The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize is the world’s first jaguar sanctuary and jaguars do live here. But that does not mean you’re going to see them.

Welcome to Cockcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, the world’s first jaguar sanctuary.

Looking for cats in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary includes 200 square miles (517 square km) of protected land. Established in 1984 and made a sanctuary in 1990, it is the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. It’s now home to roughly 70 jaguars along with many of their smaller kin including ocelot, jaguarundi and margay.

Of course, we arrived at the sanctuary hoping to see a jaguar and we did our best to increase our chances of a sighting. First, we decided to camp in the sanctuary. This was not a hard decision because the lodging options in Maya Village, the nearest “town” to the sanctuary, are not cheap and not great (we paid US$25 for a grotty, basic room with a shared bathroom at Nu’uk Che’il Cottages the first night because it was late by the time we arrived).

Also, the campground in the sanctuary happens to be awesome. A large, grassy area has thatch-roof covers over flat tent sites plus an outhouse and an area for cooking over a fire with ample firewood supplied. There’s even a rain-water cistern. The camping fee of US$5 per person also includes access to a well-equipped communal kitchen that’s shared with anyone else staying in the sanctuary’s other basic accommodations which includes a dorm and shared or private cabins.

cockscomb basin wildlife sanctuary belize jaguar sign

Perhaps the ugliest jaguar sign we’ve ever seen, but hope springs eternal.

A big plus about camping here (besides the bargain price and great facilities) is being in the sanctuary itself where mornings and evenings, in particular, are heralded with a symphony of jungle noises. Sadly, none of them were jaguar growls.

Staying in the sanctuary also allowed us to just wander away from our tent at dusk and stroll down the dirt road that runs through this corner of the sanctuary in the evenings, which is when the cats start to get active. We saw gibnut (picture a huge hamster), tiny brocket deer, and a small yellow bird fast asleep on a branch during our night walks and we even got what we believe was a fleeting glance at a margay, but no jaguar.

At 3,688 feet (1,124 meters), Victoria Peak, seen in the distance, is the second highest mountain in Belize.

Camping in the sanctuary also put us in the perfect position for hiking. Most of the Cockscomb sanctuary is totally undeveloped and set aside as a true human-free haven. However, a small area has been developed for human use and it offers 12 miles (19 km) of gorgeous trails, beautiful waterfalls, and swimming holes plus a meandering river perfect for tubing (tubes area available for rent for US$2.50 a day).

The super-ambitious can even climb to the top of Victoria Peak in the Cockscomb Mountains via a trail through the sanctuary. At 3,688 feet (1,124 meters), Victoria Peak is the second highest mountains in Belize and it takes most people three to five days to summit and return.

We stuck to the trails within the basin and the foothills.

Our own private swimming hole at the end of the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

First we hiked the 4 mile / 6 km (round trip) Tiger Fern Trail which delivered some steep sections before we reached the pay off: two waterfalls with swimming holes. While we cooled off in the deep, clear, wonderful water beneath the upper falls, a tiny hummingbird darted in and out of the waterfall spray, apparently taking a shower.

A hummingbird takes a bath in one of two waterfalls accessed via the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A short climb above the waterfalls leads to an overlook with good views of Victoria Peak and the Cockscomb range, so named because its ridge line looks like a rooster’s comb.

The next day we tackled the various easy walks in the basin itself with eyes mostly glued to the trail since there are deadly fer-de-lance snakes here. Then we headed up the 3.2 mile / 1 km (round trip) Ben’s Bluff Trail. Less steep than Tiger Fern, this trail also leads to a great waterfall.

A stand of hobbit-ready trees in a seasonally-dry mangrove area within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Bird watching in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Cockscomb is also home (or on the migration path) for hundreds of species of birds including scarlet macaws (best seen around noon when the heat inspires them to roost in the shade), swooping parrots, and huge guans.

Special thanks to Abel, a guide from Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Lodge, who turned up in Cockscomb to do some early morning bird scouting and allowed us to tag along. Abel pointed out many birds that our untrained eyes might never have seen, including these…

A laughing falcon

A black-headed Trogan

A violaceous trogan

A lineated woodpecker

A tiger heron

 

A boat-billed heron

 

Glad we had

Even professional guides are impressed with our SureFire flashlights which helped us see all kinds of critters during night walks in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our ExOfficio Bugs Away pants and shirts, impregnated with Insect Shield repellent, kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could really enjoy our campsite.

Because we had the campground all to ourselves we took up a little extra room and strung up our Hennessy Hammocks for afternoon napping.

 

Here’s more about travel in Belize