FOREWORD: With a little know-how you can cycle the world without ever paying for accommodation. In Colombia—the first country in which I had ever bike toured—I didn’t understand that my bike was a magic wand that could open doors closed to normal travelers. Unnecessarily I paid to sleep because I falsely believed that hotels/hostels were the only safe options. As my tour progressed, around a month into my Colombian travels, I so perfected my techniques for finding free and safe places to rest my sweaty head that I rarely paid for accomodation, and even then I never pay full price. Though I never knew where I’d stay each night or with whom I’d share a meal—both of which added adventure to my travels—safety was always assured. In fact, it was a priority easily fulfilled. With the following advice you’ll save money, meet interesting people, practice local languages, and sleep like a baby anywhere you want.
The countryside dominates the South American landscape. Between major cities there are great distances littered with small towns where people still maintain traditional practices. As a general rule, the country is safer, people are more generous, free accommodation is more easily found, and the scenery is less homogenized than in the cities.
That tent in your back, derailleur-side pannier is not getting any lighter. Use it. Camping converts sandy beaches into personal oceanside resorts, big sky fields into planetariums, and private property into your own.
1) CAMPING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY
When possible, I prefer camping on private property. It’s by far the safest option and the experience is usually all-inclusive with home-cooked meals, kids with whom to play, and freshly-grown fruit and vegetable departing gifts. South Americans are stubbornly insist with this generosity. I’ve found it’s easier, not to mention more culturally appropriate, to accept their offerings. By the time morning rolls around, I’m another member of the family. Here’s how to go about it:
a) CHECK MAP: Arrive to your destination town by early evening. Never bike at night. Be aware not all towns are on map. If small town arrival is impossible, then stealth camp (see below).
b) OBSERVE PROPERTIES: Any property is game, even in the middle of town, but people on outskirts tend to be friendlier. Look around. Observe roadside houses. Watch for houses away from road too. Pay attention to people outside homes. Does one property stick out more than others? Based on the above, use instinct to choose a property, then approach it. Owners of poor-looking properties tend to be more hospitable.
NOTE: If area has dangerous reputation (e.g. high crime) don’t enter town in evening. Find a property upon the entering outskirts, not the exiting outskirts. Criminals are less likely to see you when you enter that evening and will be less likely to see you when you exit the next morning. This technique lessens the chance of criminals following you to any lonely, vulnerable stretches away from the town.
c) INTRODUCE YOURSELF: First impressions matter, and good ones win friends. Wipe sweat and dirt from face. Never leave bike out of view when asking home owners permission to stay on their properties: the bike validates the request. Say hello from afar to announce yourself. Knock on doors if necessary but step back several feet when the door is opened so as not to intimidate. Smile always. Courtesies such as good morning/good evening are extremely important. Learn a basic introduction in the local language. Vocalize the obvious fact that you’re a foreigner. Don’t come on too strong. Speak slowly. Speak gently. Be concise. Maintain distance—suspicion is common.
Here is my spiel:
“Hello sir/mam, good evening. My name is Trevor [a foreign-sounding name helps]. I’m from the United States [being a non-local establishes trust] and am traveling South America by bicycle, as you can see [point to bike]. I’m looking for a place to rest for just one night; I’ll leave early tomorrow morning [emphasize the brevity of the stay]. I have food and a tent. I just need a safe place to sleep where I don’t have to worry about thieves [guilt-trip]. Could I pitch my tent on your property? [end request with simple question]”
This is usually enough—people want to keep you safe in their country. Always end with question, then reiterate the following if they hesitate: from United States (or your country), just one night, have food, will leave in morning. Smalltalk helps too as they get used to the idea that you really are who you say you are: a crazy foreigner cycling their continent—something unimaginable to most locals you’ll encounter.
d) REPEAT STEP “c” WITH OTHER HOUSES IF DENIED: Don’t get frustrated. Ask if their family/friends could offer a property. Keep smiling. I rarely need to ask more than two houses before finding a place to pitch my tent.
2) STEALTH CAMPING: Stealth camping is hiding a tent for the night, even on private property, then leaving early in the morning before detection. Keep in mind when stealth camping: don’t be paranoid, be aware.
a) FIND COVER: Never sleep within view of road. Hide tent behind trees, rocks, cliffs, abandoned houses, etc. Sleep on roofs if possible. In mountainous areas don’t camp below road—cars can see you from above. Camp above road. Avoid riverbeds near roads and bridges—floods can happen but the real danger is nightime visitors. Beaches attract shady characters. Choose beach locations wisely. Forests are ideal but be careful with tire punctures.
b) AVOID WITNESSES: Never exit road in view of others. Tell no one about your location. Let cars pass out of view before exiting road. At night use tent to block the camp stove and lights from attracting attention from the road.
c) SECURE BELONGINGS: Enter personal belongings in tent at night. Lock bike to tree. If traveling without a lock tie bike to tent or balance a water bottle atop bike to cause noise during theft attempt. Don’t sleep with headphones. Never assume location is secret.
d) LEAVE EARLY: On private property leave at sunrise to avoid trouble. Be respectful. Leave no trace. Carry out garbage.
B) STAYING IN STRANGERS’ HOMES
Many times people will offer a spare bedroom in their home when you ask to camp on their property. Though this happens often, it is not the norm and it is not appropriate to ask directly to stay in their home. To increase chances of sleeping inside a stranger’s home, say you prefer a camping spot with a roof “because the tent gets damp at night.”
1) SPREAD THE WORD: Ask everyone if there is a free place to stay in town. Networking examples: restaurant staff, street vendors, park goers, municipalities, police stations, fire stations (not common in small towns), schools, and religious organizations (be prepared to be sermonized). Ask if their friends or family have space. This is an effective technique that can be used even in big cities, though you should be more select about with whom you speak.
2) INTRODUCE YOURSELF: See #1c
South American cities are quite modern and offer cultural activities not found in the countryside. With nightlife, live music, world cuisine, internet, and other international travelers at your doorstep the city can sometimes feel like an oasis. In general, belongings must be watched more carefully and strangers are less likely to offer a spare bedroom, but Couchsurfing and staying in police and fire stations is much easier.
A) COUCHSURFING: Couchsurfing is a global online hospitality site that connects travelers with locals for free accommodation and cultural exchanges.
1) START A PROFILE: Membership is free. Go to Couchsurfing.org and follow instructions. Complete all sections. Seek initial references from friends who are members.
NOTE: There are other hospitality networks, even one called Warmshowers.org specifically for cyclists. However, with over a million members Couchsurfing has yet to fail me in any major city. I use it exclusively.
2) HOST PEOPLE: Reciprocity is why the site works. Open your couch to travelers before your trip. Hosts will be more likely to open their homes if you have done the same.
3) MAKE IT EASY: The nature of bike travel makes it difficult to give hosts exact arrival dates. Internet is limited outside cities. Be conscientious of hosts’ time. Contact potential hosts minimum four days in advance. Request their phone number to follow-up via texts (phone calls are expensive in South America). Offer your cellphone number too. Text them with updates. Confirm your arrival the night before via a text.
B) POLICE STATIONS: Normally I’d advise to stay clear of police in South America, but I’ve had only positive experiences thus far. Also, every city has a police station. Most have several.
1) INTRODUCE YOURSELF: See #1c
2) ASK ABOUT OTHER STATIONS: If denied for security reasons—this is common—ask if another station in the same city can offer accommodations. Officers may phone other stations, confirm sleeping availability, and reserve a dorm bed. This has happened several times in several countries.
3) TAKE REJECTION TO THE FIRE STATION: You can’t win all the time. If denied at the police station request a business card or police pamphlet with contact information. This is a guaranteed free pass at the fire station. Mention you’ll try the fire station in leaving.
C) FIRE STATIONS: Every fire station I’ve visited has put me up for the night. Services always include a bed, shower, and kitchen, and usually a free dinner. The firemen on their 24-hour shifts are extremely friendly and hospitable. I’d recommend the fire station as the number one go-to place for accommodation, but unfortunately not every city has one.
1) INTRODUCE YOURSELF: See #1c. Expect the fireman on duty to call his superior. Before phone call ask the fireman to emphasize you’re an American (or your nationality). Foreigners are more trusted than locals.
2) USE FREE PASS: If fireman on duty is reluctant to let you stay, show him the police business card or pamphlet. Say that a policeman said you could stay in the fire station. If further convincing is needed, request that he call the police station (he won’t). This is a tiny, tiny white lie that doesn’t hurt anyone and makes everyone more comfortable with your presence.
D) SPREAD THE WORD: See #B1
There you have it: sleep anywhere for free. Please contact me if I can provide any further advice.