Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail & Co-Producer Melvin Estrella in Bolivia

Pegi Vail & Co-Producer Melvin Estrella in Bolivia

Are Backpackers Destroying the World?

An Interview With Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail


Tourism is really about selling nature and cultural heritage,” says National Geographic Traveler editor Costas Christ during an interview near the beginning of the Gringo Trails documentary. The rest of the thought-provoking film explores the obvious follow-up question: At what cost?


The film was directed and co-produced by Pegi Vail, an American anthropologist and Associate Director of the Center for Media, Culture, and History at NYU. Once an avid backpacker herself, Vail began the project back in 1999 as a Fulbright scholar researching the impact of backpacking on the Salar de Uyuni region of Bolivia. Over time, the film’s focus morphed into more of a big picture examination of the impact mass tourism has on the culture and environment of a destination.


Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail in Albania

Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail in Albania


Through interviews with eco-lodge operators, members of Bhutan’s royal family, and travel experts such as Pico Iyer and Rolf Potts, the film culls stories from all along the historic “gringo trail.” The crux of the conversation is how we can reconcile the needs of tourists who want to travel off the beaten path in search of authentic experiences, and those of developing nations desperately in need of tourism revenue, without destroying the things that make these destinations uniquely beautiful.


While Gringo Trails offers no easy answers, it does ask poignant questions and offers some compelling examples of role models for sustainable ecotourism. We recently spoke with Vail (whose book based on her research, Right of Passage, is forthcoming) to discuss her thought-provoking film in depth.

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Scuba Diving Caño Island, Costa Rica

Our Dive Boat Awaits Off Caño Island


Scuba Diving Caño Island


I feel like I’m in a scene straight out of Finding Nemo.


I’m diving 50 fifty feet below the waves, at a site called “El Barco,” located about 100 yards off the beach of Costa Rica’s Caño Island Biological Reserve. I’m literally surrounded on all sides by thousands of fish– yellow and silver-striped Grunts, huge Amberjacks, vivid Striped Snapper, cautious Horse-Eye Jacks, and dozens of other species I cannot identify– swimming in huge schools that seem to ebb and flow in unison in response to my every movement.


I spin around in awe, taking it all in, looking up towards the surface to see more schools passing overhead, like storm clouds blocking out the sun. We’ve been snorkeling and Scuba diving at least a hundred times during our travels, from the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands to Hawaii and Tahiti, but never have we seen so many fish in one place. And our day has only just begun…
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Baby Elephant at Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

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An Elephant Changed My Life

I realize this may sound like exaggerated hyperbole. But, until you’ve come face-to-face with an animal more than twice your height and 75 times your weight, it’s hard to fathom how the experience can alter your perception of humanity’s place in the Universe. 


For me, it happened during the first game drive on the first day of my safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa.


He was a massive bull elephant, feeding on a tree about 75 yards from our open-air safari vehicle in Londolozi Game Reserve. As he noticed us, he slowly turned and ambled our way with a sense of purpose. When he got within 50 yards, I began looking at our guide nervously. By the time he’d reached the 30 yard mark, we asked if perhaps it was time to move the Jeep and give him some space. Solomon assured us that it was fine, as the elephant came closer and closer and closer.

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Chattahoochee River Fishing

Chattahoochee River, Photo by Tom Wilson NPS

Pitch Your Park!

Rangers Plug Six of the Best US National Parks


Vacations are a lot like Hollywood blockbusters: Both cost a lot of money, we go into them expecting maximum bang for our bucks, and the competition tends to be fairly fierce. So we approached representatives from six US National Parks and gave them an opportunity to pitch their park’s perks directly to you, the traveler. Here, straight from the horses’ mouth, is an inside scoop on the unique features, activities, and prime visiting seasons for some of America’s best National Parks.


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Photographer Jimmy Nelson in Papua New Guinea, Before They Pass Away

Photographer Jimmy Nelson in Papua New Guinea

Jimmy Nelson Photographs Vanishing Tribes in

Before They Pass Away


I’ve been fascinated by tribal cultures for over 20 years, ever since I interviewed my grandfather about our family history and learned we had American Indian blood on both sides. In the years since, I’ve traveled to indigenous communities in DominicaSouth AfricaTahiti, the Peruvian Amazon and numerous other destinations in an effort to learn from the tribal cultures there. So you can imagine how much photographer Jimmy Nelson‘s new book, Before They Pass Away, resonated with me on a personal level.


The project began in 2009, when the British photographer set out on a journey to visit and photograph 31 secluded, visually unique tribes. The quest would eventually take him (and his 4×5 large format camera) on 13 trips covering 44 countries. From the Huaorani tribe of the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Himba tribe of Namibia, from the island tribes of Vanuatu to the Chukotka of Siberia, Nelson’s extraordinary photos document ancient cultural traditions currently in danger of going the way of the dodo.


“I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever,” Nelson says. “Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”


We were delighted that the intrepid traveler took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the evolution of the Before They Pass Away project, his favorite memories from his journeys, and the importance of the cultural conservation message he’s ultimately trying to convey.


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Destinations We’ve Covered:

Egypt- Top 5 Eco Attractions
Madagascar- Ring-tailed Lemurs at Anja Reserve
Morocco- A Journey into the Atlas Mountains
South Africa- Londolozi Game Reserve Safari
South Africa- Kruger National Park
South Africa- South Africa- Zulu Memories
Tanzania- Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

How To Get To Antarctica w/out Doing the Drake
The Haunting Beauty of Icebergs
Penguins of Antarctica
Taking the Polar Plunge
Top 5 Eco Attractions in Antarctica
Whales of Antarctica
Borneo- Sabah Ecotourism Attractions
India- Ranthambhore National Park
India- Tibetan Culture In Ladakh
Laos- The Pastoral Paradise of Muang Ngoi
Malaysia- Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Malaysia- Orangutan Conservation at Sepilok
Nepal- Hiking The Annapurna Circuit
Taiwan- Top 5 Eco Activities in Taipei
Thailand- Top 5 National Parks
Australia- Top 5 Eco Attractions
Australia-Kangaroo Island
Australia-Maria Island
New Zealand- Kapiti Island
New Zealand- Tongariro National Park
New Zealand- Top 5 Ecotourism Attractions
Tahiti- First Impressions
Tahiti- Photo Gallery
Tahiti- Moorea 4x4 Safari Tour
Tahiti- Moorea, Tiki Village Theater
Tahiti- Pearl Diving in Bora Bora
Tahiti- Ruahatu Marine Sanctuary, Bora Bora
Tahiti- Swimming With Sharks in Bora Bora
Tonga- Eua Island Eco Activities


Churchill- Into the Wild of Manitoba
Churchill- Polar Bear Fight
Churchill- Polar Bear Photo Gallery
Churchill- Tundra Wildlife

America’s Best Volcanoes
AL- Fishing Mobile Bay
AL- Mobile Carnival Museum
AK- Denali National Park
CA- Hiking The John Muir Trail
FL- Sanibel Island Eco Activities
FL- Crystal River, Swimming with Manatees
FL- Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
GA- Barnsley Gardens
GA- Top 5 Autumn Activities Around Atlanta
GA- Best Christmas Light Displays
GA- Top 20 Atlanta Christmas Events
GA- Jekyll Island Eco Activities
GA- Weekend in North GA Mountains
GA- Top 5 Eco Attractions in North GA
HI- Hawaii’s Big Island
HI- Hawaiian Mythology
HI - Top 5 Kauai Nature Attractions
LA- Lafayette Cajun Food Tour
LA- Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday
LA- Voodoo Museum
MT- Hiking Glacier National Park
NC- Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
NC- Asheville's Green Restaurants Scene
NC- Asheville's Top Ecotourism Attractions
NC- Greensboro Travel Guide
NC- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
NC- Outer Banks Wild Horses
NM- Top 5 Eco Attractions
NY- Going Green in NYC
TX- Sea Turtle Rescue, South Padre Island
WV- Outdoor Adventures
Yellowstone- Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone- Lamar Valley
Yellowstone- Grand Canyon & Hayden Valley
Yellowstone- Upper Geyser Basin
Yellowstone- Lower Geyser Basin

Cancun- Cancun Underwater Museum
Cancun- Mayan Museum of Archaeology
Cancun- Swimming with Whale Sharks
Riviera Maya- Monkeys, Pyramids & Pottery
Riviera Maya- Rio Secreto
Riviera Maya- Tulum & Coba