Culture: Discovery Trip, Patagonia Is Mostly What Instagram Doesn’t Show

TL;DR: Instagram makes epic destinations look fun to experience and easy to access, but what makes them epic are the struggles you can't filter once you're actually there.

“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.” ― Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia

Historically, before I take a trip, I read travel books or watched travel shows extensively.  When I last planned a long vacation in 2010 to Ireland, it was flavored by Anthony Bourdain’s cockles in the seaside town of Howth, Tony Hawks’ hitchhiking misadventure "Round Ireland with a Fridge," and Pete McCarthy’s aptly titled book "McCarthy’s Bar." But when my next opportunity for travel arose, I thought I would practice what I preach and plan by Instagram.  

When I’m not in the office, I’m outside, pursuing (with mild competence at best), the local outdoor fare here in the Pacific Northwest: skiing, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering. I’m a big fan of Type II fun. So as an “outdoors enthusiast,” Patagonia was high on the tick list. The plan would be to head to southern South America (Google Maps Punta Arenas) to do the W or O backpacking loops in Torres del Paine National Park, and after a few days in El Chaltén, make an attempt on Aguja Guillaumet, the starting peak along the Fitz Traverse that Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold completed just three years before (note: Watch “A Line In the Sky" to get an understanding of why Type III fun is even a thing — rock climbers are notorious goofballs).

That was the plan. And Instagram made it all look so easy. On Instagram, even frost bite looks like Type I fun.

For all its amazing views, what Instagram doesn’t show you is the journey. It’s a medium of highlights and achievements, not struggles. In Torres del Paine, a camera can capture tall spires of granite, dramatic blue lakes, beautiful ranch houses, and massive glaciers that stretch to the horizon yet crumble into azure lakes before your very eyes. The photo taking is easy.

But if you didn’t get lucky coordinating your booking across three different websites 6-8 months in advance, even Instagram Stories can’t capture the 300 kilometers of driving through gravel roads across a barren steppe, the blow-your-sunglasses-off arctic ferry rides, the 18 miles of hiking that will bring you to the foot of the Grey Glacier and back (a “day trip”). Nor does it capture 23 miles of backpacking over 10,000 feet of elevation, where 70-80 mph wind gusts literally blew us off the side of the trail — twice. That very same wind also closed trail access to the two of the most scenic high points we were trying to link, camp Britannico in the French Valley and the base of Las Torres. We were stopped just 1 kilometer away from each, blistered, dusty and out-of-Instagram achievement luck.

When you read Chatwin’s description of Patagonia, Chile, a level of detail emerges that speaks to my experience of Patagonia, where the elements are a constant and three dimensional, but intrinsically part of the views.

Even as new forms of Snapchat, Facebook and Messenger keep innovating new Stories features, and human attention spans dwindle to mere seconds, some of the invaluable elements of the travel experience are not easily shot, GIF'd or snapped: The grind of long flights, even longer hikes, blisters and thorns, the 2 a.m. alpine camp starts, lakes so blisteringly cold they spawn sporadic tornados, the barren drives through impoverished landscapes, the frustration of trying to avoid expensive tour operators, who stop at nothing to get you on the tourist bus to the giant sloth cave, (“Where is the post office? I’ll show you, but first, you MUST tour of the Milodon Cave”), and the imperfection of cultural communication through foreign language apps. All that Type II fun.

These are precisely the elements that add filters of relevancy to the experience of travel. They are the ones that I recall almost more favorably, than the easy to shoot, stunning Insta-peaks. While Instagram is famed for its inspirational power, it’s ironically its limits in conveying the authenticity of an experience (especially in the days Instagram megastars, agencies, and pods), that is the reason, that long form media such as videos, blogs, and podcasts have such an enduring resilience.  For as many new social media channels and formats emerge and evolve for travel, we are still programmed the old fashioned way to seek out stories.  And great stories require type II and III fun.

Next adventure:  Travel by pod.

To learn more about podcasting and social media, I’ll be speaking at DMA West in Spokane on March 21-23, 2018. For more Sparkloft Discovery Trips, read Kate’s emoji tour of Japan.

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