Turn a sharp corner on the jungle trail, and suddenly you're face-to-face with a jaguar, the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The big cat growls a deep rumbling threat. You jump back, thankful that a strong but inconspicuous fence separates you and the jaguar.
Plan for about 2 hours to see the zoo. Along with jaguars you'll see the country's four other wild cats: the puma, margay, ocelot, and jaguarundi. Perhaps the zoo's most famous resident is April, a Baird's tapir that is more than a quarter-century old. This relative of the horse and rhino is known to locals as the mountain cow, and is also Belize's national animal. At the zoo you'll also see jabiru storks, a harpy eagle, scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, crocodiles, and many snakes, including the fer-de-lance.
The zoo owes its existence to the dedication and drive of one gutsy woman, Sharon Matola. An American who came to Belize as part of a film crew, Matola stayed on to care for some of the semi-tame animals used
in the production. She opened the zoo in 1983, and in 1991 it moved to its present location. She's also an active environmentalist. "The Zoo Lady" and her crusade against the Chalillo Dam is the subject of the 2008 book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight To Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird by Outside magazine writer Bruce Barcott.
Besides touring the zoo, you can stay overnight at the Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge and hike or canoe through the 84-acre Tropical Education Center.