I’ve been traveling to Belize since the mid-1990s when, as an adventurous college student on summer break in Guatemala, I decided to cross the border into unknown territory. On that first trip to Belize I visited Chaa Creek, a jungle retreat consisting of simple, thatch-roofed cottages set on a private rainforest reserve next to the Macal River.
Chaa Creek has always had a sort of legendary status. It was THE first jungle lodge in Belize, a country that now boasts some of the world’s finest eco-lodges. It began as an overgrown farm, bought in the late 1970s by Mick and Lucy Fleming, who heard about the land for sale at a bar in the nearby town of San Ignacio. Access to the property in those days was strictly via the Macal River, as there was no road access. A few cottages were eventually built to accommodate visiting friends and relatives, so the story goes. Road access eventually gave way to more and more travelers exploring Belize’s inland attractions, and the Flemings decided to open Chaa Creek Cottages in 1981.
I had read so much about Chaa Creek in travel magazines and I knew I just had to check it out. On that first visit, I ran into the quite amiable Lucy Fleming, who noticed me capturing the lodge’s grounds with my SLR camera in front of the hotel dining room. That first visit spawned a subsequent visit to photograph the lodge’s interior and exterior spaces several years later as my photography career was just getting off the ground.
Chaa Creek has grown dramatically since its humble beginnings. It has since expanded to include meeting spaces, horse stables, a swimming pool, and a spa. It always amazes me just how comfortable it all is, despite being quite literally in the middle of a jungle. Now known as The Lodge at Chaa Creek, it has garnered accolades from top travel publications such as National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, and Conde Nast Traveler. The latest addition to the lodge’s offerings is the downright luxurious Ix Chel Villas.
The three spacious villas overlook the Macal River on a quiet corner of the lodge’s grounds. All have air conditioning (new to Chaa Creek), ceiling fans, and a hot tub or private plunge pool. They feature high ceilings, which let in plenty of breezes (if you wish) and lots of sunlight. The spaces are decorated with local art evoking Belize’s tropical cornucopia. I’m particularly drawn to the beautiful wooden furniture, made using local hardwoods and featuring metallic accents. My host, Jared, from Chaa Creek’s marketing team, tells me this is Mick Fleming’s latest project. I’m at once impressed by his skill in woodworking and the fact that everything around me sprung forth onto the earthly plane from the minds of two wandering dreamers who set roots on an overgrown farm. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
As for my vision, my aim is to capture the villas in all their splendor, having been entrusted with the task by none other than Lucy Fleming. As far as work goes, it’s one of the more enjoyable shoots I’ve had in recent months. Despite it being the rainy season, we luck out with plenty of sunshine and our final exterior shot of the villas is made with a glorious sunset backdrop.
That evening there’s time to enjoy a cocktail and a wonderfully fresh and delicious multi-course dinner. Long a hit with eco-conscious travelers, Chaa Creek is now in a position to cater to high-end travelers seeking luxury in a remote jungle setting. Most of Belize’s visitors typically hail from the U.S., but on my last evening at Chaa Creek the dining room is filled with Spanish-speaking travelers from South American countries who are on a multi-day tour of the Mayan World. I imagine as word gets out concerning Chaa Creek’s new luxury digs, the traveler profile will only continue to morph, much like the old citrus farm that once occupied these lands.
By Al Alguerta