Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Reserve - Belize

During our recent trip to Belize, our #1 priority was to visit the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.  I'm a huge fan of big cats, and we'd selected our hotel (the Jaguar Reef Lodge, subject of a separate post here) based on its proximity to the park, about 25 minutes away.  Billed as the world's only jaguar reserve, in a country with one of the highest densities of the big cat in the Americas, it's a fantastic place for hiking and exploring, and is a definite must-visit if you come to Belize.  Learn more about our experience after the jump.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Location:  Maya Center Village, approximately 20 miles down the Southern Highway after the turn-off from the Hummingbird Highway.  From there, travel approximately 6 miles down the unpaved access road to the park headquarters.

Open:  8 A.M.-4 P.M. year-round.  Entrance fee BZD 10/USD 5 per person, payable at the Maya Center Village Women's Center (the building next to the sign above).


Where to stay:  several hotels are available in Hopkins and Dangriga, both about 25 minutes away, or in Placencia, about half an hour to the south.  Or stay in a cabin or dormitory room inside the park.  Most hotels in Hopkins, Dangriga, and Placencia offer guided tours of the reserve, or you can hire a guide at Maya Center Village.

Special notes:  the access road to the park is unpaved and in rough shape.  4WD is recommended at all times, and is pretty much required during the rainy season.  No food is available in the park, except for some trail mix at the park headquarters, so either pack a lunch or plan to eat outside the park.  If you forget to pay the fee at Maya Center Village, the ranger at the park headquarters will sometimes let you purchase tickets there, but don't rely on being able to do this.  Carry a rain jacket, waterproof pants, and sturdy hiking shoes.

We started off from our hotel shortly before 8, on a bit of a dreary, rainy morning.  After purchasing our tickets at Maya Center, we started out on the bumpy, 20-minute drive to the park headquarters.  The "headquarters" is really just a small cluster of buildings with restrooms, a small shop to buy books or rain jackets if you forgot one, a couple of jaguar statues to pose with, and a small museum about the jaguar.

Unlike the tiger reserves in India, there are no motorized trails or paths within the wildlife sanctuary.  All exploration is on foot via a series of hiking trails; a good trail map can be found here.  You can also buy a map for BZD 5 at the store at the headquarters.  Trails are available for a variety of skill levels, from (relatively) easy nature walks, to the multi-day, very strenuous trip to the top of Victoria Peak.

The ranger suggested that we could follow the Victoria Peak Path for about a mile to a river overlook, which also doubled as the primary trail for wildlife viewing in the park.  And so we set off as the rain really began to pick up again.  Unfortunately, not even a 1/4 mile from the headquarters, we ran into a roadblock of sorts - a creek crossing that had been flooded with better than 3 feet of fast running water, which made the trail impossible.  So, we turned around and decided to follow the ranger's second suggestion, which was to follow Ben's Bluff Trail up to the waterfall.

As the map shows, there are two ways of getting to the waterfall - the direct way down the Curassow Trail to the Ben's Bluff trail (the upper portion of the Currasow Trail is a bit steep), or you can circle around the the River Path, Rubber Tree, and Currasow Trails back to the start of Ben's Bluff Trail.  We chose the latter, mainly because we had plenty of time to kill.  The trail started off easy enough, with some good jungle scenery.

As we headed down the Rubber Tree Trail, though, things would get a little dicey.  The trail wasn't too steep, but we quickly came upon sections of trail under water due to heavy rains over the past 24 hours.

That first stretch wasn't that bad, with water only about a foot deep.  Enough to make us have to take our shoes off to wade through, but not particularly stressful.  But that was just the start of the adventure...

We dealt with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR crossings involving water up to our waists.  Luckily the water wasn't moving very fast, and there were no snakes.  But we ultimately survived, and made it to the trail to the waterfall.  This involved another mile hike up an occasionally steep trail, but was worth the trouble. 

I didn't get a lot of pictures on the way up to the falls since I wanted enough time to actually get to the falls, but did manage a few on the way down.  Some people might question why you would go to the rain forest during the rainy season, but in my opinion, the unique beauty of the forest is enhanced when you see it as it should be - drenched in the rain.

We then saw our one wildlife sighting of the day (aside from a mule deer that we briefly saw from the access road on the way in) - not a jaguar, but one of the large butterfiles that Belize is known for.

And with that, it was time to head back, with lunchtime rapidly approaching.  Even though we didn't see any jaguars on this visit - seeing one is very much the exception rather than the rule - our morning in the sanctuary was definitely the highlight of our trip to Belize, and well worth the wet shoes.

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