By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Over News Years, hundreds of travelers from all over the world got together as part of the first ever Pan American Couchsurfing Collective. This ten-day members’ event ran from December 26th to January 4th, offering sightseeing trips, meetings, food and feasting, and lots of partying.
However, the Pan American Collective is just one of a number of Couchsurfing events laid on for the open-minded traveler in Rio.
Of the handful of online hospitality exchange communities that have sprung up in recent years, Couchsurfing.org is perhaps the most active and widely known, currently registering 1,785,177 members in 237 countries worldwide. Over 187,000 new members have signed up to the free service since the beginning of the year and the figures increase daily.
The Couchsurfing phenomenon began in 2003 when Californian dot.com entrepreneur, Casey Fenton, bought a cheap flight to Reykjavik and came up with the idea of emailing thousands of Icelandic students asking for a place to stay.
The response was overwhelming and the trip transformed his experience of travel. On his return to the States he founded the Couchsurfing community with the idea of creating a global network of travelers willing to freely exchange hospitality, local knowledge and friendship.
Travelers are often initially attracted to Couchsurfing by the promise of free accommodation, but beyond this the community offers a rich social scene. The Rio Couchsurfing group is the sixth most active group on the site, with over 9900 members and 44 subgroups.
A quick glance at the group’s forum reveals conversations in progress about a diverse range of topics, including a proposed hiking trip to Tijuca National Park, notifications about forthcoming gigs and events in the city, a cookery evening and a photography excursion to Vila Militar. In addition to the main forum there are also subgroups to cover most interests, from language exchange to LBGT, and even a Rio Pet Surfing group!
Every Thursday there is a weekly get-together at an authentic little bar-shack in the tumble-down covered market Mercadinho São José in Laranjeiras, for travelers and hosts alike. These lively meetings are extremely popular and offer a great opportunity to make new friends and find sightseeing buddies, whilst also sampling Rio’s famous party scene guided by locals.
One British Couchsurfer told me, “All my experiences with Couchsurfing have been great and the social scene here in Rio is huge – I even met my (Carioca) boyfriend through Couchsurfing!”
But she warns, “There is always an element of risk involved when meeting up with strangers and this is amplified when you stay in their home. You have to treat it a bit like online dating. You have to follow your instincts and do your research, and if you have any doubts at all, just don’t go there.”