Best travel Documentaries

September 27, 2022
50 Best Documentaries of All

A shark cruising by some fishI tell Werner Herzog jokes at parties. David Attenborough makes me swoon. I’m such a documentary nerd, I’ve gone places because of them. These 10 travel docs may compel you to do the same.

1. Baraka

Locations: 25 countries on 6 continents including heavyweight sights like the Galapagos Islands, Angkor Wat, Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and St. Peter’s Basilica

Inspiring because: From the opening scene in which you can almost touch the steamed, matted fur on Japanese snow monkeys in their alpine bath, Baraka gives you a front-row seat to our planet’s diverse happenings. The chill of Auschwitz’s rusted chambers is palpable, as is the warmth of breaking dawn on a lone street sweeper in Durbar Square, Nepal.

There’s no narrative, only a swelling, reverent score, leaving the viewer to add her own commentary. If you’re anything like me, it may go something like… “Damnit, there are too many places I haven’t been and if I die without seeing them, I’m gonna be pissed. That’s it, I’m quitting my job.”

2. Blindsight

Location: Tibet

Inspiring because: The story of six blind Tibetan kids climbing Everest is a unique entry point into the best and worst of a fascinating region. Like many, I’ve always put Tibet on a pedestal — easy to do when a country is positioned as both underdog (a victim of Chinese imperialism) and moral authority (birthplace of the Dalai Lama). But Tibet has flaws like anywhere else — for instance, its shocking treatment of blind people. Openly mocked in the streets, chained to beds in dark rooms, their predicament had me weeping in the film’s first five minutes.

In the end, though, the spirit and humor of the young mountain climbers and the beauty of the Himalayas deepened my interest in Tibet. Plus real-life travel heroes Sabriye Tenberken and Erik Weihenmayer — she founded Tibet’s first school for the blind, he’s the only blind man to climb Everest — will inspire even the most complacent of armchair travelers.

3. The Endless Summer

Locations: Southern California, Western and South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii

Inspiring because: Widely touted as the original “surf trip, ” this 1966 classic has moved many a dude (and dudette) to drop everything for Bali or Byron Bay. The concept is simple — two surfers chase summer across the globe in search of the perfect wave. But the resulting adventure is full of touching encounters. Like the driver who’s so chuffed to have visitors, he insists on a free tour of his hometown. And the folks in Ghana who gather on the beach with packed lunches to watch them surf like they’re Cirque du Soleil.

It makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew, a time when large parts of the world were still untouched by tourism and the only way to share a new sport was not online or on DVD, but in person.

4. Frozen Planet

Locations: The North and South Poles

Inspiring because: BBC nature documentaries bring us the most rarest, most remote and spectacularly beautiful parts of our planet. To my knowledge, no other production outfit comes close in terms of quantity, quality, and scale.

While every series is superb, I single out Frozen Planet because as someone who had little interest in ice, I found myself completely riveted by killer marine icicles, the thunderous spectacle of ice calving, and a never-before-seen polar bear birth. Far from barren tundra, Frozen Planet shows us the poles are rock stars in their own right.

5. The Fruit Hunters

Locations: Bali, Borneo, Honduras, Umbria, Miami, Hollywood Hills

Inspiring because: It encourages us to travel with our mouths, like the film’s fruit sleuths who, in their search for rare mangoes and forgotten Renaissance-era pears, take us to remote jungles, an Italian villa, even Bill Pullman’s backyard.

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