In this post we’ll look at some of the cheapest and best cities to live in South America. We’ve got five suggestions that might suit digital nomads or remote workers looking for a new base in South America. They offer both affordability in global terms and a higher quality of life than you might find in some of the continent’s other major cities. We also have a cost of living table featuring 20 large cities from across South America which should allow you to get an idea of how living costs compare from country to country.
5 of the Best Cities to Live in South America
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Argentine capital is arguably the continent’s most exciting city to both visit and live. It’s a truly 24-7 place (when there’s not a pandemic going on!) with its famously late party culture ensuring Buenos Aires barely ever gasps for breath.
Buenos Aires in many parts feels like an elegant European city but boasts the energy of New York and a truly Latin American soul. That blend of cultures and influences, combined with the vast size of the metropolitan region, ensures you’ll be spoiled for choice in terms of cafes to work in, restaurants to dine in and bars to drink in. For those who love truly big cities, it probably should be your first point of call when considering where to live in South America.
The other positive, at least from the point of view of a foreigner moving there, is that Buenos Aires is seriously affordable, in large part due to the economic problems in Argentina and the severe deflation of the Argentine Peso. While those looking to find a job in the city will also see their relative income slashed as a result, those working online and earning in another currency should feel the benefits.
Estimated Living Costs* – 750 US Dollars per Month
*The estimates in this post on the best and cheapest cities to live in South America are designed to cover the basic living costs of a single person (e.g. groceries, essential items, some evenings/afternoon out), as well as the cost of renting a room in shared accommodation or a small private flat where it’s viable to do so. The figures are for more budget-minded people but are only a very rough guide as everyone’s living habits and situation will be different.
It’s also notable that most South American cities have their dangers and areas best avoided. The budgets quoted should enable you to avoid living in the worst neighbourhoods but those who want a higher standard of accommodation in the very best districts will most likely find it difficult to stick to the figures quoted. You will also need to factor in any travel or health insurance packages, the cost of which will vary depending on your age, circumstances and a number of other factors. We recommend SafetyWing!
Once the home of Pablo Escobar and the infamous Colombian cartels, Medellin has reinvented itself in the 21st Century. Indeed today it is actually recognised as one of the safest cities in South America, and is perhaps the most popular destination on the whole continent for digital nomads.
A major draw is unquestionably its affordability. South America is quite a cheap continent to live on the whole, certainly when compared to North America or Europe. Medellin is cheap even by South American standards with renting accommodation great value, even if you’re looking to live in the very heart of the city.
Its burgeoning international, nomad scene is another draw and it’ll be easier to meet other people from different countries around the world than in other cities in Colombia. It feels like a city that is going places with loads of exciting new startups and projects to get involved with, while it’s also one of the cheaper places in South America to learn Spanish.
Estimated Living Costs – 600 US Dollars per Month
At the other end of the cost scale, the Uruguayan capital Montevideo is a great option for anyone less conscious about saving money, and more interested in having a secure place to live with some benefits that you seldom find elsewhere in South America.
Montevideo is a much smaller city than Buenos Aires, its near neighbour just across Rio de La Plata. Living so close to BA is certainly nice in terms of expanding your options for travel, as many other major South American cities are quite isolated. However Montevideo has many advantages on the Argentine capital for those looking to move for a longer period with a more stable economy and an excellent healthcare system among its perks.
It also has a much more laid back feel which will be a welcome bonus for many and it has a sense of calm that is almost completely lacking in other South American capitals.
Estimated Living Costs – 1000 US Dollars per Month
Quito is the most popular city in Ecuador with foreigners and it does have one of the bigger expat communities. However Cuenca is a really viable alternative, that in many respects is a much more liveable city.
The third largest in Ecuador, after Quito and Guayaquil, Cuenca is the cheapest of the trio by some margin. It’s also something of a cultural hub with some of Ecuador’s best festivals, culinary options and scenery. Base yourself in or close to the pedestrianised city centre, and you won’t have to worry much about the hassles of travelling via public transport which can be a frustration in cities across the continent.
Once you get used to the altitude (Cuenca lies at 2,560 metres above sea level) you can also take advantage of its unique location that enables you to explore the Andes mountains, head into the Amazon rainforest or hit the Pacific Coast, with all three easily accessible from the city.
Estimated Living Costs – 700 US Dollars per Month
Finally we head to Chile and another of the best places to live in South America and another stunning backdrop. Santiago may not be near the Rainforest but it also boasts an Andean location with great opportunities for hiking and skiing nearby, while it’s less than two hours by road to the coastal towns of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.
Generally considered to be one of the safest and most developed big South American cities, Santiago has grown into a modern capital and comes with everything you might expect to find in such a place. From historic districts to grungy alternative barrios, Santiago has many different sides.
In terms of costs, it ranks as one of the more expensive cities in South America, with the cost of living roughly comparable to Montevideo. However it’s still really quite affordable when compared to most major cities in Western Europe or North America.
Estimated Living Costs – 1000 US Dollars per Month
Find Work Placements in South America
Join Worldpackers (using our $10 discount code) for access to work exchange programs which can help you get started in South America and get a taste of work and life there without fully committing to anything. They have a range of roles from work in hostels or guesthouses to language teaching positions.
Cost of Living in South America – Cities Compared
For the table below (and figures above), numbeo’s cost of living data has been used to come up with estimates for the cost of living in 20 South American cities.
While it is based on real data, provided by people actually living in each of these places, it’s clearly not an exact science. During these uncertain times, the economic situation in many South American countries is regularly changing so actual living costs may quickly go up and down.
At the very least it should be a useful initial index for anyone considering moving to South America to live, even if it’s only for a short period. However your actual costs may end up being very different to the figures quoted depending on your lifestyle and spending habits.
|City||Estimated Cost of Living (Monthly in US Dollars)|
|Santa Cruz, Bolivia||800|
|Buenos Aires, Argentina||750|
|São Paulo, Brazil||750|
|La Paz, Bolivia||750|
|Rio de Janeiro, Brazil||650|
As you can see, the Colombian city of Cali and provincial Brazilian cities such as Salvador and Fortaleza rank amongst the cheapest places to live in South America, at least in terms of the larger urban areas.
It is though really important to do your research into accommodation costs as these can vary wildly even between different barrios in the same city. For example, while São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro rank relatively low in this table, if you wish to live in a really good, safe neighbourhood then you may need to seriously increase your accommodation budget which could easily push your overall living costs well past $1000.
This post on the best places to live in South America was published in January 2021.