Asia and South America are both unique, challenging, enriching places to travel. Ask any fellow backpacker, and they'll tell you that they someday want to explore both continents. After spending 10 months island hopping and riding scooters in Asia, we made the spontaneous decision to hop over the Pacific Ocean and land in the cold city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
We often get asked which continent we prefer. Instead of writing a novel about the differences between traveling Asia and South America, here is a list of the biggest differences we experienced.
First, let's get down to the number one question we receive: how do they compare in cost? To break it down clearly, we're discussing the three biggest expenses: lodging, transportation, and food.
Lodging is not as consistent throughout South America -- both in pricing and quality. For example, let's compare two of our favorite South American destinations.
Salta, Argentina averaged $35-$40/night for an Airbnb
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (only a 10 hour bus ride from Salta) averaged $60-$75/night for a very basic hotel room
Heading north to Peru and Colombia, we averaged around $30-$40 dollars per night. In Asia, however, we were spending $10-$35 per night for fancier accommodations with a full breakfast.
Transportation in South America is definitely more costly and time consuming than in Asia. When we landed in South America, we had not planned our route and later discovered that the cost could change dramatically depending on where we wanted to go. For example, we decided not to go to Brazil after researching that traveling Brazil to Colombia would cost $500+ per person for a one-way flight. In Asia, a one-way flight from country to country never cost us more than $250 per person -- no matter how far or how many connections we had to make. In South America, buses are the way to go if you're saving your pennies. However, the average bus in South America can range between $20-$50 dollars per person -- where as in Asia, that number is closer to $15-$30 per person.
Food is undoubtedly one of the best ways to divulge into another culture. Once our hungry bellies landed in South America, we quickly realized that the days of eating out for $2-$4 per person in Asia (with a local beer) were long gone. For comparison, a local meal in South America averages $5-$10 per person (without a beverage). In some South American countries, we found ourselves cooking more and skimming the supermarkets to save a little bit. Eating out in Asia is cheaper than cooking your own meals.
In conclusion, Asia is nearly 50% more affordable than South America. Below are some of our average costs per day for two people (including accommodation, transportation food, and activities):
The Philippines: $40/day
As mentioned above, Asia is simpler and cheaper to travel. We'd book our transportation a few days out and still get great deals. Flights are affordable and a breeze. Asia is not a difficult place to travel, even for those who aren't used to travelling. In South America, our last-minute planning ended up wrecking our budget a little more than we had hoped. So much so that we nixed entire countries from our itinerary due to cost.
Cost wasn't the only factor though. South America travel is down right difficult to plan. Flights are expensive, so we often resorted to looooong bus rides. Most of our trips were 10-14 hours. It's easy to forget how large South American countries are until you're on a bumpy bus ride that feels never ending!
Uber is used in some of the bigger cities, but not as easily accessible as in Asia. Traditional taxis are still the norm if you're not willing to walk on foot. Lastly, we recommend renting a car in some areas if you're hoping to explore nearby terrain. We rented a car for $15 per day in the northern region of Argentina so that we could head to destinations like Cafayate and Jujuy.
Let's keep this one short and sweet. We felt South America's thriving culture deep in our veins. Traditions like salsa dancing and mate drinking are everywhere and unavoidable. As travelers, we're always seeking out this strong sense of culture everywhere we go. We were in heaven!
Sure, Asia does have its own unique culture, but we found it difficult to connect with certain things like karaoke and intense beer-drinking (cough, Vietnam). One Asian destination we felt a strong connection to, despite the influx of tourism, was Bali. In Ubud, the streets are lined with colorful daily offerings made by the Balinese Hindus. Incense burns constantly and many Balinese still dress traditionally. It's unfair to say that all of Asia's culture is dull compared to South America's, but for the sake of comparison, we're taking the risk and saying it.
Traveling Asia naturally means spending a lot of time at the beach. We spent our days swimming in the purest turquoise water, studying TEFL grammar laying on the warm sand, eating our weight in fruit, and applying sunscreen like it was our full-time job. We suggest renting a scooter for a few dollars a day and beach hopping to your hearts content. Another common activity is visiting temples. Each country we visited has their own version of worshiping, which is incredibly beautiful to witness. The locals love having visitors at their holy places, but remember to be respectful and cover up your shoulders and legs.
South America's activities are a bit less-traveled and therefore more adventurous. In some parts of the continent like Peru and Argentina, there are thousands of hikes. These range from small desert hikes to hiking the Inca Trail. Know your limits, take altitude into consideration, and be prepared. Most of our six months in South America were spent hiking outdoors, riding bikes, and sandboarding. As we traveled north to Colombia, our time in nature was balanced by days wandering the cities. South America has incredible architecture worth exploring, cuisine worth tasting, and shopping malls worthy of visiting.
Whatever type of activity you're craving, spend some time researching and it may lead you to your dream travel destination.
Safety is usually the top concern for travelers and the number one reason we receive worried texts from our mothers. We get it. The media makes the world out to be a scary, scary place. It's easy to fall into that dark narrative, but we're here to ensure you that it's not that bad! In Asia, we never felt unsafe. This was the case universally -- from the chaotic streets of India to the small islands in the Philippines. We are cautious and aware people, so we never put ourselves in danger. A few of our friends had their wallets stolen from their bags or back pockets. If you're a generally cautious human, you'll be fine.
In South America, it's important to not only be a generally cautious human, but a hyper-aware cautious human. Petty theft is unfortunately pretty common all over South America. For example, don't place your day pack in the overhead bin when you're on any bus. The second you fall asleep or take your eyes off of your bag, it'll likely be snatched by a local on their way off of the bus and gone forever. Keep your belongings secured in your bag and located on the floor underneath your feet. After hearing too many theft stories, we literally put our leg through one of the backpack straps so that no one could reach underneath the seat and slide our bags into their hands. Research each city you visit and avoid any neighborhoods that have red flags. In Buenos Aires, for example, we visited La Boca despite the warnings. We watched an older woman right in front of us get robbed. The whole time we were walking around La Boca with our friends, we felt on edge and nervous to pull out our cameras or cell phones. This isn't meant to scare you away from visiting South America, but just a general caution.
Police corruption is also a thing in South America. If a police officer or any security guard approaches you, be on the cautious side, stay calm, and find someone who can translate for you. Never hand the police your belongings or any money. If you feel you're being harassed and haven't broken any rules, it's a good idea to pull out your cell phone and film the conversation. Unfortunately, some police target vulnerable tourists and may try to take advantage of you. We personally never had any problems with authority and credit this to the fact that we travel everywhere together and stay aware.
With all that said, we'd go back to Asia and/or South America in a heartbeat! In fact, we already have some plans in the works. Let us know your thoughts. Which travel region did you prefer?
For love and adventure,
D & B