Bumming around South America on a budget?
April 2, 2012 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Travelling around South America for a year on a low budget -- give me the run down of how one prepares for that kind of thing and how much money you should realistically budget?

Let's just assume staying at non-scary hostels, and just kind of bouncing around central and south america going to beaches, and maybe some time in larger cities, too... A friend of mine was saying he did it for 2 years on $3k-- does that sound realistic? Also, how does the visa thing work when you're just bumming around like that? Do you need to get shots before going? Is there like a checklist somewhere for someone who wanted to get ready to do something like this? How hard is this to do when you don't know Spanish?
posted by empath to Technology (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This person, whom I do not know at all, travelled extensively around South America, and her Flickr feed has a LOT of information about where she stayed, how she got around, etc.

I was googling South America, and stumbled across her stuff and followed as she updated almost daily.
posted by Danf at 8:33 AM on April 2, 2012

Best answer: Step one: Buy South America on a Shoestring travel guide.

The rest of the steps should be covered in the book.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And the getting started chapter is free here. It includes this chart:

To give a very rough idea of relative costs, let’s assume you’re traveling with another person, mostly by bus, staying in cheap but clean hotels, eating in local restaurants and food stalls, with the occasional splurge on sightseeing or a night out dancing. Not including juicy side trips or tours into interior regions, you could expect the following as a minimum per person/per day budget:

 Argentina – US$35 to US$45
 Bolivia – US$15 to US$25
 Brazil – US$45 to US$50
 Chile – US$40 to US$50
 Colombia – US$20 to US$30
 Ecuador – US$20 to US$25
 French Guiana – US$50 to US$60
 Guyana – US$40 to US$50
 Paraguay – US$25 to US$35
 Peru – US$20 to US$30
 Suriname – US$30 to US$40
 Uruguay – US$35 to US$45
 Venezuela – US$60 to US$120 (at official exchange rates)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:12 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

3K seems low to me, though entirely depends on where you spend your time.

Mr. Know-it-some's list is roughly correct in my experience. Bolivia and Peru were my cheapest days. Chile and Argentina, the most expensive (but also some of the most enjoyable--Chile for the nature, Argentina for the culture.)

Have you considered WWOOFing?

Also couchsurfing is cheaper than hostels. There's less partying but more genuine connection to the place and the people, so maybe a mix of both, depending on your interests...
posted by vecchio at 9:17 AM on April 2, 2012

Prices have gone way up in Brazil lately, so beware that the lonely planet might not be up-to-date enough for costs to be right.
posted by umbú at 9:19 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 2 years on 3k sounds incredibly unrealistic, unless you spend most of those 2 years working in a hostel for the free bed and food and not really doing anything. Maybe WWOOFing would make this plausible? I just don't see it happening, even in the poorer countries in South America. Any beach with a "non-scary" hostel is going to be expensive. Any city is going to be expensive. Basically anyplace you (and everyone else) wants to be will be expensive. Bear in mind when I say expensive by Latin American standards, we're talking ~$30 a day.

Basic planning and Budgeting: Some people are probably going to recommend Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring. This is an OK guide. I like the Footprints one better, but the LP one has some nice advantages too (more/better maps stands out as a big one). Get one of these now. Use it to budget. Your budgeting is going to vary wildly from country to country, and even city to city. My friends that liked to spend time in places like Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogata, Rio, or Santiago spent a lot more money than I did sticking to small towns and cities.

Visas: Figure this out before you go. Some places, like Peru, are easy for Americans to get into and out of. Some, like Bolivia, are easy but expensive ($135 USD for USians). Some, like Brasil, will require you to apply and wait for at least a few weeks. Know before you go.

Vaccines/Medicine: Do your research and go from there. I got my Yellow Fever down there (it's much cheaper and easier to get), but you'll probably want that, Typhoid, and Hepatitis at the very least. I don't like Malaria pills, but if you want 'em, go for it. Do yourself a favor and get a prescription for Xanax here, it makes the many buses you'll be taking tolerable. They'll have it in all pharmacies there, but some will want a script.

Language: I thought my Spanish was pretty bad, and I did fine. Lots of people I met were even worse off than me and they did fine too. My first few months I carried a 30 Words card. I like it a lot.

On preview: What everyone else said.
posted by piedmont at 9:26 AM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Lonely Planet book is quite good. I've used it to travel trough Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. The budget listed by Mr.Know-it-some is quite close to what we paid in 2007, but then we were not living in the cheapest hostels and spent more on food, tours and stuff. But $3000 for 2 years probably means lots of compromises, because if you want to do tours (jungle, the salar, machu picchu, etc) you can't bargain that much (and to be frank, I would not want to use the cheapest tour provider to spend three days in a jeep in the desert or walk around the jungle, it's just calling for troubles--and trust me, we saw lots of broken trucks and people needing water in the jungle), and you usually pay in $US.

Argentina was most expensive (but also most comfortable and best food and wine), followed closely by Peru (especially on the tourist path, cheaper in the north), and Bolivia is just plain cheap. For accommodation, be ready to walk out of places that are listed in the LP and look around, we found awesome places in Cuzco, La Paz, ad many towns in Argentina just by asking around bus terminals or walking around neighborhoods.

In Argentina, night cama buses may look expensive but will save you a night and one (or two) meals, plus they are extremely comfortable for long rides (you'll be soo thankful after Bolivia). In Peru and Bolivia you should also consider booking flights rather than long bus rides that can easily double or triple in duration depending on the weather and mechanical troubles. If you use the Bolivian army airline, expect to see your flight delayed for a couple of days. This is normal, nothing to complain about!

For visas it depends on your nationality. One thing that happened to us is that we overstayed in Bolivia after visiting an embassy and asking them about how to extend. They told us (we are canadians) it was cheaper to overstay and pay at the border than pay for a full extension. Once we were at the border the (armed, military-style) guard tried to rip us by asking double the amount but I (gently) insisted and he laughted it out and let us go.

I have so much to say about the trip I should start a blog... I talked about here in the past, and you can memail me if you have specific questions!
posted by ddaavviidd at 9:37 AM on April 2, 2012

Also, if I had to go again, I would spend a whole week doing the salar de uyuni and volcano valley tour rather than the standard 3-days tour. I would also spend two weeks in the sacred valley, rather than quickly going to machu picchu.
posted by ddaavviidd at 9:40 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Prices in Brazil have increased a lot in the past 5-10 years. The $45-$50 a day budget mentioned above will most likely not be enough.
Budget more for Brazil, and if you are visiting cities like Rio and Sao Paulo expect to spend at least $100+ a day.
posted by helloworlditsme at 11:17 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

$3k is way too low. Backpackers are notorious for exaggerating how cheaply they traveled, so I would take this guy's account with about a pound of salt!

One of the best pieces of travel-budgeting advice I ever got (from the excellent book The Practical Nomad) is to look up prices of lodging where you're going and multiply that times 4 (one for food, one for transit, and one for souvenirs, special trips, things going haywire). That's your daily budget.

So for instance, 10 years ago I traveled for 6 months through South East Asia and India (which are much cheaper than most of SA, from what I've heard). My average nightly lodging cost was around $5-7, and overall I spent around $4000 on that trip (not including flight or any other pre-travel expenses). This worked out to about $20/day, which is indeed 4x my nightly lodging costs.

Now, if you're planning to stay put and volunteer somewhere in exchange for lodging, that will bring your costs down significantly.

And you should definitely build a month of Spanish classes into the beginning of your itinerary. Guatemala is excellent for this (you stay with a family and have private Spanish lessons for 4 hours/day - the standard cost for this is around $150-175/week). I've heard Ecuador is great too. It's an amazing value and you'll be glad you did it.

Oh, and one thing you may not be aware of - you can't get from Central America to South America overland, due to the Darien Gap.
posted by lunasol at 11:24 AM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, one last question -- I don't have a passport now. I've heard it takes a loooong time to get one now, what happens if I buy a plane ticket and don't have the passport processed yet? Is there any way to rush it?
posted by empath at 12:15 PM on April 2, 2012

Visas for Americans entering Chile and Argentina are somewhere around $125 each if I remember correctly.
posted by Che boludo! at 12:17 PM on April 2, 2012

You might be able to book a flight without a passport, but you will not be able to board the flight. Your ticket will not be refunded if you show up with no passport. Apply as soon as possible.

You can rush a passport application, I think mine took two or three weeks.
posted by ke rose ne at 12:20 PM on April 2, 2012

You can certainly pay a bit extra to have your passport expedited, but you're still in a good time frame to get it in under 6 weeks without expediting it I'd say. The last time I renewed was about now, and I had it by early May.

Visas for Americans entering Chile and Argentina are somewhere around $125 each if I remember correctly.
Not sure about Argentina, but if you go by bus, you can generally get into Chile without paying this.
posted by piedmont at 12:20 PM on April 2, 2012

You need more than a passport to enter some South American countries. You need a travel visa too. You can expedite the process on getting the US passport, but then you have to contact the Argentine embassy and get a visa. You need to check with each South American countries embassy to see if you need a visa.
posted by Flood at 12:50 PM on April 2, 2012

You can expedite a passport (I think to get it in a month instead of 2-3 months) but it's costly - last time I did this I think it made the passport $110 instead of $50). The only way to get a passport on a week's notice or something like that is to set up an interview at a special office, and I think they're pretty stringent about the circumstances that will allow you to get a rushed passport.
posted by lunasol at 1:09 PM on April 2, 2012

I bummed around South America for 3 months in 2009. I spent $4,000 in three months, going to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

The budget went to: 1/3rd bus trips and tours, 1/3rd drinking and eating (I partied four nights a week and cooked one meal myself the entire time) 1/6th on lodging and the rest on miscellaneous.

I stayed in budget party hostels (ranging from $4 night in Bolivia to $20 in Argentina and Chile) and took the priciest bus most places. I was definitely above average in spending than the normal backpacker, but much less than the average tourist. I speak spanish and generally ate meals at places that didn't cater to tourists.

Most other backpackers did not speak spanish (or cared to). I got my yellow fever vaccine and visa pretty much at the border for Bolivia. Able to get the vaccine in a Peruvian hospital for $3, which is much less than the $30-$50 it would have cost in the US.

A way to cheapen the trip is to stay in one place and work at a hostel--they will generally pay your lodging. Depending on the hostel, however, you may drink yourself silly (or worse).

All I got to say is -- do it! It is the experience of a lifetime.
posted by sandmanwv at 3:31 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

For Peru, one of the cheaper countries in SA, I spent around $40/day when I was traveling, averaging out cross-country bus tickets and entrances to sights as well as food and lodging. For just food and lodging, probably around $20/day. This could have been a lot less-- if I'd stayed in cheaper places, gotten all my food from grocery stores and avoided the metropolitan cities like Lima it would have been lots cheaper. But also much less fun! (Also could have been a lot more, if I'd done a lot of organized tours and things.)

However, most of my time in peru I spent at an organization volunteering and paying them around $5/day for food and lodging-- if something like that appeals to you, check out wwoofing or Volunteer South America which is a list of organizations, many of which will give you cheap or free food and lodging if you volunteer. You'll be working instead of traveling, but I had a great experience, lots of people I met were bumming around for a year or more and wanted something productive to do for a couple months (or a year) of their trip.

I know some Spanish, but when I got there I'd never actually used my spanish "in the wild," so I basically... didn't speak any spanish, I just was able to pick it up fast after I started hearing it. In my experience in Peru, if I stuck to the tourist sights/hostels/restaurants in cities people would be able to speak english to me (or at least find someone who could), but once I started feeling more confident in my spanish and started to strike out on my own away from the most touristy parts things got much more interesting (and cheaper!) Outside of the tourist infastructure people didn't speak much or any english in my experience. I met people traveling who spoke no spanish at all, but honestly the idea of bouncing around peru not being able to communicate with 99% of the people I met or ask any questions (in order to buy a bus ticket, for instance) or advocate for myself at all would make me uncomfortable. ymmv, and again I only have experience with peru.

You don't need to arrange for a peruvian visa ahead if you have a US passport-- they give it to you at the border.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:39 PM on April 2, 2012

Agree with much of the above. I did a similar trip recently and spent $25-30 a day on average. If you want recent numbers and advice I'd suggest trying the lonely planet forums.

When you find a guide book, read carefully the sections on weather. The parts of south america on the altiplano don't have 'normal' weather patterns; they have 8-9 months of dry season and then 3-4 months of wet season, and it can be really miserable (and sometimes impossible) to travel through certain regions during the rainy season.
posted by btkuhn at 11:09 PM on April 2, 2012

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