Belize's Cockscomb Basin: Where the Rivers Run Wild

A map of southern Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve flaunts names such as "Sale Si Puede" ("leave if you can") and "Go To Hell,"—reminders of an unhappier time when the jungle was being denuded by large-scale mahogany and cedar logging. The area was declared a forest reserve in 1984 and is now the hideout of the Americas' largest and most elusive cat, the jaguar, almost hunted to extinction but now making a strong comeback in Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. The jungle's tendrils have reclaimed the timber camps from their former destructive occupants, whose vision of hell has now become a small slice of heaven for the ecological movement.
To put yourself in the thick of Cockscomb's 155-square-mile rainforest canopy, a plentiful supply of Deet, water-resistant boots, and a well-sharpened machete aren't the only tools of choice. Latticed with creeks and tributaries fed by over 100 inches of annual rainfall, Cockscomb's rainforest attractions are more readily accessible by boat than on foot. Converging at either the Swasey River or South Stann Creek, rafters will slice through the sanctuary's towering limestone cliffs on waters that churn with Class IV to V intensity, interspersed with pools and waterfalls perfect for some post-paddle lazing.
Rafting trips in Cockscomb also require some legwork to access riverheads and campsites, an opportunity to get even closer to the exotically festooned jungle inhabitants. Among the louder and more visible wildlife on show is the endangered red-eyed tree frog, the howler monkey, ocelot, puma, tapir, armadillo, and over 290 bird species, including the king vulture. Cockscomb's most famous resident, however, is less likely to make an appearance. Although the jaguar's six-foot, 200-pound frame leaves an indelible physical and metaphorical footprint, the nocturnal feline remains stealthily hidden from the prying eyes of most visitors.
Cockscomb Basin is a mixture of coastal flatland and rugged mountain range, including the 3,675-foot Victoria Peak, Central America's oldest geological formation. (A challenging 17-mile, permit-only hike awaits the visitor with more than paddling on his or her mind.) It's best to avoid the heavy rains between June and October, as many roads will be flooded and inaccessible at this time.

Published: 7 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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