Couch-surfing: The cheapest places to stay

By Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng rides the couchsurfing wave to get a more authentic look at life in Central and South America.

Derek Cheng with couchsurfing companions in Bariloche, Argentina. Photo / Derek Cheng.
Derek Cheng with couchsurfing companions in Bariloche, Argentina. Photo / Derek Cheng.

My fate was sealed after my first couch-surfing experience when I offered to cook for my host.

"Chinese!" said Miguel, from Santiago, Chile, with glee before I even offered him a choice. Turns out Miguel was a fan of Chinese food, and in me, a Chinese New Zealander, he saw honey-soy chicken stir-fry in his immediate future.

Such was his excitement that he invited a friend for dinner, even though she spoke as much English - virtually none - as I did Spanish. And when I left, he wrote me a reference about my mad cooking skills, so it came as little surprise that my next host, Lourdes, a student in Cordoba, Argentina, waited about seven seconds after I had arrived before bringing up dinner options.

References are the central pillar on which the couchsurfing community is built. The site, launched in 2003 and relaunched in 2006 after its database died prematurely, connects travellers with locals, most of whom want to meet new people from new countries. It is a system built on trust and a sense of community, bound by a love of travel.

Today the site boasts about four million members in 100,000 cities around the world.

It works likes this. If you're travelling, you create an online profile and search for hosts in your area. If they are open to hosting couchsurfers, you send them a message.

If you receive a request, you can look at their profile and references, and decide if you have the time or the inclination to host them and for how long. Some invite you to stay for a night or two. Some tell you to stay as long as you like. Sometimes you have a bed and your own bathroom; sometimes you sleep on the floor.

No money changes hands, usually, although sometimes a small fee is asked for to contribute to bills.

Sounds pretty easy. And mostly, it is. You get directions to their place, and when you turn up, most of the time you're given your own key. Sometimes the host has time to show you around and suggest activities and eateries. Other times they leave you to your own devices.

I couchsurfed my way from the southern tip of South America, through Central America to Los Angeles. For me, it was about getting off the gringo trail and meeting locals, practising Spanish, and getting local knowledge on what to do and where to eat. But it's so much more than that.

The system creates connections that intertwine and spark new ones. These are sometimes travel buddies for a day, or long-lasting friendships, or even networks that can help people escape oppression. As the site likes to say - changing the world, one couch at a time.

Things didn't always go super-smoothly. In Argentina, Lourdes was in the middle of some serious domestics with her boyfriend, so I spent as little time as possible at her place. And there was Roberto, a quiet videographer living in Iquique, Chile, in a toiletless two-storey unit separate from the family home. He seemed like he joined couchsurfing just to surround himself with people, while his parents grew silently frustrated at the line of travellers queuing by the bathroom door.

But there were certainly no bad hosts, and mostly I had fantastic experiences that opened the door to new ones. In Bariloche, I stayed with a pair of Argentinian bachelors who had an open-door policy on their small home with a mezzanine floor with two beds. Sometimes there were a dozen people in the place, four to a bed, and a few on the floor.

Bariloche is home to some impressive scenery and I ended up staying about seven weeks, taking week-long trips into the mountains and always returning to the small house on the outskirts of town - each time with a whole chicken to roast for the masses.

It was in this house of couchsurfing utopia that I met an Australian, Tammy, and a Colombian, Wayra - both of whom I met again in Bogota, several months later, to avoid the gringo nightclubs and instead hit the local salsa scene.

In La Paz there was Vicente who took me rock climbing. It turned out that I had met his brother several months earlier in the Bolivian mountains, and another friend of his had already hosted me twice: once in Cochabamba, where I made him sushi, and again in Rurrenabaque, near the Amazon basin, where he overcame a lack of a phone signal by simply jumping on his motorbike and driving around until he found me.

And then there are the communities of travellers, hosts and people who just want to hang out. While staying with Nathaniel, an American in Arequipa, Peru, I froze my gonads off on a couchsurfing-organised white-water rafting trip that was less than half what I would have paid through a tourism agency.

Even in unlikely places like Cuba, couchsurfing has a foothold. Hosting tourists in Cuba normally requires a Government permit, but Enrique didn't think there was a problem because no money changed hands.

I stayed with him and his 90-year-old grandfather on the outskirts of Havana in their typically rundown, simple Cuban home. The household reflected the contrasting views of the country's different generations. The older ones are mostly happy, healthy, educated, and think the revolution was a great thing. The younger people long for freedom of speech and movement, democracy, and a way of life that includes a disposable income, rather than going to the shop with their ration cards to collect their monthly supplies.

A couple of years later, Enrique asked the couchsurfing community for help. He wanted to flee to the US. Once there, he could claim political asylum, but he needed US$1000 each for him and his fiance to bribe Mexican officials to let them over the border.

I was one of hundreds of people who had enjoyed his warm hospitality in Cuba, and was happy to contribute. Enrique and his fiance are now living happily in Rochester, New York, working and eating hotdogs. The American dream.

It's not every day you can say you helped someone start a new life. That's just a glimpse at the real power of connections.

Couchsurfing Tips

* Go to couchsurfing.com and create a profile with lots of information - from languages you know, to photos, to listing your favourite authors. This is what potential hosts will look at when you send them a request to surf their couch. If you write virtually nothing, no one is likely to ask you to come and stay. If you write that you're a stoner on a mission to find the perfect wave, you're likely to attract like-minded couchsurfers.

* You need a profile to host couchsurfers as well. You can also choose a status from having an available couch to being open to having a coffee.

* Expect language barriers, misunderstandings, and interacting with people you may not initially get on well with. Check people's references to see if they're the kind of person you think you'll get along with. Meeting up is a bit of a gamble, but in most cases, a certain kind of person is attracted to couchsurfing - tolerant, open-minded, respectful, adventurous, fun.

* It's almost always safe, but there was an incident in 2009 where a man from Leeds was convicted of raping a woman from Hong Kong he met through couchsurfing. If you're a single female couchsurfing in places like South America, you're likely to find a lot of hosts willing to take you - but expect to get hit on by male hosts. If that is likely to make you feel uncomfortable, then look for female hosts, or try to couchsurf in twos or threes - though this will mean hosts will be less likely to take you.

* Try to give something back to your host, whether it's a souvenir from your home country, or a night when you cook for them, or making them breakfast in the morning.

* Be tidy, respectful, and tolerant. And have fun.

- NZ Herald

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