There’s a lake in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico that’s pink. I’m talking pastel, other-worldly pink. It’s a strange, beautiful and extraordinary sight, and if you come prepared with props like inflatable pink flamingoes in hand, it can make for quite the photo op. Shots like these, in recent months especially, have become a big hit on Instagram. But what these undoubtedly amazing shots that garner thousands upon thousands of likes don’t show, is that this lake is about a three-hour drive from anything of interest, and what makes it bright pink is the wastewater of a nearby salt factory ― as a matter of fact, swimming in it is no longer allowed.
Whether we realize it or not, Instagram is shaping our travel decisions, both where we purchase the ticket to, and how to spend our time when we get there. It’s why the swing at the end of the world is so famous, why so many people flock to Tulum’s beaches, and why Machu Pichu and Cinque Terre are now bursting at the seams because of the volume of tourists arriving in droves.
We tourists come in hordes seeking the perfect Instagram moment, armed with selfie sticks and sometimes even Instagram husbands. If you’ve ever spent any time chasing the spot you saw in an Instagram photo (I’m just as guilty of this as you) you know that it can sometimes be a fruitless pursuit that may end with one great shot after a long, wasted, precious day of vacation.
Do you smell hypocrisy? Of course you do. I’m the queen of contradictions (among other things, like lack of tact). I own a travel planning company and increasing our Instagram followers is one of our unabashed goals. When we have clients traveling, we love seeing the Instagram photos they share; it gives us a pulse for their trip and allows us to pat ourselves on the back a bit.
But here’s the thing: Travel that’s worth its time takes your breath away in the best of ways. Your jaw drops as you get pulled to the precise center of that moment ― be it because you just got to the top of an incredible volcano hike and the sun is just about to rise, or you’ve had the most mind-blowingly delicious meal, or you shared a deeply personal and engaging conversation with a local with whom you actually have nothing, and yet everything, in common; it’s like falling in love. I don’t have the research to back this up, but I’m sure that the the dopamine of a travel experience is similar to that of falling in love.
The essence and true beauty of these said moments will never ever be captured by a picture that you’ve put a filter on. A picture that you take in these moments is just a fleeting, passing memento, a small souvenir or talisman of the greater experience, not a true-to-size representation of the experience that was.
To me, the sign of a really truly great adventure is when I come home, get over my jet lag, and feel truly bummed as I flip through the photos on my phone. Not because I’m a bad amateur photographer (though I could certainly learn a thing or two), but because these photos don’t even come close to portraying the richness of the memories that I have from the moments they capture.
I love Instagram, I really do. I prefer it leaps and bounds to President Cheeto’s favorite, Twitter, and even the social media gold standard, Facebook. But I worry that the Instagramification of travel is leading us to ditch that internally beautiful moment of awe, wonder and amazement for the short-lived thrill of a bump in likes and followers.
So please, for the love of God, make your Instagram photos a derivative of, not a conduit for, your travels. That way, you’ll be the one at the party with the awesome story about how you danced the night away with locals on a rooftop in Havana instead of being the one who wasted a day in Old Havana with your selfie stick trying to get the perfect shot.