6 Cheapest Countries In South America for your Next Gap Year

Amazing Wildlife? Check. Diverse cultures? Check. An abundance of adventure? Check. South America ticks all boxes and best of all, it ticks all boxes without breaking the bank.

Whether you dream of trekking the Amazon or the Inca Trail, sipping on coffee in Colombia or wine in Argentina, these are the cheapest countries in South America for students to travel to. Each one offers bucket list worthy experiences at prices you won’t believe. After reading this guide it’s easy to see why South America is one of the cheapest continents to visit in the world.
three travellers posing with aloha sign in front of surfboards

Before you begin packing your backpack however there are a few points to consider to keep your costs down:

  • Exchange rates: You may notice we’ve chosen not to include Venezuela or Suriname on this list. This is because they are infamous for some of the highest inflation rates in the world. While they can be considered two of the cheapest countries in South America, due to inflation it can be difficult to calculate a budget or predict costs for your trip.
  • Safety: At workaway, we take safety incredibly seriously. South America often receives an unfair reputation as being unsafe which makes travellers apprehensive to add it to their bucket list. While it’s partly to blame by the drug cartels made infamous by Netflix’s Narcos, there is no reason why you should tarnish this entire continent with the same brush. 
    Like most places there are safe areas, and areas best avoided. Use common sense, trust your gut and most importantly make sure you have travel insurance. It can cover you for lost or stolen items, medical expenses as well as cancelled travel or delays. Although an initial expense it can save you so much in the long run. Being able to speak a little basic Spanish will also help you in any tricky situations if you need to ask a local for help.
  • Weather: As the climates are so varied, even between countries there is no particular time that is cheapest to visit South America. Travel during the shoulder season (the period between high and low season) for the best combination of good deals and good weather.
  • Choose almuerzos: For the majority of the cheapest countries in South America, you will find a set lunch menu called an almuerzo. These usually consist of a starter such as soup, a main course, and a drink for a very affordable price. Not only are these a chance to try local cuisine, but they will also fill you up for a set fee making it easier for you to budget.
  • Travel style: Remember when reading this list of the cheapest countries in South America that “cheap” is subjective. While certain expenses such as dorm rooms or dining out may seem affordable to some people, to other travellers these costs could be considered expensive. You may think it’s important to splash out on a private room or for a group tour to meet other people, while others may not. Your travel style will impact the cost of your trip so consider this as you research the cheapest places to visit in South America.

1. Colombia

Often considered one of the best budget-friendly travel destinations in the Americas due to its vibrant culture and landscape. Colombia is home to 10% of the Amazon rainforest, the start of the Andes Mountain Range, bustling cities like Bogota and Medellín and of course, Colombians - some of the warmest locals you will ever meet.

With coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Pacific it’s also a favorite budget destination for surfers. The beach not your thing? Head inland for lush jungles, lost ancient cities, and remote indigenous communities. There really is something for all budgets and adventure styles.

One of the best tips for Colombia (as well as all the cheapest countries in South America) is to head off the beaten path. Whether it’s up into the mountains, along the coast or deep into the jungle, the best adventures are usually the hardest to get to but that’s where Workaway comes in! By staying with local communities and immersing yourself in the colourful, Colombian culture you will learn there’s so much more to this epic country than Netflix gives it credit for.

Colombia may be considered one of the cheapest countries in South America but it is rarely considered one of the safest. It’s no secret crime is an issue, but it is improving and most tourists have uneventful trips. Most visitors stick to Cartagena or Medellín but as long as you take the usual safety precautions (do not flaunt your wealth, always let someone know where you are going, stay with reputable hosts or hostels etc.) then you will enjoy your time in Colombia.

If you’re keen to give off grid living a chance, Colombia is a great place to start. Ecotourism is growing at an exciting rate in Colombia with many locals passionate about sustainable living, permaculture and organic farming. Volunteer opportunities in Colombia include reforestation, animal conservation and eco-construction among so many others.

  • Budget Hostel: $12 dorm bed/$30 private room
  • Local beer: $1.00
  • Budget Restaurant: Empanadas are the ultimate snack for those on a budget as they cost just 200-500 COP (around $0.06-0.15 USD.) Local street food in the cities is around 10,000-15,000 COP ($3-5 USD) per meal, but you’ll find it cheaper in the countryside at around 5,000-10,000 ($1.50-3 USD) per meal.
shot of feet relaxing on a canoe tropical paradise trip

2. Paraguay

Despite being one of the cheapest countries in South America, Paraguay is often overlooked by travellers in favour of its neighbours Brazil, Argentina or Bolivia. This landlocked country is divided into two regions - the western part of the Rio Paraguay and the eastern part of the great river.

This divide offers a huge diversity in landscape from the Gran Chaco (also known as Dry Chaco) which is the largest dry forest ecosystem in South America to the famous marshes of the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland in the world.  

Paraguay has a population of over 7 million, of which around 2 million live in the capital Asunción. As tourists are still rare, you will find the locals curious and friendly.

The rarity of tourists may make you question if it is safe to travel to Paraguay. While crime is considered low, as always it is best to avoid flaunting your wealth which may attract pickpockets or scam artists.  

The biggest safety concern in Paraguay is actually motorcycles. Similar to backpacking in Asia, it is vital you remain road savvy as there are an abundance of motorcycles often driven by risk taking locals who ride without helmets or lights. 

Paraguay is a great destination for those looking to volunteer teaching a language. Spanish and Guarani are both national languages, with 92% of the population speaking Spanish and 98% speaking Guarani, however in many places German, English and Portuguese are understood and sometimes also spoken.

It is also home to one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, so there is an urgency for eco-warriors to volunteer with farming and supporting sustainable projects.

  • Budget Hostel: 80,000PYG ($12.00USD) / $30 USD private room
  • Local beer: $1.50
  • Budget Restaurant per person: Street food 13,000-18,000PYG($2-3USD) Restaurant Meal (with drink) 3 courses $10
solo traveller posing in the water with a waterfall background

3. Peru

There are two main reasons nearly four million people flock to Peru each year – to hike and to eat. It happens to be a bonus that it is one of the cheapest countries in South America! Highlights include exploring traces of the Inca culture, including the impressive sites such as Choquequirao, Machu Picchu or the Nazca lines.

Lake Titicaca is also worthwhile, as one of South America's largest lakes and the world’s highest navigable body of water. If water is your thing, you may also enjoy a relaxing surf trip to the beach at Mancora, or the bizarre yet beautiful Huacachina,a village built around a small oasis surrounded by sand dunes in southwest Peru.

Despite being one of the cheapest countries in South America, Peru offers world-class dining! Look out for almuerzo deals at local eateries with the most common dishes including Ceviche which is fresh raw fish cured in citrus juice, Aji de gallina a chicken-based dish with chili-peanut sauce, a beef dish called Lomo saltado and cuy which is guinea pig, yup guinea pig!

Peru is generally considered a safe destination to visit, however petty crime is still common. As it’s such a popular destination with tourists, it’s important you choose only reputable tour agencies or bus companies. The cheapest isn’t always the safest option!

Did you know visiting Machu Picchu is possible on a budget thanks to Workaway! One of the cheapest ways to visit this bucket list destination is by getting the bus up the mountain from Aguas Calientes (the town at the bottom of the mountains nearest the ruins) or by staying with a host in the region! We have over 300 hosts in Peru searching for support in all kinds of ways from digital marketing to running hostels.

  • Budget Hostel: $5.00 - $10.00 for a dorm
  • Local beer: $2.00
  • Budget Restaurant per person: $5.00 - $8.00
traveller standing in front of Peru's rainbow mountains

4. Ecuador

Ecuador is not only one of the cheapest countries in South America, it is one of the smallest too. Yet despite its size, it offers every type of climate and a travel experience for all kinds of adventure seekers. For example, you can have breakfast on the beach, lunch in the Andes and finish with dinner in the Amazon rainforest. We did promise all kinds of adventures! Having so much to offer travellers in such a small country makes Ecuador a fantastic budget destination.

Yet despite these incredible experiences, Ecuador is often overlooked by those on a budget as it is most famously known as a gateway to the Galapagos Islands which are not so budget friendly. Quito however, is one of the cheapest capital cities in South America so although many use it as a stepping stone to the Galapagos, it’s not a destination to be overlooked.

Ecuador is also ideal for those who dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest on a budget.  If you want to experience the Amazon, but you don’t have the funds or time for an extensive group tour, your best bet is to go to the Tena area – it offers a gateway to the Amazon basin.

If trekking the rainforest isn’t your thing, head for the Quilotoa Loop. It is a stunning ring-shaped trail that connects remote villages in the high Andes and a wonderful way to experience the Ecuadorian rural way of life.

Ecuador is often given a bad reputation for safety due to the nationwide protests in recent years. Protests of any kind should be avoided if you are visiting Ecuador. Do not let this put you off visiting this epic country, however, as Ecuador has recently risen 9 places in the Global Peace Index. This means it has gradually become safer and safer for visitors.

What should be noted however is that Ecuador is geographically located along the ‘ring of fire.’ This is an area of incredible seismic activity, prone to tsunamis, earthquakes or even volcanic eruptions. While these natural disasters are very rare, it is still worthwhile familiarising yourself with the safety procedures in the event of an emergency and ensuring your travel insurance is up to date and covers any of these instances. 

With over 280 hosts in Ecuador, there are so many ways you can live like a local in this beautiful country. From guest houses on the beach to eco farms in the Amazon, teaching English in the city to going off grid, there are so many communities that would value your time and skills. Find your next host in Ecuador here.

  • Budget Hostel: Dorm $10.00 / Private room $20.00
  • Local beer: $2.00
  • Budget Restaurant per person: $13.00 for 3 courses
swinging solo female traveller jungle adventure

5. Bolivia

When searching for the cheapest country in South America, Bolivia usually comes up top. It is also considered one of the safest too! There is so much to see and do from the turquoise waters of Laguna Verda to the sea of pink dotted with flamingos at Laguna Colorada.

For those who like to explore the world on two wheels, head for the infamous North Yungas cycling trail.  Also nicknamed the Death Road, it leads down from the Bolivian capital of La Paz to the town of Coroico. Be warned however, an average of 300 travellers lose their lives on this treacherous route each year! While efforts have been made to make the route safer it is always important to ensure your travel insurance fully covers you for a risky activity like this!

If you’re searching for tranquillity instead of adrenaline,  head for the otherworldly landscape of Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Located in southwest Bolivia, it is the world’s largest salt flat and also home to flamingos! It is also possible to visit Lake Titicaca from Bolivia as it sits along the Peru-Bolivia border. This stunning natural attraction is of major religious importance to the local people. They believe it is the birthplace of God and that he rose from the lake to create the sun, stars, moon and people.

On a not so tranquil note, it is worth mentioning El Alto near to La Paz has a very bad reputation in terms of safety so travellers are encouraged to be extra vigilant if they visit. As Bolivia is located in the Andes Mountain range it’s great for hikers but not so great for altitude sickness. With many of the cities located high above sea level, it can take time for visitors to acclimatise so keep this in mind if you plan to visit (or that you may need to pay for specialist medication to help with altitude sickness.)

With over 50 hosts in Bolivia, volunteer opportunities mainly focus on a sustainable way of life. From permaculture to wildlife rehabilitation in the heart of the Amazon the Bolivian people are passionate about protecting their fragile ecosystems and preserving their natural surroundings.

  • Budget Hostel: $6.00 - $9.00 for a dorm / $25.00 for a private room in a budget hotel
  • Local beer: $1.50
  • Budget Restaurant per person: empanadas $1.00 / restaurant meal $4.00 - $8.00 / market lunch $2.00 - $3.00
optical illusion shot at uyuni salt flats with one traveller covering group with cap

6. Argentina

Surprised to see Argentina on the list of cheapest countries in South America? While it’s renowned for its steak and wine, it can still be an affordable destination for students. The bustling cosmopolitan Buenos Aires is easily one of the best South American cities to visit so deserves being squeezed onto this list.

While Buenos Aires is breathtaking and ideal for those also hoping to visit the beaches of Uruguay and Iguazu Falls, Mendoza is also a highlight. Mendoza is the capital of wine country as well as the starting point for climbing Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. Speaking of peaks, the multi-colored hills in Jujuy are also unmissable as well as the stunning mountain views in Patagonia.

Argentina is not the easiest place to travel if you’re vegan, as Argentines are famous for their asado (barbeque) where they consume a tremendous amount of beef, in particular steak and ribs.

If you’re wondering if Argentina is safe it is statistically one of the safest places in South America, even if you’re travelling solo. Although petty crime still occurs, this is usually in the major cities and it is actually one of the best countries in South America for those on a  budget as hitchhiking is common.

One thing to note on safety for Argentina is the threat of Dengue Fever, which is spread through mosquito bites. On a positive note, however, Argentina does offer free health care for all that is of a very high standard compared to other countries in South America. 

There are hundreds of hosts in Argentina offering a diverse range of opportunities. Whether you head for the hills or the city, there are so many reasons to share your skills with the friendly locals.

Argentina is famous for its national dance, the tango so it is a haven for those wanting to learn or share their dance knowledge. There is also an abundance of free public places to watch locals dance their day away. Other opportunities include projects in tourism, sustainability, farming, yoga, music and more.

  • Budget Hostel: $10.00 dorm / $13.00 in more touristy places like Mendoza. Camping is also common even in Patagonia with pitches costing around $5.00 per night.
  • Local beer: $1.70 or opt for wine which is understandably cheaper at $1.20
  • Budget Restaurant per person: empanadas $1.00 / restaurant meal $5.00
workawayer horseriding with host while exploring hills in Argentina


Hopefully you have found this guide to the cheapest countries in South America inspiring. Regardless of whether you’re a gap year student, planning for your next sabbatical or simply travelling on a shoestring, with Workaway we hope to encourage those of all budgets and backgrounds that travel is accessible. It is possible to visit these bucket list destinations without breaking the bank and more importantly, making priceless memories along the way. ;)

 

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About Lauren

Growing up in a small coastal village in Scotland inspired Lauren to seek adventure and challenge the norm. Armed with just her backpack and trusty travel companion Darren, she quit her day job to liv... show more...

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