Beautiful and Bird-Filled Belize
A trip to this Central American country reveals otherworldly vistas and even the remote chance of seeing a jaguar. What's guaranteed, however, is spectacular birdlife.
The sanctuary was designated the world’s first jaguar preserve in 1986, after research by biologist Alan Rabinowitz showed that the area had one of the highest known concentrations of jaguars. Cockscomb is famous for the big cats, even among casual tourists, who arrive midday in their shorts and flip-flops and hop out of their rental cars expecting to spot one in the first 10 minutes. The odds of seeing a jaguar are slim, of course, even at the productive times of dawn and dusk, but they’re better here than they are at any comparably accessible place in Central America.
“We have 60 to 80 jaguars in the sanctuary,” says director Nicasio Coc as he shows me his new visitor center, a light-filled, pale-yellow building where workers are busy assembling educational displays. “There’s some tension because jaguars sometimes wander onto nearby ranches and kill cattle. We work with seven neigh- boring communities, and we’re hiring a new staff person who will be doing a lot more public education to enhance awareness of the environment.” The goal of Coc, who was born nearby and whose family has been involved with Crooked Tree since its founding, is to reduce the poaching of game birds and mammals in the sanctuary, as well as encroachment by illegal loggers, both of which are major challenges.
With 55 miles of trails and 128,000 acres of forest, Cockscomb is a mecca for nature lovers. Wayne Hall has seen a jaguar here, as well as two other species of cats and the odd, piglike mammal called the Baird’s tapir.
As for the birds, “The diversity is incredible,” he says. “And you can observe them here as easily as you ever can.” The range of habitats around the visitor center—combining grassy open areas, scrub, wetlands, riparian vegetation, and forest—means that birders sometimes set out on a morning hike and discover, two or three hours later, that they’ve traveled no more than a quarter-mile, so birdy has their time been. In the afternoon heat, Cockscomb’s lovely creeks are great for tubing or swimming.
My trip ends much too quickly, but I’m content that on my fourth visit to Belize I’ve finally gotten around to sampling Cockscomb Basin. Next time, I vow, I’m heading straight here from the airport.
On the bumpy ride away from the sanctuary I’m remembering one brief sighting, beside a tiny creek in the deep woods. It began as just a rustling in the leaves, and then turned into a vague dark shape before becoming a uniform crake: a ruddy-brown rail, hardly bigger than a sparrow, that frequents forests rather than marshes. This rare and rarely seen bird was nothing I’d ever anticipated as I’d planned my trip, unlike the jabiru or the orange-breasted falcon. And yet its very unlikeliness symbolizes the appeal of these tropical lands: the seemingly endless possibilities that draw many of us back again and again.
Making the Trip
Getting there: Visitors need a passport valid for at least three months after the arrival date, a return ticket, and sufficient funds to cover their stay. Delta, United, American, and US Airways fly nonstop to Belize City from six U.S. cities. The Belize Tourism Board (800-624-0686) is a helpful source of information. Birders often visit during the dry season, approximately December through April, though it varies.
Getting around: English is the country’s official language. The Belize dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of $1 Belize = 50 U.S. cents. Renting a car is practical for many destinations. Some ecolodges can arrange for quick and relatively inexpensive charter flights. Audubon chose four destinations to represent a variety of habitats, from wetlands to tropical wet forest to the upland Mountain Pine Ridge. A birder on a first-time visit to Belize could spend several days at any of these sites with no danger of boredom.
Crooked Tree: Belize Audubon's efforts here and at Cockscomb Basin are part of a program developed by the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Multinational Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, to improve community-based bird tourism and conservation in four countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Inns such as Crooked Tree Lodge and Birdseye View Lodge can arrange guided tours.
Chan Chich: This lodge can be reached via a four-hour drive from Belize City or a half-hour charter flight.
Hidden Valley Inn: Accessible by a three-hour drive from Belize City or a half-hour charter flight from Belize City.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary: Cockscomb Basin is about a three-hour drive from Belize City. Accommodations are rustic, and you must bring your own food, though meals are available in nearby Maya Center; a wide variety of lodging is available in the nearby resort towns of Hopkins and Placencia. Cockscomb receives more rain than areas to the north; the dry season is February to May.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "Heaven on Earth."