Shipstern Conservation & Management Area

Northern Belize

Run by a nonprofit organization, this large nature reserve, which protects 43 sq miles of semideciduous hardwood forests, wetlands, lagoons and coastal mangrove belts, has its headquarters 3.5 miles southwest of Sarteneja on the road to Orange Walk. Lying in a transition zone between Central America's tropical forests and a drier Yucatán-type ecosystem, the reserve's mosaic of habitats is rare in Belize. You can also stay overnight here.

All five of Belize's wildcats and scores of other mammals can be found here, and its 250 bird species include ospreys, roseate spoonbills, white ibis and a colony of 300 pairs of American woodstorks, one of this bird's few breeding colonies in Belize.

Admission allows access to both a small museum and butterfly house at the headquarters, as well as a short botanical trail that leads to an observation tower over the treetops. There are several other longer hiking trails, including Thompson Trail, which goes to the shore of the lagoon and along which you may spot agouti and peccari in addition to plenty of bird species. It's accessible only in the dry season.

Of course, the best way to see the lagoon and its birdlife is by taking a full-day boat tour, which costs BZ$450 for up to three people (including lunch).

About a 40-minute drive from the headquarters, Xo-Pol has a treetop hide overlooking a large forest-surrounded pond where you might see crocodiles, waterfowl, peccaries, deer and tapirs. Half-day birding tours are BZ$70 per visitor. Rangers also take adventurers on overnight expeditions to Xo-Pol for BZ$250.

Another interesting tour is the 'Ranger Experience' where visitors tag along and accompany the reserve rangers on their daily rounds, assisting in patrols and research tasks.

Call ahead to check on conditions and book tours. Don't forget your long sleeves, pants and bug spray!