When our first son Darian was just 6-month-old we landed in Bogotá, the start of an 8-month slow overland journey through 7 countries all the way until Rio de Janeiro. On average we managed to keep a daily budget between 15 and 20$ in total for the three of us. This article will focus on giving you tips to keep a low budget to travel around South America. We will focalize on three major spending points: Food, accommodation, and transport.
Although South America is not reputed for its delicacies, a cheap and very authentic way to eat and discover the culture is to eat at the local market. A menu would set you back around 1 to 4$ in most places in South America. Depending on the size of the city you’re visiting, there could many different markets. If you want to go to the main one, you should ask around for the Mercado central.
There you can find many food stalls selling various kinds of meals. Eating at the local market is what locals do. Hygiene standards are certainly not on par with Western standards, but even traveling with a baby, he and we never got sick. It can get quite repetitive though as we found that most of the stalls offer a similar choice of food, even from one country to another.
The central market (Mercado central) is a great place to eat. Cheap and authentic.
The markets are also great places to buy your daily dose of fruits, clearly one of the highlights when it comes to eating in South America. A wide range of unusual and tasty fruits is waiting for you, don’t be afraid to try!
In major cities and touristic hot spots, you will probably be able to find a wide range of accommodation through Booking.com and AirBnb. However cheaper accommodations won’t be available online, you’d need to find them once you are in the city. The sure bet to find the cheapest guesthouses is usually to take a walk in the vicinity of the bus terminal and ask hotels for the going rate. I would recommend to already have a place to go to when you arrive in a major city, but the terminal technique works well in smaller and medium cities. It’s very much possible to get a discount or information about where to find low-end accommodation by directly asking the hotel’s reception.
The cheapest hotels are often located right around the bus terminal.
Like many other places in the world, it’s also quite possible to use Couchsurfing. It’s a popular website in South America, and especially in Argentina where we got overwhelmed by the number of invitations in some less touristic cities! Back in France, we hosted a girl who told us she received 80 invitations in Buenos Aires on her public trip. As a family, we did not have the same chance but we were also invited in Buenos Aires and throughout Argentina after creating public trips.
What about camping then? It’s also an option. Some countries are friendlier than others towards wild campers such as Argentina or Uruguay. You should avoid cities and try to ask for permission from the landowner. There are also many pay campsites where you can pitch your tent for a few dollars while enjoying some basic infrastructures (toilets, shower…) like the one on the picture below, where we slept after celebrating Darian’s one year birthday at the Machu Picchu.
While traveling around South America, the opportunities to take a train will be scarce. The common way used by locals to travel is by using buses. A wide range of prices exist. You will often find an upper-class company aimed at foreigners and the more wealthy locals such as the Cruz del Sur in Peru. If you want to save some money, you could use cheaper companies. You would save up around 50% on a ticket compared to more expensive brands. On the other hand, you might enjoy less comfort and potentially less safety than on the more expensive buses. Sometimes you won’t even have the luxury to choose, as only one company could do the intended trip. This was the case when we passed by the “el Trampolín de la Muerte”, one of the most dangerous roads in the world, located in Colombia at 2.000 meters.
Don’t rely on trains in South America as the network is almost non-existent. Buses are the way to go.
The information available online is very scarce, although the most expensive companies should have a proper website, but it sometimes might only in Spanish.
Cheaper companies usually operate a few local lines, therefore you’ll have to use a different one each time. How to find the cheapest prices? We would always directly go to the bus terminal and ask around at every counter. The destination is normally written directly at the counter. Usually, we would just go at the last moment with all our stuff and go with the cheapest tickets available if the time of departure is right.
Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru have the cheapest buses. Paraguay is slightly more expensive. Colombia, Chile, and Brazil would be in another category in terms of price while Argentina has the most expensive buses.
Hitchhiking is a pretty common thing for Argentinians to do, it also works well in Chile and Ecuador.
So what about hitchhiking you may think? It is a common sight during summer in Argentina and the practice is widely understood all across South America. It worked very well for us in Argentina and Uruguay, but a little less in Brazil where we ended up taking buses. We also got great experiences every time we tried to hitch short distances in Ecuador. Some of my friends hitchhiked in Chile and told me that it might be the easiest country on the continent. On the other hand, one country where I would not hitchhike is Bolivia. We have yet to try, the buses are extremely cheap and we haven’t heard great feedback from travelers about this way of transportation.
Taxis are also quite inexpensive in this part of the world, you might pay just a dollar for a ride in certain places in Peru or Ecuador. As always with taxis, be careful because some will try to cheat you. Uber is available in some cities.