Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Also commonly called the “Jaguar Preserve,” Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful natural attractions in the country. A large tract of approximately 155 square miles of forest was declared a forest reserve in 1984, and in 1986 the government of Belize set the region aside as a preserve for the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar.
The sanctary has had, and continues to have, a profound, positive impact on the surrounding community. Read more here.
The area is alive with wildlife, including the margay, ocelot, puma, jaguarundi, tapir, deer, paca, iguana, kinkajou, armadillo (to name just a few), and hundreds of bird species. The park is also home to the red-eyed tree frog and the critically endangered Morelet’s tree frog.
And though you probably won’t spot large cats roaming during the day (they hunt at night), it’s exciting to see their prints and other signs—and to know that even if you don’t see one, you’ll probably be seen by one.
Just past the entrance gate into the park is a gift shop and office where you’ll be asked to sign in. Visitor facilities include a new interpretive center, picnic area, and outhouse. This protected area is managed by the Belize Audubon Society (www.belizeaudubon.org), which also conducts research and community outreach in support of conservation.
Entrance is US$5 for non-Belizeans (pay at the highway, at the Maya Centre Women’s Group craft shop at the head of the access road, immediately off the Southern Highway), and the park is open 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily
Hiking the Trails
From the visitors center, many trails go off in different directions into the park. There are more than 20 miles of maintained hiking trails which range from an easy hour-long stroll along the river to a four-day Victoria Peak expedition.
An early morning hike on the Wari Loop offers the best chance to see wildlife and to admire the large buttress roots of the swamp kaway (Pterocarpus officinalis) trees. At the end of the Tiger Fern Trail you’ll find an impressive double waterfall.
Check out the front of the visitors center building for a detailed map. If you would like a guide, there are several renowned wilderness guides who grew up in these forests and who can be found up the road in Maya Centre.
Bring your swimsuit; you’ll find cool natural waterfalls and pools. You can rent an inner tube and float down South Stann Creek. All visitors are also encouraged to bring sturdy shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, insect repellent, sunscreen, and plenty of water.
If you climb Ben’s Bluff, you’re not just looking out over a park where jaguars live—you’re at the entrance of a forest that goes all the way into the Guatemalan Petén, part of the largest contiguous block of protected forest in Central America. The bluff was named after a Ben Nottingham, who monitored radio-collared jaguars with radiotelemetry. From here you can see Outlier Peak, a moderate one-day hike (about 8.5 miles round-trip) and great place to camp.
The second highest point in the country is the top of Victoria Peak (3,675 feet). Geologists believe the mountain is four million years old, the oldest geologic formation in Central America. Reportedly, area Maya populations thought the peak was surrounded by a lake, unapproachable to man, and occupied by a powerful spirit.
The first people (a party led by Roger T. Goldsworth, governor of then–British Honduras) reached the summit in 1888. Today, it is a protected natural monument, managed by the Belize Audubon Society.
You can arrange a summit trip in the dry season only (February–May) and must have a permit and licensed guide. This 30-mile round-trip trek takes three or four days; the up-and-down terrain is steep and there are no switchbacks. See the Belize Audubon Society website (www.belizeaudubon.org) for trail and campsite details; entrance is US$5 per person plus camping fees.
There are a few reputable mountain guides from the surrounding villages; BAS does not have guides for hire but they can provide a list with contact information. Marcos Cucul (tel. 501/670-3116, www.mayaguide.bz) is a renowned guide in this area who can take you rock climbing or on a backcountry trip of a lifetime, including to the top of Victoria Peak (US$500 pp).
Hotels and Camping
Bring your own tent to stay at one of three well-maintained campgrounds (US$10 pp). The park’s overnight accommodations begin with zinc-topped buildings with bunk space for 32 (US$20). You get a bed in a shared “rustic cabin” or a bunk in the main dormitory, clean sheets, shared bathrooms with cold showers, and solar power. There are a few private cabins as well; US$54 gets you six beds and a kitchen. Finally, the “White House,” up the road (US$81), features a screened veranda in an isolated jungle setting, a unique experience for a nature-loving family.
Be prepared with food and supplies if you plan to stay a few days; the only food for sale in the visitors center is chips, cookies, candy bars, and soft drinks. There are a couple of small shops in Maya Centre, so feel free to stock up there before catching your cab into the park. You may also be able to arrange for meals to be cooked in Maya Centre and brought in. Otherwise, there is a communal kitchen with a refrigerator, gas stoves, and crockery and cooking utensils for rent. Again, visitors are required to bring their own food and water. A walled-off washing area has buckets, and a separate cooking area has a gas stove and a few pots and such.
Getting to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Cockscomb is about six miles west of the Southern Highway and the village of Maya Centre (from Dangriga, it’s a total of 20 miles). The road can be rough after it rains. By public transport, hop off at Maya Centre from any bus traveling between Dangriga and Punta Gorda. From there, it’s a long walk or a US$15–20 taxi ride.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition