When traveling to places off the beaten path, it’s often hard to find information relevant for your trip. You can find a lot more about some countries, but it might not fit you and could confuse you even more. What should you eat? What do you need to go see? How do you get a SIM card?
While a hotel or hostel can be good, you may run into a situation where the staff does not speak your language or, if they are volunteers “working” for free accommodation, may not know how or even care to help you.
Alternatively, you can get information before you arrive and ensure these problems are irrelevant by starting your trip with a local host. You can find them through AirBnb*, Couchsurfing, or other similar platforms. I like having a local or expat to rely on in case of trouble. Problems can range from not knowing whether the taxis are safe to take to how to get a SIM card if you don’t buy one at the airport. The benefit of being able to ask a host rather than a hotel concierge is that your host is personally invested in building a relationship with you, so they are more likely help you meet your needs.
Example 1: Lima, Peru
Someone advised me to try AirBnb, so I gave it a shot. I arrived to Lima, Peru knowing very little about travel. I felt relaxed anyway because I found a great couple through AirBnb, and they had great reviews. Before I arrived, they were patient and answered questions like “Can I buy a bus ticket when I get there?” and “How much should a taxi ride to your place from the airport cost?”
After I landed in Lima, they showed me how to activate my new SIM card, how to take the public transportation, had boiled water for me to drink, and helped me with what to expect in Peru and South America the rest of my trip. This couple even had a map of their surrounding area with nearby restaurants and coffee shops marked. They served me breakfast every day, which consisted of a variety of local fruits. Needless to say, I had a really wonderful experience, and the price of my private room was cheaper than a hostel. It was more than I would have spent normally, but I thought the private room and personal service was absolutely worth it.
[Recommended Read: How Much Time Should I Spend in Each City in Peru?]
Example 2: Cochabamba, Bolivia
The first time that I tried Couchsurfing, I was a little skeptical because I had heard some horror stories. It’s meeting people over the internet – how could it not be scary? But I’m so glad I did!
I stayed in Cochabamba, Bolivia for a month because I was volunteering for a nonprofit in the area. The organization introduced me to a host for a homestay, with an elderly woman living on the edge of town with two extra rooms for rent. She spoke only Spanish, which would have been good for my language learning if she had been around at all. Unfortunately, the house was far from my volunteer location and markets, and my host wasn’t around at all.
I contacted a bunch of people for a potential Couchsurf stay because I was looking for a longer-term place. I was surprised that I actually got a couple of responses. The first host was a guy in his mid-30s who lived with his mother and grandfather in the center of town. The mother was an English professor, so they all spoke English really well. I stayed with them for a bit until they had some family emergency, and moved to a lady named Kathy.
Kathy was a really great host! She spoke great English from her previous job and now was working as an actor. She owned a small house alone, and I didn’t have an actual room but I stayed in an open area at the back of her house that was relatively independent anyways. Kathy let me stay with her for a long time, during which she hosted 3 other travelers. She made us all food and talked about great Bolivian traditions like the Festival that happens once a year, and she even let me stay an additional night after I missed the last bus on my last night in the city.
[Recommended Read: How to Pick the Perfect Travel Accommodations]
Example 3: Santa Cruz, Bolivia
On one of the weekends that I was volunteering, I went with my friend to Santa Cruz. The guy that we met there, Alejandro, was a Venezuelan working for a Chinese company (!). He also spoke great English, and though our actual “beds” (couches) weren’t all that comfortable, he made us breakfast in the morning and gave us full access to his tiny fridge of food. He even took us out to his favorite local restaurant where we had a local salchipapa – a mix of fries and hot dogs and bunch of extra ingredients.
Example 4: Iquique, Chile
The host that I met in Iquique was also extraordinary. He couldn’t host me for the full time I was in town, so I stayed in a hostel first. When he was free, he came to the hostel to pick me up, and then offered to drive me around. I had already gone to the most famous place in the area – the Humberstone Saltpeter UNESCO site – so we went instead to a tiny town a couple hours away.
We saw a couple attractions along the way, including a dinosaur park and a town church. When we got to the town, he treated me to a classic Chilean restaurant. I asked a ton of questions about Chile and Spanish, and he answered all of them very patiently. He made us homemade pizza at night and had an empty bedroom for me to sleep in. He then drove me to the bus station to go to the next city in the morning without expecting anything from me! I felt so indebted.
[Recommended Read: How to Book Accommodation on Arrival]
Things to Note
Not every one of my host experiences was as good as the ones described above; some of my hostel experiences have been equally incredible. What a host can provide, however, is really a unique experience. They are a person who is willing to answer your questions, however simple. Most just want to show their country to you and let you have a good experience! Note: I recommend against staying with a host that has no reviews and poorly-taken photographs.
If you are traveling to a country for which you have little information or are just nervous about, find a local to help you can ease your mind and help you figure out what to expect before and after you arrive. Other travelers can be great, but they can’t always guide you the way a local can. And who knows? You might meet someone who is truly extraordinary.
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