I tread lightly along a root-tangled trail, deeper into the Central American jungle.
Towering mahogany, cedar and ceiba trees, embraced by lianas, stand sentinel along the path, their branches weaving a net in the canopy above, filtering the moonlight and allowing flashes of silver starlight to slip through.
Ahead, my guide Mario waves his torch from side-to-side, scouring the dense rainforest for signs of life. Vast webs illuminate, and orb-weaver spiders hang in suspended animation, while giant mantises eye us curiously, and leaf-cutter ants march at our feet, working industriously beyond bedtime. But here in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary of South-Central Belize, it’s a far bigger beast that we seek.
Established in 1986 and managed by the Belize Audubon Society, Cockscomb is the world’s first dedicated sanctuary for the jaguar, one of the world’s largest – and most elusive – big cats. Spanning 130,000 acres, the reserve protects precious rainforest habitat, waterfalls and a staggering diversity of life, including Belize’s four other wild cat species – pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis – along with Baird’s tapirs (the national animal of Belize), howler monkeys, armadillos, otters, kinkajous (nocturnal, golden-furred tree-dwellers), and around 300 species of birds, including toucans, hummingbirds and scarlet macaws.
I first visited Cockscomb 14 years ago, spending hours walking the forest trails at night in search of the mighty jaguar. The Mesoamerican Mayan civilisation held the iconic cat sacred, its diurnal nature elevating the animal to a deity, able to cross between both the living world (day) and ‘Xibalbá’ or the underworld (night), while its power, ferocity and bravery were revered by hunters and warriors, priests and kings.
With its global population in decline due to habitat loss, human-animal conflict and poaching, the jaguar is classified as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List, and even here in this dedicated reserve, between just 80 and 100 roam.
On my first visit I got lucky, though sadly not while on foot with my guide in the forest. Driving out of the park, a burst of lightning lit up the road and flash-gunned a solitary jaguar padding across our path. For a second it turned to face us, before slinking back into the otherworldly dimension from whence it came, the image forever burned on my brain in negative.
This time the big cats elude me, but no matter: I don’t see them, but perhaps somewhere, shrouded in the darkness, they see me.
Bordered by Mexico to the northwest, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east, the former British colony of Belize has a lush, forested interior and miles of tropical coastline, with beautiful islands (or ‘cayes’), atolls, lagoons and the world’s second-longest barrier reef system lying offshore. A perfect adventure destination, the only English-speaking country in Central America has plenty to excite and inspire.
My stay with the Belize Collection, which has stylish resorts across the country, offers the opportunity to explore both the rainforest and reef.
Travelling first to Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge, the official base camp for National Geographic Expeditions in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, I immerse myself in the jungle. At night, I eat amazing Mayan-inspired Belizean food on the terrace of The Grove House (voted Belize’s Restaurant of the Year 2019), drink margaritas in my creekside casita’s open-air bath accompanied by a live forest soundtrack, and swing in my hammock under a dazzling sky, as frogs and geckos come out to play.
By day, there’s kayaking on the calm waters of the Sibun River, horse riding and bird watching in
the lodge’s fragrant orange groves and nature reserve, dawn hikes in the mountains and caving to discover ancient Mayan skulls, ceremonial tools and pottery in the labyrinths and caverns that lie, incredibly, right behind the lodge.
More Mayan treasures await at the archaeological site of Xunantunich. Reached on a hand-cranked ferry across the emerald Mopan River, the excavated city’s palaces and plazas offer a chance to learn more about the Mesoamerican civilisation, while spider monkeys swing through the trees and bats hang from the walls of the striking 40-metre pyramid, El Castillo.
“Come on, jump!” says an encouraging voice from the water below. I gingerly position my legs over the side of the boat and look down. Beneath my feet, shimmering stars illuminate the water like a marine Milky Way, but these aren’t reflections of the night sky above: this is one of the world’s rare bioluminescent lagoons, and the neon nebulae are shining from within.
A short drive from The Lodge at Jaguar Reef – a lovely, laid-back resort on the sweeping, palm-fringed sands of Hopkins Beach – Belize’s Anderson Lagoon is one of just a handful of magical locations where bioluminescence lights up the ocean.
Best seen between October and March on a moonless night, this natural phenomenon occurs when the perfect combination of fresh and salt water, temperature and depth align. Tiny plankton called dinoflagellates gather, and a chemical reaction produces quick-fire flashes of blue-green light when they’re disturbed. With millions of these microorganisms in the lagoon, and no nearby light pollution to detract, the aquatic fireworks display is a spectacular sight.
Still, my trepidation to dive into the sparkling soup has good grounds: the dinoflagellates have some prehistoric, predatory neighbours lurking not too far away…
We board the boat in the late afternoon sun at the Green Iguana Jetty and head out along the Sittee River, guided by Mario, who points out crested great curassow birds roosting among the mangroves, while royal palms soar up to 50 feet into the sky above.
The ‘footprints’ of manatees – surface bubble rings on the river – reveal the presence of the giant, gentle sea cows grazing on grasses below, while lemur-like kinkajous come out to play, the sun sinks, and distant lightning flashes the sky.
As darkness descends, Mario seeks out tougher and toothier animals from the boat: American crocodiles, up to 10 feet long, their eyes glowing red in his spotlight.
“The crocodiles here aren’t aggressive,” Mario reassures us, as we watch them cruising the river banks. “They usually swim away from humans, not towards them.”
I hold on to these words as we motor though a narrow, mangrove-lined channel and emerge into the vast lagoon, the trees now silhouetted against the night. Somewhere near the middle the boat stops, and everyone excitedly prepares for the show.
My travel companion, Ellen, is first in, jumping over the side and into the inky water, which instantly lights up with a gas-blue glow. Encouraging me to follow, I lower myself in to join her, hoping that someone remembered to lock the gate. Thankfully, Mario knows his crocs: no gnashers crash our party, and after safely swimming and splashing around in the magical melange, we clamber back on to the boat, fingers and toes intact.
After dinner at The Paddle House restaurant at Jaguar Reef and a few too many mojitos (this is the Caribbean after all), a dawn alarm call drags me out of my super-comfy bed in my cavernous deluxe suite and back on to a boat – a very bumpy boat that wave-jumps its way 14 miles out to sea, while I cling on to my much-needed coffee.
Heralded as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” by naturalist Charles Darwin, the Belize Barrier Reef System is legendary. Stretching 180 miles along the country’s Caribbean coast, this marine mosaic encompasses hundreds of mangroves and sandy cayes, offshore atolls and coastal lagoons, along with the world-renowned dive site, the Great Blue Hole. Known for its diversity, the reef is home to 65 species of coral, over 500 kinds of fish and three species of turtle: green, hawksbill and loggerhead. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, like all reefs it faces major challenges, but coral planting initiatives, no-fish zones and seven marine protected areas are helping to reverse the damage caused by hurricanes, coastal development and past oil exploration, and the country’s regeneration programme is now a model for other nations.
Our captain, Nick, drops anchor near a dazzling white slither of an island called Saltwater Caye. As the boat rocks, we pull on our snorkelling gear and enter the sea, the colourful landscape beneath the waves instantly calmer than the windy world above. Spotted eagle rays swoop over the sandy bottom, between clusters of corals and shoals of tropical fish, while giant stingrays glide through crystal, turquoise waters below.
In a world where we’re losing natural habitats and biodiversity to overexploitation and greed, Belize’s magical realms offer wild adventures today, and hope for tomorrow.
Riverside rooms at Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge and beachfront rooms at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef start from £120. Accommodation and activities including the Sleeping Giant Nature Hike, Rainforest Horseback Riding Adventure, Ceremonial Cave Tour, Xunantunich & Maya Culture Day, Sittee River and Bioluminescence Cruise, South Water Reef Snorkelling and Jaguar Reserve Night Time Exploration can be booked through belizecollection.com
Click here to see more about Belize, or call us on 020 3092 1288 to start planning your adventure!
This is a feature from Issue 3 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.