With one of the world’s lowest population densities, Belize reserves plenty of open space for unspoiled natural habitats. Wild creatures roam the vast tracts of inland jungles and hundreds of miles of Caribbean coastline, providing innumerable opportunities for wildlife-spotting adventures. There’s a definite chance that you could encounter a species of bird, bug, fish, or lizard that has never been identified.
As you make your way to the beautiful cayes of Belize, stop at the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve in the Stann Creek District for some mainland adventure – you’ll begin to hear the jungle before you even reach it. High in the treetops, black howler monkeys call out to one another; their roaring is audible from three miles away, creating a lively soundtrack to accompany your rainforest hike. Though howlers are an exotic (and endangered) species of Belize, the most incredible wildlife experience to be had in Cockscomb is jaguar-spotting.
Although jaguars are the largest wild cats in Central America, their furtive nocturnal habits make them a challenge to find. If you’re trying to beat the odds, double your luck by visiting the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary, the only park in Central America officially designated as a jaguar reserve.
Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a jaguar on your visit to Belize, there are other beautiful cats worth keeping an eye out for. Ocelots are mid-sized jungle cats with rosettes of bold black spots covering their golden fur. And you’re in luck – the ocelot is the most commonly seen of all the wild feline species in Belize, found throughout Belize’s rainforests, grasslands, and scrub.
There’s much more to Belize wildlife than howling tree monkeys and lurking spotted cats. Given its tropical climate, Belize also makes an accommodating home for many exotic reptiles which you may (or may not) wish to view up close.
When cruising through the coastal mangroves, be on the alert for saltwater crocodiles. Growing up to 12 feet in length, these “salties” aren’t as vicious as their Australian relatives, but your best bet is to be cautious around them nonetheless. If you go exploring on the remote cayes and islands of Belize, you’re more likely to glimpse a lazy iguana lounging on a tree branch, his scaly, Jurassic form too lethargic to be intimidating.
One main caution for all wildlife-spotting adventurers, but particularly those on the lookout for exotic reptiles: be careful where you put your feet and watch your paws. Several poisonous species of snake (such as the feared fer-de-lance) live throughout Belize, even near developed areas. These dangerous reptiles can ruin your trip in a hurry if you’re not careful, so heed your guide’s advice and stay alert.
You expect to find classic “jungle animals” like jaguars, iguanas, snakes, and monkeys in the rainforest. But what about creatures you’ve never heard of before? Belize offers the chance to meet some fascinating creatures that most people don’t think to look for.
Take, for example, the endangered Baird’s tapir, locally known as the “mountain cow.” A lumbering, four-legged mammal that appears to be a mixed-up breed of a number of animals: rhino, elephant, pig, horse, who knows? They’re curious-looking. Or maybe you’ll happen upon a family of white-lipped peccaries: wild pigs which are the cuisine of choice for stealthy jaguars. And don’t miss out on the comical nine-banded armadillo. Except for his armored shell, he resembles a rabbit, and he can certainly hop like one – a nine-banded armadillo jumps five feet straight up into the air when startled. On your jungle jaunt, look to the streams crisscrossing the forest for a small, floating shell with legs attempting to reach the opposite shore. This odd-looking mammal can swim short distances by gulping air and inflating his intestines to float him wherever he needs to go.
Above you in the canopy, a colorful array of tropical birds bring the forest to life with their shrieking and song. Everyone loves the keel-billed toucan, a cartoonish fellow with a huge beak, lurid coloring and a playful squawk. Possibly because of this general fondness towards the keel-billed toucan, he was adopted 30 years ago as the national bird of Belize.
Looking for more color? Check out a few remote spots in Belize for a chance to see a wild scarlet macaw flying high above the foliage, his sleek, multi-colored plumage the Holy Grail for Central American birdwatchers. If you pull a toucan/macaw combo, you’ve earned the right to brag about it until your next trip to Belize.
Below the Surface
There’s no way to talk about Belize wildlife without mentioning the myriad marine species that inhabit the barrier reef. Manatees and loggerhead turtles ply the crystalline waters and atolls. Avid scuba divers leave Belize with heart-pounding stories of eagle ray sightings, shark encounters, and losing themselves in maelstroms of colorful parrotfish.
For all Belize’s wealth in wildlife, you must remember one thing about these incredible creatures. They are all fickle sons and daughters of Mother Nature, and they don’t care if you traveled halfway across the world to see them. There are no guarantees. The unpredictability, however, is exactly what makes wildlife-spotting such a thrill. It’s the anticipation. You must attune yourself to the sounds and shapes of these environments to pick out the species you can’t see anywhere else in the world. And leave them undisturbed for the next awestruck traveler.