A large part of Belize is covered by dense jungle where wildlife like howler monkeys, parrots, tucans, kinkajous and tapirs roam along with many other different types of animals. However, if you have your hopes set on seeing the mighty jaguar, a visit to Cockscomb Basin Nature Reserve is a must on your list.
Cockscomb Basin is a 250 000 acre jungle wonderland endowed with hiking trails, waterfalls, mountains and a bio-diversity that isn’t surpassed in the Carribean. Besides an environment rich of wildlife, it is the largest jaguar sanctuary in the world with a recorded number of 200 jaguars.
How to reach Cockscomb Basin
The Cockscomb Basin Nature Reserve is situated 30 kilometers south of Dangriga. It can be easily reached via the Southern Highway. The public bus from Dangriga, Placencia or Belmopan takes you as close as the Mayan Center, about 9 kilometers from the entrance of the national park. From the Mayan Center a taxi (20 USD) saves you from a long (and a little boring) road walk to the entrance. The lady in the Mayan Center will call one if you need it. Another option is to rent your own private car.
Best time to visit
The park is accessible all year round, but if you want to increase your chances of seeing wildlife, your best chances are during the rainy season (June to November) when they are more active, while birding is better in December until March.
The best time to spot a jaguar is at dusk or dawn since they are nocturnal. Your best option is to go on a night hike, or start really early in the morning. They are often found in dense forests and swamps with good cover and simple access to water. The animals are livelier on cloudy, cool days.
Where to stay?
Most people visit Cockscomb Basin as a day trip from Dangriga or Placencia, however it’s easy to spend several days here. There is a campsite (10 USD) near the visitors center within the park. At the moment we visited (February 2018), they were constructing alternative lodging (shared dorms) as well, so this might provide an option in the future. Toilets and primitive showers are available. There is a kitchen you can use to cook as well.
Plan Your Visit
The visitors center opening hours: 8:00am-4:30pm (though if you have paid your entrance fee, you can just start hiking earlier.
Nationals: BZ $2.50
Non-nationals: BZ $10.00
Tips for visiting
Despite the fact most people visit the nature reserve as a day trip, we can highly recommend spending at least one night at the campsite. Chances are high you will be alone in the park and it’s the perfect opportunity to do night hikes or get up early to increase your chances of seeing wildlife as most of them are nocturnal. Bring flashlight and insect repellent.
Guides are optional and can be booked at the visitors center. Activities in the park include hiking, camping, tubing or swimming.
Hiking trails in Cockscomb Basin
The main feature about the Jaguar Preserve is its trail network. It is the most extensive of any other National Park in Belize. (Read: What to do in Blue Hole National Park)
River Path / Curassow Trail / Rubber Tree Trail
Distance: 2,5 km
These three sections form a loop that can be hiked, starting at the Visitor’s Center. Though not the most popular trail, it is often done to return from the tubing exit point.
Green Knowledge Trail
Distance: 2,4 km
Great birding trail. Easily combined with Gibnut Trail (adds 2,8 km) or Antelope Trail (adds 7,32 km)
Wari Loop / Victoria Peak Path
Distance: 5,5 km
This is a popular hike starting at the Visitor’s Centre as it makes a loop. Also used to hike to the tubing start point and to lead you to the start of the Victoria Peak trail.
During our stay, jaguar tracks were seen on this trail from the night before. As a park ranger told us, this trail is one of your best chances to see one.
Distance: 2,6 km
Starting at the visitor’s center and easily combined with Green Knowledge Trail (adds 2,4 km) or Antelope Trail (adds 7,32 km). Makes a good option for a night hike as well, as you can return via the access road, where jaguars are often spotted at night.
Distance: 4,4 km
Starts along the access road on the opposite side of the Plane Wreck Trail. If interested in the latter, we would recommend starting at the Visitors Center by hiking Green Knowledge Trail or Gibnut Trail, before continuing on the Tinamou Trail. This one ends at the access road, close to the start of the Plane Wreck Trail.
Plane Wreck Trail
Very short trail starting along the access road. Ideally combined with the Tinamou Trail and Green Knowledge Trail or Gibnut Trail.
The plane wreck is still intact and an impressive sight, making this a very popular hike. The plane crashed shortly after take-off with biologist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz who was studying jaguars on board.
Distance: 7,32 km
One of the longest hiking trails. This makes a good option for hikers who wish to spend some time in the dense jungle without too many other people. Connects with the Green Knowledge Trail leading to the visitor’s center.
Distance: 2,9 km
Probably the most popular trail in the nature reserve as it is one of the most rewarding. The hike leads to a beautiful waterfall. Those who have energy left can continue their hike to Ben’s Bluff.
Ben’s Bluff Trail
Distance: 5,7 km
This is your best choice if you are looking for a scenic overlook over the Nature Reserve. The trail is similar to the Waterfall trail, but climbs higher afterwards. At Ben Bluff, you will be rewarded with views over the jungle and Victoria Peak. One of our favorites.
Tiger Fern Trail
Distance: 6,7 km
Our personal favorite. The Tiger Fern Trail starts along the access road on a short distance of the Visitor’s Center. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid day tourists and maximize the experience. The end point is the Tiger Fern Waterfall, a smaller waterfall, but one that comes with a natural pool you can swim in, so bring your swimsuit!
If you spend one more than one night in Cockscomb Basin, we can recommend staying a night at the campsite along the trail. It hasn’t have any facilities except for a toilet (with a great view!), but it provides one of the most scenic views you will see in Belize!
Distance: 14,7 km
Follows the same path as the Victoria Peak trail and requires a licenced guide as well.
Victoria Peak Trail
Distance: 27 kilometers ( 54 km round-trip) – Recommended to do it in 3-4 days hiking
Climbing Victoria Peak is an adventure few Belizeans or visitors get to experience. It’s 1160m high but the going is mostly through tropical rainforest. Be prepared for very long trails to hike in many days, like a never ending up and down hills, through jungle, high temperatures, high level of humidity, angry insects, snakes, jaguars, wild animals, no huts or facilities and carrying your full backpack.
This trail is only open in dry season and all hikers need a licenced guide.
Why you should visit Cockscomb Basin
The Cockscomb Basin Nature Reserve probably is your best option for spending some time in the dense jungle without the crowds. We recommend to stay at least one night and do a night hike. Though we didn’t see any jaguars (footprints!), it was one of the highlights of our trip. (Check out more adventures in Belize)
Oh, and save your river tubing experience for Cockscomb. It is way cheaper than the commercial tours.
For more information, visit the official website