What I Learned at the Most Instagrammed Outdoor Places
Are social media and selfie culture killing the outdoors? Nah... but as a visit to some overshared spots reveals, they’re challenging our notions about whether there’s a right way to appreciate nature—and who gets to do it.
I'll begin with the story of YS Falls, a set of cascading drops and cool, clear pools set in a Jamaican rainforest. It’s in Saint Elizabeth parish, where for a few years now I’ve been taking my son on vacation. Saint Elizabeth is a beautiful part of the country, far off the beaten path; to reach it from Montego Bay or Kingston takes four or five hours on bad roads. There are few walled resorts here, no package tours of sunburned Americans and Europeans getting drunk at 10 A.M. The people are nice but not too nice; large stretches of the coasts remain undeveloped. I like it because it has yet to be ruined by people like me.
According to locals (and TripAdvisor), YS is one of the wonders of Saint Elizabeth. Last April, on what happened to be my son’s 15th birthday, I hired a taxi to take us there. Davey did not want to go; he wanted to “chill” and “sleep in.” But I wanted to “experience this natural wonder.” So my angry kid and I arrive at YS, which upon first impression is paradisiacal. We walk into the main building, where we must pay a fee (OK, fine), and we are assigned a guide. There is no other way to see YS; we can’t wander around on our own. The guide asks for Davey’s iPhone. I think he’s holding it to keep it safe and dry. But no. For the next hour, he herds us through the falls on a trip that is organized entirely around photo ops. We’re trapped in a conga line of tourists, each group with its own guide who’s holding their smartphones, taking Instagram-worthy shots. We are told to pose in front of one set of falls and—tap!—the guide gets the shot. We’re told to frolic in a pool and—tap!—we’re captured sheepishly frolicking. We are in a kind of hell.
We climb to the top of the tallest falls, where they’ve built a deck jutting out over a pool 25 feet below. The guide instructs Davey to jump; the point of this, of course, is the shot that will be produced of him flying in midair.
“I’m not gonna jump,” Davey says.
“Oh yes you are,” the guide says.
Davey narrows his eyes. “No, I’m not.”
Quickly, before I can object, the guide shoves him off the ledge and—tap!—gets the picture of my son arcing out over the falls. I run onto the deck to look for him below. Thank God, he’s swimming to the edge of the pool. The guide shows me the picture. I must admit, it’s an epic shot.
Davey won’t speak to me after that. Happy birthday! But when we’re back at our villa, I notice that he has posted the picture to his Instagram feed. He’s already up to 83 likes.