Machu Picchu, Torres del Paine, Iguazú Falls, Salar de Uyuni and the glacier Perito Moreno. These are just some of the many ‘must see places before you die’. Is it your dream to walk next to llamas in an Incan sacred site, or watch the thundering cascades of one of the world’s largest falls?
Everyone deserves to visit their dream destination, no matter their income. Which is why I want to share my top tips on how to see this bucket list on a budget. I’ve organised the places from cheapest to the more pricey below.
The art of planning
It may seem counterintuitive, but for South America you will save money if you do NOT book ahead. The only exception with this is the Inca Trail, which often gets booked out months before. Otherwise, every single bucket list below can be booked the day before or the day of. Get there in person, shop around for the best deal and go with the flow (in true latino fashion)
General Tips First
As a general rule, you spend money on 5 key things while travelling. Therefore in theory you need to minimise spending on these aspects to make your peso go further.
- Accommodation – couch surfing and hostels aren’t glamorous but will save you some cash
- Food – cook your own food, or risk street food/local eateries. Street food can be hit or miss, but it is fun to try local cuisine and exciting to see what will happen after that mysterious empanada…right?
- Transport – hitch hiking, bus, trains, shared taxis, or budget tour groups will all save you a buck
- Entrance fees/activities – this is something that you cannot really avoid (legally). However, certain days of the week can be half price or free to enter museums so do your research. Also, if you’re a student get an international student card to shave off prices on almost everything!
- Shopping – if you’re truly on a budget, shopping for small mementos should be the last of your priority. Easier said than done, I know. I lugged around a 2kg clay armadillo for months…but hey, I really did need it
If you have a strict budget
Prioritise. Do you need to eat out every meal? Do you need to stay in a double bed room with a private bathroom? What are your big ticket items that you really want to see? Save money aside for those big ticket, unforgettable items…and try choosing budget options for the rest.
El Chaltén, Argentina
One of my all time favourite destinations in South America, El Chaltén. This town is truly magical, and comes to life on a clear day where you can see the distinctive Fitzroy Mountain Range. I would put aside a few days to a week to stay here, especially since the weather is very unpredictable. If you arrive on an overcast day you will unlikely even see the amazing mountain range, so it is worthwhile to be patient and wait for sunnier weather. This town has multiple trails that you can hike for no added cost. The top hikes would have to be to the glacier and the laguna de los tres (where you come close and personal to the Fitzroy Range). Getting there is slightly tricky if you’re on a budget, the public bus costs $30 AUD one way. Alternatively you could hitch hike or have a private vehicle/camper van. There are many options for staying in El Chaltén from hotels, to hostels to camping. Just remember that in winter most things are completely shut down, so don’t expect restaurants or many hostel options from around May to October. Try to bring your own food into the town, as there are limited supermarket options. Some top cheap eateries would be the bakeries around town that sell amazing empanadas and facturitas.
Valle de Cocora, Colombia
Colombia is a colourful country with so many different regions. One of our favourite places in Colombia was the Valle de Cocora in Salento. To get to Salento you can get a very long windy bus from Medellín, or fly to Pereira and catch a bus from there. If you can, I’d recommend flying to Pereira. In Salento you can enjoy the beautiful colonial town, and find tours in the central plaza. They offer open jeep tours to coffee farms and the Valle de Cocora. The tours cost around $2 AUD return, and part of the fun is standing up and holding onto the back as the jeeps drive into the valley. There are seats in the jeep, but for those daredevils holding on at the back is definitely for you.
Torres del Paine, Chile
I have a separate blog post dedicated to seeing Torres del Paine for cheaper, click here to see it. To complete the W-trek click here to see my other article. If you have your own accomodation (a car) you can pay the entry of $42-50 AUD and that is it. Bring your own food, and you’re set. Fresh natural water is abundant in the park, you can bottle it from any running stream/small waterfall. It is the cleanest water you will ever drink. If you don’t have a car, you can enter via a public bus from Puerto Natales and there are free camping sites available via Conaf. Alternatively, you can have paid camping sites through private companies in the park – Fantastico Sur and Vertice. If you have more money to spend, stay in a cabin, hotel or book an all inclusive tour. If you’re afraid you will get lost, don’t worry, the paths are very well mapped out and it is actually hard to lose yourself.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Lake Titicaca , the highest navigable lake in the world, will disorient you. Driving through the Andes for so long, to come across what appears to be the ocean. There is a reason why so many flock to enjoy Lake Titicaca, and the floating islands that have made it famous. We visited Lake Titicaca through the Bolivian side, and spent a night in the Isla del Sol (the birthplace of the first Incas). Lake Titicaca and staying in the Isla del Sol is very reasonably priced (around $19 a night for a hostel), and the views are spectacular. It costs about $5 AUD to get a ferry from Copacabana, Bolivia to Isla del Sol. There is usually no phone or internet on the island, so disconnect for a day or two.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
This charming town on the Río de La Plata is one of the top places to see in Uruguay. The cobblestone streets and colourful houses provide a few days of interesting wandering. The sunset at the river edge is also something not to be missed. Climbing the lighthouse for around $2 AUD rewards you with panoramic views over the town, and river (worth dropping the few coins). Cooking your own food will save you a lot of money, as Uruguay is the most expensive country in South America. Other top towns to enjoy in Uruguay on a budget would be Fray Bentos and Carmelo.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
This glacier is actually growing, and every few minutes you can watch as large chunks of ice calve off and crash into the water below. It provides a whole day of entertainment. Wear some warm clothes and settle in to the dramatic show. This glacier is close to the town Calafate, and to get there you either need a bus, tour or private vehicle. The entry fee is $1800 ARS, or $27AUD, this fee is not included in tours. If you have a private vehicle you can save slightly, drive in on your own, bring your own food and pay the fee alone. Other methods of getting there include the public shuttle bus for about $14 AUD one way, or with a tour. Tours have a limited/controlled time and are more costly, but could be more comfortable depending on your preference. The tour worthwhile paying more money for would be the mini-trekking, where you can actually hike on top of the glacier. This is a costly tour, but seriously worth it – expect to pay about $121 AUD.
Iguazú Falls, Brazil/Argentina
Iguazú Falls is a powerhouse. The sheer amount of water that thunders down every second will make even the most cynical person smile and stand in awe. There is something about large bodies of water that really amaze people, and inspire wonder. You can access two sides to Iguazú Falls, via Argentina through Puerto Iguazú or via Brazil through the town Foz do Iguaçu. The Brazilian side costs $18 USD to enter and the Argentinian side costs $15 USD. I’d recommend reaching the Argentinian side early because there are many trails to see, and sometimes they try make you pay for a second day. The parking on the Brazilian side is a little pricey, so try to reach there without a private vehicle. There is a hostel nearby called Iguassu Eco Hostel that let’s you park for a low price all day, and is walking distance.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Another destination on the pricey end…but it doesn’t have to be! If you have your own private vehicle, entering the largest salt flats in South America could be near free. There are multiple entrance points to the salt flats from both Chile and Bolivia, but Uyuni is more straight forward and cheaper than Chilean prices. To enter the national park it is $28 AUD, and then that is the end of your expenditure. If you don’t have the luxury of your own vehicle, expect to pay around $300 AUD for a 3-4 day tour of the salt flats. This is a standard price and includes accomodation, food and a guide. To get to Uyuni on a budget, get an overnight bus from La Paz (around $20-30 AUD).
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro is a mystical place that is a must see in South America. There are so many sites in such a concentrated area that you will find it hard to choose what to do first. A week can be passed easily here, and there will still be things to do or see. You can rent a car or bike to see the places yourself, but I would actually recommend tours for those who are on a budget. Here is why – every place in this area has an entrance fee. Every single place! If you buy a package tour there is a mutual deal between the tour companies and the people who run the sites, so you will get a discounted price. Do not book anything in advance. Arrive into town, shop around and bargain for a price you like that includes multiple places you want to see. The price can really range from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars. You can fly to nearby Calama, Chile then catch a shuttle bus to San Pedro or enter via a tour of the salt flats from Bolivia. Cheaper options include long distance buses that can be caught from many cities in Chile.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu was once the lost city of the Incas, but has now definitely been found. It is of course still a marvel of the world and on many bucket lists. You can visit it through a hike or by walking up the mountain/getting a bus up from Aguas Calientes. As a foreigner you have to pay $65 USD to enter. To reach there by the Inca Trail it will be at least $600 USD, or you can opt for different routes that are usually cheaper such as the Salkantay Trek. To get there on a budget, I’d recommend walking up from Aguas Calientes and only paying the entrance fee (bring your own food)…
Unfortunately, the prices for the Amazon have gone up in the past 5 years and Bolivia (which was once the budget place) is no longer cheap for a tour. Even in Bolivia, you can expect to pay around $200-500 AUD for a 3-5 day tour. Having said this, it is an experience of a lifetime and I’d recommend Max Adventures in Rurrenabaque for a quality tour with lovely people. The Amazon can be accessed via many countries – Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela (unadvisable given the current state of affairs).