Our boat pulled in about two hours before sunset, when the disappearing light was turning the Mediterranean Sea from sapphire to aquamarine and the descending shadows were creeping up the imposing rock walls that isolate Butterfly Valley. The beach was nearly empty and the water was calm enough to skip stones across. As the sun finally lowered itself into the sea, I dove in with it, floating on what looked like liquid sunshine.
Located on Turkey’s famous, 500km Lycian Way and only accessible by water, the 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, including the endemic orange, black and white Jersey Tiger. A waterfall that cascades from the 350m-high back canyon wall eventually becomes a gentle river, watering the lavender-flowered native chaste trees: the butterflies’ natural habitat. The Turkish government named the valley a preservation area in 1987 to protect the butterflies and local flora – a distinction that has protected the valley from the fate of its better-know neighbour, Oludeniz, a beach resort 5km north, where hordes of tourists are far more prevalent than swarms of fluttering creatures.
Oludeniz, which translates to Blue Lagoon, remained virtually unknown until travellers began camping there in the 1980s. Today, it’s a particularly depressing example of paradise lost. The town is filled with neon lights and English-themed restaurants. The sea is dotted with faux-pirate ships and booze cruises. The beach is marred with drunken, sunburned tourists, and the clear skies are polluted with seemingly infinite paragliders launching from the surrounding green mountains.
In contrast, the Anatolia Tourism Development Cooperative bought Butterfly Valley from the villagers of Faralya in 1981 and opened it for tourism in 1984. Three years later, when the government deemed the valley a national preservation area, the cooperative outlawed the construction of permanent buildings. Today, they allow only tents and ramshackle bungalows, and they’ve focused on natural growth as opposed to commercial. Olives, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, grapes, walnuts, peaches, apricots, palm, oleander and laurel all thrive here.
For eight months a year – between April and November – a small and diverse group of hippies and backpackers descends on the valley, where days are marked by sunrise and sunset yoga practices and evenings by unplugged music sessions. Once mid-afternoon hits, after the few tour boats are gone for the day, Butterfly Valley belongs to those who are willing to spend the night under the stars, living gloriously free of the more luxurious conveniences of Oludeniz.
In my four days there, I didn’t see one laptop or cell phone, probably because the only electricity in Butterfly Valley is reserved for powering the area’s multiple dining areas. Twice a day, fresh and abundant family meals, often including home-grown produce, were served at community tables under a canopy of grape vines. Mediterranean-style breakfasts were composed of white cheese, olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, and dinners were largely vegetarian Turkish feasts.
At one end of the beach, the temporary residents often sat at a bar built into the rocks, sipping beers and, late in the day, watching the sun set. At the other end, under the canopy of the Fish Restaurant’s thatched roof, travellers took a break from the heat while enjoying grilled seafood fresh from the water. Next door, a booth with air tanks and wetsuits served as an improbable dive shop.
Beyond the shoreline, those daring enough to hoist themselves up tenuous, nearly vertical ropes could climb the gushing waterfall at the canyon’s back wall, or ascend even steeper ropes to the village of Faralya, which offers sweeping views of the valley below. At the base of Faralya, a wooden stand served as a makeshift bar for both day hikers from Butterfly Valley and more intrepid souls in the middle of the 500km Lycian Way trek. The beers were best enjoyed in the hammocks at the edge of the cliff.
For some, Butterfly Valley is a yearly retreat, a place to escape their busy city lives for a few weeks or months. For others, it’s just a one-time visit to a spot that seems to operate outside of time. Minutes turn into hours and hours turn into days. You could be anywhere in the world, but in this age, it’s hard to believe Butterfly Valley exists anywhere at all.