It was my mum who first directed me towards Cockscomb. I’m glad she did.
As soon as I announced that we were going to spend two weeks in Belize as part of our honeymoon she started scouring Google for places for us to visit. The ruder the name the better. Ordinarily that would get on my nerves but even from my laptop screen in London I could see this place was special.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve was established in 1990 and is the only dedicated jaguar reserve and sanctuary in the world. It covers 400km2, slightly larger than the entire country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is estimated that there are around 70 jaguars here and though these big cats are notoriously shy they are sometimes spotted. Usually by camera traps rather than human eyes.
Because we were staying at a perversely expensive resort near the coastal village of Hopkins we were well positioned to take advantage of inclusive guided trips around the Maya Mountain range. One of these took us to Cockscomb. We had a guide to ourselves and the nature reserve was almost entirely empty too.
After swinging by Maya Centre to look at the local crafts we trundled up the brick-red mud track and into the jungle. ‘Jaguar Xing’ signs reassured us that they were out there, somewhere. Probably watching us clatter into their territory.
The information centre wasn’t spectacular but it lays out the basics of what you might spot out on the trails. Namely that jaguars can be very dangerous if they are so minded. Surprise, surprise. I think you pay your BZ$10.00 (about US$5) entrance fee here too.
Cockscomb has several hiking trails, including a challenging multi-dayer up the tallest mountain in the country which is best tackled supported. On this occasion we opted for some gentle strolling rather than heavy climbing and hauling.
The first grassy track from the picnic area, ‘River Path’, leads through a corridor in the jungle. Our guide pointed out herbal remedies beside the track but it was down to our own highly honed tracking skills that we spotted actual jaguar tracks in the mud.
Incredible. They are actually out there, and they are nearby. As recently as an hour before the rain had been torrential, therefore these tracks would have been destroyed if they were older than the downpour. It was highly probable that there was a large jaguar having a siesta on a log somewhere behind the curtain of jungle foliage.
Conversation dropped off immediately as we remembered that we were invaders in another creature’s Kingdom, and that if we stood any chance of a real sighting of the King then we had to shut the hell up.
We reached Stann Creek at the end of this trail and my eyes flicked from shallow water, to pebble slope, to jungle fringe, to long grass. No, as expected there would be no jaguar sighting for us today. But to be honest I could probably have looked right at one and not known it, they are that well camouflaged in the dappled light of the jungle. But never mind – the footprints were worth the visit by themselves and were exactly what I’d hoped to find.
I couldn’t shake the crazy notion that Cockscomb staff go out each morning and stamp fake paw prints into the paths just to amuse and gratify us. But that’s just my wild imagination, right?
We headed back up the way we came but took a right turn into the ‘proper’ jungle so that we could enjoy a long loop including a waterfall swimming hole. ‘Rubber Tree Trail’ took us into the bush and joined us to a tributary to Stann Creek. I watched tiny terrapins race for shelter as I strolled up this stream, and then tried unsuccessfully to snap a picture of a hummingbird. It was just the three of us, and all this lovely natural diversity. Heaven.
The ‘Curassow Trail’ took us north again along the side of the stream. Very soon we were admiring the sheer power of army ants as they demolished a barrier across their path. Just after that we spotted more footprints, but these were cloven – some sort of jungle piggy or deer. Our guide was an expert at identifying bird calls and he happily regaled us with names and genders for birds we often never saw.
We peered into the undergrowth alongside the ‘Waterfall Trail’ for any signs of mammal life. Alas.
The sound of toucans had accompanied us for some time before we actually saw one. High up in the canopy, 30 metres away. But it was absolutely glorious all the same. It is always a treat to see one of these freaky national birds of Belize. To get a glimpse of this one we had to teeter on top of a pile of rotting palm branches so that we could see over the intervening canopy. I wondered what kind of snakes probably lived in there, inches below our feet, but the guide seemed to have complete confidence in its safety so I put my blind trust in his judgement. I didn’t die!
As the Waterfall Trail started to incline towards slippery mud steps we spotted actual snakes to our left. We kept a cautious distance. A dusky brown-green tree snake lazily evaded us by heading off over a precipice, and a garter snake headed for the dank dark safety of a tunnel presumably originally constructed by a rodent or a tarantula.
After about half an hour we reached the waterfall at the end of our trail. Me and Kristina stripped down to our swimming costumes and hopped into the frigid water, which was a relief to our sweaty skin after even this short hike. The waterfall’s flow was so strong that I couldn’t get under the torrent for more than a second without being forced under the surface. It was like having a huge spiteful hand push you down. If you bobbed up on the fringe of the fall then the speeding water stung you just because it couldn’t force you under any more. In the shallow safety of the pebble pool the same malicious water that had just tried to stab and kill me slid past tamely and gurgled down through a series of smaller rock pools.
Now the stinging sensation began again but this time the source was the open sky above the pool. Within seconds a new torrential downpour had commenced. We scrambled into our clothes and began the slushy three kilometre trek back down to the picnic area. Only one other pair of tourists crossed our paths that day, as they headed to the pool, and we reassured them that if the rain let off for a minute they would have a lovely refresher greeting them up there.
As we pulled out of Cockscomb I wished that we had more time at Hopkins because I would have loved to return here at night. Apparently it’s a wholly different world in the dark, and visitors see jaguars far more regularly under the light of their headlamps. Even a jaguar can’t camouflage those massive glowing eyes…
We saw Cockscomb Basin with the help of our resort but plenty of local companies offer guided tours into the reserve. If you did want to do it yourself then the best way would certainly be to hire a car and drive in, parking next to the visitor centre which stocks maps and guides of the region. It’s a few miles from Maya Centre, beside the highway, to the visitor centre and it’s not a pleasant walking route so I really would recommend driving in.
Plenty of guests at our resort were there purely for the diving but I think this is a rather huge travesty as Cockscomb was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places we discovered in our whole stay in Belize. Make sure you fit it in, and good luck seeing (but not getting eaten by) a jaguar!