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 would have been easily doable. 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 our super busy period, 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 last year 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)!
So essentially…. I’m a bit of a “flashy” backpacker…
RELATED: Want to see my entire itinerary? Lucky you, you can find a HUGE breakdown of my trip here!
I stayed mainly in hostels with only a few “upgrades” throughout the trip. On one occasion, I stayed in an airport hotel (which is always pricey) as I didn’t fancy sleeping on Santiago airport floor on my own. My real luxury treat was a 3 night stay in an eco-lodge in the Amazon Jungle… Yes, I could have picked a cheaper accommodation, but I had been camping on many hikes prior to this and fancied a little bit of luxury! Read my guide on how to pick the best hostels/hotels for you in South America here.
If I were a true budget-backpacker, I would have cooked more meals for myself. In reality, I only truly cooked for myself on Easter Island where food prices are known to be extortionate (part of me wishes that I also had access to a kitchen on the Galapagos Islands)! Otherwise, I loved sampling the local cuisines in restaurants across South America. Breakfast was the one meal that I tried not to pay for as it’s often included in the price of your hostel (warning: you will get bored of bread and jam hostel breakfasts)!
South America is FILLED with incredible bucket-list experiences and I simply couldn’t say no to any of them – oops! 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. Many backpackers that I met on my trip were a lot more picky and only spent their hard-earned money on a few top activities.
Buses are the best mode of transport in South America and generally they are fairly cheap. However, to truly utilise my 3 months, I sometimes picked pricier options which made life easier (e.g. a 1 hour flight in Chile as opposed to a 24 hour bus journey and the Peru Hop buses which pick you up and drop you off at your hostels).
For the total 3 month trip, I spent £6,621.65 (just over £2,000 per month). That figure makes me want to cry a little bit given that I am normally such a thrifty traveller 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.
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!
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 – oops! Lastly, I used these 4 days to complete some really great day trips. I barely saw the city of Mendoza and instead enjoyed the surrounding areas which is obviously more pricey. You could easily have a much cheaper lovely day in the city!
Read about my time in Argentina here:
Bolivia is a VERY cheap country… I really did pick the most expensive sightseeing and transport options available.
I completed the 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 and gave their guests food poisoning during our stay – so I’m glad I spent a little bit more! I paid $185 for this tour.
Secondly, I was TERRIFIED of “Death Road” and therefore picked one of the best rated tour operators again (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 which is great compared to the 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:
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 much without a prescription.
Once again, I took the more expensive but quicker and easier flight between Santiago and San Pedro De Atacama (Calma is the nearest airport) as opposed to the 20+ hour bus ride which would definitely save you money.
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! Although a huge swaying factor for me is when a hostel serves more than just bread and jam for breakfast – ha!
Read about my time in Chile:
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, “lucky”! All of the return flights around my dates 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 (which was definitely the cheapest one 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. 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:
Bus travel in Ecuador is CHEAP. Most journeys average $1 per hour which makes 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 were reasonable and decent quality. The one way that you can make your time in Ecuador very expensive is to do lots of guided tours. I treated myself to a private tour of a chocolate farm on my last day and the tour guide was explaining to me that items deemed to be owned by wealthy people were being taxed highly and this includes cars – buses however are tax free!
Read about my time in Ecuador:
Dun dun dun, 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 and 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 your 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 potentially big bucks to go on some incredible day trips. I took three organised day-trips, so of course, you could take less!
Food is very expensive on the islands and 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 travellers that AirBnB is a great option for cheap accommodation – I don’t know why I didn’t look there! 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. Nobody ever asked to see my proof of bookings or even asked me where I would be staying, so I could have turned up on the island and bartered for prices in hindsight. There are lots of accommodations that don’t take online bookings, so you might get lucky in those!
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. 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 travellers 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!
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 – WiFi on the bus and a personal TV screen on the back of each seat!
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 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!
Other than Santiago and Lima which are both very metropolitan and modern cities, you will NEED 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 travellers 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!
Particularly in Ecuador, I found that lots of places didn’t have change to give you. So try and need 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!
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.
Just make sure that the USD notes are in pristine condition, many vendors in South America will decline ripped/dirty/old USD notes.
I was a bit rubbish and always kept all of my cash in my purse at all times which goes against all of the advice you will ever read. For the avoidance of any doubt, 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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