Couchsurfing is not an extreme sport involving household furniture. Nor does it involve waves or even necessarily sofas for that matter. In fact it’s an online community of hospitable folk who are prepared to open their homes, hearts and lives to fellow backpackers.
North American Casey Fenton came up with the idea in 2003 after a crazy weekend in Iceland. Bored of grotty hostels and lonely nights out, Fenton hit on the genius idea of spamming Icelandic students, asking if anyone would be prepared to put him up. Several responded, all of them keen to show him their capital. He swore never again to be a tourist and thus, Couchsurfing was born. Now, six years on, the project has over one million members.
Of course, with that many people, anything could happen and for many, that’s the beauty of it all. Many find themselves beating paths well off the tourist trail, eating local delicacies in family homes, or having it large with a whole new circle of friends. Others meet the love of their life, find themselves grappling with xenophobic Venetian wrestlers or stumble into town on the day of a local meeting and meet scores of travelers at once.
Experienced Couchsurfers are keen to point out that the project shouldn’t be just seen as a free alternative to hosteling. In fact, few things invoke their wrath more than the idea that someone is free-loading and not interested in getting to know the people or places that they are visiting.
Franciso Carmona, a country ambassador for Chile, sums up the feelings of many. “It’s about showing people that the world isn’t as bad, intolerant or untrusting as everyone thinks,” he says. “When surfers contact me, I have the sensation that they are friends, even if I haven’t met them yet.”
However, before you throw away your guidebook and cancel your hostel reservations for your next big Chilean adventure, it’s worth looking at the statistics. Although Santiago is awash with partying Couchsurfers who meet regularly for drinks, camping trips and nights out, the same doesn’t hold true for the rest of the country. Our fair capital is small fry when you compare its 2,800 members to the 16,900 in London, but it’s still relatively easy to find a place to lay your head for the night. Punta Arenas on the other hand, with only 24 members, is a much tougher proposition. As Gerardo Pujado, one of Santiago’s CS Ambassadors points out, “you need a critical mass of people in each town for the project to work well and unfortunately in Chile there just aren’t that many active members outside the capital.”
Roberto Corona who welcomes travellers with open arms in his hometown of Iquique agrees. “There are very few active hosts here and even less in Antofagasta and Arica,” he says. “But I keep encouraging more people to sign up.” In Talca, eighteen year old Jorge Sepúlveda has hosted more than 40 people in the last year, all with the help of his enthusiastic family who love it as much as he does. “Maybe it’s a question of culture or simply a lack of information, but Couchsurfing just isn’t ‘global’ in Chile,” he laments.
Unlike in Europe, where distances between cities tend to be short and members are plentiful, it’s not as easy to move from sofa to sofa down here. Javier Villalobos Mendizábal, one of only five surfers in Calama, had some great experiences when he traveled south but he frequently struggled to find a bed for the night and ended up in hostels. Ironically for such a free-spirited community, his advice is to plan ahead and contact potential hosts well in advance.
It’s not all bad news however. Valparaíso, Viña del Mar and La Serena all have a decent amount of members and even in far-flung places there are usually 1 or 2 enthusiastic souls who will endeavor to help you out if you face sleeping on a park bench. Chile also has a plentiful supply of people willing to show off their cities to passing travelers. They may not be able to offer a couch but they’ll certainly be happy to share a little local knowledge over a drink and that’s surely better than doggedly following the guide book.
If you’re new to Santiago and keen to meet more Chileans, the city’s Couchsurfing community is a great place to start. And finally, don’t forget, if on your travels through Chile you happen to meet someone with a particularly comfy-looking sofa, be sure to have them sign up. A million Couchsurfers will thank you for it.
To join the Couchsurfing project or for more information, go to: www.couchsurfing.org. If you get involved, you might just find that the whole world starts to feel like home.