Central America’s pocket marvel is blessed with an array of astounding creatures, from whale sharks to toucans and jaguars. Here's how to discover Belize's best wildlife hotspots
Best for: jaguars
The gorgeously rosetted jaguar may be the biggest cat in the Americas (indeed, it's the third-biggest in the world after the tiger and lion), but it’s also among the shyest. Spotting one anywhere is a big ask, but this huge protected area, encompassing a 100,000-hectare swathe of tropical rainforest, is the best place to try, outside of Belize Zoo, which houses cats including jaguar, ocelot and margay.
Said to host the largest population of jaguars in Central America, Río Bravo reports the most sightings, but come prepared to enjoy the overall experience, with nearly 400 bird species and all of Belize’s cat species.
How? Stay at La Milpa Lodge or Hill Bank Field Station
Black howler monkeys (Dreamstime)
Best for: howler monkeys
Belize doesn’t actually host any baboons but that’s what endangered black howler monkeys are called in the local Creole. Regardless of the name, these vocal primates are winsome and noisy creatures, best seen at the sanctuary not far from Belize City, where more than 2,000 are protected.
As the name suggests, this pioneering community project has seen dozens of landowners join forces to create a protected area that’s home to dazzling hummingbirds, parrots and river turtles. You might also spot a Morelet’s crocodile, armadillo or anteater.
How? Book a walk or canoe tour with an experienced guide through the sanctuary.
Best for: manatees and sea turtles
There are no actual aquatic sirens with fishes’ tails, but in Belizean waters you will fine the marine mammal that reputedly inspired the sailors’ legends of mermaids, West Indian manatees, also sometimes known as sea cows.
South Lagoon, not far from Belize City, is the premier spot for seeing these gentle, underwater-grazing creatures, along with plentiful birdlife.
The Caribbean beach to the east is also a nesting site for both loggerhead and critically endangered hawksbill turtles. Take a guided evening stroll to watch females hauling themselves onto the sand to lay their eggs.
How? Stay at Manatee Lodge on South Lagoon, which offers various tours.
Southern stingray (Dreamstime)
Best for: nurse sharks and southern stingrays
With it's coastline fringed by the world’s second-longest barrier reef, studded with gorgeous cayes (islands), Belize is a divers’ and snorkellers’ delight.
Colourful fish and corals, moray eels, turtles, dolphins and manatees populate its many atolls, mangroves and individual reefs, but for close encounters with toothy predators head to Shark Ray Alley in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Don your mask and snorkel to come face to snout with hefty nurse sharks and sizeable southern stingrays.
How? Numerous tour companies on Ambergris Caye offer diving and snorkelling tours.
Black-collared Hawk (Dreamstime)
Best for: diverse mammals and birds
In 1986, this 50,000-hectare area was designated the world’s first jaguar preserve, creating a protected sanctuary for the magnificent but rare big cat. You might well see pugmarks or other evidence of their presence, but a sighting is unlikely even in this hotspot, which claims a sizeable proportion of Belize’s estimated 600–1000 jaguars.
Never fear, though. A visit to this lush forest region is guaranteed to reward travellers with fabulous birdwatching and bird-listening. Keep your ears peeled for the bizarre calls of Montezuma's oropendola and the white-collared manakin. You might also hear black howler monkeys and see keel-billed toucan, peccary and Belize’s other cats, including jaguarundi, ocelot and margay. For more information, check out the Belize Audubon Society.
How? Stay in the basic accommodation in the sanctuary, or in the nearby village of Maya Center.
Whale shark (Dreamstime)
Best for: whale sharks
The world’s biggest fish is also among its most gentle. The mighty whale shark grows up to 12m long and 12 tonnes, but to swim with one is a serene, if exhilarating, experience.
You don’t grow that big without eating your plankton. In Spring (March to June), the filter-feeding behemoths congregate at Gladden Spit off Placencia to gulp the eggs of spawning Cubera snapper. This is the best time to join a diving or snorkelling tour to swim with the marine giants, which are joined by other shark species that join the feast.
Don’t be overawed by the whale sharks size. Instead, spend your time admiring their gorgeous constellations of markings, each as individual as a fingerprint.
How? Join a diving or snorkelling day trip. Local operators include Sea Horse Dive Shop.
Best for: dazzling birdlife
Belize’s first government-designated wildlife reserve is a vast wetland area packed with thrilling birdlife. Along with the wetland birds you’d expect, including herons, jabiru storks, kingfishers, you can also spot colourful parrots, woodpeckers and raptors, including snail kites and black-collared hawks, plus numerous other rare and endangered species. It's also worth keeping an eye out for howler monkeys, iguanas and crocodiles.
Get out on the many walking trails weaving around the lakeshore and take to the water on a boat tour to get close to the wildfowl and other waterbirds.
How? Stay at Crooked Tree Lodge, right at the edge of the lagoon.
This article was supported by the Belize Tourist Board (www.travelbelize.org) but it is independent and impartial, just like all Wanderlust editorial.