Turtleman's House on Northern Ambergris Caye
Greg and Rosemary Smith have lived here for many years, well off the beaten track... a great place to stay
Belize: The Turtleman's Housewords and images by Jason Covert
We knew what we were looking for before we found it.
We wanted off-the-beaten-path and removed from the high-speed pace of urban living and it's digitally saturated lifestyle. We wanted to get away and wanted it to be authentic, not some poly-stone and plaster approximation riddled with water slides and umbrella'ed drinks served beach-side.
The irony, however, lay in how we found it. Through Google, of course.
As children, many of us dreamed of the day that we might live like the Swiss Family Robinson (Disney knew what they were doing with that property), and many of us have seen the fairy tale images from Bora Bora and other incredibly far away and impossibly expensive locales. There is a primal aspect of ourselves that yearns still to live in harmony with nature... and as close to it as possible.
It didn't come easy, and frankly, I'm glad for that, but late one night, after countless hours of online searching and flipping through guide books I keyed what amounted to the following into Google's search field:
"Belize, house on posts," and after a few seconds added the following for good measure, "over the ocean".
There, perched atop the endless listings that Google disgorges we found the Turtleman's House: a single thatched cabana on posts over the ocean within a World Heritage site on the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Coral patches buffered the open ocean just 200 feet in front of the house.
It was a dream come true: built by hand with beachcombed 2 inch thick tropical hardwood lumber and a handcut coconut palm leaf thatched roof. And yes, it was off the beaten path - a flight from New York to Miami, onward from Miami to Belize City, into a puddle-jumper from Belize City to the small archipelago of Ambergris Caye (pronounced AMBER•GRISS KEY), and finally, a 45 minute journey via small skiff north along the coast.
Our first day there was filled with... silence, save for the sounds of surf against the distant reef and the imagined hum of sky filled with a deep and satisfying blue. Perched on our small deck, looking out to sea we relished the unfiltered relaxation that washed over us. The lack of luxury hotel amenities only added to our enjoyment, for showers were delivered via a black bag hung from a nail and heated by the sun. Our toilet was an assortment of seaweed washed ashore and collected in a bucket changed daily, while our sink was an ocean buoy cut in half, all allowing us to leave as little impact on our surroundings as possible. As the night settled and the sunshine waned so did all light save for that produced by our flashlights and headlamps. Mother Nature made a compelling argument that night was for sleeping, and so we did, like the dead, only to wake with first light, refreshed and renewed like only sleeping near the ocean can offer.
The Turtleman himself was a marine biologist, more than happy to share his 25 plus years of experience living in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. His website lauded the journey as "an eco-education experience that you will always remember and tell your friends about", and from personal understanding I can say without reserve that that is no exaggeration. You see, the reasonable fee for lodging included daily tours of the sea or land surrounding the cabana; be that responsibly spearfishing outside of the reserve, snorkeling turquoise blue World Heritage waters in search of eagle rays and manatee, or trekking into the steamy jungles and swamps that simmered beyond the beaches.
Although infinitely less comfortable than the beaches, the jungles held their own for those interested in more than sand and sun. A humid island ecosystem left little means for many of the environment's inhabitants to grow large, though not surprisingly, as this planet's largest population, insects abounded. With the insights and sage advice of the Turtleman we explored the jungles, witnessing some beautiful and remarkable sights. From the electric orange insect that sprays acid from it's backside when threatened, to a ghostly 3-inch moth with garnet eyes and a pair of inverted sleeping butterflies, wonders were plentiful.
Though likely not a surprise, after 7 days of sleeping over the sea, swimming in the sun, and dining on fresh caught fish we were rejuvenated in both body and soul. As we prepared to depart and head back to our lives in New York, there was an air of melancholy about us. And so as we boarded the skiff and said our goodbyes to the Turtleman's family it brought a smile to my face when Rosemary, an accomplished chef and the Turtleman's wife, extended her hand to us and asked in earnest, "so, will you consider coming back?" I responded without having to think, knowing that my head was likely nodding before the words broke my lips.
"Yes, we will be back."
Photographs by Jason Covert
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