Film Review: Gringo Trails

Travel documentary cautiously but intelligently criticizes the predicaments associated with tourism.

While its title suggests a Steve Martin comedy from the late 1980s, Gringo Trails  presents a world view from the perspective of Western travelers concerned about how they are “leaving their footprint.” Though the film plods along without a clear direction—not unlike the travelers themselves—the unifying theme of being more sensitive to one's surroundings is a good one. Hopefully, the film will find an audience beyond those already attuned to this attitude.

With her feature debut, director and co-producer Pegi Vail demonstrates her academic background in anthropology by developing a nuanced series of vignettes that follow “the Gringo Trail,” a route for Westerners seeking to better understand different places around the world. This in-the-know itinerary takes these adventurous people from South American forests to African villages to Asian spiritual centers. Vail herself stays out of most of the action, but she interviews fellow travelers, travel writers, regional officials and native dwellers. The overriding quandary in all these locations is finding a way to balance the host country’s financial needs with the inevitable disturbance to the environment by visitors.

Vail could have been more graphic in her use of footage of the damage and destruction caused by outsiders. In the first half of Gringo Trails, the worst it gets are shots of litter. Mostly, in fact, cinematographer and co-producer Melvin Estrella captures the landscapes so elegantly, the film seems like a travelogue when something much more ominous is really called for. At least Laura Ortma's original score evokes a chilling, horror-movie atmosphere. Also, Vail assembles an interesting and insightful group of “talking head” experts (including Costas Christ, Yossi Ghinsberg, Pico Iyer, Holly Morris, Rolf Potts and Anja Mutic) to discuss travel issues usually camouflaged by advertisers and overlooked by vacationers.

With so few films devoted to this topic, Gringo Trails affords a refreshing counterbalance to the Hollywoodized view of “exotic” people and locales. It isn't perfect and could have been much tougher-minded—especially about the industry’s “selling” of tourism—but this film should start a necessary and overdue conversation.

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