South America encompasses so many extraordinary cities to travel to as well as to live in. The affordable cost of living is generally a big attraction to many travellers and expats. The cost of living figures are from Numbeo which uses New York as the base of 100, any country above would be the percentage difference more expensive. On the contrary for those with a lower percentage.
This is not a ranking, countries are listed in alphabetical order (then alphabetical by city).
Please note that this article may include affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
Table of Contents
1. Argentina – Buenos Aires
Recommended by: Passport the World
Cost of living index (closest is Lima): 39
Buenos Aires is a Cosmopolitan metropolis with a European atmosphere, that attracts many expats. The charming and passionate inhabitants called porteños, the South American attitude and the many things to do in Buenos Aires Argentina make this an amazing city to live.
Each neighbourhood in Buenos Aires has its own characteristics. Walking through the chic Recoleta neighborhood feels like walking around Paris. San Telmo neighbourhood is famous for its many tango bars and antique shops.
The former warehouses of Puerto Madero are transformed into chic and luxury places, which makes it great for strolling around. And Monserrat /Microcenter shows a typical busy South American city.
Living in Buenos Aires can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it. Prices range between USD $500 and USD $5,000 per month, depending on the area and if it includes services like a gym, pool and concierge.
Palermo is one of the trendiest neighborhoods to live in, with the best restaurants and shops around the corner. But rentals are in general higher than in surrounding neighbourhoods such as Colegiales, Belgrano or Almagro.
The best way to get around within the city is by Subway. There are different lineas, bringing you to almost every part of the city. It is recommended to buy a Sube card and make sure you have a credit on it. Taxis and buses are also affordable and easy to use.
Just be aware that distances are long and there are traffic jams all the time. But after a while using the Subway, it can be nice to see some daylight. Besides that, the Subway can be extremely hot, especially in summer.
Buenos Aires has 4 seasons. Spring is the best, because of the lovely weather. Terraces open up and people are excited to go out again. In summer, the city is just too hot and many porteños move to the beach for the holidays.
However in autumn, it rains a lot and don’t be surprised if some parts of the city turn into a big river. In contrary to what most people think, winter in Buenos Aires can be very cold and hats and gloves are important items to have.
Living in Buenos Aires is exciting, just be ready to negotiate about every single service that comes with your apartment, especially when you are a foreigner.
2. Brazil – Rio de Janeiro
Recommended by: Victoria of Guide Your Travel
Cost of living index: 33
Rio de Janeiro is arguably one of South America’s best expat cities and an absolute paradise if you’re looking for warm weather and fantastic beaches. Rio is decently affordable although it is still a large city so it’s not the cheapest place in Brazil.
However, you can easily live off of less than US$1000 per month. Depending on your lifestyle Rio can be affordable but if you’re looking for a nice apartment close to the beach expect to pay a bit more. Rio de Janeiro is unfortunately known for being a very safe place. The city has a lot of crime especially robberies and break-ins. Most apartment buildings have safety staff or you could choose to live in a gated community.
As with any big city, you have to be aware. Just make sure you don’t walk home alone at night and always keep your belonging close. Within the city centre of Rio de Janeiro, you can get to most places on foot.
If you’re trying to go a bit further taking a taxi is a good choice. Taxis tend to be reliable and affordable. Buses are also popular in Rio and extremely cheap. They will take you to almost everywhere you need to go.
3. Brazil – Sao Paulo
Recommended by: Bruna Venturinelli from I Heart Brazil
Cost of living index (closest is Lima): 36
São Paulo, Brazil, is by far one of the best expat cities in the country, let alone South America. The city has the highest number of international companies, making it easier to find a job without speaking the language.
However, São Paulo (together with Rio de Janeiro) is expensive for Brazilian standards. A single person estimated monthly costs are about US$500, plus rent, which varies greatly depending on the neighbourhood.
Still, if you convert it all to dollars, it is pennies compared to most capitals out there. Many people in São Paulo have a car, but if you pick your housing well, you’re better off using the metro because traffic jams here are a real problem.
As far as weather goes, you can experience the two seasons (Brazilian winter and summer) on the same day. It’s really a bit of everything, so dressing in layers is critical. Still, there’s no shortage of sunny days in this landlocked city.
When it comes to social life and eating out, São Paulo is fantastic! The city has a plethora of cafés, bars, and restaurants for all styles and budgets, where it is relatively easy to meet locals. All in all, São Paulo is an excellent city for expats!
4. Colombia – Bogotá
Recommended by: Venaugh
Cost of living index: 33
Related: Apps for Bogota and Colombia
Having lived in Bogotá for 3 years, I would absolutely recommend it as a place to travel, and even live. The cost of living makes it extremely affordable if you are earning more than the average salary of 2 million pesos a month. The “million” makes it sound like a lot but it’s only US$550.
The traffic in Bogotá is one of the worst characteristics to me. The congestion is so bad that there are rules as to what days you can drive your car so to me it didn’t even make sense to have a car. Generally, I use buses or Uber to get around.
The weather is pretty consistent throughout the year, about 17°C during the day, getting down to about 8°C at night.
The only difference is the amount of rain which is the most in April and October.
My biggest piece of advice for living there would be to be extra careful with your phone (and extended to belongings). Do not have your phone in plain sight in public where someone can easily swipe it from you, even in your pockets is risky as pick pocketing is pretty common.
There are many ways to stay safe when travelling to a new city.
5. Colombia – Cartagena
Recommended by: Adam from Cartagena Explorer
Cost of living: 29 (Barranquilla – closest city)
Cartagena has to be considered one of the best cities in South America for expats. It has historic charm, vibrant culture, and year round beach weather.
While the cost of living here is higher than in most of Colombia (except the bigger cities like Bogotá and Medellín), it’s still considerably cheaper than in the US or Europe. I lived in Cartagena for over 10 years and will almost certainly be returning to retire, if not before!
The best areas to live are around the tourist areas that give easy access to the city center such as Bocagrande, El Cabrero, or in the historic downtown neighbourhoods of Centro or Getsemaní themselves.
Expect to pay $2-$3.5million Colombian pesos (about US$600-$1,000) for a decent, 1 or 2 bedroom apartment in these areas. For nicer, newer places you may pay a little more. Or if you are willing to go for an unfurnished place, you may be able to find a good place for a little less.
You can enjoy a nice dinner with drinks for two for $125,000 pesos (less than US$50) at most moderately priced restaurant. This shows how far your money can stretch.
The easiest way to get around is by taxis. These are easy to get and relatively cheap (expect to pay the equivalence of US$2-$4 to get around most places). The Transcaribe bus system is also convenient and even cheaper.
Most expats should be able to live comfortably on US$1,500 a month, while you could get by on US$1,000 and live very nicely on US$2,000 or more.
While weather is warm year round around 32°C (90°F), it’s a good idea to have an umbrella with you during the rainy month of April and October. Also be aware that some areas downtown can flood when it rains a lot. One of the most funs things to do is undoubtedly renting a boat with friends to hang out in the Rosario Islands.
6. Colombia – Medellín
Recommended by: Dan of Layer Culture
Cost of living index: 31
Medellín is one of the best expat cites in South America for many reasons. Not only is it located within a beautiful valley, but it has been named the city of the eternal spring so you can expect a spring-like climate of around 26°C during the day time all year round.
The city is well connected with all the surrounding towns and cities so if you want to escape the city for a weekend getaway to the Colombian Caribbean or to one of the towns in the coffee zone, Medellín makes it easy. Traffic can be diabolical but for travel within the city limits, you can use the metro which runs one line from the north to the south.
One place popular with many expats in Medellín is El Poblado because there you can find some of the best things to do in Medellín when it comes to nightlife and other leisure activities.
Other popular neighborhoods for expats include Patio Bonito and Laureles which both offer luxury accommodation options to suits a wide range of budgets.
I have lived over in Envigado which is technically another city but is still located within reach of the Metro system.
Not only is the warm weather and culture a great reason to live in Medellín but the growing expat community, the access to a high standard of life, and the opportunity to connect with like-minded people make it all worth the while.
7. Ecuador – Quito
Recommended by: Carley from Home to Havana
Cost of living index: 43
Quito is a haven for expats looking for a modern yet affordable city with all the conveniences of home. Ecuador has long been considered a fantastic destination for international retirees, but in recent years expats of all ages have flocked here and even expats in Ecuador are frequently calling Quito home!
The cost of living in Ecuador is quite low, and while it may be slightly higher in Quito than in the country’s smaller cities, expats can still get quite the bang for their buck. On a budget, a single expat can expect to pay around US$750 a month and still live with modern conveniences, or around US$1000 to live quite comfortably.
Make sure to check out the towns in Quito’s rapidly modernizing surrounding valleys like Tumbaco or Sangolqui for the convenience of being close to the city but with housing costs much lower.
Ecuador is known for having an extensive and inexpensive bus system, which makes it easy to get around the city and avoid the expense of a car, and dedicated bus lanes help avoid traffic.
Quito has beautiful weather year-round, with the temperature hovering in the early 20s (degree Celsius) for most of the year, though evenings can get chilly.
Rather than having four distinct seasons, Quito experiences rainy season and dry season, with daily afternoon rain from October through April and mostly sunny skies from May through September.
You can use the dry season months to explore nearby spots like Mindo in the cloud forest, Tena on the edge of the Amazon, or Otavalo high in the Andes mountains.
8. Peru – Cusco
Recommended by: Megan of Packing up the Pieces
Cost of living index (closest is Lima): 39
Cusco is one of the best cities in South America for expats. The Imperial City once housed the powerful Incan empire. Cusco boasts a wide range of things to do.
You can wander the city’s charming cobblestone streets, simply indulge in the delicious Peruvian cuisine, or hike to sacred Inca sites. There are many stunning ruins to see along the Inca trail.
The markets are filled with an abundance of fresh produce for a reasonable price. If in a rush, grab a hearty daily menu for under $1.50 USD. The cost of living in Cusco, in general, is quite reasonable.
On average, a simply furnished one bedroom apartment starts around $300 USD/month. Make sure that Wi-Fi is included in the rent, as it can still be a little tricky and expensive to find fast internet. The standard cost of Wi-Fi is around $40 USD/month.
The traffic into Cusco can be heavy and obnoxious; however, a car is not necessary to live here. There are multiple city buses that travel throughout the city and beyond.
City buses cost less than US 50¢. Collectivos and buses connect to the nearby Sacred Valley. Vans zip to the valley in under an hour for less than $3 USD.
The valley offers culturally rich villages surrounded by mountains, glaciers, hiking trails, and more Inca ruins. Cusco and the valley have two very distinctive seasons: rainy and dry. During the months of November to April, the rain comes almost daily, but the mountains are lush and green.
The dry season is May to October, when the mountains turn yellow and the nights are much cooler. Both are fantastic. Cusco is the perfect place for those adventurous expats looking to enjoy the natural riches of a diverse country for a reasonable monthly budget.
9. Peru – Huanchaco
Recommended by: Clare of Travels in Peru
Cost of living index (closest is Lima): 39
One of the most popular expat cities in Peru is Trujillo. Close to the city in the beach town of Huanchaco most expats choose to live as it’s quieter than the bustling city.
I have lived here on and off for the past 4 years and love the chilled out vibe in the town, but it’s only 30 minutes by bus or taxi to be in the heart of the city for some great restaurants and nightlife.
The cost of living is low, which is what attracts so many people. Expect to pay US$400-$500 for a 3 bedroom house or apartment. I personally have a 1 bedroom apartment for US$200 a month including all bills.
The main form of transport here is bus or taxi. For getting around the city, it’s cheap enough to get taxis as the buses can be more difficult to figure out.
The weather attracts most expats. Here we generally don’t have rain, we are in the desert, so there is not much green around but we maybe get rain 10 times a year for maybe an hour at a time. Winter is around 20°C during the day and summer it gets to around 30°C.
The main things to do are surfing and chilling on the beach. Here, there is more of an outdoor lifestyle and we even have some great ruins closeby that you must visit. Huanchaco is great place to live, the wifi is good (most expats here work online), there is a great expat community and the sunsets here are just stunning. Life is very relaxing here!