We know students are on a budget when they travel, but that doesn’t mean your trip has to be boring! We’ve put together a list of our favorite cities for backpacking in Central and South America, along with the top things to see in each destination. You can spend under $50 USD a day in each of these cities on a hostel, two public transportation rides, one attraction, three meals and three beers.
1. La Paz, Bolivia
Death Road – bike down the world’s most dangerous road from the outskirts of La Paz to Coroico. Experience breathtaking views from snowcapped mountain tops to a tropical rainforest, all in one ride. We recommend choosing a company with a good safety record, one of them being Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking.
Valle de La Luna – considered one of the driest deserts in the world, Valle de La Luna contains natural beauty and a landscape that will take your breath away. Strange rock structures resemble something you might see on the moon, which makes sense since the name literally translates to “Valley of the Moon.”
Witches’ Market – find something unusual at this open air market, displaying herbal medicines and superstitious artifacts and trinkets.
2. Quito, Ecuador
Cotopaxi National Park – Cotopaxi is the second highest summit in Ecuador, the volcano’s snow capped peak being clearly visible from Quito. Hike around Laguna de Limpiopungo, up to the Refugio Jose Rivas and up to the glacier.
Middle of the World – stand in both the northern and southern hemisphere at the same time! Take the corniest tourist picture you can think of to share with your friends of you standing on the equator line.
Otavalo Market – there’s no better place to purchase local arts, crafts and clothing made by Ecuador’s indigenous people. Every Saturday you can browse a wide array of jewelry, wood and stone carvings, woven clothing and even animals for sale.
3. Cuzco, Peru
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – consisting of three overlapping trails (Mollepata, Classic and One Day), these routes along the Andes mountain range will bring you through several types of environments, including: a cloud forest and alpine tundra.
Sacsayhuaman – often overshadowed by Machu Picchu, this ancient Incan fortress won’t leave you disappointed! The site is filled with exquisite stone masonry forming zig-zagged rows of walls.
Sacred Valley – also known as Urubamba Valley, this luscious green area is fed by numerous rivers and contains numerous archaeological remains and villages.
4. Panama City, Panama
Panama Canal – this brilliant feat of engineering created a way for ships to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean without having to sail all the way around South America. Watch the ships enter and exit at the Miraflores Locks to see how the canal operates.
Panama Viejo – this landmark is the remaining part of the old Panama City and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ancon Hill – the road up the hill is a popular hiking path and has three great lookout points for picturesque views of the skyline and buildings. You may even see a sloth, armadillo or deer on your trek up the hill.
5. San Jose, Costa Rica
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum – take a look into Costa Rica’s past by examining these fascinating gold displays. The artefacts are organized so visitors can put them into historical context.
Celeste River – the river is located in Tenorio Volcano National Park and is notable for its distinctive turquoise coloration. The river also borders several hot springs and has one large waterfall.
Arenal Volcano – the volcano is located at the center of Arenal Volcano National Park, where you can trek up the volcano, explore the tropical forest and swim in Lake Arenal.
6. Santiago, Chile
Cerro Santa Lucia – this hill is adorned with wonderful facades, fountains and stairways (including Terraza Neptuno) and provides a panoramic view of Santiago.
Cerro San Cristobal – this hill is the highest point of Santiago and provides unbeatable views of the towering Andes mountain range in the distance that seem to dwarf the city.
Lagunillas – if you’re looking to hit the slopes, this is the closest and cheapest ski resort located in Cajon de Maipo. It is good choice for beginners and those traveling on a budget.
7. Cartagena, Colombia
Barajas Castle – the massive castle fort was used to protect the city from thieves who wanted to steal the city’s rich minerals. Explore the tunnels inside and see what it was like for guards protecting the city.
Boca Grande Beach – this beach is located right in Cartagena and is only $1.55 USD taxi ride from the old town. Although there are nicer, lesser developed beaches if you venture further away from the city, you can’t beat the convenience of having the beach right at the doorstep of your hotel.
Totumo Volcano – hike up the volcano and take a relaxing mud bath, with a massage for only $1! Afterwards, you can buy lunch prepared right there in open fire stoves and nap in their hammocks under rustic shacks.
8. Antigua, Guatemala
Tikal – these spectacular Mayan ruins are a must-see due to the surrounding rainforests’ natural beauty and the mystery of the ancient wonders. The name Tikal translates to “Place of Voices” and the city once had a population of over 250,000. Fun fact: the ruins were the Rebel Base in the original Star Wars movie.
Lake Atitlan – go for a swim, scuba dive or take a boat ride in what is considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world. There are several quant indigenous villages bordering the lake which provide a great insight into local life in Guatemala.
Pacaya Volcano – there are many tour companies that offer a shuttle service to see the volcano for only $6-$12 USD. On your hike up the volcano, you’ll come very close to active lava flows, and in some cases you might even walk on top of recent flows that have hardened into rock.
9. Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Boca – this working-class neighborhood provides a unique cultural experience for visitors. The streets are lined with vibrant, multi-colored buildings, quaint corner cafes and tourist shops.
El Palermo – this neighborhood is reknown for its open spaces and botanical gardens. It is home to some of the best restaurants, trendy designer stores, lively pubs, bars and clubs. You can also visit the Buenos Aires Zoo, the Rosedal, the Hippodrome and the Planetarium here.
Obelisk – considered Buenos Aires’ most iconic monument, the Obelisk is centered on the widest street in the world. You can capture great photos if visiting the area at night when the neighboring buildings start to light up.
10. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer – perched atop the peak of Corcovado Mountain, this monument is considered the largest Art Deco statue in the world. Visitors can take a train to reach the base of the summit, and from there take a series of elevators and escalators to reach the top.
Copacabana Beach – regarded as one of the best beaches in the world, Copacabana stretches 2.5 miles and is an active hangout for locals and visitors alike. Play a pickup game of soccer or volleyball, or stroll along the promenade that borders the beach.
Sugarloaf Mountain – rising 1,300 feet above Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf mountain is comprised of quartz and granite and towers over the city. Visitors can ascend the mountain via cable car for incredible views of Rio.