16 South and Central American cities by price: Backpacker Index for 2014

Rio De JaneiroEven though the region is ignored by many North American and European tourists, Latin America has plenty to brag about for visitors, including generally low prices. The South America and Central America Backpacker Index has been fully updated for 2014, and it continues to prove that this region is a bargain once you get here.

We added Roatán Island, Honduras to reflect its increasing popularity this year. Generally prices were fairly stable in this part of the world over the past year, and a few currencies such as the Brazilian Real have come down, so it’s mostly good news for the rest of us. Things in Argentina have become less stable, however, now with a dual exchange rate not unlike the one in Venezuela.

How the Backpacker Index works

Prices for most things are fixed and certain, but prices for a “budget lunch” or a pint of beer can vary depending on whom you ask. Still, our estimates are based on a lot of research, and should be very close if not right on.

Costs for each city

  • One night in the cheapest bunk at the least expensive hostel with a good location and good reviews
  • Two public transportation rides per day
  • One paid/famous attraction per day (Every city is loaded with free things to do for budget-conscious travelers, but here we take the average cost of a major attraction in each city for each day.)
  • Three “budget” meals per day.
  • Three cheap, local beers each day as an “entertainment fund.” Non-drinkers might have dessert and coffee or attend a local music performance instead, so this is a general benchmark that should be proportional for each city.

Price of Travel’s South & Central American Backpacker Index for 2014

Note: All prices converted to US dollars in early January, 2014

1 – La Paz, Bolivia (cheapest)

Speaking of high altitude, La Paz is in a similar situation to Quito (below) with its climate, and it’s also very cheap for tourists by international standards. Of course, once you get outside the big city, prices tend to be even lower, but in this part of South America the tourist infrastructure can be lacking unless you are in the popular cities.

  • Currency: Boliviano
  • Cheap/good hostel: Loki Backpackers La Paz – 35.10/night
  • Transportation: 2.60
  • Meals: 78.00
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 18.00
  • Attractions: 20.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BOB153.70 = US$22.24/day

>>>La Paz prices and weather

2 – Quito, Ecuador

This high-altitude city with what might be the world’s most consistent weather is an excellent travel bargain. Unfortunately, it’s not too easy to reach, so it tends to get most visits from people touring the whole region. Those who make the effort will be rewarded with spring-like weather all year, and very low prices for almost everything.

  • Currency: US dollar
  • Cheap/good hostel: Blue House – 9/night
  • Transportation: 0.50
  • Meals: 7.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 3.00
  • Attractions: 2.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: US$22.30/day

>>>Quito prices and weather

3 – Cusco, Peru

Those planning to see the amazing Machu Picchu ruins will start their trips in Cusco, so fortunately this is a great tourist town in its own right. There’s plenty to see and do in the city and in the general area, and there’s almost no end to the amount of affordable accommodations available. With most things being as cheap as they are, this is a wonderful town to just chill out in for a while if your schedule permits. Be aware that the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu admission are VERY expensive compared to everything else.

  • Currency: Peru nuevos sol
  • Cheap/good hostel: The Point Cusco – 21.88/night
  • Transportation: 4.00
  • Meals: 22.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 9.00
  • Attractions: 18.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: PEN75.68 = US$27.03/day

>>>Cusco prices and weather

4 – Panama City, Panama

Just as Colombia is getting a lot of attention recently, Panama is the new “in” place to go in Central America. The large capital is perhaps the only real major international city in the region, so you’ve got your choice of nightlife and interesting dining and cultural experiences, all at a very low cost. Some nearby resort areas are also great bargains for those who just want to sit on the beach, so Panama should continue on the upswing for some time to come.

  • Currency: Panama Balboa/US dollar
  • Cheap/good hostel: Los Mostros Hostel – 11.82/night
  • Transportation: 0.50
  • Meals: 9.00
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 2.40
  • Attractions: 4.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index = US$27.72/day

>>>Panama City prices and weather

5 – Lima, Peru

Lima can be a surprising city to many who first visit, with lots of great colonial architecture combined with a vibrant big-city nightlife scene and a European-style way of life. The Miraflores suburb just on the coast is where you’ll find most of the hotels and guesthouses, and fortunately things there are still quite cheap in spite of the slightly posh vibe.

  • Currency: Peru nuevos sol
  • Cheap/good hostel: Happy Up Here Guesthouse – 16.83/night
  • Transportation: 3.00
  • Meals: 22.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 15.00
  • Attractions: 30.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: PEN87.63 = US$31.30/day

>>>Lima prices and weather

6 – San Jose, Costa Rica

Only highlighting San Jose in Costa Rica on this list is a bit unfair, mostly since few tourists spend more than one night here on their way to the beach or resort cities elsewhere in the country. Budget travelers can do well in Costa Rica if they are careful, but generally it’s more expensive than anywhere else in the region, and things like canopy tours or surfboard rental can add a lot to the cost of a visit.

  • Currency: Costa Rican colone
  • Cheap/good hostel: Costa Rica Love – 3,400/night
  • Transportation: 400
  • Meals: 5,400
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 2,250
  • Attractions: 4,500
  • Daily Backpacker Index: CRC15,950 = US$31.89/day

>>>San Jose prices and weather

7 – Mexico City, Mexico

Obviously Mexico City is not even in Central America, but we thought we’d include it here for comparison’s sake and also because many long-term travelers string it onto the beginning or end of a larger trip to the region. This huge metropolitan area can sound intimidating or out-of-control based on how it’s usually described, but the central tourist district is very nice, and even trendy, and continues to be a very worthwhile travel bargain.

  • Currency: Mexican peso
  • Cheap/good hostel: Hostel Amigo Suites Downtown – 142.80/night
  • Transportation: 10
  • Meals: 156
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 60
  • Attractions: 59
  • Daily Backpacker Index: MXN427.80 = US$32.83/day

>>>Mexico City prices and weather

8 – Montevideo, Uruguay

This city feels like a slightly-worse and less special version of its neighbor (Buenos Aires), so it’s a good thing it’s also a relative bargain. Many museums are free to enter, making it even a bit cheaper than it would otherwise appear. Montevideo might be worth a couple of days for those touring the region, but it’s not really a place to dwell unless you have a specific reason. Smaller towns in Uruguay, including Colonia, tend to be a bit cheaper, while the beach resorts can be very expensive.

  • Currency:
  • Cheap/good hostel: Splendido Hotel – 208.44/night
  • Transportation: 40
  • Meals: 276
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 120
  • Attractions: 70
  • Daily Backpacker Index: UYU716.75 = US$34.05/day

>>>Montevideo prices and weather

9 – Santiago, Chile

Being one of the largest cities in South America, it’s not too surprising that Santiago isn’t quite as cheap as some of the others, but still it’s a great bargain compared to almost anywhere in North America or Europe. This is often just a jumping-off point for other cities and sights in Chile, and most others tend to be even a bit cheaper.

  • Currency: Chilean peso
  • Cheap/good hostel: Plaza de Armas Hostel – 6,530/night
  • Transportation: 1,040
  • Meals: 6,240
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 2,400
  • Attractions: 3,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: CLP19,390 = US$36.52/day

>>>Santiago prices and weather

10 – Cartagena, Colombia

Colombia has been riding a tourism wave for the last few years, and that seems likely to continue. In addition to it now being mostly safe, this country is a fantastic value for most foreigners. Cartagena is its main tourist hub, but prices are similar or even lower in some of the other larger cities and beach resorts, so it can feel as cheap as Mexico used to before it got so built up in recent decades.

  • Currency: Colombian peso
  • Cheap/good hostel: El Viajero Cartagena Hostel – 30,000/night
  • Transportation: 2,800
  • Meals: 14,400
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 7,500
  • Attractions: 17,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: COP71,700 = US$37.13/day

>>>Cartagena prices and weather

11 – Antigua, Guatemala

This charming colonial town in Guatemala would be higher up the cheapness list if not for the fact that the main attractions, including trekking to nearby volcanoes and such, tend to be relatively expensive. Still, it’s all worth it, and Antigua really is a great bargain destination, as well as being a far better alternative to nearby Guatemala City.

  • Currency: Guatemalan quetzal
  • Cheap/good hostel: Hostal Antigua – 109.25/night
  • Transportation: 10
  • Meals: 91.20
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 45
  • Attractions: 40
  • Daily Backpacker Index: GTQ295.45 = US$37.45/day

>>>Antigua prices and weather

12 – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires remains a relative travel bargain, but prices continue to creep up even more rapidly than the currency weakens, so it’s definitely more expensive than it has been in recent years. Easily the most European city in South America, Buenos Aires is hard to compare to others in the region. When compared to Madrid or Barcelona this city is cheap and just as wonderful, but inflation and a slow economy might mean that the good times are ending for a while. As of now there are two exchange rates, with the “blue rate” a better deal for those with Dollars or Euros compared to the official rate from banks.

  • Currency: Argentine peso
  • Cheap/good hostel: Hostal Tercero Del Sur – 60.00/night
  • Transportation: 7.00
  • Meals: 105.60
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 54.00
  • Attractions: 75.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: ARS301.60 = US$45.70/day

>>>Buenos Aires prices and weather

13 – San Pedro, Belize

First off, “backpackers” are probably better off on the nearby island of Caye Caulker, since Ambergris Caye (where San Pedro is) has no real hostels or similar businesses. Most everything else between Caye Caulker and San Pedro are the same though, so this shows that Belize is one of the more expensive places in the region, even if it’s still quite reasonable.

  • Currency: Belizian dollar
  • Cheap/good hostel: Pedro’s Inn Backpacker Hostel – 24.82/night
  • Transportation: 6.00
  • Meals: 43.20
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 15.00
  • Attractions: 10.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BZD99.08 = US$49.54/day

>>>San Pedro prices and weather

14 – Roatán Island, Honduras

RoatanRoatán Island is a relative newcomer to the tourism scene, but it’s become popular quickly for its excellent diving and snorkeling along with sandy beaches and a Caribbean vibe. Cruise ships now stop here and that has also changed the complexion of the island, making it far more commercial. It’s close to the islands of Belize, with better beaches but similar prices in general.

  • Currency: Honduras Lempira
  • Cheap/good hostel: Hostel la Buena Onda – 383.70/night per person
  • Transportation: 44
  • Meals: 408
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 150
  • Attractions: 60
  • Daily Backpacker Index: HNL1,045.70 = US$51.90/day

>>>Roatán Island prices and weather

15 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de JaneiroThe stunning city of Rio de Janeiro has actually gotten quite expensive for mid-market travelers, as hotels and tourist restaurants keep moving up. However, backpackers can still find cheap hostels, and sitting on one of the gorgeous beaches is still free (and the cold beers on the beach are still fairly cheap), but the main attractions are anything but. Those wanting to take the cable car up Sugarloaf or the train up to Corcovado (and you have to do both) might need an extra trip to the ATM beforehand.

  • Currency: Brazilian real
  • Cheap/good hostel: CaipiHostel – 30.00/night
  • Transportation: 6.40
  • Meals: 45.60
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 15.00
  • Attractions: 30.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BRL127.00 = US$53.59/day

>>>Rio de Janeiro prices and weather

16 – Caracas, Venezuela

With an unfortunate reputation for being dangerous, Caracas is also by far the most expensive city on this list, though it doesn’t have to be. The policies by the government include many parallel exchange rates, plus there’s a currency black market where tourists can often get double the normal rate, so a daring and savvy visitor might cut these prices in half. Still, there are no hostels and barely any tourist infrastructure in Caracas. Travelers concentrating on other parts of Venezuela are often rewarded with a unique experience, provided they do their research.

  • Currency: Venezuelan bolivares fuertes
  • Cheap/good hostel: Hotel Vistavila Suites (splitting a double room) – 450/night per person
  • Transportation: 3
  • Meals: 84
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 18
  • Attractions: 25
  • Daily Backpacker Index: VEF600 = US$95.39/day

>>>Caracas prices and weather

Also check out Backpacker Indexes from the rest of the world



19 Responses to “16 South and Central American cities by price: Backpacker Index for 2014”

Excellent article. I have been to each of these places and many more. South America in general is a very affordable place to spend a vacation.

 
Rafael says:

Good article! But the list is not enough. We have much more touristic cities in South America. I can list 15 amazing cities just in Brazil. Try to do the same research unless for the World Cup cities.

 

    Rafael, thank you for the kind words, and I agree that this article only scratches the surface of popular destinations in Latin America. The thing is, this is meant to be a tool to help plan and budget for trips rather than a world travel guide. Still, I’ll try to add at least a few more places this year. -Roger

     
Aracelia says:

Mexico city is not part of Central or South America. Mexico is part North America….

 

    Aracelia, yes, I know where Mexico City is. It was included here because it’s more commonly included on tours of Latin America than on tours of the US and Canada. That’s actually the first sentence of the Mexico City description, and if you’d read it you could have saved us both the trouble. I appreciate the tip though. -Roger

     
Karl says:

Hi, thanks for this awesome review! Do you have any recommendations of spiritual experiences or places that I can visit while i’m there? Thanks a lot!

 
Erick says:

Have loved your list for sometime. I think it may be due for an update though. I’m currently in Santiago. Spent a month and a half in BA. And have recently visited Montevideo and Cali. I tend to agree BUT it really should be noted that BA has two totally separate economies going at the same time. The blue market makes it FAR better value than many listed above it. It’s bizarre and frustrating but you can’t argue when the official rate is 5.2 and the blue market rate is 9.1. Changes the entire dynamic of budgeting.

 

    Erick,

    Thanks for the update on Buenos Aires. I’ll have to research it more and write about it in the description. As you probably know, Venezuela has something similar, which makes this an even more frightening development for Argentina. -Roger

     
Dennis says:

Whom ever wrote this article must have not ever been to Miraflores. I am a retired American living here and my opinion is quite the opposite. I believe the food here is more expensive than in the USA. They do not give refills on coffee, sodas, hot and ice tea. Personally I spend about 10.00 per day just on coffee. Prices are about 2.50 per cup. Sure if you eat at a menu restaurant for 10 or 11 soles (4.00)and stay in a dump in an unsafe area you might be able to achieve the price mentioned in this article. But come on if you spend approximately a $1,000 for the flight just to get to Lima do you really want to eat in the menu restaurants and stay in a dump? The nicer places have a cover charge, there is also 10% to 13% service charge, and not to mention the 18% tax on everything. Taxi service from Miraflores to downtown Lima is approximately 5.00 dollars, to the San Miguel area about 7.00 dollars. In closing Miraflores is not a cheap place and if you want to go to Machu Picchu it is another $1,000.00 (per couple).

 

    Dennis,

    I have actually been to Miraflores, although not in the last couple of years. I do appreciate your comments and the information about prices at more typical tourist places. What I think you’ve missed is that this whole list is about comparing cities for the backpacking crowd. They stay in hostel dorms and look for cheap meals and drinks when they go out. The reason to do this is to travel for many weeks, months, or years at a time. In other words, this isn’t based on someone flying in from Europe or North America just to visit Peru, it’s for someone touring South America.

    The reason it’s this way is that it’s easy to spend freely on food and lodging anywhere in the world, but for those trying to keep costs down, some places are much cheaper than others. This list and the other Backpacker Indexes compare each city on that basis, even though many people will obviously choose to spend more. In Europe we have a 3-star Traveler Index and that would probably suit you better. It will debut for Asia in 2014 as well, but unfortunately not for South America soon. -Roger

     
Gareth Craig says:

Thanks very much for this article Roger it is extremely Helpful. I am a Backpacker and i will fly to the Rio carnival in 3 weeks before traveling around South America until the World Cup in June. Just one question: I see that this article has been updated on the 7th Jan this year but i seen the first comment was left in December 2012. Does this mean u have just updated the Prices on the Original Article to prices in 2014? I know the prices will go up in Brazil during the World Cup but this gives me a good idea off what i can live on. Luckily i have friends to stay with in Rio and Belo Horizone

Gareth

 
    Gareth Craig says:

    Sorry i see the answer to my question:
    “Note: All prices converted to US dollars in early January, 2014″

    It is all within the budget i have set myself so Happy Days :-)

     

    Gareth,

    I’m glad you saw that. Yes, all prices are updated at the beginning of each year, including just a few weeks ago. I’ve been to Rio during Carnival and it’s really only hotels that shoot way up in price. A huge majority of people celebrating there are Brazilians, so restaurants and such don’t really raise prices then. However, during World Cup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see other prices go up as well. -Roger

     
Jorge says:

Not good with Argentina. REALLY.

I’m from Chile, and going to Buenos Aires is much cheaper than going anywhere here. Cause the Official Exchange Rate is something that you just don’t see. REALLY. Unless you make efforts to pay more, it has no sense to use the official exchange rate cause nobody use it.

Anyway, three budget meals per day, is 50, or 65 if you want, but no 105, no, never. And I’m telling you that I pay good Pizzas and nice restaurants in Buenos Aires. Attractions for 75? Well no idea, can you point out what attraction you use? Cause just Teatro Colón is an expensive attraction.

However, I dont want to sound rude, but I’ve seen in a lot of tourism-related sites that Buenos Aires is getting more and more expensive, and that’s not true. With a 11 to 13 exchange rate to USD, is not. And usually this site dont make that kind of mistakes, so because of that is my critic.

PS: Really good job with Santiago xD. I live here and apart from the Transportation (That’s the bus fare, and to move around the touristic parts, and well.. almost everywhere, we use the subway, that’s a little more expensive) everything is okay.
PS2: Sorry for my English jaja

 

    Jorge,

    Thank you for the comment. Argentina has become problematic for this site, to go along with Venezuela that has been complicated for at least a few years. The dual exchange rates in particular make it tough because the database checks the official exchange rate every hour or so, and the local rate is much harder to keep track of. Also, most people will shop for a hotel or hostel online, and pay with a credit card, so I think the official rate is still meaningful.

    I’ve written about the dual exchange rates on the site, but I can’t just assume that EVERYONE will be able to change ALL of their travel money at the best rate. I have no doubt that a frequent visitor from Chile knows how to get the best exchange rate as well as find the better bargains. I’m less sure that a first-time visitor can find all the same deals. So my options were to inflate some prices to get the daily total fairly close to accurate, or use lower prices and assume that everyone will be able to change all of their money at the best rate. Either way, it’s a bit misleading. The same sad phenomenon makes Caracas seem insanely expensive, even though the different exchange rates are even more public, from what everyone says.

    And hotel and hostel prices are what they are, and they are updated every January. Are you able to reserve rooms or beds with a credit card and get the better exchange rate? If that’s easy I might change my information again. Anyway, I really do appreciate the comments (positive and negative) and I really hope the currency in Argentina stabilizes because this dual exchange rate policy is only making things worse, especially for tourists. -Roger

     
Nicolás says:

I’m from Argentina, and you are OK with everything Roger. Great article.

 
Eddie Cardoso says:

GREAT JOB ROGER ,IM FROM BRAZIL AND I THINK EVERYTHING IS RIGHT ON THE MONEY , THE ONLY OTHER THING I WOULD BRING UP IS BE VERY CARE-FULL , PAY ATTENTION ,BRAZIL IS A VERY DANGER PLACE TO BE , IT MAKES ME SAD TO SAY THAT BUT EVEN BEEN BORN IN BRAZIL I DONT FEEL SAFE WHEN IM THERE.

 

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