The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is Belize's most famous sanctuary; at 200 sq miles, it's also one of its biggest protected areas. On some maps the place appears simply as 'jaguar reserve,' but despite the moniker, your chances of seeing a jaguar here are slight at best. This great swath of tropical forest became the world's first jaguar sanctuary in 1984, thanks to the efforts of American zoologist Alan Rabinowitz. Today, this critical biological corridor is home to an estimated 40 to 50 jaguars and a vast array of other animal, bird and botanical life.
The sanctuary is part of the eastern Maya Mountain range. Most visits are restricted to a small eastern pocket of the sanctuary, which contains a visitors center, the sanctuary's accommodations and a network of excellent walking trails. The visitor sighting book does record instances of people spotting jaguars, so it is possible. What you can hope to spot are plenty of birds – egrets, toucans and hummingbirds are just a few that live in or pass through the park. You can also expect to see iguanas, local rodents such as gibnuts, and maybe, with a little luck, some jaguar paw prints.
Mornings are the best time for wildlife watching, as most animals seek shelter in the heat of the day. Though many visitors come as part of large (and inevitably noisy) tours arranged through nearby lodges or travel agencies, your best bet for viewing more elusive wildlife is to come alone or in as small and quiet a group as possible. Regardless, the trails are still magnificent.
Despite its size, the sanctuary itself isn't big enough to support a healthy breeding population of jaguars; however, its position adjacent to other reserves and swaths of jungle make it part of a biological corridor that, many believe, offers promise for the jaguar's future in Central America. Belize's four other wild cats, the puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi, also reside in and pass through the sanctuary, as do tapirs, anteaters, armadillos (the jaguar's favorite prey – crunchy on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside), brocket deer, coatimundis, kinkajous, otters, peccaries, tayras and other animals native to the area.
The sanctuary is also home to countless birds: over 290 feathered species have been spotted, including the keel-billed toucan, king vulture, great curassow and scarlet macaw. There's also a thriving community of black howler monkeys living close to the visitors center (these were reintroduced here from the Community Baboon Sanctuary in 1992). If you don't see them near the center, you'll definitely hear their eerie, cacophonous howling should you choose to spend the night. And herpetologists take note: large boa constrictors, small (and deadly poisonous) fer-de-lances and tiny coffee snakes are just some of the snakes that call the sanctuary home.