9 adventurous tips for backpacking South America on a budget

Dec 19 2018, 11:36 pm

This article was written by Róisín Gallagher of Ireland, following her year of travelling in South America. Check out more of her hilarious adventures on ontheroadwithro.com.

If you want to backpack South America but are worried about not having enough dolla bills, fear not, friends. You can explore South America’s hidden glaciers, fjords, mountains and secluded beaches without having to break the bank.

Patagonia, on the southern tip of the continent, is undoubtedly the most expensive part of South America, but even in this region, you can find ways to cut costs.

Here are some tips to explore the end of the world and make the best travel memories without having to worry about going broke while you’re at it.

1. Hitchhike

backpack south america

Cerro Castillo, Chile. (Róisín Gallagher)

We told you this was an adventurous guide!

When you think of hitchhiking, you may think it’s an automatic invitation to get abducted. You should always do what you feel is safe and right, but for many travellers, hitchhiking is the most cost-efficient way of travelling South America. Not to mention the picture perfect landscapes in Southern Chile and Argentina that make for an excellent hitchhiking backdrop.

Public transport is a rarity in Patagonia and comes with a hefty price tag. To save yourself a fortune, get a cardboard sign, a big smile, and set off early to hitch a ride. You will definitely have a few good stories to tell afterwards.

This may seem daunting at first but you will have some of the weirdest and most wonderful experiences. Don’t get disheartened if no one is slowing down for you, just keep the faith and you will eventually get to your destination. It may take longer but the scenic route is always more exciting. 

2. Couchsurf  

backpack south america

Couchsurfing in Merida, Mexico. (Róisín Gallagher)

One of the biggest travel expenses is accommodation. If you can manage to cut down on this one you will save a bomb. Couchsurfing is more than just free accommodation, although that is a nice perk. It is an online community that offers free accommodation to travellers all over the world.

Generally, the people who host you are likeminded travellers who are good, solid people. This is an excellent way of learning Spanish, as you will be immersing yourself in the local culture — it’s a perfect way to cut out pricey Spanish classes.

Money cannot buy the unique experiences you will have with couchsurfing. Don’t expect king-sized beds with silk sheets, but if you are not fussy, you will find some of the most genuinely interesting people out there. This option is especially appealing for solo travellers looking to meet people.  

3. Cut down on the booze 

backpack south america

Wine time in Mendoza, Argentina. (Róisín Gallagher)

We know, we know. Drinking is part and parcel of the backpacking experience and is undeniably lots of fun. What’s not so much fun are its effects on your wallet.

Alcohol is often more expensive than food, so challenge yourself and try and include a few booze-free days during the week. Not only will you save money, but you will wake up fresh and ready for whatever adventures the day will bring.

That being said, we are definitely partial to a tipple or two, so when choosing your drink just be smart about it. Lucky for you, some of the best wine in the world is from Argentina and Chile and it is really cheap. As for the rest of South America, wine tends to be expensive so you should stick to the reliable old ice cold cerveza. Not exactly a bad option. When in Peru, treat your self to the occasional Pisco Sour — it would be rude not to. Here are the best spots to sip – pisco sour or otherwise – in Cusco.

4. Camp

backpack south america

Cerro Castillo, Chile. (Róisín Gallagher)

This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re not afraid of slumming it having a slumber party with Mother Nature, you will save buckets of money. You will most likely develop a love/hate relationship with your tent. 

There will be times when you may have to share with creepy crawlies, you will freeze your ass off and will be stuck in your tent during torrential rain storms. Not exactly selling it, but… it’s all part of the experience!

Waking up to the sound of birds or howler monkeys, or witnessing that beautiful sunrise all completely to yourself is pretty spectacular. If the thoughts of wild camping doesn’t rock your boat, lots of hostels offer the option of pitching your tent on their grounds. This is definitely a safer option for solo travellers, and it comes with the bonus of being able to use the hostel’s facilities. As appealing as it is to go full-on Bear Grylls and wash up in a river, sometimes you can’t beat a hot shower. Camping on the hostel grounds will cost a fraction of the price of its dorm rooms.

You will use your tent mostly in Patagonia, so when travelling further north you can always consider selling it.

5. Eat with the locals

backpack south america

La Paz, Bolivia (Róisín Gallagher)

Forget about dodgy tummies and fully immerse yourself in the street food scene.

Of course, there will be times when you crave pizzas and burgers, but they will be waiting for you when you get home. Western food in South America is generally expensive, boring and flat-out bad. 

Get the full cultural experience and make your way to the local mercado (market). Menu del Dia, or menu of the day, will become your best friend. It typically consists of a soup, mountain of rice, meat, salad and a fresh juice. It is absolutely massive and you will be fed for the day. The price tag will vary from country to country but is usually less than $3. Taste that cow’s head soup or barbequed brain. Whether you’re on board or grossed out, the local food is so central to the culture of South America.

Also, don’t forget you are allowed to a have a juicy steak in Argentina, in fact this is compulsory. Don’t worry about the price tag for that one night only.

6. Avoid tours

backpack south america

Salt Flats, Bolivia. (Róisín Gallagher)

Easy, organized and fast, tours definitely have their role, and sometimes they are the only way to do what you want to do.

If you are an adventure seeker and on a budget, it’s always better to opt out of the tour if you can. It’s an amazing feeling to get somewhere before the crowds, and you will be more likely to find some hidden gems and have an authentic experience. Just set off early to catch a local collectivo and soak up the views for a fraction of the cost. It is always more fun if you can find other backpackers to tag along with.

To save even further, bring your own packed lunch; bread, tomato and avocados always fit the bill.

7. Learn Spanish

backpack south america

San Gil, Colombia. (Róisín Gallagher)

Spanish is spoken all over South America except for Brazil, where they speak Portuguese. You may have mastered Spanish on Duolingo before your trip, but unfortunately when you arrive, you’ll be playing a whole different ball game.

This may not be an obvious money-saving tip, but learning Spanish will not only make your trip much more meaningful, but it will also save you money. How, you ask? Chatting to the locals will point you in the right direction of buses, good street food and most importantly, what the local prices are versus the tourist prices.

Bolivia and Peru are excellent places to learn Spanish. Private classes are ridiculously cheap, and before you know it you will be bargaining for your alpaca jumpers in Spanish.

8. Volunteer with Workaway

backpack south america

Playing soccer with the locals in Palomino, Colombia. (Róisín Gallagher)

For anyone planning on backpacking for a long period of time, this option is definitely worth considering.

Workaway is an organization that arranges volunteer work and cultural exchanges. It is a great way to meet fellow backpackers, pick up travel tips, learn Spanish, and of course, save the pennies.

The way it works is, you will be offered free accommodation and breakfast in exchange for five hours of work, five days a week. The beauty of this work is you could end up doing the strangest jobs in any part of the world, like working on eco farms or in hostels, or chopping wood in the middle of an Argentinian forest.

Be wise and pick your location well to make your experience the best it can be. The best option is to pick a lively town or city with nearby attractions you can take advantage of on your free days. Argentina and Chile have the most expensive accommodation, so it makes sense to do your volunteer work there to make the most out of your money. 

9. Keep track of your expenses

backpack south america

Local mercado in Oaxaca, Mexico. (Róisín Gallagher)

This isn’t exactly the most exciting activity, and it’s important not to forget you’re on holidays. Backpacking is a unique opportunity in your life and there is no need to be Scrooge all of the time.

Our main piece of advice is to keep track of your expenses, and how you do this will vary from person to person. There will always be days where you spend more and some days where you might not spend any money at all. If you can’t handle any more instant coffee and you stumble across a hipster cafe selling flat whites, just go for it! Moderation is key, and also everything is always easier with good coffee.

A useful tip is to set yourself a daily budget and check your bank balance roughly every week in a secure place. Online banking apps are really useful on the road. It is also worthwhile researching what ATMs are best to use to avoid hidden transaction charges. Chat to fellow travellers for the best options.

backpack south america

A local village in Barichara, Colombia. (Róisín Gallagher)

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