly from Lima to Iquitos. There is a ferry that you can take to Iquitos which is cheaper, however you often have to sit and wait a number of days for the ferry to fill up before departure and I didn’t have much time to spare. I opted for a high-end lodge on the Amazon River and had an incredible time! There are budget accommodations in the Iquitos region of the Amazon but they are very basic – after lots of camping/basic accommodation during hikes, I decided to treat myself. The lodge cost $551 for 4 days.

Peru is generally the most expensive country to visit the Amazon jungle due to the fact that you will need to fly (or wait for a ferry). The two most popular destinations in Peru are Iquitos (a short flight from Lima) and Peurto Monaldo (a short flight from Cusco), however there are some great alternatives in both Ecuador and Boliva which are cheaper and don’t require flying, so are generally cheaper to access.

Buses in Peru are more expensive than the likes of Ecuador but the quality is superior. As I was travelling on my own, I opted for the Peru Hop pass from Cusco to Lima with lots of stops in between. This was great as they pick you up and drop you off at all your hostels. In hindsight, I didn’t need to spare this extra expense. After my PeruHop trip, I took some buses with Cruz Del Sur in Northern Peru which were incredible – I even had WiFi on each bus and a personal TV screen on the back of each seat!

Other (£780.93)

Of course, there are always the pre-arrival expenses that you can’t ignore like return flights and travel insurance! I booked my flights to/from South America 3 months in advance via STA(who sadly are no longer in business) and used Money Supermarket to shop for the best travel insurance for my needs!

RELATED: You will also need to factor in clothing/equipment that you need to take with you – read my complete packing guide to 3 months in South America here

Girl on Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz Galapagos

Other top tips for budgeting in South America

Cash vs Card in South America

Other than Santiago and Lima which are both very metropolitan and modern cities, you will be required to pay in cash in most places, so make sure you have a card which allows you to withdraw cash without any fees.

I used the Santander Zero Credit Card with absolutely no issues! The card has no foreign transaction fees on purchases when made in the local currency, no cash withdrawal fees anywhere in the world and no monthly fee.

Other travelers that I met were using the Revolut card which is great to protect you against theft as the card is pre-loaded with a certain amount. However, as some people found out, if you lose your phone (i.e. your method of topping up your card), this can become an issue!

Keeping Small Change

Particularly in Ecuador, I found that lots of places didn’t have change to give you. So try to keep your notes small, treasure your small change (no matter how annoying it is to carry around)! I often handed notes to waitresses that I deemed to be “normal” (i.e. equivalent to £15-20 or lower) and it caused such a problem that restaurant staff were running from shop to shop looking for change!

In Lima, bank workers could be found outside the bank ready to change your large notes into smaller amounts – while I didn’t use this service, a free walking tour guide reassured me that it was legit!

Keep a Few Spare USD 

Many larger purchases in South America (e.g expensive tours and hotel rooms) can be paid for using USD. While I wouldn’t always rely on this being the case, it’s good to know that you don’t need to get hundreds of notes from the bank in local currency to pay for the larger items – nobody wants to be carrying around a huge wad of cash!

I changed some GBP to USD before my trip as “emergency money”. I knew that I would be ending my trip in Ecuador (where USD is the national currency), so I knew that it would get used at the end of my trip even if I didn’t touch the emergency cash during the rest of my trip.

You need to make sure that your USD notes are in pristine condition, many vendors in South America will decline ripped/dirty/old USD notes.

Keep Your Cash Separated

I was a bit stupid and always kept all of my cash in my purse at all times, which goes against all of the advice you will ever read. I will regurgitate the advice everyone gave me before my trip, despite the fact that I didn’t choose to follow it myself…

Pick-pocketing and bag-snatching are rife in certain areas of the world (South America included) and therefore it would be advisable to keep small amounts of cash and any spare credit cards scattered across your belongings/body in case of an accident.

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13 responses to “How To Budget For 3 Months in South America [Updated for 2024]”

  1. Francesca Curcio-Rhodes says:

    Hi Danielle,

    What a great article! I’m just starting to plan a trip for next year and this is really helpful. Just wondered if you booked much of the transport in advance or was it quite easy whilst you were there?

    F x

    • Hi Francesca, it's so exciting that you are planning a trip! I booked all of the transport once I arrived other than my flights to Easter Island which should be booked as early as possible to avoid disappointment!

      Buses in some countries can be booked online (check out BusBud – a really handy app/website)! Although some require you to go to the bus station to book. Either way, it's super easy!

  2. Roberta says:

    Thanks for the brilliant post Danielle! I cought the travelling bug many moons ago but haven't been to South America yet. I'm definetly a flashpacker and your article just gave me great ideas and the final push to start planning! First time ever i bother to comment on anything so thanks for the inspiration all around!

    Can't wait to experience the Death Road!

    Roberta

    PS. As finance professional, much appresciated the precise reporting of the budget 😉

  3. Daniel says:

    Great blog! As an accountant commuting to London myself, I am going to be making a similar flashpacker trip of three months in South America and I am trying to work out my budget too – similar time of year too as straight after tax season in UK

    Can I ask, what type of room did you stay in? I didn’t see it in your SA blog either… were you staying in dorms or private rooms in the hostels (for the budget above) as the price point seems to make a huge difference?

    • That's exactly the reason I started travelling in February, I am a personal tax advisor, so it's the perfect time for a break! I normally stayed in dorm rooms but liked to mix things up every now and again with private rooms and even luxury retreats (Heliconia Lodge in the Amazon)! I never picked the cheapest dorm room available (mainly as these were normally party hostels and I like my sleep or too far from the city centre). So there's definitely scope to pick accommodation which is cheaper or more expensive than my choices.

      Private rooms can be pretty pricey if you are travelling on your own, but if there's more than one of you in a group, you can normally get some good bargains! In Latacunga, 4 of us (3 other British girls that I'd met along the way) shared a private room which had 5 double beds in for less than $10 each.

      Hope you have the BEST time! If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me!

  4. Melanie says:

    These article is really useful thanks. I’m starting to plan a trip for later next year and although don’t want to spend a fortune, I’m not keen to stay in party forms with young gap year students

  5. Anna says:

    Hi Danielle,
    First of all – great and very helpful posts, thanks! It will definitely help me plan my trip to South America 🙂
    In fact, I'm going to do a very VERY similar itinerary to yours – 3 months from June til September, also starting in Santiago, Chile and ending in Ecuador. Or at least that's the plan… as I am struggling a lot to find decent flight fares ! May I ask were did you find your tickets, which airlines you took and how much in advance you bought the tickets? Did you buy multi-destination ticket or bought single tickets to Santiago and from Guayaquil separately? I'd appreciate any tips as for those those prices are killing me 🙁

    • Hi Anna – that's so exciting! I used Skyscanner to check the prices and ended up booking through STA (I think a small discount is applied if you are below age 30 or 35?). The flights were booked with Iberia but the flight was operated by LATAM (they are sister companies I believe – so maybe check both websites to see if there is a price difference). I waited until Black Friday (November 2017) to book my flights (departing four months later in Feb 2018, returning in May 2018), I think the prices only reduced by £50 compared to the prices pre-Black Friday! I booked a multi-city return (London to Santiago and Guayaquil to London – both with a layover in Madrid). Hopefully that helps slightly – I hope you find some good flight deals!

  6. Hi Danielle,
    Great information. What your cost was for the Galapagos was a bargain. We went a more luxury route bing on a catamaran for 5 days.
    You got a lot of bang for your buck. Next time you come to SA add Colombia to your list. If you need any tidbits please check out our blog!

    Cheers,
    John and Susan
    Medellin, Colombia

  7. Natalie says:

    Hi Danielle, WOW what a great article. I've just read your itinerary post and then your budget post and both are great. Given me all sorts of info for the 3 month trip I am planning on taking next March. Quick question, you said you booked only main flights and your Easter Island flights, then booked as you went. Wondering how much travel you did in flights V buses? I wanted to try and book up a bit so that I don't have to spend time when travelling booking too much. But its also nice to have a bit of flex… Be interested to hear your thoughts!

    • Hi Natalie, thanks so much for your lovely comment!

      The only flights I pre-booked were my return flights from the UK, return flights to Easter Island and return flights to the Galapagos for the last week of my trip (these didn't increase in price and could have been booked while I was travelling if I wasn't sure on timinings before departing for my trip… However, I knew that I would end up in Ecuador and the Galapagos seemed like a great place to end my trip!)

      I mainly travelled by bus (you can easily turn up at most bus terminals and book on the day, but I liked to book a day or two in advance for certainty of timinings etc.).

      The only other flights I took were:
      1. From Santiago to Calma (for the Atamaca Desert) as the flight was extremely cheap and saved 24+ hours of time.
      2. Flights to Iquitos from Lima to reach the Amazon (if you visit the amazon in another country or area of Peru, you are unlikely to need to fly)
      3. A flight from Uyuni to La Paz as I was running short on time (I needed to get to Cusco for my Inca Trail booking – my only pre-booked activity as permits sell out 6+ months in advance).

      I found flights within a country to be reasonably priced, but if you tried to fly to another country within South America, the price rocketed.

      I would recommend booking as little as possible in advance as it gives you maximum flexibility. I did a lot of research before leaving the UK and knew the 'rough' route I wanted to take. I followed that route for the most part, but really enjoyed being able to add on an extra day in a place I really loved or leave early if there wasn't as much to see/do in a place as I first anticipated. There's also the added bonus of hearing about a great place from other travellers and deciding to visit there on a whim / meeting people you enjoy travelling with and making plans with them.

      Everyone's travel style is different, so do whatever you feel comfortable with! And most importantly… Have the BEST time!! 🙂

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