Choosing to travel across South America was simple.
I’d seen exquisite photos of llamas and mountains, churches and markets, each photo with a bundle of colours stacked upon each other. Those ancient ruins, those beaches! I dreamed of South American adventures in the lead up to the trip.
Choosing a route was also simple. The cheapest flights from New Zealand landed in Santiago, Chile, so we (the boyfriend and I) would start there and travel north by intercity bus visiting Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
But, what I really needed to know (and had trouble finding a solid answer with google) was how much it costs to travel across South America on a budget.
Overlooking Santiago, Chile - our first stop in South America
So, if you're searching for the same info we were, here it is.
It cost US$8000 per person for six months of travel - once you’re there, that is - I’ll add on the cost of flights and insurance at the end, because that'll be different for everyone.
Backpacking South America isn't quite as cheap as six months in Southeast Asia where I backpacked six months solo on $6000, but then, few places in the world are.
All prices in this post are in $USD and we travelled South America in 2014/2015, so costs may vary.
Although you can't find llamas in Southeast Asia
Read more: Is travel in South America safe?
Can I travel South America for less than that?
It’s certainly possible to see South America on less than $8000 by couch-surfing and home cooking at least two meals each day.
Most (good) hostels offer a communal kitchen to whip up a simple stir-fry (you'll be craving home cooked meals after months of beans and rice - trust me).
We ate out two meals a day, although if I could do it again, I would only eat out for lunch at local restaurants - which all offer a Menu Del Dia - a daily changing set meal of soup, fresh juice and a main plate (yes, with beans) for $2.50 - $5, and then I would cook our own breakfast and dinner. Dinner at a local restaurant (with beer) usually cost $7-$10 per person. Breakfast (eggs and toast with coffee) was around $5. So lunch deals really were the most cost effective meal to eat out.
You can ask for the Menu Del Dia in any local restaurant you visit - they'll never advertise that they run a lunch deal as they want you to order the more expensive stuff on the menu, so always ask.
This one in Colombia was $5 and one of the more pricier lunch options around.
Restaurants who target tourists are a joke. They don't care about your return business and therefore the food is overpriced and disappointing. Walk a few blocks away from any tourist hot spot and eat with the locals, order what they order for half the price and tastier food.
Our accommodation was a mix of private rooms at hostels or budget hotels at an average of $12 each a night, with an occasional hostel dorm bed in major cities when a hotel room cost more than $40 a night. I booked almost all my accommodation with Hostel World.
Read more: The little guide on what to pack for big travels across South America
What does it cost to travel per country?
The cost of travelling in South America can vary widely.
Ecuador and Bolivia are the cheapest at $30 - $35 a day.
Meals cost around $3 each at local restaurants and private budget hotel rooms were $20 a night for the two of us.
Buses were cheap at a dollar an hour, regardless of distance, and overnight buses were around $10 and saved on a nights accommodation, although be aware, you don't always arrive at the next destination feeling well rested.
The intercity buses weren't nearly as cool as this one in La Paz, Bolivia
The biggest expenses:
$100 each to cycle Death Road.
The most dangerous road in the world (this photo was of the easy bit)
Two tours in the Bolivian Amazon cost $200 per person for five days.
Monkey mayhem on a tiny boat in the Amazon
A tour across Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt planes set us back $160 each for a four day trip.
Salt in all directions
Plus we spent far too much money on souvenirs and sent two packages full of ponchos and art home for $200. Ouch.
Peru and Colombia were moderate at $40 - $45 per person, per day, the cost of transportation was the largest expense often costing $40 - $60 each for an overnight bus - quite a shock after Ecuador and Bolivia.
Local restaurants serve large lunches at $4 and a private room in a budget hotel will usually cost around $26 for the night.
Playing instruments and posing for tourists on the roof tops of Cuzco
The biggest expenses:
A three day Jungle Trail to Machu Picchu that set us back $400 a person.
Hiking, biking, zip lining and rafting to Machu Picchu - but mostly hiking.
Read more: 10 phenomenal reasons to visit Peru!
Chile was our most expensive country at $50 a day per person and not much cheaper than New Zealand.
A room was $40 - $50 a night so we stayed just two weeks, taking a few overnight buses at $40 a person to get up and into Bolivia.
The very beautiful, but expensive San Pedro de Atacama in Chile
Read more: The Atacama Desert on a budget
Finally, in addition to the $8000 that it cost us to backpack across South America, there was a long $2000 return flight from New Zealand. However if you’re flying from the United States a return flight to Colombia is only about $800.
We also splurged on a $200 p/p return flight to the amazon in Bolivia - there was a cheaper option – a twenty hour drive from La Paz at $10 each way but we chose the one hour flight.
Then there was travel insurance with World Nomads at $400 a person for six months of cover and a yellow fever jab at $150 - both absolutely necessary.
We saved money by travelling slowly, only doing activities every other day, renting bicycles for a few dollars a day, reading borrowed books in hammocks or walking around town taking photographs.
The art of doing nothing in Colombia
Read more: 7 reasons to forget your prejudices and get to Colombia already
What can I do in six months in South America?
We covered five nations in this time – they are huge countries and I wouldn’t recommend seeing more than eight countries in six months unless you plan to fly between destinations and just do the highlights.
Spend your time learning Spanish, hiking, volunteering (find projects once you're in South America, rather than the 'volun-tourism' traps advertised on the internet) sunbathing, learning, exploring. Why not start a travel blog. Six months of travel is both a long time and not long enough.
I'm a big fan of slow travel, and it's a great way to keep travel costs down and really get to know a place the way the locals know it. Stay in accommodation owned locally at local prices, they're often a little old fashioned but you'll be out everyday seeing the sights, then going out for dinner and drinks later in the evening, the room is just somewhere to sleep.
Is it worth it to spend $8 000 just on travel?
Think about how much you spend over six months at home right now. If you're anything like me, you spend about 15k on rent, food, entertainment, transportation plus all the little things. Fifteen thousand dollars just to wake up to a shitty alarm five days a week and go to work.
After six months is there much to show for all that work? You might have a few new shiny pairs of shoes, or at best a new car and a little more paid off on the mortgage. Travel costs less than travel agencies want you to believe. It doesn't have to be six months of backpacking. If it's been a while since you've taken a break, then save a little money and head over to South America for a holiday that's a little bit different.
It'll be an adventure you'll remember forever.
Ps. Need a little inspiration? Read on for the courage to travel long term
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