South America on a Shoestring: Nine Tips for the Adventure Traveler

editor’s note: I’m happy to announce a new addition to our team, New Orleans-based writer and traveler extraordinaire, Holly Devon.

Crossing river with canoes in South American jungle. Vintage print, circa 1873.

  1. Initially plan your trip around which places you’d like to go, rather than what is realistic given your financial constraints. Only start budget planning once you’ve arrived in South America, and necessity will quickly mother invention.
  2. Forgo youth hostels whenever possible, and try instead to find a local willing to put you up. The friend of a friend is your best friend, as it is always less psychologically taxing to stay with a stranger who has been vouched for. Bear in mind, however, that everyone defines friendship differently, and so you may be subjected to at least twenty-four hours of excruciatingly dull small talk with someone who is more like a passing acquaintance of a friend.
  3. Never pay for a novelty tour whose equivalent is available for free. For instance, why go on an organized mine tour in Potosi, Bolivia, when on any given day there are a number of small towns where you can find miners drinking through their off days in the central plaza? They’ll be more than happy to take you down a mine shaft gratis, and will probably even throw in a few beers.
  4. Take advantage of South America’s rather porous borders and sneak into any country where a visa costs over $100. Warning: not advisable unless you have both a willingness to sleep al fresco on frigid mountain tops and sufficient Spanish  proficiency to sweet talk border patrol if need be.
  5. If you are traveling to a popular local festival, don’t worry about making hotel reservations ahead of time. The lack of available accommodations will add an authentic touch of desperation to your general air of financial strain, and your situation will likely evoke enough pity to score a back room or spare manger for the duration of the festival.
  6. Couchsurf whenever you can, since it’s a good way to make new friends and stay somewhere for free. Beware, however, of wealthy hosts who want to celebrate your arrival with a night on the town, taking you to their favorite bar at happy hour before you have the chance to calculate the exchange rate. Note that Chile is not the place for impulse purchases; mojitos there cost about as much as the ones from the hipster bars back home.
  7. Chart a route which steers clear of a country’s main tourist attractions, which are astronomically expensive without exception, and find a low cost alternative. For instance, instead of flocking to Machu Picchu with the rest of the gringo herd, hop on one of the local commuter buses which traverse the same verdant Andean mountains daily to towns with their own authentic, if more modest, ruins. The five dollar ride gives you hours of breathtaking scenery every bit the stuff of your South American fantasies. I would suggest you avoid looking down as the vehicle winds along the narrow mountain paths, lest you catch sight of the remains of a bus identical to yours littering the bottom of the ravine.
  8. If unexpected costs crop up, you can always renegotiate your food budget- bananas and bread are the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions. Be aware that if your bus makes a stop at one of the roadside kitchens scattered ubiquitously along South American bus routes, and you do not order a complete meal, your seat mate will invariably insist on treating you. While you’ll be grateful for what is likely the most sustenance you’ve had in days, you might later suffer from the gnawing guilt of being such a cheapskate in a country whose GDP is less than the annual net profits of the company which manufactured the belt you’ve been steadily tightening.
  9. Ladies: renounce the luxury of regularly laundered clothes. Although no one really wants to wear a t-shirt which smells like a thirty hour bus ride, dirty clothing can serve to ward off the attentions of pushy male travel companions. When a casual conversation at a bus station leads to a hotel room shared in the name of pragmatism, an odorous t-shirt can be your best defense in the art of evasion.


3 Responses to “South America on a Shoestring: Nine Tips for the Adventure Traveler”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. I rather liked the mine tour of Potosi. You’re suggesting getting a drunk mine worker to guide me down a dark hole instead?! :)

  2. -El Codo- says:


    Sounds like a recipe for getting shafted…

  3. churpa says:

    Codo, perhaps you missed the tongue in cheek nature of this post. The author originally titled it, “10 Decidedly Fun Things I Should Probably Never Do Again.”