Let's face it. Getting to South America isn't cheap. So, if you're booking a once-in-a-lifetime trip from the States, you want to make the vacation—once you get there—affordable. But there are big variations on travel costs, depending on the country and the city you're visiting. For example, hostels in Brazil can be twice the price as hostels in Bolivia. And Colombia is nearly twice as expensive as neighboring Ecuador. Pick wisely and choose outskirts accommodations, when necessary. You'll find cities where you can survive on a shoestring, and others where an all-inclusive luxury stay is your only option.
Quito, the high-altitude capital of Ecuador, stands nearly three thousand meters above sea level. And there are so many things to see and do there. Visit the sixteenth-century church dedicated to Saint Francis, or take the cable car up the Pichincha volcano. (You can hike it for free, too!) Quito makes a great base for those wanting to explore other areas of the country with destinations being only a few hours away and easily accessible by bus.
The city has many hostel options and some of the cheapest dorm beds in South America (at around 6 dollars a night). And street food—like humitas and patacones—make it easy to eat on a budget. Public transportation is also reasonable and the bus from the city's center to the old city is dirt cheap (costing around 25 cents).
La Paz, Bolivia is considered one of the cheapest places to travel in South America. And it's the highest altitude of any capital city in the world, too, making it a must-see destination. La Paz's colonial architecture—especially that on well-preserved Calle Jaén—gives you a truly historical view. You can take a short trip to the pre-Columbian archaeological site, Tiwanaku, or stroll among the bizarre items for sale at the Witches' Market.
Rates for hostel beds compare to those of Quito, making a stay here one you can do on the cheap.
The historic city of Cartagena is famous for its stunning old town, with its fortified walls and medieval churches. In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a favorite of travelers looking to immerse themselves in culture.
And while it's considered a luxury destination (with many top-notch hotels), this city can also be budget-friendly should you choose to go the hostel route. Shop around for beds, however, as prices and quality vary significantly. For eats, look for corrientes—set restaurant menus that offer a meal of meat, rice, patacones, and a side salad.
This stunning coastal city boasts a wealth of museums that unveil the colonial and the pre-Columbian history of the country. But Lima is also a destination with fantastic modern diversity and a bohemian feel, especially in the Barranco district.
Dorm rooms in the tourist district of Miraflores are extremely affordable, at under 10 dollars a night. But food and drink here are not as cheap as in other cities in South America. Still, the national dish, ceviche, is found in almost every restaurant and is among the quality food this city has to offer.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires—the economic heart of Argentina—is a vibrant city with great architecture and reasonable accommodations and food costs.
The colorful La Boca district is famous for its painted buildings and the city is full of those well-versed in the Tango. Avoid staying in La Boca, however, as the area isn't the safest, come nightfall. Instead, opt for dorm beds that cost around 10 dollars in outlying areas. And, if you're on a budget, you can eat inexpensive takeaway food—like hot dogs or burgers—for usually around 1 dollar.
Best known as an outpost for those traveling on to Machu Picchu, Cusco, which stands below the historic ruins of Sacsayhuaman, is a great destination on its own. There are several ancient buildings worth visiting. And—in true Latino flavor—those wanting to test out their moves can enroll in a salsa class at one of the city's salsa schools.
Lodging prices in Cusco are more expensive than other South American cities, but private rooms in a hospedaje (a Peruvian bed and breakfast) work well for those who speak some Spanish. Plus, it's where the locals stay on a budget. Head to the market to eat lunchtime specials for under five dollars.
There are many reasons to visit Chile and Santiago is just one of them. Explore the city inexpensively by foot and make sure to check out the neighborhoods of La Chascona and Providencia—districts with plenty of live music venues. And while the modern capital city is prone to earthquakes, don't let that scare you, as many of the newer buildings contain distinct structures to withstand the vibrations.
Hostel beds are cheap and budget options for food include the street-side completo—a large hot dog with all of the traditional trimmings.
This party capital of the continent is particularly expensive during Carnivale festivities. And even outside of this yearly event, prices in Rio are rarely among the cheapest. But, basic hotels are still a fraction of what they cost in the States. And, eating at local joints (as opposed to the fancy tourist traps) can save you big.
The easy access to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and a wealth of attractions—including the free hike up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer—make this a bucket-list destination
Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, sits at the head of one of the most stable economies on the continent. So, it's not surprising that it is also one of the more expensive places to visit. There are plenty of museums to explore and architecture to check out. Don't pass up an entry to the football museum, located at Estadio Centenario, the stadium that hosted two World Cup soccer finals.
Despite the availability of lavish hotels in this city, hostel beds are still fairly priced (at just over 10 dollars), and the chivito—an inexpensive sandwich—is a budget pick for those wanting to eat like a local.
Home to some of the best hotels in the country, this economic powerhouse is definitely one of the most expensive on the list. However, there are plenty of free activities—including those associated with Carnivale and the Gay Pride Parade—keeping even the leanest backpacker on a strict budget.
Even in the off-season, normal hostel beds start at a higher rate than others in the country (averaging around 24 dollars). And hostels in good locations will be even steeper.