To be frank: $2,637.68… more or less. The problem is that this number is useless unless we put it into perspective. So let me break it down for you.
What it Included
This number includes everything I spent during the 61 days I was on the road that was related to the trip (I have taken out my student loan payments, health insurance, charitable donations, etc.) along with my flights to and from South America and Boise. This means all accommodation, transportation, food, trips, fun, essentials, souvenirs, alcohol and miscellaneous items are accounted for.
As stated above I spent 61 days backpacking around the two countries; one and a half months in Colombia and two weeks in Peru. This equates to $43.24 per day.
Throughout my trip I kept track of all my expenses. At the end of everyday I opened up a Google spreadsheet on my phone and itemized all of my expenses in the local currency. This helped me keep track of not only HOW MUCH money I was spending but also WHAT I was spending my money on. For this analysis I used an average exchange rate to convert them all back into dollars. For the Colombian Peso I used a rate of 3.500 to $1 and for Peruvian Nueva Soles I used a rate of 3.2 to $1.
The problem with getting exact numbers is that currency valuations constantly fluctuate (seriously they are like stocks). So to control for this I wanted to compare it to the actual amount of money that disappeared from my bank account during this time. This ended up being trickier than I expected. I found the difference between my beginning and ending balances in my checking and savings accounts, and then corrected for any income, monthly payments unrelated to my travels, and expenses I had made prior to travel but then paid for during my time in South America. This required me to scour the credit card statements as well.
Quite phenomenally, once I made all of these corrections, my two totals were only off by $16.06. Not a bad margin of error. My itemized and converted costs were actually more than the amount of money that left my bank account. However, I have kept that number to use so the ratios of expenses match up accurately.
One thing I do have to note is that there are other costs not reflected in all of this. My flights to and from South America from Boise are counted monetarily. I flew round trip for $255, which is phenomenal considering Boise is not a hub, and flight deals do not exist. That being said, I was only able to fly so cheaply because I play the ‘travel credit card game’. But, that’s all part of the lifestyle that I highly encourage if you want to become a traveler. But in all fairness, my round trip flights cost $255 and 37,500 points from American Airlines… and this was too much.
The Break Down
Okay so now let’s take a look at WHERE my money went! I divided up my expenditures into 10 categories because apparently I’m OCD like that.
1. Big Trips ($620.09)
These included any big guided adventures that weren’t part of normal day life. It included get my advanced dive certification (3 days), hiking to the Lost City (4 days), and spending 4 days on an Amazon ‘expedition’.
- Food ($497.78/ $8.16 per day)
This is pretty self-explanatory. If I ate it, it is on here. This includes street food, restaurants and groceries.
- Transportation ($462.73/ $7.59 per day)
This section includes all transportation besides travel to and from the countries. So this would be all local buses, trains, boats and taxis. This also includes buses and flights in between cities. We took two flights while down there which greatly increased this number (Bogota to Leticia $87; Iquitos to Lima $98).
- Accommodation ($404.90/ $6.64 per day)
Another obvious category. This includes all hostels, hotels, hammocks, etc. that we had to pay for outside of overnight buses, all inclusive excursions and free airport floors.
- Getting There and Away ($255)
As mentioned above this is the monetary cost. The airline miles didn’t cost me anything but I did have them and use them so we must include the 37,500 points as an expenditure as well. I estimate that I would have paid around $1,000 round trip without them, which is equivalent to saving 25% off the total cost of my trip.
- Fun ($153.66/ $2.52 per day)
Fun comes in many forms and this catchall includes entrances to museums, the circus, parks, dance clubs, bungee jumping and other small excursions like that. This number should highlight two things: 1. Having ‘fun’ is a lot cheaper in Latin America and 2. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have fun in general.
- Essentials ($94.82/ $1.55 per day)
Forget something? Then it went in here. Toothpaste, Q tips, shirts, socks, sunglasses, sunscreen bug spray, etc. etc. This is another reason why people shouldn’t over pack… you can get everything you need where you are going, and probably at a much better price. Except sunscreen. For some reason that shit is expensive. Bring what you can.
- Souvenirs ($63.10)
This category is a combination of things I bought for other people and things I bought for myself. I actually bought myself more than I normally do. Typically my photos, memories and a few bills in the local currencies are all I keep (and necklaces). As far as buying gifts goes, I try not to get to bogged down in this stressful obligation. Carrying extra stuff around really isn’t conducive to backpacking and you should never feel obligated to buy a ton of presents. Anyone who takes that personal isn’t worth a gift anyways.
9. Alcohol ($50.63/ $0.83 per day)
I’ll be the first one to say I am not a big drinker. Half of this amount was spent at one spot at Bogota Beer Company. I felt the need to keep this category separate because some people travel to party. And if you do that, you can easily spend a ridiculous amount of money on alcohol. If this is what it takes for you to have fun and get the most out of your trip then YOLO. But if you are serious about backpacking on a budget for 2-12 months, you may want to control your alcohol consumption. It can add up real fast and you won’t even remember it.
- Miscellaneous ($34.99/ $0.57 per day)
So this is the junk drawer. Anything else that didn’t fit right in a certain category went into here; this included tips (outside of meals or trips), donations, printing costs, etc.
Room For Improvement
This is an area that Adam, my BFF and last travel partner, disagrees with me on but it needs to be addressed. When I talk about how we could have done this trip for less by cutting out our three big excursions (advanced dive certification, Lost City Trek, and Amazon expedition) he scoffs and says they were worth the money and wouldn’t take them back. I want to start by saying that I agree! That being said, my trip would still have been phenomenal without them. They were not necessary for the trip to be justified. They also equated to almost 25% of our trip costs while only being 16% of our time. If we hadn’t we could have potentially traveled for a few more weeks. Those are decisions you have to weigh.
I don’t want you to think that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money you spend and the amount of fun you have. I also don’t want you to not go because you have $2,000 but not $2,700. I think I could have easily reduced my flexible expenses by 10% and cut out those three big trips, which would have brought my trip cost down to $1,869.68. And I wasn’t nearly as frugal on this trip as I was on my first.
The last thing I want to do is compare these numbers and trip lengths to what you would pay to have a company figure it out for you. G Adventures is a very popular company that organizes trips all over the world. I am sure they are great but compared to the independent traveler, they are severely cost prohibitive. Let’s take a look but remember that these costs don’t include round trip airfare to Colombia (my numbers do) and are not all-inclusive once you get there. They advise you to budget an extra $20-$25 a day for food that isn’t included.
This trip looks the most like ours although it leaves out several locations. It is 22 days (roughly 33% the length of ours), which means you will have roughly 2 days in each destination (less in some as the Lost City Trek is at least 4 days). At this time it is $3,144 on sale making it about 19% more expensive before adding in round trip airfare and $440-$575 in additional food. This makes it at least 58% more expensive for 33% of the time.
I am including these two trips because they are similar in duration to ours. The routes and experiences are completely different but they give you an idea of how much you could expect to pay if you wanted to go on an organized tour for two months. Remember to add in airfare and another $1,000 to $1,300 for food not included… and think about just how fast you will be traveling!
This last one is just a nice, simple comparison about how much you pay for a little bit of organization. A quick Google search will lead you to tons of information on how to do the Lost City Trek. There are only 4 or 5 companies aloud to lead tours and anyone outside of that is just a 3rd party broker… meaning they get a cut for making a call that you or your hostel manager could do. This exact same trip can be scheduled on arrival in Colombia (or before hand if you are anal) and is all-inclusive for $185-$200. They will pick you up from your hostel, provide luggage storage, drop you back off and include all meals along the way.
Defining What You Value
At the end of the day these numbers could be significantly less or significantly more depending on what is important to you. The greatest thing you can do is define what you value before leaving and then continuously evaluate while traveling. This will help you make sure your money is going to things that actually enhance your experience and reduce ‘waste’ in your budget.
The point of this post was just to give you an idea of how much things can cost and where your money is likely to go if you are up for the challenge of doing things independently. It isn’t a template for how your trip should look. If you want to travel slowly, get to know the local culture and just BE there… you could do this trip for under $1,500. If you are about adventure activities, big trips, going out every night and ‘YOLOing’ then it will be significantly more. Neither is right or wrong, they are both just different flavors and different strokes for different folks.
So what’s yours?