Juma Lodge. Image: Marina Lopes
If a tree falls in the Amazon, but you don't capture it on Snapchat, did it actually fall? I had the thought while hiking through the rainforest, on the third day of a digital detox that was slowly killing me. What's the point of eating a live worm or luring a monkey onto my shoulder if I can't post the photos to prove it?These days, vacation can feel like work. Between Facebook updates, Instagram posts and tweets of your shower thoughts, memorializing your vacation can overpower the trip itself. In fact, 41 percent of millennials feel that their phones are keeping them from living in the moment when traveling, according to a JWT Intelligence consumer trends survey. And over half of those who plan on unplugging during vacation aren't able to, according to an Intel digital behavior study.
So how much are tech addicts (i.e. most of us) willing to pay for someone to cut them off? It turns out, quite a lot. And the travel industry is readily capitalizing on our addiction to glowing screens.
Lack of WiFi and cell service, once unforgivable for any hotel, have become selling points at places like La Pause, in Morocco. Nestled between desert sand dunes, it has no electricity or cell service, but offers luxury tents with egyptian cotton linens and bathrobes for $250 a night. Similarly, at Petit St. Vincent, a secluded Caribbean resort averaging $1,000 a night, the phone never rings. Residents use flag poles outside their bungalows to communicate with management."People don't know how to disconnect. That's why there's this demand. It's catering to soul searchers, people are looking to get to know themselves again," said Adriana Lacerda, a travel consultant at Plantel Tourism. "Technology prevents this self-reflection. You are connected to other people, but not really."Unplugged tourism is like rehab for the traveler whose thumb flicks upward at the first sign of boredom. And digital breaks can have actual health benefits. Studies show that heavy users of technology suffer more mental illness and have trouble sleeping.Over the summer, in search of this elusive freedom from technology, I took a plane, two boats and a van into the heart of the Amazon. I wanted to trade in my Spotify playlist for a creaking hammock and reconnect with nature.
Juma Lodge promised just that. The secluded hotel is made up of 21 thatched-roof huts swaying on stilts at the basin of the Paraná do Araçá River. For $300 a night, the hotel boasted a return to the basics. There were no televisions, telephones, and certainly no wifi. The only means of communication with the outside world was five radios, used strictly for emergencies.
The lodge was packed with overworked businessmen, european lawyers and a high schooler looking for a college essay topic. The first days were pure bliss. I went on a midnight hike through the jungle, learned how to crack open vines to get drinking water in the wild and hunted alligators in the moonlight. I journaled and reflected on life as I watched the sunset. I had no idea what was happening beyond my immediate surroundings.But halfway through the week, withdrawal took over. The heat and stillness leveled me and I needed a break from my own mind. I wondered about the Twittersphere. What was I missing? Which videos went viral, what did the latest election polls show, who Taylor Swift was dating? But with no option to cheat on my detox, I pushed the thoughts away and learned how to build shelter from banana leaves instead.I was startled a few days later, when on a rickety boat halfway to the mainland, my phone buzzed alive. I slowly swiped it on, submerging myself back into civilization. It turns out the internet hadn't missed me nearly as much as I missed it. Within five minutes, I was all caught up. With a sigh of relief, I turned my phone off and enjoyed the last few hours of my vacation.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.