10 Breathtaking Documentaries about Travel and Adventure
Who among us hasn’t dreamed of embarking on an epic journey, experiencing new cultures, or pushing our limits in the great outdoors?
For those seeking adventure but unable to take the plunge themselves, documentaries on travel and adventure allow us to live vicariously through others.
- The Way
- The Wildest Dream
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams
- Touching the Void
- The Salt of the Earth
- 180° South
- Free Solo
Get your passport ready as we explore 10 of the most exciting and inspiring films that will ignite your wanderlust.
Kicking off our list is the captivating doc Meru, chronicling two attempts by world-class climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk to ascend the notorious Shark’s Fin route on Mount Meru in India.
Considered the ultimate achievement in mountaineering, Meru has defeated some of the sport’s best athletes for 30 years running. Filmed by Chin himself, Meru takes us along for two nerve-wracking expeditions in 2008 and 2011, capturing both the tremendous beauty of the Himalayas along with the ever-present dangers that leave no room for error.
We get an inside look at the physical and mental strength required to undertake a true vertical odyssey. Meru will leave your palms sweaty and your heart racing.
This stunning non-narrative documentary explores the world through a kaleidoscope of imagery. Filmed over 5 years across 25 countries, Samsara transports viewers across vast landscapes, sacred grounds, disaster zones, and natural wonders.
Without using traditional voiceover or text, the film examines the human experience and the interconnectedness of life.
Spectacular cinematography brings to life Tibetan Buddhist rituals, the daily toil of workers at a Chinese factory, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and more. Samsara’s tapestry of sights and sounds immerses us in the ephemeral beauty of existence.
The Way (2010)
Family bonds take center stage in The Way, when California doctor Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) travels to France following the death of his estranged son Daniel (Emilio Estevez), killed in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.
To honor Daniel’s memory, Tom resolves to finish the 500-mile trek to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. But Tom gets far more than he bargained for, meeting a ragtag group of new friends along the way who will change his life.
Poignant and funny, The Way highlights beautiful scenery across France and Spain while showing that the most transformative journeys are often the ones we least expect.
The Wildest Dream (2010)
Prepare for vertigo as The Wildest Dream tells two paralleling stories: the first expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1924 and a modern crew’s attempts to find climber George Mallory’s frozen body at 27,000 feet.
British mountaineer Mallory disappeared just 800 feet from the top in 1924, leaving it unknown if he actually reached the summit 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary.
Conrad Anker leads the expedition to recover Mallory using 1920s gear, retracing his doomed route. The film weaves together the tragic yet romantic tale of Mallory’s climb with Anker’s intense efforts to solve Everest’s biggest mystery. Breathtaking visuals transport us to the top of the world, where the greatest danger lurks.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Journey back in time with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, granting exclusive access inside France’s Chauvet Cave containing the oldest cave paintings known to mankind. Discovered in 1994, the cave houses vivid depictions of prehistoric animals from 30,000 years ago that remain mysteriously preserved.
Director Werner Herzog uses 3D technology to allow viewers to inspect art unavailable to the public eye, transporting us into Paleolithic life.
We examine paintings of woolly mammoths, panthers, lion-headed beings, and other figures that seem to dance across the undulating cavern walls. An unforgettable portal into ancient humans’ earliest creative attempts.
Touching the Void (2003)
Live one man’s harrowing tale of survival in the Andes in Touching the Void, based on mountaineer Joe Simpson’s best-selling memoir. In 1985, Simpson and climbing partner Simon Yates endured a disastrous descent from the 20,813-foot peak of Siula Grande in Peru, with Simpson suffering a shattered leg.
After Yates is forced to cut the rope connecting them, Simpson remains stranded alone, presumed dead. In an incredible feat, Simpson crawls back to base camp over several days, fighting pain, exhaustion and delirium.
The film reenacts the terrifying ordeal while featuring interviews with the two men. This edge-of-your-seat thriller underscores just how precious – and fragile – life can be.
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Shifting from mountaintops to rainforests, The Salt of the Earth chronicles renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s work capturing the incredible beauty of nature and humanity.
With a focus on environmental themes, it follows Salgado’s wanderlust across dozens of countries over four decades, braving extreme conditions for his art.
From Genesis’ starkly captivating black-and-white images of polar regions, mountains, and oceans to his later work highlighting endangered indigenous cultures, Salgado’s photography uniquely exposes both the fragility and resilience of life on Earth. An eye-opening look at one man’s creative vision to document the world before it’s gone.
The predecessor to Samsara, Baraka offers a mesmerizing glimpse into technological and spiritual realms around the world. Filmed in 70mm, Baraka wordlessly captures chanting monks in Myanmar, people praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, factory assembly lines, and other locales.
Using no conventional narrative, Baraka connects diverse cultures and environments through powerful imagery edited to Philip Glass’s evocative music.
Scenes of natural splendor are juxtaposed with industrialization and pollution, reflecting both the magnificence and destruction of our planet. Baraka provides a contemplative window into the joys, sorrows, and contradictions of the human experience.
180° South (2010)
Retrace the steps of Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, in 180° South. The film follows adventurer Jeff Johnson as he navigates the route of Chouinard’s 1968 expedition to Patagonia.
Along with climbing pioneer Doug Tompkins andsurfer/activist Timmy O’Neill, the trio battle the elements while confronting issues of climate change that threaten the regions they visit. Savor the striking scenery, from Chilean peaks to penguin colonies in Argentina.
Johnson’s journey becomes an inspiring tribute to those who came before while revealing how much work remains to protect the planet. Part environmental crusade, part soul-searching mission, 180° South reminds us that a life of purpose comes from giving back.
Free Solo (2018)
Concluding our roundup is the pulse-pounding, palm-sweating Free Solo, witnessing rock climber Alex Honnold’s death-defying ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. Ranked among the world’s most difficult climbs, El Capitan’s smooth vertical granite offers scarcely any handholds, requiring remarkable skill.
We observe Honnold’s fanatical preparations and the risks he takes to achieve what was long deemed impossible. Free Solo is equally an intimate character study, probing what drives someone to risk it all for a fleeting moment of glory.
The payoff is a profoundly moving portrait of human ambition and our inherent need to expand boundaries. Its message? Even the greatest heights are reachable for those brave enough to try.
Whether you crave adrenaline-pumping adventure, sumptuous culinary delights, or glimpses into ancient worlds, this collection of acclaimed documentaries will stay with you long after the credits roll.
As John Steinbeck wrote, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Though we can’t control where life’s journey takes us, these documentaries prove it’s the willingness to take the first step that counts. By vicariously joining the open-hearted people across these stories, we expand our minds and reignite our zest for the undiscovered.
So pack your bags and prepare for an enlightening escape. The wildest dreams are yet to come!