Is Couchsurfing safe in South America?
Couchsurfing in South America?
When I started my trip in South America I already knew I wanted to understand as much as possible and get as close to the culture as my Spanish would allow it. I have this inner curiosity for basically everything new and to be completely honest with you, I’m not a big fan of backpackers and party hostels. I respect everybody’s form of traveling but I simply didn’t want to be hanging out in big groups of English-speakers and drink my nights away every night (although I’ve had a fair share of very long nights). But more on that some other time.
Taking all of that into account I had a bit of a plan to combine hostels, couchsurfing and airbnb in an attempt to get the best of all worlds.
For the newcomers, Couchsurfing is a platform where hosts offer their free sofa to travelers across the world with the purpose of sharing their cultures and experiences. It’s been one of the first pioneers of the sharing economy about ten years ago and as anything else on the market, it has its upsides and downsides.
I’ve stayed with around 8 hosts so far, crashed with friends and friends of friends and changed around 10 hostels in around 2 months of traveling. Let’s tackle some of the most important questions:
Is Couchsurfing safe in South America?
I’ve never felt unsafe while couchsurfing in Argentina, Chile or Bolivia. At the end of the day you’re meeting another human being in their own homes. You can always stay just with ladies or couples, research the area you’re going to, make sure you arrive during daylight or send the contact of the host to a friend. And remember, you’re not obliged to stay. If you walk in, have a chat and don’t feel comfortable, say thank you and walk away. Or stay a night and pack up in the morning.
You don’t owe anybody anything and this whole idea of couchsurfing is based on mutual respect and comfort zones. Be respectful, but also be smart.
How do you choose your hosts?
I use the app on my phone and access my dashboard to create a public trip. I introduce myself in both English and Spanish and mention why I want to stay with somebody local. If you have any special skills like cooking (I never promise that because most people don’t think salads are food), cocktail making or whatever else, put it down there. Be open about what you’re looking for and publish.
I usually receive offers from hosts who can receive me and my backpacks within a day or two. I then go through their profiles and make sure they have at least one review. Most people will give me their whatsapp number so if I decide to stay with a host we usually chit-chat a bit beforehand. I make sure I understand the address and make it clear when I will be arriving. I pay extra attention to the area I’m staying in simply because I tend to find myself in weird situations all the time so staying somewhere in a remote part of the city with little connections is not something I’m looking for. *insert grin*
Some people will offer to pick you up at the bus stop, some will make you wait until later in the evening when they finish work, others will wait for you at home. Don’t expect anybody to bend backwards for you but be grateful when they do, people can truly be wonderful human beings.
Sometimes I only receive offers from people who don’t have reviews, so that’s when I use the filters on the Couchsurfing app to look for hosts myself. I’ll read 5-6 profiles carefully and send a few messages out, I personalize them and don’t stress if nobody comes back to me. Life happens to everybody after all.
Isn’t it weird and awkward to be couchsurfing with somebody you don’t know?
Not necessarily. I’ve met people I clicked with immediately and people I’ve spent a week with without truly connecting. I’ve met weird people, artsy people, students, professionals, outdoor enthusiasts, single people, married couples. Some never asked much about me, some wouldn’t stop asking about Romania because it was so exotic for them.
Think about it as making new friends. Sometimes it works and sometimes you simply don’t have enough in common to build up a lasting friendship.
I think couchsurfing might be easier for sociable, slightly more extroverted people because it does take quite a bit of energy to constantly engage with new people. But yet again, I’ve met less talkative people who were doing just fine jumping from one couch to another.
What do you talk about?
Life, football, drinks, food, habits, culture, social pressure to get married, economy, money, traveling, politics. Basically, everything and nothing. Things that click and go on, it’s like riding a wave (not that I’ve ever done it, but I do have a very vivid imagination), you just go with the flow.
Have you had any bad experiences while couchsurfing?
One host locked me in and only returned the next day, another lived in the middle of nowhere and asked me to pay a little for my bed, one said he had a private room which didn’t exist, another lived in a half-finished party house where music was blasted day and night. I don’t consider any of them bad or negative experiences.
The guy that locked me in didn’t have a spare key and I didn’t want to sleep with the door unlocked. He then got so drunk with a friend that he didn’t wake up until 10 am next day and crashed at his friend’s place. Uhm, except the locking somebody in part, I’ve been there, done that.
The one that lived in the middle of nowhere was building a 4 store-building for himself and all of his family situated in a very residential part of the city at the top of a very steep hill. He was using the 1,5 euros I paid for my bed to buy coca leaves as to prevent altitude sickness.
The non-stop party goer was opening his house to anybody who wanted to stop by and our music tastes were very different from each other. Did I enjoy meeting his friends and going out with them? Hell yes. Did I love the rock blasting at 2 am? Not so much.
Do you have to speak Spanish to do couchsurfing in South America?
I’d say it is possible to do it without Spanish but I can imagine you’ll struggle a bit more to really get what’s happening around. I’ve had hosts who didn’t speak any Spanish and hosts who really wanted to practice their English. I’ve also met hosts who were open to receive non-Spanish speakers and had no problems using Google Translate to communicate with their guests. Give it a shot, see what happens.
Is it really free to couchsurf?
Well, the whole idea is based on hospitality, so yes, it’s all free. However, if you’re just doing it for the free sofa to crash on, let this one slide. Your host will tell and it can easily become a less than positive experience. I usually take a day or two to get to know my host and then I’ll get them a nice treat. Maybe cook a light dinner(yes, salad), get a bottle of wine, a funny reminder of my visit there, chocolate is always well received. You know, be a nice human being.
Tips and tricks for having a good couchsurfing experience
Lower your expectations – some people will take you on day trips, some will show you the city, some will cook for you. Others you’ll only see in the evening at home. Some will offer you their bed while they sleep on the sofa, others won’t realize you’re actually cold at night or that their music is too. Relax and communicate, it will all be just right.
Download the map of the city – I use Google maps offline and download the map of the city I’m heading to the day before I’m there. I also look up a hostel or two in case the couchsurfing doesn’t work out. Mark your new location on the map and make sure you know what buses or collectivos you need to take to make it to your new address.
Be flexible – some people will introduce you to their friends and family, others will need more time for themselves. You’re in this for the experience, right? So if you get invited for dinner or random parties, go and let instagram be for an evening.
Trust your gut – you get this one, no extra explanation needed.
So there it is, couchsurfing in South America, the Mada way.
Do you couchsurf? Would you do it in South America?