The Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS, tel. 501/660-3545, www.howlermonkeys.org ) consists of 220 members in seven local communities who have voluntarily agreed to manage their land in ways that will preserve their beloved “baboon” (the local term for the black howler monkey). Because of community-based efforts to preserve the creature, there are now 3,000 individual baboons living freely in the forests and buffer zones between people’s farms.
CBS feels remote but is less than an hour’s drive from Belize City  , making it both a popular day trip and a destination for anyone who’d rather wake up to the throaty roars of Belizean baboons than the smelly bustle of Belize City.
One of the six species of howler monkeys in the world, the black howlers, or Alouatta caraya, are the largest monkeys in the Americas. Robert Horwich, from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was the first zoologist to spend extended time in the howler’s range, which covered southern Mexico, northeast Guatemala, and Belize.
The results of his study were disturbing. In Mexico, the monkeys were being hunted for food, and their habitat was fast disappearing. Conditions in Guatemala were only slightly better. Here, too, the monkeys were hunted by locals in the forests around Tikal , and as the forest habitat shrank, so too did the number of howler monkeys.
In the Belizean village of Bermudian Landing, however, the communities of monkeys were strong and healthy, the forest was intact, and the locals seemed genuinely fond of the noisy creatures. This was definitely the place to start talking about a wildlife reserve.
Horwich, with the help of Jon Lyon, a botanist from the State University of New York, began a survey of the village in 1984. After many meetings with the town leaders, excitement grew about the idea of saving the “baboon.” Homeowners agreed to leave the monkey’s food trees—hogplums and sapodillas—and small strips of forest between cleared fields as aerial pathways for the primates, as well as 60 feet of forest along both sides of waterways.
An application was made to World Wildlife Fund USA in 1985 for funds to set up the reserve. Local landowners signed a voluntary management agreement set forth by Horwich and Lyon—and a sanctuary was born.
According to sanctuary manager Fallett Young, who passed away in 2010, there have been successful relocations of some of the thriving monkey troops around the country, including to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary , where howlers hadn’t been heard since they were decimated by yellow fever decades ago.
In the case of CBS, educating people about conservation and encouraging their fondness for nature was more successful than stringent hunting laws. The managers of the sanctuary are villagers who understand their neighbors; much of their time is spent with schoolchildren and adults in interested villages. Part of their education includes basic farming and sustained land use techniques that eliminate the constant need to cut forest for new milpas (cornfields).
Another result is the unhindered growth of 100 species of trees, vines, and epiphytes. The animal life is thriving—anteaters, armadillos, iguanas, hicatee turtles, deer, coatis, amphibians, reptiles, and about 200 species of birds all live here.
A lively debate continues among traditional conservationists about allowing people to live within a wildlife preserve. However, Belize’s grassroots conservation is proving that it can succeed. Other countries, such as Australia and Sierra Leone, are watching carefully to see how this concept can be adapted to the needs of their own endangered species without disturbing the people who have lived on the land for many generations.
There are enough trails, rivers, and guided tours to keep you busy here for a couple of days. Or you can settle for the standard 45-minute walking tour with a “99 percent chance to see wild monkeys.”
All activities are arranged through the CBS Visitor Center in Bermudian Landing (group trips and guides from local hotels are also available). The basic nature walk is included with your US$7 entrance fee to the visitors center and museum (feel free to tip your guide).
There is a three-hour canoe tour and a two-hour walking tour of some of the different sanctuary villages. Overnighters should absolutely take advantage of the nighttime trips, including a 3.5-hour crocodile canoe trip up Mussell Creek and a two-hour night hike into the surrounding forest.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a village softball game or cricket match, between February and August.
A popular choice for adventurous travelers is the homestay program, where you’ll stay with a local family in primitive conditions, bathing with a bucket, and talking with your host family in the evening. The Women’s Bed and Breakfast Group has established a network of accommodations throughout the seven sanctuary villages, offering visitors a traditional Creole-style stay. Arrange your stay in one of these “bed-and-breakfasts” (US$39 pp includes all meals) at least 24 hours in advance through the visitor center at Bermudian Landing.
If you’ve got a tent, you can pitch it on the visitor center grounds or down by the river for US$5 per person. Arrange a meal with a local family; both options are less than US$5 per meal. There are privies and showers available.
A couple notches up in comfort and price, and right next to the visitor center, is the Nature Resort (tel. 501/624-6896, US$30–75), with 12 free-standing cabanas scattered across a gorgeous lawn near the river; the wooden structures have shared baths and it’s US$75 for a full kitchenette and private bathroom. The cabins are clean, well kept, and well equipped.
Next door, the Howler Monkey Resort (tel. 501/220-2158, www.howlermonkeyresort.bz , US$91–126) has a selection of cabins, and a screened restaurant and path to the river.
Bermudian Landing is only 26 miles from Belize City , or about a 45-minute drive. Drive north on the Northern Highway for 13 miles, then turn left toward Burrell Boom and follow signs to the CBS Museum and Visitor’s Center.
Two bus companies travel to and from Bermuda Landing and Belize City: McFadzean buses depart from the corner of Cemetery Rd. and Amara Ave. and Russell leaves from Euphrates St. and Cairo Street. Monday–Friday, seven buses depart Belize City between noon and 9 p.m.; there’s a shortened schedule on Saturday. There are no buses in either direction on Sunday. The bus takes about an hour. Four early-morning buses leave Bermudian Landing 5:30–7 a.m., and there are two in the afternoon at 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.
The sanctuary is close enough to the city or either airport that you can consider a taxi or an escorted tour for a day trip. Negotiate taxi prices ahead of time. The Community Baboon Sanctuary can arrange airport transfers for reasonable prices; just call.