6 budget-friendly destinations in South America for 2023

6 budget-friendly destinations in South America for 2023

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Where are the cheapest and most interesting places in South America? Do you want city life, beautiful scenery, or both? Here’s our guide to the best places in South America to travel to on the cheap

Obviously, there’s no way we can cover an entire continent, but for those of you who’ve decided that 2023 will be the year you visit South America, here are a few of our picks. From coastal resorts to mountain towns; big city vibes to backpacker favorites, here’s what you need to know for a trip to South America.

La Paz, Bolivia

Best for: backpacking on a budget

Of all the countries in South America, Bolivia is generally the cheapest for tourists, so naturally, La Paz should be on your list if you’re on a budget. The Bolivian capital is high up in the mountains, over 4,000m above sea level, and once you’ve got used to that, it’s time to do some exploring.

Witches' Market in La Paz at dusk — Getty ImagesIf you make it to La Paz, make sure you check out the creepy Witches’ Market — Getty Images

Whether you’re discovering the colonial buildings — including some fine churches — or some of the more curious local things such as the Witches’ Market (really), you’ll find something going on at street level. Exhausting hikes up apparently impossible inclines will often emerge onto peacefully pretty plazas that you had no idea existed beforehand, and the rapid expansion has brought a (sometimes) pleasing randomness to the place. After all that, and if you can’t face another climb, board the cable cars up and over the city for a magnificent view over the madness below.

Evening view of cable car over La Paz — Getty ImagesOnce you get used to the altitude, La Paz is a pretty spectacular place — Getty Images

As night falls, the adventures continue. Many experienced travelers say that La Paz has some of the best nightlife not only on the continent, but in the world. Whether it’s cocktail bars, underground live music clubs, banging techno nights, cozy wine bars or rooftop pool parties, there’s so much going on, and it’s one of the very reasons people intend to come for a week or so and then stay even longer!

Asunción, Paraguay

Best for: good vibes

Paraguay needs some love. Uruguay has its beautiful beaches, Argentina has food, wine and passion, Brazil dances to its samba beats, while Paraguay… Well, it should be appreciated more.

Large Asunción sign in the middle of the city — ShutterstockDon’t knock the Paraguayan capital ’til you’ve tried it — Shutterstock

Paraguay is routinely ranked one of the “happiest countries in the world“, mainly due to its philosophy of tranquilo pa — a combination of the Spanish word for ‘calm’ and the local Guaraní suffix pa. It’s kind of a combination of laid-back, happy and easygoing, but not so much that one neglects important things. It doesn’t mean no-work-and-all-play, but the idea that family, friendship, learning, work, and seeing the bright side of things should balance out, giving you a feeling of satisfaction with your lot in life.

The capital of Paraguay certainly feels like this. It’s not a big place — only around half a million people — but it’s a very young city (65% of its residents are under 30). And it’s certainly tranquilo pa; it’s not the most spectacular place you’ll ever visit, but it’s interesting, affordable, friendly, walkable, and relaxed.

Like La Paz, however, when the sun goes down, you’ll realize how a city this youthful can seem bigger than it is. You’ll always find something cool going on, but you’ll never have to drag yourself miles across the city to experience it. If you’re not quite ready for Rio de Janeiro, would find São Paulo intimidating, or think Buenos Aires is too obvious, try Asunción. You’ll be surprised.

Cartagena, Colombia

Best for: beach life

One of South America’s most beautiful cities, the Old Town of Cartagena is a Unesco World Heritage Site, containing beautiful churches, rows of colorful colonial houses and dramatic, fortified walls.

The city itself is considered rather an upmarket place, all things considered. There’s a wide selection of luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, but there are still plenty of budget options too, both in places to stay and in dining. Even sticking to the staples — meat, rice, fish, salad, things of that ilk — you’ll find meals that are satisfying, tasty and cheap.

Being situated on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena can be considered all things to all people. Want a beach holiday? You’ve come to the right place. Would you rather simply wander around, exploring the city? Perfect — it’s accessible, a great place to lose yourself, and teeming with history. Looking for street art, cool bars and local musicians? No worries — the area of Getsemaní, once a notorious drug- and crime-ridden locale is now one of South America’s coolest places to be.

It’s an amazing time to come and see a place that has seen it all, done it all, and not only survived, but reinvented itself as a thriving, colorful city that is a must-see for any South American adventure.

Canoa, Ecuador (and Ecuador in general)

Best for: meeting the locals

Surfer playing guitar on a tranquil beach — Getty ImagesSee a calmer side to the Ecudaorian coast in Canoa — Getty Images

The coast of Ecuador is becoming more and more well-known as a place to go and party, surf, and generally go crazy. If, however, you’d like to keep the beach vibe but don’t feel up to the endless madness, the small town of Canoa is the place to be. With hills on one side and empty beaches on the other, it’s a much more mellow proposition than a lot of other places. It’s more of a lie-on-the-sand-with-a-beer than a dance-’til-dawn sort of town and, in many ways, it’s the better for it. You’re more likely to be mixing with locals, and while the seafood is as good as anywhere else, the prices are lower.

The rest of the country stands up to further exploration as well, to be honest. It’s South America in microcosm: beaches on one side, the Andes in the middle, the Amazon in the east, as well as the Galápagos Islands (although this is an article about budget travel — you won’t get there on the cheap).

 

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The capital, Quito, is a 17th-century treasure trove of churches, mansions, avenues and plazas, while up in the Andes there are villages that continue their ancient way of life, farming, weaving, and trading at tumbledown market stalls. The ways of the people, as well as the land on which they live, are being protected (particularly when it comes to tourism), with the Ecuador Ama la Vida program promoting bio-tourism, environmental protection and cultural respect.

Wherever you go, you’ll find a country that knows where it’s come from, knows where it’s going, and has found a good balance between tradition and objective. It’s a rare and difficult thing to do, but slowly, Ecuador seems to be managing.

The Highlands, Peru

Best for: history buffs

Peru is the number one nation on a lot of South American travel lists, and with good reason. Cities like the capital, Lima, and the former Incan capital, Cusco are rightly famous, as is the legendary Machu Picchu, attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year. But we’re going to look at the wonders of the Andean highlands.

Alpaca in the Andean Highlands — Getty ImagesHave yourself the most “authentic” vacation in the Peruvian Highlands — Getty Images

We know that a lot of tourists are after an experience that is, to use that awful and overused word, “authentic”, and this part of the world is the closest you’ll get to it. English is spoken very infrequently, so your Spanish had better be at least okay (or use this as a learning opportunity), you’ll discover that the colorful clothes, rugs and hats are not gimmicks, but traditionally handmade and used with love, and that llamas are cooler in real life than in pictures on the internet.

Of course, there are many places to stop off on your jaunt, including the town of Cajamarca — (supposedly) a site of Incan royal bathing spots; Huánuco, normally a stop-off between Lima and the Amazon rainforest but well worth your time; the hot springs and hiking trails near Huancavelica; and numerous chances to explore mountains, valleys, plains, forests, caves — pretty much everything you could want, without virtually ever coming across another tourist. It’s as good as it gets.

Ybycuí National Park, Paraguay

Best for: jungle adventures

We’ve already mentioned Paraguay in this article, so we’re going to finish with a place that’s well within reach of Asunción: Ybycuí National Park. We’ll deal with the unusual name first — it means “sandy” in the local Guaraní language. So there you go.

Waterfall in Ybycuí National Park — Getty ImagesYbycuí National Park is within easy reach of the capital and affords some beautiful natural landscapes — Getty Images

It’s not difficult to get to from the capital. At around 150 kilometers away, it’s a straightforward drive and you’ll have no problem finding people willing to act as a taxi service. The park itself is a dense forest of tightly-canopied trees, rocky undergrowth, waterfalls and pools, all soundtracked by the numerous species of birds and monkeys that live there.

It’s not huge, but there are a number of routes to walk along, and you’re permitted to swim in some of the pools under the waterfalls, as well as take your own picnic if you so wish. It can sometimes get busy, but it shouldn’t ever be overwhelming.

The other curious aspect of the park is the remains of the Minas Kue armaments factory. During the Paraguayan War, this part of the park — being rich in iron ore — was mined, and the iron ore was smelted and used to make weapons and bullets. The smelting plant and factory are now both abandoned, but there’s a museum showing the history of the place as well as an overview of the conflict. It’s strange to contemplate a bloody struggle when surrounded by so much beauty, but it’s just another side to this unusual, compelling country.

 

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