Belize’s sparse human population and its history of relatively low-key human impact have yielded a vast diversity of animal and plant species.

The country has an admirable conservation agenda, pursued by governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) since Belizean independence in 1981. This has led to the nation becoming a top destination for anyone interested in the marine life of the coral reefs, the vegetation and animal life of the forests, or the hundreds of bird species that soar, flutter and swoop through the skies

Here are the best places to watch wildlife and spot birds in Belize:

Community Baboon Sanctuary

No real baboons inhabit Belize; but Belizeans use that name for black howler monkeys, an endangered species that exists only in Belize, northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is an amazing community-run, grassroots conservation operation (run by local women’s organizations) that has engineered an impressive increase in the primate’s local population.

CBS occupies about 20 sq miles, spread over several Creole villages in the Belize River valley. More than 200 landowners in seven villages have signed pledges to preserve the monkey’s habitat, by protecting forested areas along the river and in corridors that run along the borders of their property. The black howlers have made an amazing comeback in the area, and the monkeys now roam freely all around the surrounding area.

The CBS Museum & Visitor’s Center has a number of good exhibits and displays on the black howler, the history of the sanctuary, and other Belizean wildlife. Included with the admission fee is a one-hour guided nature walk on which you’re likely to get an up-close introduction to a resident troop of black howlers. Along the way the trained local guides also impart their knowledge of the many medicinal plants. Alternatively, the Visitor’s Center also offers night hikes, canoe trips and croc-spotting tours. There are also nearly 200 bird species here to keep wildlife watchers busy. The center can also connect you with local homestays providing both food and lodging.

Río Bravo Conservation & Management Area

If you’re looking for true, wild tropical rainforest, this is it. Encompassing 406 sq miles in northwest Belize, the Río Bravo Conservation & Management Area (RBCMA) takes up 4% of Belize’s total land area and is managed by the Belizean nonprofit organization Programme for Belize. The RBCMA harbors astonishing biological diversity – 392 bird species (more than two-thirds of Belize’s total), 200 tree species, 70 mammal species, including all five of Belize’s cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay). Río Bravo is said to have the largest concentration of jaguars in all of Central America.

Parts of the territory of the RBCMA were logged for mahogany and other woods from the 18th century until the 1980s, but distance and inaccessibility helped to ensure the survival of the forest as a whole. The area also contains at least 60 Maya sites, including La Milpa, the third-largest site in Belize.

At the RBCMA the PFB seeks to link conservation with the development of sustainable land uses. Programs include tree nurseries, extraction of nontimber products such as chicle, thatch and palm, experimental operations in sustainable timber extraction, and ecotourism.

Shipstern Nature Reserve

This large nature reserve, which protects 43 sq miles of semideciduous hardwood forests, wetlands and 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.

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. The Belizean nonprofit organization Shipstern Nature Reserve Belize is funded by the Swiss- and Dutch-based International Tropical Conservation Foundation .

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 (accessible only in the dry season).

Of course, the best way to see the lagoon and its birdlife is by taking a boat tour, which costs BZ$225 for up to four people (including lunch). As always, you’ll see most in the early morning, so tours usually set out before sunrise.

About 40 minutes 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$100 for up to four people. Rangers also take adventurers on overnight expeditions to Xo-Pol for BZ$250.

Any guesthouse in Sarteneja can help you arrange these longer tours. Don’t forget your long sleeves, pants and bug spray!

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

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.

Gales Point Manatee

The Creole village of Gales Point Manatee sits on a narrow peninsula that juts out about 2 miles into the Southern Lagoon, one of a series of interconnected lakes and waterways between Belize City and Dangriga. The village was initially founded around 1800 by runaway slaves from Belize City escaping south into jungle and lagoon country. A more beautiful spot you’d be hard pressed to find; to the west, jungle-clad limestone hills rise above the plains that end on the shores of the Southern Lagoon; to the east, also across the lagoon, sits the narrow stretch of forest and mangrove swamp that separates the lagoon from the Caribbean Sea.

Since 2008, however, Gales Point has been hit by a series of hardships: hurricanes, an economic downturn, and a complete loss of regular bus services has turned this once-vibrant village into something of a ghost town.

So why come? For the spectacular beauty and superlative wildlife attractions. Gales Point is home to the highest concentration of West Indian manatees in the Caribbean, and the nearby beaches are the primary breeding ground for hawksbill turtles in Belize. The 14-sq-mile Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary (which covers the Southern and adjoining lagoons) offers some of the most amazing bird-watching opportunities in the country.

Getting lost in Gales Point Manatee would be difficult – the town’s only street runs about 2.5 miles north from the Coastal Rd to the tip of the peninsula, and if you walk too far either east or west you’ll be wading in the lagoon. Once you hit town from the south (the only way you can hit town barring an amphibious landing), you’ll pass by the police station, Ionie’s B&B and Gentle’s Cool Spot. Saunter further up the road and you’ll wind up at Manatee Lodge at the end of the peninsula.

Source: Lonely Planet