by Jim Scott
In hindsight of a resume full of diving, fly fishing, hiking, biking, and kayaking in the Americas, Jim Scott has lived in Belize full time for over 34 years. He has visited parks from Isle Royal in Lake Superior to Airkok National Park in Chile. He shares with us his experience for one park in Belize he has visited more times than any other park in the world. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, without a doubt, is his favorite!
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and its rugged undulating ridges that yo-yo throughout the region are named because they mimic the red comb of the neighborhood rooster. The "Cockscomb" is made up of 150 sq. Miles of pristine quintessential tropical jungle and natural habitat for an abundance of wildlife. It's located on the eastern slope of the Maya Mountains south of Dangriga in the Stann Creek District and home to the only Jaguar Reserve in the world and the largest cat in the Americas, Panthera Onca.
Maya inhabitants in that area date back 10,000 years, and today, the nearest community and their descendants live in the village known as Maya Centre. The watershed feeds the Monkey River, Swasey, and South Stann Creek rivers, which flow into the Caribbean Sea. The rugged terrain lay way for a variety of trail systems, hidden waterfalls, and possible wildlife sightings at every turn. It is vast, lush with flora, and well-maintained trails, as you might expect.
I love this park for the abundance of trails, activities, camping options, and humble accommodations. Being in a park for the day is great for those who just want to experience rainforest diversity and can be easily accessed from Placencia. A well-spent day at Cockscomb includes a few miles of trails, finding waterfalls, even a short tubbing float down the river. I normally camp, but day trips are most common. Its elevation is anywhere from 160 ft. to 3810 ft. above sea level, and for the novice and beginners, prepare for some hills.
Victoria Peak is the highest area in the park, and use of that this trail system is by reservation only and with it, is a minimum of 2-night 3-day hike in and out but only with an approved certified guide to lead the way. Depending on rainfall, it is only open from February to May. Round trip to the Peak is 34 miles/50K…. It may not sound so daunting for avid hikers, but because of the acclaimed "Cockscomb," the downhills will end up killing you more than the uphill, not to mention heat and humidity. It's a rite of passage kind of hike for Belizeans and Residents alike. I told Tony Rath, a professional photographer friend of mine that I planned to run to the Peak and back with an extreme naturalist guide and mutual buddy Joe Garel, in ONE DAY! He laughed and told me a story when he was dropped off on the Peak by helicopter, took some early morning photos then hiked all the way out with his gear. Tony said it was the toughest thing he'd ever done, and the round trip could not be done by mortals. It was done, but that's another story.
The park also contains some of the oldest exposed quartzite and sandstone rock formations in Central America, and its Paleozoic sediments were uplifted 200 million years ago. The well managed National Park is so dope and has one of my favorite overnight camp spots, Tiger Fern. On top of Tiger Fern Trail hosts clear views 360 degrees. Only about 4 miles round trip but excellent vistas and opposite Victoria Peak and Outlier Peak. Breathtaking. You're above the jungle canopy valley with peaks and ridges all around. Imagine the raptors gliding high above the jungle and where you're standing. It's been cleared on top as you trek through the jungle to reach the summit, you move from broadleaf tropical rainforest to scrub pine and low lying shrubbery. Fog sometimes lays below you in the morning, and sunsets are looking west over the jagged peaks. Evening and morning sounds include howler monkeys, owls, laughing falcons, and a host of other noisemakers special effects people in Hollywood record for their movies.
A short hike down the other side of Tiger Fern is a double teared set of hidden waterfall, it's a Billy goat path down, but it's TOTALLY worth it. It's a Fern Gully & Avatar all in one.
Ben's Bluff is a longer trail but still can be done in one day. Like Tiger Fern, Ben's Bluff is well worth the extra mileage with stunning views and a smaller waterfall along the way. Try Wari Loop for a low-level trail system if your knees are challenged. You may see more wildlife on the Wari Loop, but in Cockscomb, you really don't know what you'll see or find. There is a new birding trail with sponsored signage that is great. And let's not forget the Airplane Crash trail. The story is that early researchers were a little too close to the canopy, but all survived.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is managed by the Belize Audubon Society based in Belize City, 16 N. Park St. 501-223-4988. About 56K from Placencia navigating to Cockscomb. Take the Placencia road north and then west, take a right at the round-a-bout heading north on the Southern Highway. When you reach Maya Centre Village, take a left following the sign in the village. You're now 10K to park on a lovely gravel bumpy road to make your journey more interesting. Welcome to the jungle! It's really that easy. Expect brilliant Covid-19 bio-security measures at the Ranger Station and appropriate signage to remind you to wear a mask in public area. When you're on the trails, you're free! I'm a huge advocate for a guided tour because our Licensed Belizean guides are an experience themselves. Knowledge and passion for their craft is always a delight. They know the plants, birds, history, and great spots for local flavors! Never underestimate the value in that ambassador's experience.
One of the other unique aspects of Cockscomb is the constant biological research that goes on there. Bird banding, Jaguars, and plants. The biodiversity is absolutely vast, and Belize Audubon has forged excellent partnerships with Universities and Institutions globally. In your backpack, make sure you pack a little insect repellent, good hiking shoes, a water bottle, a first-aid kit, munchies, and I always advocate for long sleeves.
So, when you head to Belize and stay on the beach in Placencia or Naia Resort and Spa, make sure you take a walk on the #wildside at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.