It´s the classic Insta-scam set up: You´re mindlessly scrolling through your feed and come across a staged glam shot of some far flung destination and become instantly smitten. Despite the nagging little voice in your head saying “It probably doesn´t really look like that”, you book a flight to said exotic locale…only to find that it was yet another internet mirage.
This is a situation we´re all familiar with and more than a few people have pointed out this trend of travel photo fakery that borders on Vegas level showmanship.
Though surely there must be some places that live up to their hype? One or two locations that actually look like they are portrayed in the mythical realms of social media?
The surprising answer is yes!
Truth be told, some of these places are even more impressive in person than what you see on the internet.
So without further ado, here are some popular travel destinations where all that glitters really is gold.
Who can forget the pyramid of El Castillo? Situated in a clearing of jungle, it stands as a proud and silent beacon to Maya engineering. Listed as one of the new wonders of the world, this set of ruins in the heart of the Yucatan penninsula draws a staggering 1.2 million visitors every year.
Despite the number of visitors and heavy hype status, the famous El Castillo isn´t enhanced or altered to make it look more impressive. Also, what you cannot see are the rest of the well preserved ruins of this once great metropolis, including the largest ball court of the Maya civilization found to date.
So do yourself a favor and skip a day at the beach to see this ancient treasure!
Now here´s one that took me by surprise. I fully expected to be disappointed in this former Inca citadel, which occupies a precarious position atop a mist shrouded mountain in remote south eastern Peru. The record breaking number of tourists who flock to this location are well known, so expectations have already been managed through social media and countless blogs.
Where I recieved my pleasant surprise is when I discovered just how much bigger the city ruins are than what you see on the “gram”. The classic Machu Picchu shot is from a cliff looking down on a set of ruins with a crown of emerald forested peaks in the background.
Well it turns out this is just a tiny portion of the actual city complex, which stretches much higher into the mountain, with fewer and fewer tourists to be seen the further you climb.
Swarms of pilgrims aside, it truly is a stunning sight to behold.
Also known as the “magic mountain”, the tallest peak in Africa is nothing short of awe inspiring. Straddling the border of Kenya and Tanzania like some mythical giant, social media coverage includes everything from lofty summit shots, to enchanting snow capped clips from the savannah and members of the African Big 5 sprinkled in between.
It´s a literal poster child for East African tourism.
That being said, you´d expect this beautiful beast to somehow fall short of its Instagram glitter. Rest assured though, it absolutely lives up to its impressive reputation.
You can spot all kinds of animals on the hike to the summit, or even around the walking trails near the base. There are stunning waterfalls to be seen in the village of Marangu (which means a place of water in the Chagga language), which is where the start of the Marangu Route for the summit begins.
So if you´re ready to blow the budget on a spectacular African mountain experience (and an easily achievable almost 6,000 meter summit), then look no further.
Uluru (a.k.a. Ayer´s Rock)
Next on the list of impressive natural wonders is the iconic red masterpiece known to the traditional land owners (the Anangu tribe), as Uluru. Its very name means “big pebble”, which tells a literal truth since it happens to be the 2nd largest monolith (meaning one single rock) in the entire world. In fact, locals jokingly call it a “desert iceberg” since what you can see is only a small portion of the actual rock.
The rest of it extends a full 2 km underground!
The images you find on social media are textbook Australian Outback, with alluring color contrasts that are nothing short of magical.
Yet while the Insta shots are striking, what they don´t portray is just how big or complex Uluru really is. With a base circumference of 10 kilometers (over 6 miles) and a height of 863 meters (almost 1,200 feet), this is indeed one big pebble. There are also countless caves featuring Aboriginal artwork, lush groves of Eucalyptus and even a fresh water spring that can all be taken in from the multiple hiking trails near the base of the rock.
It dominates the landscape for miles and is considered one of the most sacred sites to the Anangu people.
You definitely shouldn´t pass up on seeing this “pebble” in person.
With it´s famous jagged peaks, picturesque glaciers and electric blue lakes, this region at the bottom of South America encompasses over a million square kilometers between Argentina and Chile. It is nothing short of a photographer´s paradise.
A landscape carved by glaciers and notoriously fierce winds, social media feeds are often carpet bombed with vistas of the TDP (The Torres del Paine), Mount Fitzroy, Glacier Gris and impossibly blue lakes. (An effect created by the sediment content and depth of the water)
However, what makes this place so impressive is not only the variety of landscapes, but you also don´t need a filter to capture the stunning colors.
Even better, there´s not a line of 2,000 tourists standing behind you waiting to get the exact same photo.
The region is just as big and beautiful as it seems and despite having a booming tourist industry, it´s not nearly as saturated as you would expect from such a famous location.
The Salar de Uyuni
One of the newer destinations to dominate planet Instagram is an extension of the highest and driest desert on earth. The Salar is the world´s largest salt flat and located in a quiet corner of south western Bolivia.
You´ve likely seen the epic “where earth meets sky” shots from this vast blank canvas. It´s particularly impressive in the wet season, when an inch or so of water turns the entire salt flat into an enormous mirror, creating a stunning back drop for photos.
However, there is much more to the Salar than just the salt flat.
There are unique mountains, islands of cactus, surreal rock formations and unearthly colored lakes to be seen if you take the 3 day tour.
Not to mention the night sky at this altitude is simply jaw dropping!
So fear not, all the paperwork and travel it takes just to get here is well worth the effort.
The Nazca Lines
This absolute wonder of human engineering is too often passed up on the road from Lima to Cusco. Built by the mysterious Nazca culture around (estimated) 2,000 years ago, these geoglyphs have modest representation on social media, but are a larger than life experience waiting to be had!
Only taking their famous shapes when seen from above, you can appreciate these artistic wonders from the air with regular daily flight tours, which are surprisingly affordable, from the city of Nazca.
What you don´t see on IG is just how big or how many of them there are. Dominating the plain for 50 square kilometers and boasting an astonishing 300 geometric designs and 70 biomorphic (animal and plant) figures, you´ll have your face plastered to the window the entire time in sheer awe.
And if you´ve ever wondered if that Ancient Aliens guy was on to something, you should definitely come and decide for yourself.
Well, that´s my short list of places that live up to or exceed their reputation on Insta, but I assure you there are more that I plan to post in a follow up article.
Until next time, keep wandering folks!