How to Do Peru and Colombia on a Budget While Staying Chic

Nov 4, 2017

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In a travel world ruled by luxury hotels and budget airlines, it’s getting harder and harder to find something in between. With the travel sector often hitting these two extremes, mid-range options — what I like to call “budget-chic” — may be more complicated to find. But there is hope, especially if you pick the right destination. And if you don’t have an unlimited budget or a stash of points and miles to dig into, don’t worry — it’s easy to stay classy without spending a lot of money when traveling through Latin American countries like Peru and Colombia. Here are some tips to keep your travels reasonably priced without sacrificing comfort and style.

Consider Low-Cost Carriers

While you may not want to immediately run out and hop on a Spirit Airlines flight, flying on budget airlines within Latin America is a different experience. LATAM and Avianca often have high prices, but there are other options. VivaColombia is a low-cost carrier with fairly new planes and friendly flight attendants, while Star Peru is great alternative to pricey flights between Cusco and Lima. VivaPeru just started service in May 2017 and currently flies between eight different destinations in Peru, such as Arequipa, Iquitos, Lima and Cusco. Just make sure to read the fine print and be prepared to fork over more money for any extras like seat selection, baggage and priority boarding.

A VivaColombia plane. Image from the VivaColombia Facebook page.
Next time you’re in South America, try flying with VivaColombia. Photo by VivaColombia / Facebook.

Stay in Boutique Hostels, Hotels or Vacation Rentals

While you may hear the word “hostel” and immediately shudder, staying in one doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sleeping in bunk beds with 10 rowdy, youthful travelers. Boutique hostels can be among the most charming places to stay and you can typically find them for as low as $40 per night in many areas of Peru and Colombia.

When searching for budget-chic accommodations, first decide on the neighborhood you want to stay in, then check out a website like Booking.com or Expedia and look for cute spots that look inviting but also are reasonably priced. Winnow your choices down to the top five or six within your budget and look each one up on TripAdvisor or another travel forum you trust. When sifting through reviews, think about what’s important to you — things like fast Wi-Fi, large bathrooms or soundproofing — and search the opinions to see what people say about your preferences. Choose the two finalists that have the best reviews, carefully compare them and book the one intuition tells you is the perfect place. Though this process isn’t quick, it usually ensures you’ll find a quaint, well-priced spot to stay that fits your price range.

Airbnb or other vacation rental options can also be a great value in these countries, so it’s worth comparing pricing, especially if you’re traveling with family or a group. When booking accommodation in general, consider selecting a rate that you can cancel if needed. It may be slightly more than the prepaid rate, but if your travel plans change, you’ll be thankful you didn’t lose out on the extra cash.

A view from the rooftop breakfast terrace at the guesthouse Casa Munaycha in Cusco, Peru. Image by Lori Zaino.
A view from the rooftop breakfast terrace at the guesthouse Casa Munaycha in Cusco, Peru.

Do a Free Walking Tour on Your First Day

Free walking tours are an excellent way to get the lay of the land when you first arrive in a new city so you can decide where you want to go and what you’d like to see during the rest of your trip. It’s a good idea to figure out which one is right for you, though. In Lima, for instance, there are several companies that offer free tours — one starts with a free beer and includes stops where you can taste pisco sours, chocolate and coffee, while others are more focused on the city’s history. Take the time to read through the descriptions and reviews of each tour so you can select the one that’s best for you. And remember: tips at the end, while optional, are a good idea if you really did enjoy the tour.

One of the free tours in Cartagena can be found in Plaza Santa Teresa. Image by Lori Zaino.
One of the free tours in Cartagena can be found in Plaza Santa Teresa.

Get a Local SIM Card

While many US cellular carriers now offer inexpensive roaming plans, having a local SIM card can be cheaper and easier, plus it’s useful to have a local number so guides or anyone else you need to meet up with can contact you if they need to. You can usually purchase these cards at the airport or at any mobile phone store around the city.

What's the point of even traveling if you have no data to upload those Instagram pics? Get a local SIM card. Image by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images.
What’s the point of even traveling if you have no data to upload those Instagram pics? Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images.

Be Ready to Bargain — in Spanish

Bargaining is a tool that can be used throughout Peru and Colombia, as well as other countries you may visit. Haggling to hire a tour guide, when buying goods at a market or when taking taxis isn’t just a suggestion, it’s essential in some places. Since taxis in Cartagena, Colombia, for example, have no meter and no set prices, you’ll have to bargain with the drivers before getting in. Being able to (or at least attempting to) do so in Spanish will earn you a little more respect in the eyes of a local, so brush up on those numbers! Doing some research on what you can expect to pay for taxis or how much specific goods or tours cost will help you bargain more effectively, so do your homework and check things out before you go.

Bargain, especially at local markets. Photo by Lori Zaino.
Bargain, especially at local markets.

Take the VIP Bus

Flights can be pricey in Peru and Colombia, even on low-cost carriers and while taking the bus may seem daunting, if you fork over a few extra dollars for the VIP seats, the experience can be a positive one. I recently took the six- to seven-hour bus ride from Puno to Cusco for about $28 for the VIP seats on bus company Cruz del Sur. I basically wanted to see if it would be scary or amazing. Having read horror stories about bumpy roads and hijackings, I was nervous, but it turns out all my fears were in vain as the bus was comfortable and even a little luxurious, making it the ultimate budget-chic experience.

My seat was similar to a business-class one on an international long-haul airline route — huge with a spacious amount of recline, a comfortable foot rest, chargers and a television. The bus was equipped with a bathroom and an attendant who brought me a tray of food. It was a fantastic trip and about two-thirds cheaper than the flight would have been. Plus, when you factor in having to get to the airport a few hours beforehand, it didn’t really take that much longer.

When booking the bus, the VIP option can definitely be worth it, but make sure to compare the length of the route and the cost of the ticket to flights. Depending on your personal situation, a 22-hour bus ride may not be worth it if you’re on a tight travel schedule, but a six-hour route that saves you $150 may make more sense.

Some routes offer the Comfort Suites service and have 180-degree lie-flat beds. Image by Cruz del Sur.
Some routes offer suites service and have 180-degree lie-flat beds. Photo courtesy of Cruz del Sur.

Research Alternative Ways to See Major Tourist Spots

Heading to popular destinations like Machu Picchu can be expensive and finding alternative routes or tours can take time, but will save you more money in the long run. While hiking the Inca Trail or taking the train to Machu Picchu are the usual ways to get there, they can also end up being the most expensive. Heading there via bus shuttle and a short hike or on a biking-and-rafting tour could save you hundreds of dollars.

In Colombia, instead of flying between Cartagena and Medellín, consider taking buses and trains, which would save you money and give you a chance to visit local villages or coffee plantations along the way. If you’re on a budget, sometimes paying a few dollars for a phone app that does guided tours can be much cheaper than hiring a live tour guide. Looking outside the box when organizing your trip can offer you amazing and unique experiences, all while saving you extra cash.

Machu Picchu can be accessible for cheaper if you find the right ways. Image by Lori Zaino.
Machu Picchu can be accessible for less if you consider alternative ways to get there.

Daily Lunch Menus Are Your New Best Friend

Since many restaurants in Peru and Colombia offer three-course meals at a set price — that can cost three to four times as much at dinnertime — you should indulge at lunch time instead and stick to a light dinner. My favorite lunch menus during my travels included Dorotea in Cartagena, Colombia, with items like fresh fish and soup with fresh-squeezed juice for 15,000 COP (~$5). Green Point in Cusco, Peru, had a delicious vegan lunch spread including a trip to the salad bar and a main course plus juice and dessert for just a couple of dollars. When in doubt, keep an eye out for fixed-price lunch menus advertised on chalkboards outside restaurants as you’re exploring a new city.

A daily lunch menu at Dorotea...soup, dessert and fresh-squeezed juice not pictured. Image by Lori Zaino.
A daily lunch menu at Dorotea. Soup, dessert and fresh-squeezed juice not pictured.

What are your favorite ways to save money and stay chic in Peru and Colombia? Let us know in the comments, below.

Featured image by Mariusz Kluzniak / Getty Images. All other photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

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