Heart of the Turtles Not Just a Home
An interview with Sue Beth Van Dongen the owner of Corazon De La Tortuga in Tankah 3 paraiso, by Rhett Schober.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST COME TO THE MAYAN RIVIERA AND WHY?
I first came to the Tulum area was in 1978. I was fascinated by the Mayan culture and decided to do some independent university study on hieroglyphics of the Mayans. For many years I would spend three to six months here using Tulum as a base and going to various ruins. There was little tourism in Tulum and it was very rural. The 307 'highway' was a single lane dirt road. Driving was insanely dangerous especially at night because if you came into on-coming traffic it was a game of chicken to see who would pull over to give the right-of-way on the single lane road. I spent my college years doing independent photographic studies in the Yucatan. When I graduated I bicycled around the world then sailed around the world so it was many years before I returned to the wondrous Mayan Riviera.
AFTER ALL YOUR TRAVELS, WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO TULUM?
I felt like it was time to find a place where I could make a home. I had traveled and lived all over the world but the Yucatan was always calling me. I thought I would settle in Cape Town, South Africa but the political unrest and over-all instability of Africa told me it was time to go. Mexico is probably one of the safest and most stable countries in the world. I knew I could have a very high standard of living and enjoy the beautiful Caribbean Sea if I could find a place here. I searched for several years for the right beachfront location. The peace and solitude of Tankah was a perfect match for me. I was the first person to buy a lot in Tankah Paraiso. Since I had the choice of any lot I spent much time considering the area and choose the primo turtle nesting beach lot. Once my home was completed there seemed to be no name more appropriate. "Corazon de la Tortuga" (heart of the turtle).
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BUILDING IN MEXICO?
I believe that building anywhere is certainly challenging and being a single gringa in Mexico did accentuate some of those challenges. Having absolutely no experience in building my learning curb was particularly high. I knew nothing about anything, from reading blueprints to where to buy materials. I wanted to build with as many indigenous materials I could find and I searched everywhere for the perfect stone, granite, marble and wood. Fortunately, I found some wonderful craftsman, one being Maria Julia Coppola, an interior designer based in Playa del Carmen. "Juli" and I clicked right away and we were able to create everything from bathtub design to one-of-kind furniture. Juli is highly gifted, experienced and so versatile, what she brought to the project is immeasurable. Also, my carpenter, Jorge Crisanto Ake Ciau was able to execute any design in fine tropical woods. He is an amazing craftsman and a true gentleman.
IS THERE A THEME OR SPECIAL DESIGN ABOUT CORAZON DE LA TORTUGA?
My goal was to create three separate and distinct master bedrooms. I find that in many homes guests have to decide who gets the master. I wanted everyone to have a fine master suite. My travels have taken me all over the world and I was hoping to capture a piece of some of my favorite places yet have the house flow together as a whole. The suites include the Mexican Room, the Balinese Room and the Yucatan Room. The living area downstairs has a taste of Africa and the home theatre upstairs has a comfortable relaxed tropical feel. Attention to detail, beautiful simplicity complete with all modern conveniences and amenities create the perfect luxury accommodation in understated elegance.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL IS THE MOST DYNAMIC THING ABOUT CORAZON DE LA TORTUGA?
Without question, for me, the most amazing thing about Corazon de la Tortuga is the incredible number of sea turtles we have returning year after year to lay their eggs right on the property. This year I had over 150 nests. During prime laying season (June/July) you can sit on the beach or watch from the roof and see several turtles make the journey from the sea to the beach to dig a nest and lay anywhere between 75 and 130 eggs. It is nothing short of spectacular. Paul (director of CEA, an ecological foundation based in Akumal) has suggested that we create a program to help catalogue and protect these precious creatures. Next year I hope to have everything in place so that we can better ensure the protection of the loggerheads, greens, and hawksbills that have chosen the beach at Corazon de la Tortuga as their nesting ground. Our guests will be able to see this program in place first hand and view these turtles naturally. This is a huge reason why I am here as I feel like we can truly make a difference in the preservation of this endangered species.
WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE HERE?
Certainly the one thing we can count on in life is change. We can all make a difference in this world no matter how great or small. I would like to believe that I might be able to help the turtle population by trying to create a safe place for them to nest. Corazon de la Tortuga is the perfect teaching ground to introduce the fragile life cycle of sea turtles. Guests are able to see from the comfort of their beach or terrace turtles laying and hatching. There are so many obstacles that these fragile creatures face. Only with education and protection can we hope to make a positive difference in this endangered population. It is my goal and desire to play some role in creating a safe haven in which these wonderful, gentle, creatures may thrive.
Below are some amazing images of turtles hatching on the beach in front of Corazon de la Tortuga.
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