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This beach's rope swing is so Instagram-famous

Instagram photos don't always reflect reality. Eric Mack visited a beautiful beach where one simple homemade attraction gets most of the attention online.

Eric Mack/CNET

This small stretch of Indian Ocean beach boasts fine white sand, great surfing and snorkeling amidst a coral reef and large sea turtles that don't hesitate to shell-bump slow-swimming humans.

Yet social media posts about Dalawella beach along Sri Lanka's southern coast focus instead on a humble, man-made attraction: an old length of rope dangling from a palm tree. 

Go ahead and search for "#Dalawella" on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and especially Pinterest and you'll find paradisaical photos of pretty people swinging on the palm-slung rope predominating in the posts.

Dalawella is an up-and-coming destination on a section of coast lined with small hotels and quaint beach houses, but not nearly as crowded or over-built as more developed resort areas nearer to the capital city of Colombo. Russian-speaking tourists and travelers from elsewhere in Europe and Australia, many of them millennials, dominate the scene most days.

In a single day during my family's five-day visit this month, we helped release newly hatched sea turtles on the beach and snorkeled next to their full grown relatives later on: it's truly one of those places where nature presents itself in the form of a playground. But it is the crude, human-constructed bit of play equipment that visitors write home about the most and that draws the most interest online. 

Type "Dalawella" into Google and it's not unusual to see the swing come up as a higher suggested search than turtles, surfing or even hotels on the beach.

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This beach's swing is very popular online.

Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

It was some locals at Dream Cabana, which offers relatively ramshackle bungalows for the night, who put up the swing a few years ago. Without having to try too hard, it has quickly become the most "Instagram-famous" sight in the area. 

The rise of social photo sharing has led to some surprising spots becoming viewed worldwide through the Insta' posts of the multitudes. For example, it isn't photos of Bangkok's Grand Palace or the majestic reclining Buddha that are the most popular on Instagram: instead, photos taken at the Siam Paragon Mall are the most popular single location for Instagram post from Thailand. In fact, the mall was the fourth-most 'grammed place in the world when the data was made public back in 2014.

In a different way, the Dalawella swing is one of those spots that seems custom made for sharing in the selfie age. The setting is not only picturesque, but also provides a way to take a simple action shot that easily conveys some of the experience of being there rather than just snapping away at the scenery.

Swimming with wild sea turtles might be a more rare and exhilarating experience than swinging on a rope, but it's just so hard to get most cold-blooded reptiles to stop and pop out of the water for the perfect selfie.

So we also sought out the most Instagram-famous sight around. We left the crowded end of the beach with all the reefs, turtles, snorkelers and surfers to glimpse this swing turned social media sensation. 

Strolling down Dalawella Beach, the swing isn't immediately as obvious as its online popularity suggests. In fact, it seemed to be out of order when we visited. The rope had been pulled up too high to reach and we actually weren't entirely that eager to have someone pull it down for us: It was high tide, there were strong rip currents and many hidden rocks below the surface of the water would have made for a perilous swing.

At the risk of raining on the Insta-glam parade, the Dalawella swing is yet another example of the reality portrayed on social media not quite matching up with the (or at least my) IRL experience.  

The inaccessible rope hung over the waves crashing on the beach as the sun also descended toward the sand. Stray dogs licked themselves at the base of the palm tree as the sounds of construction could be heard from beyond the cabana. No one greeted passersby, offering them the swing and selfie they'd come here searching for.

Instead, a handful of tourists like us meandered down the beach. Almost all of them stopped and stared at the tree for a moment before pulling out a phone or camera to snap a quick pic, presumably to prove they were there too. Naturally, I did the same. But instead of posting mine to Instagram for the world to see, I saved mine so I could share it just with you:

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Pondering the inaccessible but still Instagram-famous rope swing on Dalawella Beach.

Eric Mack/CNET

I might always have that photo, but it's the more vivid memories of the sea turtles brushing by that I'll always cherish, even if they didn't make it on to any of my social feeds. 

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