Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary consists of tropical forest and riparian and savanna habitats, stretching from the Western Highway down to the Sibun River, which flows from the Maya Mountains through the coastal savanna on its path to the Caribbean Sea.
Located at Mile 31 on the Western Highway, the 3,300-acre wildlands of Monkey Bay (tel. 501/820-3032, www.monkeybaybelize.org ) include the natural habitat of nearly all the animals represented at the Belize Zoo , just east on the Western Highway.
This is a fantastic retreat—for student groups, families, naturalists, and paddlers alike (though most of the sanctuary’s business is with study-abroad and service groups). The sanctuary maintains field stations in the Mountain Pine Ridge  and Tobacco Caye . The main campus is home to exotic mammal species, including tapirs, pumas, jaguars, and Morelet’s crocodiles. More than 250 species of birds have been recorded.
The sanctuary borders the Sibun River biological corridor and contains documented remains of ancient Maya settlements and ceremonial caves. A newly built trail system carries you through it all; you can hike, rent a canoe, or hire a caving guide—this is serious spelunking country as well. One option is a three-night camping expedition, where you’ll hike to Five Blues Lake National Park .
You’ll find two miles of trails and good swimming at nearby Sibun River. With the government’s 1992 declaration of the 2,250-acre Monkey Bay Nature Reserve across the river, there now exists a wildlands corridor between the Manatee Forest Reserve to the south and the sanctuary.
Some travelers find themselves so intrigued by the goings-on at this environmental education center and tropical watershed research station that they opt to stay in one of Monkey Bay’s primitively rustic rooms longer than they had planned. The accommodations share the grounds with a screened-in dining area and a shared barnlike library and study space (more than 500 titles are available for reference, with lots of local information).
Choose from a campground in a grove of pine trees with sturdy wooden tent platforms (US$7 pp) or dormitories (US$15 pp); they all share common composting toilets and solar showers. You can also stay in one of the primitive wooden field station rooms in the central building (US$25) or one of three cabins with private baths, air-conditioning, and kitchenettes. Including all the bunks in the dormitory, there are 52 beds here. Freshly prepared meals are available, plus a range of learning and adventure activities throughout Belize.
Monkey Bay offers various cultural learning programs that include homestays with Maya, Creole, and Garifuna communities; it also has a curriculum of tropical watershed ecology field courses. Groups and individuals are welcome for internships and volunteer programs as well.