VACATION GUIDE TO BELIZE JUNGLES, NATURE, HIKING & WILDLIFE
Call of the Wild ...
Belize has the most accessible jungle in the Western Hemisphere with several productive habitats that harbor a diversity of flora and wildlife. 100 million years ago Belize formed part of a central archipelago; isolated from North and South America, animals evolved into a variety of species. As ocean levels dropped and continental plates moved, the archipelago formed a bridge between the 2 continents allowing a flow of additional migrant animals. This geological history created a mixed landscape of mountains, savannahs and coastal lagoons, which along with the tropical weather produced a large diversity of flora and fauna. Belize has over 70 kinds of forests grouped into 3 main groups: pine and savannah, mangrove and coastal habitats and the most abundant, broadleaf and cohune palms. The country harbors 4,000 species of flowering plants including 250 orchids and 700 trees. There are over 540 species of birds and 5 of the 7 wildcats in the Americas, including the famed jaguar. Hiking along nature trails may take you past lush foliage, birds and, to the observant eye, a variety of wildlife. Waterfalls or caves may also cross your path. Horseback riding and mountain biking are popular alternatives to hiking, while canoeing along jungle rivers allows you to take in the various wildlife along the banks.
Various protected areas in the country are known for their unique flora and variety of wildlife. The Rio Bravo Conservation Area in Orange Walk covers 200,000 acres and harbors the 5 wildcats of Belize (with a high concentration of jaguars), 400 species of birds and other various mammals and reptiles. The Community Baboon Sanctuary has a healthy population of howler monkeys (about 1,200), whose guttural roar is heard from miles away. Mountain Pine Ridge in Cayo is known for its landscapes, with mountains and valleys etched by rivers and numerous waterfalls. The Cockscomb Basin Preserve in Stann Creek is the only jaguar preserve in the world. Covering 155 square miles, it has lush flora, a variety of wildlife, plenty of birds, some unusual reptiles like the red-eyed tree frog and waterfalls. Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses a string of rivers and lagoons that harbor a variety of migratory and resident birds, including the jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere. The Colombia River Forest Reserve in Toledo covers over 100,000 acres and is one of the only continuous tracts of undisturbed rainforest left in Central America. These are just a few of the many areas where one can enjoy the diverse flora and fauna of the country.
There is a continuous effort to protect the country’s varied forests and the wildlife they harbor. 40% of the country’s territory is under some sort of protected status, such as forest and nature reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, natural monuments and even private reserves. Although deforestation has affected Belize, it is nowhere near the widespread destruction that occurs in other parts of Central America. Also, the country’s low population density allows most of the forests to grow under minimal human pressure. About 70% of the land is still covered by forests and animals that are endangered or extinct elsewhere are fairly common. Some visitors are sometimes disappointed by the apparent lack of wildlife, so for those who think hiking through wild jungle is like walking through a zoo, bare the following in mind. It takes many years to fine tune one’s wildlife-viewing skills. Alan Ravinowitz, who pioneered the establishment of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve, says it best. “The forest is teeming with wildlife, but you see and hear very little just by walking through it.” The seemingly solid wall of green provides innumerable hiding places. But to the patient, perceptive and informed individual, the biological wealth of the forest eventually reveals itself.
Where to Go
You will get a chance to observe nature and wildlife almost anywhere you go in the country. However some areas are particularly known for their forests and wildlife. Below is a brief description of the flora and fauna in these different destinations that should help you in choosing where to go.
San Ignacio: Mountains and valleys are surrounded by pine and broadleaf forests. Rivers flow over granite boulders forming many waterfalls and pools. Well known waterfalls include: 1000 foot falls (the largest in Central America), Big Rock Falls and Butterfly Falls (a beautiful secluded waterfall). Canoeing along the Macal or Mopan Rivers is scenic and good for spotting wildlife along the banks. There are many species of birds as well. Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are all available.
Orange Walk: Just west of Orange Walk Town lay the New River and New River Lagoon. Both are scenic, and rich in wildlife such as crocodiles and plenty of birds. Heading deeper west will take you into the Rio Bravo Conservation Area that is rich in wildlife and is particularly known as harboring a high concentration of jaguars. Morning hikes are great for birding while night hikes are great for spotting nocturnal animals like wildcats. The Orange Walk district on a whole is one of the best areas of the country for seeing animals in the wild.
Dangriga: The Maya Mountains slope down as they merge into the coast, mostly covered by broadleaf forests. The jewel of this area is the Cockscomb Basic Preserve, a 155 square mile reserve. It was established to protect local jaguar populations. Day hikes might reveal jaguar paw prints while night hikes might reveal the real thing to a lucky few. There are plenty of birds as well. The Mayflower National Park is another great nature reserve. Day trips to other areas rich in nature and wildlife include Blue Hole National Park and Monkey River.
Punta Gorda: The broadleaf forests of this district, which continue up into the Maya Mountains of the north, are arguably some of the most pristine jungles in the country. This is probably because it is so off the-beaten-path and the population density is low. The Rio Blanco National Park covers 105 acres and aside from lush nature trails it features a spectacular waterfall. The Rio Grande is a scenic river good for canoeing or kayaking while spotting wildlife along the banks. The birding here is also spectacular.
Belmopan: The area around Belmopan is where the Maya Mountains descend and broadleaf forests merge into the open savannahs of the coast. The Blue Hole National Park features a sinkhole pool and nature trails rich in flora and birds. The Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary offers several educational nature expeditions. Canoeing down the Belize River is great for spotting wildlife along the banks. A variety of horseback riding adventures are also available as well. The Belize Zoo features 125 animals native to the country, including many rare animals.
Placencia: One of the most popular destinations for nature in this area is the Monkey River, south of Placencia. A boat ride up this scenic river will likely take you past iguanas, howler monkeys, birds and crocodiles. Then a hike into the Payne’s Creek National Park will take you into broadleaf jungles and lush flora. The famed Cockscomb Basin, north of Placneica, is also accessible on day trips. This rich nature reserve has abundant nature trails, waterfalls and a healthy jaguar population. The Blue Hole National Park is also available on day trips.
Belize City: There are several nearby destinations that offer varied nature trails and wildlife. The Baboon Sanctuary has a healthy population of howler monkeys who are often not shy to come very close. The Belize Zoo features 125 native animals in natural enclosures and include a jaguar, harpy eagle and other rare wildlife. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a watershed of lagoons and rivers that has a rich population of resident and migratory birds. The Blue Hole National Park features a sinkhole pool and nature trails rich in flora and wildlife.
Caye Caulker: The island is divided into 2 parts by the Split. The Caye Caulker Forest Reserve lays on the northern part of the island. Hikes along its nature trails are available to enjoy its ecology with a varied flora, birds and other wildlife like iguanas and crocodiles. The Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses 7,500 acres of sea and mangroves to protect the West Indian Manatee. Belize is one of the last strongholds for this endangered species. Curious manatees often swim right up to the boat.
Atolls: Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, on Lighthouse Reef Atoll, was Belize’s first protected reserve. It was established for the protection of the red-footed booby birds. Climbing up the observation tower will put you over the canopy of the ziricote forest where you can observe boobies in different stages of growth. There is also a healthy population of iguanas and other varied wildlife. Day trips from several destinations for diving the atoll include stops on this island.