Top 10……Movies Filmed In Central America

Before I went travelling around Central America during the Christmas and New Years holiday of 2012/2013 I spent the months before preparing as only I do! Forget internet research and thumbing through guidebooks, for my work beforehand is often all about watching movies (and TV shows) filmed in that part of the world. Thankfully there were just about ten of them which makes it perfect for a top 10 listings feature; the perfect aid for anyone going or thinking of going to Central America.

This area, sandwiched between North and South America, possesses seven countries (eight if you include the southern part of Mexico as is often the case) of which five feature here. Sorry but I don’t know of any western productions being shot in Honduras or El Salvador!

Here then, in no particular order, are the top 10 movies filmed in Central America…

1. Nicaragua – ‘Carla’s Song‘ (1996): Robert Carlyle leaves Glasgow behind to go to war-torn Nicaragua to help Carla search for her past. Estelí; the third largest city in Nicaragua is where a lot of those scenes were filmed. It is 150km north of capital city Managua.

2. Belize -‘The Mosquito Coast‘ (1986): Based on the novel of the same name, this tells the story of a family leaving the USA in the hope of finding a happier, simpler life in the jungle but things don’t quite go to plan. Hotel Mona Lisa on the south side of Haulover Creek in Belize City was one of the filming locations.

3. Belize – ‘The Dogs Of War‘ (1980): This one is also based on a novel and is about a small, international unit of mercenary soldiers privately hired to depose of the President of a fictional West African country so that a British tycoon can gain access to vast mines of platinum. The movie was shot in Belize City and the Chateau Caribbean hotel was where Christopher Walken’s character stayed upon his arrival.

4. Guatemala – ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope‘ (1977): The rebel base where Luke Skywalker and co launch their attack to destroy the Death Star and save their people from Darth Vader’s grasp was shot in Tikal. It gets only 13 seconds of screen time and features the Millennium Falcon flying over Yavin 4 which is overseen by a rebel standing on top of Temple IV in the western part of the national park. More details here.

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5. Guatemala – ‘Moonraker‘ (1979): Tikal features again on screen but this time only for three seconds! 007 travels through the Amazon in search of villain Hugo Drax’s lair, encountering Jaws and other henchmen along the way, before he discovers it supposedly at Temple I of Gran Plaza. More details here.

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6. Panama – ‘Quantum Of Solace‘ (2008): Due to its diversity Panama doubled up for both Bolivia and Haiti. Colon at the Caribbean end of the Canal represents Port Au Prince in the latter and Casco Viejo in Panama City fills in for Bolivia. The ruins of the Old Union Club were revamped for villain Dominic Greene’s party. More details here.

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7. Panama – ‘The Tailor Of Panama‘ (2001): Another 007 connection for Panama with Pierce Brosnan playing a far seedier agent than Bond. Filming took place in the picturesque old town of Casco Viejo, the lobby and bar of The Marriott Hotel and Gatun Lake. More details here.

8. Panama – ‘Contraband‘ (2012): To protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord, a former smuggler heads to Panama to score millions of dollars in counterfeit bills in this action crime thriller. The Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal and the  local neighbourhood known as El Chorillo featured in the filming. The latter is an impoverished area within Panama City where some of the more salacious scenes take place.

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9. Costa Rica – ‘Spy Kids 2: Island Of Lost Dreams‘ (2002): The artificial Arenal Lake which is situated in the northern highlands was one of the locations used in this sequel production along with Manuel Antonio National Park. Known for its beautiful beaches and hiking trails this impressive landscape has white sand beaches, lush foliage, great mountains and tropical forests which made it a prime area to film this sci-fi family adventure film.

10. Costa Rica – ‘1492: Conquest Of Paradise‘ (1992): Directed by Ridley Scott, this overly long flop of a film details the discovery (albeit a fictionalised one!) of the New World by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and the effect it had on the indigenous population of the Americas. Filming took place at Playa Herradura (Herradura beach) in Puntarenas; a coastal town on the Pacific Ocean located about four km north of Jaco.

On Screen #4 – Brazil

With Brazil hosting this years FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games there is a lot of focus on the nation which has given the world samba, coffee, caipirinha, Copacabana, the Amazon and some of the worlds greatest ever football players. It is perhaps surprising though that very few international productions have taken place in this South American country. This series focuses on how countries are portrayed On Screen in film and TV whether it be real or faked somewhere cheaper and easier.

We start then with TV for once and a double dose of everyone’s favourite dysfunctional cartoon family, ‘The Simpsons‘. They have now visited Rio de Janeiro twice with the most recent season (S25E16) featuring an episode called ‘You don’t have to live like a referee‘ (a play on words from a 1980 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song which has the line  “don’t have to live like a refugee”) whereby Homer is called up to referee games in the World Cup finals where he finds himself caught in a dilemna whether to accept bribes for fixing games or to remain honest as he doesn’t want to let Lisa down after she chose him as her hero.

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Back in season 13 (S13E15) far more of a stir was caused when the family went to Rio in search of an orphan named Ronaldo whom Lisa had been sponsoring. ‘Blame It on Lisa‘ was criticized in Brazil because of its inclusion of clichés and stereotypes, and because the Brazilian culture was inaccurately mixed with the cultures of surrounding Latin American countries. There was even talk of the local tourist board suing the Fox Network for damaging the image of the city which they thought was incorrectly portrayed as having rampant street crime, kidnappings, slums and a rat infestation.

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A scene with Homer’s kidnappers exchanging him for a case of money mirrors a scene in ‘Moonraker‘ (1979) as far as on screen interactions on cable cars going up Sugar Loaf mountain go! In that 007 film Bond confronted antagonist Jaws. The atmosphere shots of the Rio Carnival were filmed a year before the film itself was shot but the ‘Brazilian’ training camp was actually filmed in at a monastery at San Nicolo on Lido in Venice, Italy! The ‘Amazon’ boat chase actually started in Florida but culminated at Iguacu Falls on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. 

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‘The bend in the river’ was a 1984 double-episode of ‘The A-Team‘ (S03E03) on NBC which features more Amazon action as the team supports journalist and ally Tawnia Baker find an archaeologist (secretly her fiancé) that’s gone missing during an expedition on the river. The guys deal with local pirates and come across a plot that is far greater than any of them could’ve expected. In the end Baker weds her fiancé in what happened to be her final episode as the production team finally dispensed with the idea of needing a female character. I don’t know for sure where this was filmed but likelihood is that it wasn’t too far from the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles where almost every single one of its 98 episodes were shot!

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One production that actually did take place in the Amazon was ‘Anaconda‘ (1997) which was principally shot in the jungle around Manaus although as the giant snake picks off members of a jungle expedition the lush foliage seems to give way to the palm trees of California.

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Based on a true story, ‘The Emerald Forest‘ (1985) was set and mostly filmed in Brazil with Belém, Tucuruí and Carajás in Pará state in the north used alongside the far less glamorous Lincolnshire (UK)!

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Returning to TV shows and witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain is no stranger to Brazil. Just ahead of the World Cup ‘Parts Unknown‘ (S03E08) on CNN saw him visit Bahia a.k.a. the African heart of Brazil. It’s famed for its Afro-Brazilian music, art, design and food. On his previous shows ‘A Cook’s Tour‘ (S02E04), ‘No Reservations‘ (S03E15 & S09E07) and ‘The Layover‘ (S02E04) he visited Sao Paulo and Rio a couple of times each. He once considered the former to be an ugly city but has changed his mind over time thanks to his ‘Paolista’  friends who showed him that the city is a vibrant mix of rich, poor, young and old. Rio is described as the perfect city that is almost impossible to not love. Tony just wishes he could enjoy the Brazilian paradise more but is nervous about his wife’s upcoming Jiu Jitsu fight in the country which gave birth to this martial art.

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As for UK TV, Karl Pilkington was sent by comics Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to see the seven wonders of the world in ‘An Idiot Abroad‘ (S01E06) which included the Christ Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Of course things were never gonna be that simple as he also has to take part in the Carnival parade (too noisy, crowded, and stressful), go to a nudist beach, go to a gay beach, stay at a hostel, stay with a female impersonator and then he finally gets to see fulfil his main goal of the trip; to see the statue which he just describes as being like a big ornament!

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More British comedy next and it’s ‘Mike Bassett: England Manager‘ (2001) which sees a second tier football league manager gain the big job after its previous occupant had a heart attack. He’s inept but flukily manages to get England into the World Cup which is in Brazil. (You can see it here.) We see a montage of clichéd Brazilian images and then its scenes at the Airport, the team hotel, on the team bus, training ground, changing room, press conference and on the sidelines. It won’t surprise you to know that none of the actors went anywhere near Brazil during filming as it was all done in the UK.

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2011’s ‘Fast Five‘ (a.k.a. ‘Fast & Furious 5‘) was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me and following on from four fairly average films in the series it really made people look up and take notice of the franchise. Thanks to aerial shots and quick editing many viewers were deceived into thinking it was the real Rio but it was actually filmed in Puerto Rico as their government offered some very beneficial tax incentives to influence the decision to film there. Similar to ‘The Simpsons‘ episode, the locals were unimpressed with the Rio stereotypes that included heavily armed drug traffickers, corrupt police, laughable accents and sexy women.

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Before that, one of the last movies to be set in Brazil (kind of!) was the long awaited fourth Indiana Jones movie. ‘Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull‘ (2008) was filmed 19 years after the last of the original trilogy and though often maligned I thought it was ok although the waterfall stunts did require an extension of belief. Another faked Amazon jungle for this one, with lush rainforests on private land on the Big Island of Hawaii filling in. A second unit was sent to film shots of Iguazu Falls which were then digitally combined with shots at the Universal backlot.

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There’s something very exotic about seeing films or television shows set in Brazil and yes I did say exotic but maybe one letter can be changed in that word to tell us what kind of film ‘Emmanuelle In Rio‘ (2003) is!! Other movies to feature the huge South American country include ‘Fitzcarraldo‘ (1982), ‘Bossa Nova‘ (2000) and ‘The Incredible Hulk‘ (2008).

You can see previous On Screen articles by clicking on the links below:

On Screen #1 – Vietnam (Click here)

On Screen #2 – Istanbul (Click here)

On Screen #3 – Myanmar (Burma) (Click here)

Star Wars Traveller – Yavin 4 (a.k.a. Tikal, Guatemala)

Thirteen seconds! Just THIRTEEN SECONDS! That is as long as the ‘Star Wars Episode IV‘ scene in Guatemala lasted. The shot of Tikal, first seen on 98 minutes (and again on 105 mins), features the Millennium Falcon spaceship flying over Yavin 4 which is overseen by a rebel standing on top of Temple IV in the western part of the national park. I have wanted to go to this 550-sq km place for a while now, and believe it or not, long before I even knew it was used briefly in the original 1977 film.

I arrived on the island of Flores (albeit one which is connected to Santa Elena via a 500m causeway) on December 24th following a seven hour bus journey from Antigua via Guatemala City. On Christmas Day I took an early bus to Tikal (not a pre-sunrise one though!) and I have to say that I was far more impressed than I thought I would be. My preconceptions were that it was just a jungle with a few temples and to an extent it is but there’s far more to the place though with thousands of ruined structures dominating the site. I spent the day in the company of a very nice South African couple; Shaun and Kerry, and we had a great day wandering around a fairly deserted place in the glorious sunshine. This was in contrast to the end of the Maya Long Count calendar four days before when by all accounts the place was packed full of people anticipating the supposed end-of-the-world.

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As you can see in the comparison shots above the towering pyramids are of a more glowing golden colour in the film. We reached this lookout point by ascending a series of wooden steps on the back of the 64m temple and the stunning views of the jungle’s green canopy really are the highlight for many. Of course the vast majority of visitors are none the wiser regarding the Star Wars filming location but I was quite surprised to overhear a few people mention the movie whilst we were in the vicinity of the temple. Not sure if they knew that this was the rebel base where Luke Skywalker and co launched their attack to destroy the Galactic Empire’s giant space station; the Death Star, and save his people from Darth Vader grasp.

According to chapter 33 of John Knoll’s ‘Creating the Worlds of Star Wars 365 Days‘ book the Rebel lookout was played by model-maker Lorne Peterson and his perch was erected on site with Richard Edlund of ILM pictured behind the camera in the behind-the-scenes shot (below right) taken in March 1977. According to this article on the Reuters website on December 18th the heavy camera and lighting gear was carried to the top of the temple using a pulley system and a guard protected the equipment with a shotgun for four nights in return for a six-pack of beer! The interior of the Rebel base was actually filmed at Cardington Air Establishment in Bedfordshire, England with the additional helping of a matte painting.

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If you thought thirteen seconds in ‘Star Wars‘ was short then thats nothing when compared to the three seconds which it is on screen for in the James Bond movie ‘Moonraker‘ (1979). 007 travels through the Amazon in search of villain Hugo Drax’s lair, encountering Jaws and other henchmen along the way, before he discovers it supposedly at Temple I at Gran Plaza (as seen in the screenshot below left) though the interior shots were filmed in the studio.

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Across from Temple I is Temple II and despite not being able to climb them (due to people tumbling to their death in the past) they were still awesome to just look at. Beneath the two Temple II pictures below are some photos of other ruined structures as well as the active wildlife in the 16 sq km central area.

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