I’ve always been a believer in the magic of movies, in allowing myself to be swept away to a far-off land for a couple of hours at a time. As my ambitions to actually visit these far-off places grew, so did my fascination with travel documentaries. A good filmmaker not only captures pretty images, but brings the viewer into the moment. The great ones do this by telling compelling stories with real human emotion. It’s not all about sandy beaches and tourist resorts, but about understanding the journey and those who say, “What the hell, I’m going to go for it.”
In this post I’ve gathered some of my favorite travel docs currently available on Netflix. Simply click on the links to watch. As always, feel free to make some suggestions in the comments. Click here for the list of my favorite songs about travel.
Maidentrip follows the journey of then 14-year-old Laura Dekker as she set out to sail the world — alone. This documentary and Laura’s journey are, in a word, nuts. I have a particular fear (rather a healthy appreciation) of the ocean’s power and its great depths. So does Laura but instead of tucking tail and remaining inland, like myself, she charges out on her little boat, affectionaly named Guppy, which she restored with her father and can operate like a seasoned pro. Her immaturity comes out at times, especially when dealing with foreign journalists, but the best moments come when she’s all alone out on the deep blue sea aware that she’s doing an amazing thing.
There are a million ski documentaries of dudes thrashing on the mountainside. Many are cinematically pretty but not really deserving of a spot on any “best” list. Into the Mind, set mostly in Nepal, is different. It’s deep and it’s trippy. It is absolutely gorgeous and shot by one of my favorite adventurers Renan Ozturk. Watch this one in a dark room and give in to its majesty.
We should agree on one thing first — running pretty much sucks. I resisted this doc for quite a while based on that assumption (that I have proven to be true). Avoiding Desert Runners, though, was a mistake. Did you know that there is a Grand Slam for races across deserts? I had no idea until I popped this one in (or pressed play on Netflix). With Desert Runners you get a great story of perseverance and companionship, and you get to join along in the pursuit of something truly superhuman. You also get to see some amazing places, including the Gobi Desert in China, Atacama Desert in Chile, the Sahara in Africa, and finally a little chunk of Antarctica. If you love running and are reading this, you’ve probably already seen this film. If not, time to get off your ass and press play. Then immediately get back on your ass and enjoy the movie.
It boggles the mind that there are still climate change deniers out there, just because it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Climate and temperature are different things, people. Anyway, Chasing Ice makes it plainly clear that changing climates are wreaking havoc on the planet’s glaciers. National Geographic photographer James Balog spent years documenting the changes, often leaving cameras on a glacier’s edge for months in inhospitable environments. The resulting photography is stunning, disconcerting, and captivating. In the climate change debate, Chasing Ice should be exhibit A.
I debated adding Virunga to this list mostly because it’s not exactly about travel. It does, however, highlight a dire situation in a UNESCO World Heritate Site, meaning it should be protected (Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Grand Canyon are just a few such sites in the US). If we are to save the world’s wonders for future travelers, films like Virunga need to be made. More importantly, those films need to be watched and their message needs to be received and acted upon. This Netflix-original documents a group of park rangers and a journalist’s mission to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas from oil companies looking to come in and wipe out all that is good and beautiful in pursuit of profit. Virunga was nominated for an Academy Award and has taken down several other film festivals’ top prize.
I’m bending the rules a little bit here adding not one but two documentary series. Long Way Round and Long Way Down chronicle the journeys of actor (and all-around cool dude) Ewan McGregor and his buddy Charley Boorman as they ride motorcycles across vast distances. Long Way Round (2004) is a 9-part journey of epic proportions. MacGregor and Boorman ride 20,000 miles over the course of 115 days from London to New York. It’s insane.
The pair repeat a similarly impressive feat with the 2007, 10-part series Long Way Down, in which they ride from the tippy top of Scotland all the way down to South Africa. Kick back and watch two buddies have the time of their lives. Twice. It’s a fun ride.
The first of two Werner Herzog selections, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga documents the life of the inhabitants along the River Yenisei in Russia. Scenery is often bleak and life is often hard, yet those who have lived for generations in the Taiga get by just fine. Take some time to explore Siberian life and hopefully get a better understanding of living a simpler life.
Herzog’s 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the origins of the world’s oldest human-painted images ever found on Earth. Be prepared to have your mind blown simply by the timeline of events and the fact that any of those drawings even exist at all. It’s also fair to prepare you for Herzog’s narration which, at times, can threaten to put one to sleep. Just don’t get too cozy while watching and you should be fine. (Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World is also great)
I love Mile… Mile & a Half because it’s a pure backpacking documentary made for hikers and all those who love the great outdoors. A group of friends set out to hike a 219-mile stretch of the John Muir Trail, from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, and adventure awaits. If you’ve ever been inspired to pack a bag and head out into the woods, this film will only irritate that itch.
No list of “Best Travel Documentaries” is complete without a solid entry about mountain climbing. My pick is 2003’s Touching the Void, a harrowing recount of an ill-fated trip to the Andes by mountaineers Simon Yates and Joe Simpson. Part re-creation and largely interview driven, Touching the Void is a stunning film about an even more impressive story of survival. So you think you can be a mountain climber? Maybe check this out first.
Honorable Mention: Life in a Day
Life in a Day proves this planet really is beautiful, despite our best efforts sometimes. Have some tissues on hand. You’re going to need them.