17 South and Central American cities by price: Backpacker Index for 2023

Latin America continues to offer some of the best travel bargains in the world, and our 2023 update of the Backpacker Index for the region should help you choose the cheap places that you actually want to visit. Like most of the rest of the world, Latin America was hit hard by the pandemic, but as of early 2023 it is mostly open to visitors again with few or no restrictions.

Inflation of about 10% was common in most countries below, so they are in line with most of the rest of the world. Of course, Argentina continued with its inflation around 100% per year, and Venezuela is now so out of control that we finally removed Caracas from the list for the time being. Below you’ll find 17 of the most popular destinations in South and Central America (plus Mexico City for good measure) ranked by price from cheapest to most expensive.

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 2023

Note: All prices converted to US dollars in January, 2023

1 Quito, Ecuador (cheapest)

This high-altitude city with some of 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. As with most other places on this list, once you get outside the biggest city the prices tend to be even lower.

  • Currency: US dollar
  • Best cheap hostel: The Secret Garden Quito – 7.19/night
  • Transportation: 0.50
  • Meals: 12.00
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 6.00
  • Attractions: 2.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: US$27.69/day

>>Quito prices and weather

2La Paz, Bolivia

Speaking of high altitude, La Paz is in a similar situation to Quito (above) 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
  • Best cheap hostel: Wild Rover Hostel La Paz – 70.94/night
  • Transportation: 4.00
  • Meals: 82.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 24.00
  • Attractions: 15.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BOB196.74 = US$28.93/day

>>La Paz prices and weather

3Cusco, 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. Hostels here are plentiful and strangely cheap, so many people stay on longer than they originally planned. Cusco is a classic backpacker hangout and if the weather is decent you might encounter people who have stayed on for weeks longer than they had planned.

  • Currency: Peru nuevos sol
  • Best cheap hostel: Magicpacker Hostel – 19.87/night
  • Transportation: 8.00
  • Meals: 31.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 15.00
  • Attractions: 40.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: PEN114.67 = US$30.66/day

>>Cusco prices and weather

4Granada, Nicaragua

While Managua is the crowded capital of Nicaragua, Granada is arguably its top tourist destination for foreign visitors and backpackers. This colonial town is one of Central America’s best tourism bargains, with prices noticeably lower than in similar colonial towns in neighboring countries. There aren’t many hostels here yet so it’s wise to book ahead even though the existing hostels are quite cheap. There is a lot to see in Nicaragua and several other colonial towns worth visiting between the natural sights. That said, Nicaragua has become one of the countries whose citizens are leaving in droves due to political instability. The US State Department says “The government of Nicaragua arbitrarily enforces laws for political purposes.” That seems unlikely to affect the average backpacker, but it’s something to be aware of.

  • Currency: Nicaragua Cordoba
  • Best cheap hostel: De Boca en Boca – 323/night
  • Transportation: 30
  • Meals: 474
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 180
  • Attractions: 100
  • Daily Backpacker Index: NIO1,107 = US$30.82/day

>>Granada prices and weather

5Lima, 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. The central city area is also interesting and probably better for those who speak at least some Spanish. Lima is a good base to launch trips to Machu Picchu among many other worthwhile sights in this underrated country.

  • Currency: Peru nuevos sol
  • Best cheap hostel: Flying Dog Hostels Backpackers – 28.79/night
  • Transportation: 3.00
  • Meals: 34.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 24.00
  • Attractions: 30.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: PEN120.59 = US$32.24/day

>>Lima prices and weather

6Cartagena, Colombia

Colombia has been riding a tourism wave for the last few years, and that seems likely to continue, although in 2023 some things seem a bit less stable than before. In addition to it now being mostly safe, this country is a fantastic value for most foreigners. Cartagena is its main tourist hub, as it offers a gorgeous walled Colonial town not far from some pleasant Caribbean beaches and a cruise port. This is the best value Caribbean beach destination, as long as you don’t need white sand. If you are looking for mild weather and far fewer tourists you might also head to Medellin.

  • Currency: Colombian peso
  • Best cheap hostel: Viajero Cartagena Hostel – 75,757/night
  • Transportation: 4,600
  • Meals: 45,600
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 15,000
  • Attractions: 20,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: COP158,957 = US$32.62/day

>>Cartagena prices and weather

7Mexico City, Mexico

Obviously Mexico City is not even in Central America, but we include it here because it’s popular on tours around Latin America. In spite what you might have heard in the past, the huge central city part of Mexico City is modern, safe, and clean. It looks like one of the richer cities in North America and the food is terrific as long as you enjoy those local flavors. Few people speak English, but it’s loaded with highlights and a fantastic travel bargain. Mexico City is also at a high elevation so the weather is milder than you might expect, with cool summers that can be a relief after traveling through Central America.

  • Currency: Mexican peso
  • Best cheap hostel: Casa MX Alameda – 187/night
  • Transportation: 10
  • Meals: 336
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 150
  • Attractions: 75
  • Daily Backpacker Index: MXN758 = US$39.56/day

>>Mexico City prices and weather

8Santa Ana, El Salvador

Similar to most other Central American countries, the largest city (San Salvador) is not the best tourism destination compared to the smaller Santa Ana. This is another colonial city that is friendly and easier to deal with than the capital, and it’s easier to find English speakers here as well. Santa Ana is another travel bargain by international standards. Other smaller towns in San Salavador will generally be even a bit cheaper. Stay current on safety warnings before you go because this country is not among the safer ones in Central America. Even though Santa Ana is way down the list from Granada, it’s not really too much more expensive and these cities are all bunched up on the list.

  • Currency: US dollar
  • Best cheap hostel: Hostel Casa Verde Santa Ana – 14.16/night
  • Transportation: 0.50
  • Meals: 17.16
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 9.00
  • Attractions: 2.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: US$42.82/day

>>Santa Ana prices and weather

9Santiago, 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. Visitors to Santiago will probably also want to spend some time in the nearby Colonial beach town of Valparaiso.

  • Currency: Chilean peso
  • Best cheap hostel: Hostel Providencia – 12,911/night
  • Transportation: 1,320
  • Meals: 11,520
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 6,600
  • Attractions: 5,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: CLP37,351 = US$44.41/day

>>Santiago prices and weather

10Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The stunning city of Rio de Janeiro had actually gotten quite expensive for mid-market travelers, but in recent years the currency cooled off and it’s something of a bargain again. Fortunately, 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. You’ll find generally lower prices in the beach resort town of Recife, and a wide range in the enormous nearby city of Sao Paulo.

  • Currency: Brazilian real
  • Best cheap hostel: Mambembe Hostel – 60/night
  • Transportation: 8.20
  • Meals: 80.40
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 30.00
  • Attractions: 60.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BRL238.60 = US$45.62/day

>>Rio de Janeiro prices and weather

11San 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. Costa Rica has actually become more expensive recently as its currency went up quite a bit during 2023. Still, Costa Rica tends to be the safest and best organized country in Central America, so it’s the best choice for many. If you are looking for more of a mid-priced beach area you might consider flying into Liberia Airport and visiting the Guanacaste region.

  • Currency: Costa Rican colone
  • Best cheap hostel: In The Wind Hostel & Guesthouse – 7,695/night
  • Transportation: 500
  • Meals: 7,860
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 3,600
  • Attractions: 7,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: CRC26,655 = US$45.88/day

>>San Jose prices and weather

12Antigua, 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
  • Best cheap hostel: Tropicana Hostel – 83.56/night
  • Transportation: 16
  • Meals: 144.00
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 81
  • Attractions: 40
  • Daily Backpacker Index: GTQ364.56 = US$47.22/day

>>Antigua prices and weather

13Panama 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 relatively 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. Panama’s San Blas islands in the Caribbean are becoming a trendy winter destination and they even have some fairly basic overwater bungalows there with luxury ones being built.

  • Currency: Panama Balboa/US dollar
  • Best cheap hostel: Hostal Casa Areka – 13.00/night
  • Transportation: 0.70
  • Meals: 16.80
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 7.50
  • Attractions: 10.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index = US$48.00/day

>>Panama City prices and weather

14Buenos Aires, Argentina

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 continues to run at insanely high levels so prices of food and drinks can be hard to predict in local currency. In recent years inflation has outrun the devaluation in the local currency, so it had become a bit more expensive for tourists, although still good value. You’ve probably heard about the amazing food scene and especially the local beef, and it’s all true. As of 2023 the whole country is an amazing bargain, at least until inflation gets even worse. Do your research and you’ll learn that bringing pristine US dollars with you will get you amazing deals on everything. All of the prices quoted below are using the “official exchange rate” and if you bring cash and research the “Blue rate” you can literally get everything for half the price, making Buenos Aires among the cheapest cities in Latin America.

  • Currency: Argentine peso
  • Best cheap hostel: Rayuela Hostel Boutique – 2,161/night
  • Transportation: 15.00
  • Meals: 3,960
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 1,800
  • Attractions: 1,000
  • Daily Backpacker Index: ARS8,936 = US$49.85/day

>>>Buenos Aires prices and weather

Argentina has several other key tourist cities to consider including the beach resort of Mar del Plata, the wine region of Mendoza, and the Alpine-style mountain resort of Bariloche.

15Montevideo, Uruguay

This city feels like a slightly-worse and less special version of its neighbor (Buenos Aires), although the economy here has been more stable. 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 such as the famous Punta del Este can be very expensive, at least by South American standards.

  • Currency:
  • Best cheap hostel: Viajero Montevideo Hostel – 673/night
  • Transportation: 66
  • Meals: 768
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 360
  • Attractions: 150
  • Daily Backpacker Index: UYU2,017 = US$51.41/day

>>Montevideo prices and weather

16Roatán Island, Honduras

Roatán 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
  • Best cheap hostel: Roatan Backpacker’s Hostel – 347/night per person
  • Transportation: 66
  • Meals: 768
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 360
  • Attractions: 150
  • Daily Backpacker Index: HNL2,017 = US$60.38/day

>>Roatán Island prices and weather

17 San Pedro/Ambergris Caye, Belize

First off, “backpackers” are probably better off on the nearby island of Caye Caulker, since Ambergris Caye (where San Pedro is the main town) only has a few hostels. 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. As long as you don’t need expansive sandy beaches (because Belize has few of those) this is a good bargain in the Caribbean for independent travelers.

  • Currency: Belizian dollar
  • Best cheap hostel: Sandbar Beachfront Hostel – 28.42/night
  • Transportation: 6.00
  • Meals: 63.60
  • Drinks/Entertainment: 30.00
  • Attractions: 10.00
  • Daily Backpacker Index: BZD121.81 = US$69.71/day

>>San Pedro prices and weather

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All Comments

  1. Troy Bjorkman says:

    What about El Salvador? It is certainly cheaper than Belize, is it not?

    1. Roger Wade says:


      Yes, El Salvador is mostly cheaper than Belize. It’s just that we haven’t included it on this list so far because it’s not a very popular destination with most people. We will be adding a couple new Central America cities very soon, however, so thanks for bringing it up again. -Roger

  2. Sara says:

    I suggest that you cover Nicaragua – which ranks as one of the safest Latin American countries – in your listings. Granada, Leon, San Juan del Sur and many other Nicaraguan destinations get plenty of backpackers. Many economical options are available.

    1. Roger Wade says:


      I’ve been considering adding Granada to the list, and perhaps one or two other Central American cities in the next update. Thank you for the suggestion as it’s another vote for more in that area. -Roger

  3. nohumboldt says:

    could some of you experienced south american traverlers reccomend somewhere plz. id like to go as economical as possible, travel during off season, looking for white beaches and maybe some archeologic sites. i dont need a fancy resort. any suggestions appreciated. thanks

    1. Roger Wade says:


      Believe it or not, finding white beaches in South America isn’t easy. There are many affordable places in Colombia, including Cartagena, but the beaches are somewhere between sand and dirt. Brazil has many beautiful white-sand beaches, but it’s not too cheap. If you don’t mind being on sand that isn’t pristine, I’d suggest Colombia for the best value. Hopefully someone else will offer more options. -Roger

  4. Carol says:

    I love this site,readed all and is very clear to understand, i’m agree with “Quito is the cheapest city for travel in SouthAmerica” I live in Guayaquil-Ecuador and the prices are similar,i love go to Quito by the weather; for the people that want to come to Ecuador -Are welcome c:
    It helped me a lot,I will study in La Paz-Bolivia the next year so with this is easy imagine the costs. Thanks.

  5. Andres says:

    I think this is the point of view of a single, unknown person. Please check the info with more backpackers!

    1. Roger Wade says:


      A lot of work goes into the Backpacker Index and most of it isn’t subjective. Specifically, what problems or inconsistencies have you found? It’s impossible to try to improve if the only comment is, “your opinion is wrong.” Thanks. -Roger

  6. blaise says:

    Like your site Roger. I’m a septuagenian…i think. Stated my backpacking days after business travel in the late 80s…dyslexia hit me in mind & body but…i’m a happy trekker

  7. Bhabani Charan Das says:

    We are senior Indian citizens couple aged 80 and 76 respectively and wish to tour south and central america but due to old age we doubt whether we would be able to tour backpack. In such circumstances we have to depend on reliable person who can make a dependable tour package in minimum cost so that the principal attractions may be visited. Any help to guide us in this respect is solicited.Professional tour operator generally fleece ,so not wanted

    1. Roger Wade says:


      I understand your situation, and unfortunately I don’t think I will be of much help. I agree with you that doing this on your own would be tricky because there are very few trains in this region and the buses can be confusing (and uncomfortable if you take the public buses). There are many tour companies and hopefully you can find one that specializes in tours for older travelers. It’s just not anything I know enough about to provide good advice. Best of luck. -Roger

  8. jim douglas says:

    Enjoyed the list. I found Nicaragua to be cheaper than anywhere I’ve traveled in the world with private rooms under $10, lunch at a marketplace on the water for $1, inter-city bus fare or taxi for $1. Managua is more expensive then the smaller towns, but still a bargain.

    1. Megan says:

      Hi roger,
      How about Managua? Any other recommendations in Nicaragua around late may-beginning of August? Is it typical for the price of airfare Bought now to be around ~$600 one way? Should i hold out?
      Also, out of curiosity; if you had to venture a guess, what would the black market currency be worth against the official? And how does it fluctuate daily/weekly?

      1. Roger Wade says:


        I’ve not been to Nicaragua at all, and I haven’t heard many good things about Managua unless you are a real Central America completist. Most people agree that Granada is the better destination if you have to pick one city there. And I haven’t followed the black market exchange rate at all. I’ll answer your other questions on other articles now. -Roger

  9. Jeannette says:

    Hello Roger

    Thank you for the time taken to gather all this helpful information for us tourist. Also for thinking about adding Mexico city into the list. I dont know if you have ever been to Guadalajara city.. in Mexico. If not I encourage you to do so!! Its a beautiful safe place with lots of warm and friendly people.

  10. Abigail says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for the info. It’s very helpful in planning my trip to South America. I admire your patience with some people as well. Cheers