Brief and organized history of travel literature

The history of travel literature is extensive

It is enough to look for the origins of writing to find out that they are the same as those of travel narrative; For this reason, we are going to try to organize and briefly tell its story. You will realize the great transformation that travel literature has had, which makes this genre an essential tool to understand the evolution of humanity, the geography of the world and its cultural diversity.

The prehistory

history of travel literature

The narrative of travel arises with groups of primitive hunters or gatherers who returned to a cave and explained to their families how things had gone through cave paintings.

We can verify this discovery, for example, in the paintings of the Lascaux cave (17,000 BC), in France. In them, most of the paintings depict animals, with a notable absence of human figures. It is believed that these representations could have a symbolic, ritual or mythical meaning, but mainly a descriptive one.

With this we can learn that the relationship between travel-language or travel-narrative has been closely linked since the beginning of the human being.

First civilizations

history of travel literature

The narrative that developed with the oral traditions of travel, inscribed on tablets of the first civilizations, demonstrates the mythical and religious character attributed to travel.

The Poem of Gilgamesh, (2000 BC), by an anonymous author, is the first recorded writing that talks about the stories of Uruk to seek immortality until arriving empty-handed.

A classic is the Odyssey, by Homer (8th century BC), narrating the journey home of Odysseus after the Trojan War, to reclaim his throne.

To talk about history is to talk about Herodotus (5th century BC), the great traveler known as the father of history in the western world, in which he narrates conflicts between Greeks and Persians and gives a description of the places he visits.

At this stage the first narrator appears, Egeria (Eteria, Ætheria or Etheria) (4th century AD, image on the left), a Christian woman whose travel diary, known as the “Itinerarium Egeriae”, describes her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other sacred places.

It is worth mentioning that 3 important elements of travel literature were developed: The protagonist character of the traveler, the heroic genre and the dramatic structure.

Middle Ages

Little by little, the stories of explorers and traders began to describe distant lands and exotic cultures that contributed to the expansion of geographical and cultural knowledge at the time.

For example, the one who served as an inspiration for subsequent travelers, Marco Polo, with his “Book of the Wonders of the World.” He was the first European author to describe China, and influenced figures such as Christopher Columbus.

Gentlemen, emperors, kings, dukes and marquises, counts, noble sons and bourgeoisie and people who wish to know the different human generations and the diversities of the regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you, and you will find in it all the great wonders and curiosities of great Armenia and Persia, of the Tartars and of India and various other provinces; This is how our book will explain it to you and explain it clearly and orderly as Marco Polo, wise and noble citizen of Venice, tells it, just as his mortal eyes saw it.

Fragment of the “Book of Wonders of the World” by Marco Polo.

Margery Kempe (15th century), an English Christian who wrote “The Book of Margery Kempe” with accounts of her pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome and other sacred places.

Zheng He (Ma Sanbao) (14th century), with his visit to 37 countries, was the greatest Chinese maritime explorer in history, and the most important in Asia who left the writings of his destinies.

It is important to highlight gender inequality in the history of travel literature, which was originally written mostly by men, since women did not have the opportunity to travel.

Indian and American Chronicles

During the conquest of America (15th and 16th centuries), letters sent to the King notified what was happening in the New World. They reported on the colonized territories and the expeditions they had to make to open the way to new regions.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first narrator and explorer to write about American territory, in a book called “Shipwrecks and Commentaries,” which narrates the ups and downs of the only four survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition to Florida.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, true history of the conquest of New Spain.

Isabel de Guevara, although not fully recognized as a narrator, was a Spanish woman who arrived in Mexico, known for her “Letter to the Very Illustrious Lady Doña Isabel de Mendoza”, in which she describes life in New Spain from a woman’s perspective.

These chronicles also revealed social problems such as caste differences, internal conflicts, exploitation and loss of cultural identity; recurring themes in current journalism.

…let’s say how adverse fortune quickly returns to its wheel, which brings sadness to great prosperity and pleasures, and at this moment news comes that Mexico is raised, and that Pedro de Alvarado is surrounded in his fortress and chamber, and that they set fire to it from two sides in the same fortress, and that seven soldiers have died, and that many others were wounded, and that they sent to demand help with great urgency and haste. And two Tlaxcalans brought this news without any letter, and then came a letter from the Tlaxcalans sent by Pedro de Alvarado, which said the same thing. And since we heard that bad thing, God knows how much it weighed on us, and we began to march for long days towards Mexico; and he was imprisoned in Villa Rica Narváez.

fragment of the book True History of the Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

Illustration travel

history of travel literature

The expeditions of the 18th century became democratized and formed powers. Now, not only were the explorers, but also the scientists, artists who reflected in more depth the previously unknown riches, such as flora, fauna and cultural characteristics.

Alexander von Humboldt (1799-1804, image on the left), one of the founders of empiricism in ecology and geography, traveled to more than 2,000 destinations between America, Europe and Asia.

Charles Darwin (1831-1836) was able to obtain data on the flora and fauna of various places in the world (especially the Galapagos) which led him to develop the theory of Evolution.

With the democratization of travel and its narratives, the term “tourism” arises, coming from French and is taken from the term Grand Tour, thanks to the trips that European nobles made to Paris and other countries, such as Africa.


With freedom of expression and the new currents of the 19th century, travel narrative underwent its greatest transformation as it matured with a novel sense, guided by the search for originality and innovation in form and content; beyond a simple travel diary. Its writers were not only authors of chronicles, they are also known for their other literary novels.

For example, Herman Melville (1819-1891), who in addition to writing Moby Dick, wrote novels based on his travels through Polynesia.

Ryszard Kapuściński history of travel literature

Likewise, personal memoirs such as those of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), with his book On the Road (1957) of the Beat Generation.

Jan/James Morris (1926-2020), this transgender traveler has twenty travel books, many of them focused on cities such as Venice, Hong Kong or Sydney.

Reporters and journalists join in with their personal vision of a destination without moving away from their profession. Such as Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), the great Polish travel writer who was a correspondent in several countries and his books portray conflicts, wars, coups de State and revolutions in Asia, Europe, Africa and America.

XXI Century

Below are some exponents of current travel literature. This stage is characterized by its diversity and accessibility. It has expanded with the popularity of travel blogs, social media and e-books, allowing a wide range of writers to share their experiences and perspectives. This literature ranges from personal stories and memoirs to practical guides and journalistic chronicles. Offering the reader a window into different cultures and destinations, as well as practical travel advice.

Lindsay Tigar, Geoffrey Morrison, Lavanya Sunkara Josephson, and Tanner Garrity are some of the authors we will talk about in a future entry.

This would be the brief history of the great history of this genre of literature and journalism.

Travel storytelling is important because it allows us to learn about and understand other cultures, learn about the history and geography of different places. Also can inspire us to explore the world and have enriching experiences. It is one of the pillars of the education of students in the Master in Travel Journalism at the School of Travel Journalism.


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