I last travelled in South America in 2006 so my entry is only a general guide to prices as they were then. Things may have changed greatly since I was there. For everyone who wants the most up to date information I can only suggest the Footprint guide the 'The South American Handbook' which has the most up to date prices on everything. Or check out the discussions on Lonely Planets Thorn Tree.
I've had a number of mails recently asking me how much does it cost to travel in South America, and although it's nice to hear from people I thought it may be easier to write one post everyone can read.
For this survey there are three expense zones in Latin America, the Southern Zone countries of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are the most expensive although still affordable compared to Europe. These countries have a large middle class who travel on holiday within the region so costs can be pushed up significantly during holiday periods, particularly the Southern Hemisphere Summer months from Christmas through to March.
The Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador make up the second group, they are much cheaper to travel in and as most of them attract budget travelers, prices are competitive and there is a budget infrastructure in place.
The third group includes Venezuela, which I have not been to so will not discuss it further and the Guineas countries in the North East, which I again have not been to but which are reputedly very expensive, with French Guaniean having similar prices to France itself.
As an overview, my partner Louise and I have been traveling through South America since the beginning of the year, spending three weeks in Colombia, two months in Ecuador (including the Galapagos), two months in Peru, a month in Bolivia, and one month in Brazil. In the last few weeks we have been in the Paraguay, River Plate region. We do all our accounts in US dollars and have kept records of all our expenditure, traveling long term as we do it is like running a small business, you have to know where the cash is going. The prices listed below are for a double room with bath and dinner costs are for two people with a starter and soft drink, so are just a guide. If you are travelling alone or staying in hostels and making your own meals, then you can adjust things downwards. We also traveled in towns and cites by taxi for the safety and convenience. Most rides only cost between $1 and $3 in nearly all countries. Our budget is $70 a day for all our needs (including transport, food, phone calls, internet etc) for both of us, and for most of our time in the region we have managed to keep within that figure.
The Countries in descending order of expense.
A very cheap country, we spent an average of $56 a day, a figure pushed up by the number of tours we did. A hotel will cost you $12 - $16 a night, although we did pay $30 in one tourist town. Dinner will average $10 for two. Transport is very cheap, so cheap we often bought a third seat to put our bags on. A 6 hour bus journey will cost around $3.50 per person, a 24 hour journey $15. Alot of the big sights are only accessible on tours which are very cheap and usually good value but shop around. Click on these links for info and pricing on Salar de Uyuni, Rurrenabaque Pampas tours, and Posati mine tours.
At an average of $48 a day this was a cheap place to visit. This is mainly because most of the accommodation aimed at tourists are hostels and we spent some time trekking which is very cheap. A hostel room for two varies from $8 - $13 and hotels from $7 - $26. A meal for two is around $12 - $16, and food is of a very high quality. Transport is also reasonable with a 6 hour journey costing about $13 for one person. What is nice is that Colombia is a very developed and sophisticated country, so you can have a good time here very cheaply. As things are settling down more Colombians are travelling around and more people visiting, so get there before the hoards. For more practical details click here.
We averaged $60 a day in Ecuador which was probably higher than it needed to be as we spent alot of time in Quito, which is a little more expensive. Accommodation ranged from $14 - $21 a night and dinner was from $10 - $16. Transport is very cheap, a 4 hour journey costs about $3.5 and an 8 hour trip, $6.
These average living costs include the three weeks we spent in the Galapagos, but don't include transport, fees or tours there. Click here, for info on how to see the Galapagos without blowing the budget.
The travelers favorite and with good reason, there is a lot to see and do here and at an average of $63 a day it's an affordable place. Accommodation ranged from $15 - $20 a day, although we paid $23 for a room in Cusco as it was particularly nice. Meals cost from $12 - $19 although you pay more for poorer quality in tourist places. We were there in May, outside the high season, which is in July, August and September when prices jump.
Our average includes our entrances and transport to Machu Picchu but do not include any tours. We did not do the Inca Trail and if you want to go on an organized trek in the region you will have to factor that cost in. We trekked extensively in the Sacred Valley (click here for an example) and in Colca Canyon organizing everything ourselves, which was very cheap and enjoyable.
We have only spent a week in this country but it's been a pleasant surprise cost wise. We were last here just before the crash in 2001 when the peso was one to one with the dollar, now there are three pesos to a dollar. A good double with bath in Buenos Aires (with heating, very essential at this time of year) costs $24. With meals ranging from $10 - $20. Arriving in Buenos Aires is like arriving in Paris at a fraction of the cost, you can afford to loll around in cafes half the afternoon. Transport is fairly expensive at $35 for an 8 hour journey but you are served an airline type meal, including wine and champagne (I though I was dreaming!).
Paraguay, where we spent a few days costs about the same as Argentina, the same goes for Uruguay, where we are now.
Now the screaming really starts, as this was the budget buster with an average spend of $86 a day. Accommodation ranged between $24 to $40 for a room with bath. Meals were from $12 - $40. Taxis were only for when we were carrying bags as the average was $8 a ride. In the cities we went by bus. Long distance buses, although good are expensive with you paying $40 - $50 for an 8 hour ride per person, and all the distances are long. Also beware of areas that are popular with Brazilian tourists as these can push costs up. We paid $50 for a basic room in Ouro Preto (our trip record) as it was weekend, and we were lucky to get that.
One way to cut costs is to eat at diners that where pay by weight, the prices are usually quoted per 100g. These are often only open for lunch so it will be worth making this your main meal. Basically you only pay for what you want and the quality is usually very high. It's worth noting that hostels are not a good deal in Brazil particularly if there are two of you. Usually you can get a better deal by looking around the hotels. For example in Iguazu Falls we stayed in a very nice three star hotel, with a gym and pool and a big breakfast for the same cost as the IH hostel was asking for a double room, which was just that, a room with a double bed in it.
Although you will pay to see some sights, like the Sugar Loaf in Rio, Brazil also has some quality sights like the public buildings in Brasilia and the Itaipu dam which have free guided tours.
I didn’t spend long in Chile so this is not a very comprehensive survey. Accommodation is pricy, $30 a night for a double in a hostel. Food is variable, eating out is for Chileans a special occasion, so it’s expensive. There are lots of Chinese restaurants where you can get a meal for two for under $20. Chile is junk food heaven and if you can subsist on Hamburgers and fries, then you will have a choice of promotions to choose from and eating for about $3. Fruit (not surprisingly) is cheap as is internet access. Transport will be the real killer as there is so much distance to cover. A one and a half hour trip to the coast was $6 each way, so heading down to Patagonia is going to cost.
Travelers who will be in South America for a any length of time might want to consider joining the South American Explorers Club (http://www.samexplo.org/) which has clubhouses in Quito, Lima, Cusco and Buenos Aires. They also have discounts for members with lots of businesses in the region and can provide a lot of useful information as well as running talks and activities. A great place to meet people and very worthwhile.
If you are going to South America and traveling around the only guidebook worth taking is the 'South American Handbook' published by Footprint. This is the only guide that has the detail and depth you need and it is also the most up to date regarding costs and the quality of listings. Accept no substitutes; this is the only book you need.
I hope this is a useful guide, all comments welcome.