Some visitors to Cockscomb are disappointed that they don't see jaguars and that wildlife doesn't jump out from behind trees to astound them as they hike the trails. The experience at Cockscomb is indeed a low-key one, and seeing wildlife requires patience and luck. You'll have the best chance of seeing wild animals, perhaps even a jaguar or one of the other large cats, if you stay overnight, preferably for several nights, in the sanctuary. You may also have better luck if you go for an extended hike with a guide. Several nearby lodges, such as Hamanasi, offer night hikes to Cockscomb, departing around dusk and returning around 9 pm.
Cockscomb Basin has native wildlife aside from the jaguars. You might see other cats—pumas, margays, and ocelots—plus coatis, kinkajous, deer, peccaries, and, last but not least, tapirs. Also known as the mountain cow, this shy, curious creature appears to be half horse, half hippo, with a bit of cow and elephant thrown in. Nearly 300 species
of birds have been identified in the Cockscomb Basin, including the Keel-Billed Toucan, the King Vulture, several hawk species, and the Scarlet Macaw.
Within the reserve is Belize's best-maintained system of jungle and mountain trails, most of which lead to at least one outstanding swimming hole. The sanctuary also has spectacular views of Victoria Peak and the Cockscomb Range. Bring serious bug spray with you—the reserve swarms with mosquitoes and tiny biting flies called no-see-ums—and wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants. The best times to hike anywhere in Belize are early morning, late afternoon, and early evening, when temperatures are lower and more animals are on the prowl.
You have to check in at a thatch building at Maya Centre on the Southern Highway before proceeding several miles to the visitor center. In the same building is an excellent gift shop selling baskets, wood and fabric crafts, and slate carvings by local Maya craftspeople, at good prices. Buying crafts at this shop, which is run as a co-op by local residents, generally gets more of the money into local hands than if you buy from a commercial gift shop. At Maya Centre there is also a small butterfly farm.
The road from Maya Centre to the Cockscomb ranger station and visitor center winds 6 mi (10 km) through dense vegetation—splendid cahune palms, purple mimosas, orchids, and big-leaf plantains—and as you go higher the marvelous sound of tropical birds, often resembling strange windup toys, grows stronger and stronger. This is definitely four-wheel-drive terrain. You may have to ford several small creeks as well as negotiate deep, muddy ruts. At the end, in a clearing with hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes, you'll find a little office, where you can buy maps of the nature trails, along with restrooms, several picnic tables, cabins, and a campground. The Belize Audubon Society manages the Cockscomb and can assist in making reservations for the simple accommodations in the sanctuary.
Altogether there are some 20 mi (33 km) of marked trails. Walking along these 12 nature trails is a good way to get to know the region. Most are loops of ½–1½ mi (1–2 km), so you can do several in a day. The most strenuous trail takes you up a steep hill; from the top is a magnificent view of the entire Cockscomb Basin. Longer hikes, such as to Victoria Peak, require a guide and several days of strenuous walking.
Hotels and tour operators and guides in Hopkins, Placencia, and Dangriga offer tours to Cockscomb; Hopkins is closest to the sanctuary.
Outside Maya Centre, off Southern Hwy., Maya Centre, Belize
227-7369; 223-5004-Belize Audubon Society in Belize City