For intrepid forest lovers, this is the place to head. Columbia is rugged and remote and spreads over the southern and most tropical comer of the Maya Mountains. It's been the focus of several recent expeditions, each of which has revealed new species never before recorded in Belize, and some new to science. It's the ultimate forest experience in Belize. The hot wet weather super-charges plant growth, and Toledo has also been unscathed by hurricanes for longer than anywhere else in the country. Once you're in the forest, there is so much wildlife, there really is little point in even beginning to list what can be seen. You haven't seen Belize until you've seen Toledo.

The ring of Mayan farming villages to the south of the reserve are the jumping-off point for the intrepid to explore the area, offering a completely different cultural setting for getting into the forest. Until later this year (1996) the reserve can be reached only by foot though. It is a tough walk of about four hours from San Jose, or slightly less from San Pedro Columbia and San Miguel, and less again from Na Luum 'Ca and Crique Jute. The only existing trails into the reserve are logging tracks, along which it is relatively easy to walk. Road access is however being improved, with a more permanent logging track being put in to the reserve as the result of a recent logging license (according to the Forest Department, the logging won't affect the most environmentally sensitive parts of the reserve, and it is the most serious attempt at introducing sustainable hardwood extraction in Belize for decades). The track will enter the reserve to the north of San Miguel. Buses run to and from the above-mentioned villages four times a week from Punta Gorda. You can hitch (offer the driver a small contribution if you do), from the point where the San Antonio road begins, at the part where the Southern Highway takes a 90 degree turn towards the coast, at the Shell station. San Pedro is two miles down the first road on the right, which begins one and a half miles from the Highway. San Jose is 15 miles from the junction. Tours by vehicle can be arranged by hotels in Punta Gorda or by the Fallen Stones Hotel and Butterfly Ranch near San Pedro Columbia.

Map of how to get there

The best time is in January, February and March when it is not too hot. Remember Toledo is the wettest part of Belize.

There is accommodation in the village guest houses and home stays (basic). It's always good to call ahead (to the community phone number in the phone book) to arrange your stay a day or two in advance. San Pedro Columbia has slightly more options, and there is also luxury accommodation in the area (The Fallen Stones Hotel and Butterfly Ranch has the best forest view in the whole country).

The site was designated in June 1954 (SI 33), with an area of 110720 acres. In May 1977, it was reduced to 102965 acres (SI 40), the excision including mahogany taungya plantations established over 1955-63). In 1968, part of the area was defined as a Nature Reserve, but this was abandoned in 1978, and does not appear to have been formally designated. Reflecting the realities of encroachment, a revised reserve boundary has been written up under the auspices of FPMP, and a draft SI prepared. It has not however, been gazetted, although its new borders were cut and demarcated in 1994.

There are 2 main sources of mapping error with this reserve:
  • Its northern boundary is defined in its SI as the Maya Mountain Divide, but particularly at its western end, this is not a clearly defined sharp ridge, but a plateau. The boundary definition used by Bird (1994) is a reinstatement of the correct and earlier version, and does not match that sometimes used by other sources in the interim. The correct alignment includes the Rio Machiquita Creek drainage.
  • The last legally gazetted area is out of date. Along the reserve's southern limit, a new boundary has been demarcated in 1994, excluding areas of significant permanent encroachment. The new boundary has not been incorporated into a re-designation. of the Forest Reserve, so its legally gazetted acreage exceeds its actual newly defined on-the-ground limits.

    The area estimated in the current SI is 102965 acres. When calculated on GIS, the area derived is 102940 acres. The area calculated on GIS of the proposed new boundary gives an area of 97894 acres.

    According to the reserve's original SI designation was 'to preserve valuable mahogany forest from clearing for cultivation and to secure land for Government re-afforestation with mahogany and other species'. Contemporary justification is its potential for sustained hardwood production, its high biodiversity, and its importance for watershed protection.

    Broadleaf forest, montane forest, pine savanna and secondary broadleaf forest.

    Mainly Subtropical Lower Montane Wet, with some Subtropical Lower Montane Moist to the west and Subtropical Wet to the east.

    A sequence of ecological studies has recently been undertaken, largely in response to the threat of agricultural incursion and renewed timber exploitation. In the report of an early study, Matola summarizes pioneering exploration and exploitation of the area, and makes the first Belizean recording of the Common Woodnymph. Information of common plant species is given, with species lists for birds, amphibians, and reptiles, plus incidental notes on mammal observations. Speculation on the conservation and ecological significance is made in reference to the markedly different vegetation communities of the Little Quartz Ridge. Significant additions from Meyer et al. (1993a) are reports on two frog species new to science, of the genus Eleuthrodactylus. Brief notes are also provided on other amphibians, reptiles, birds mammal , fish and invertebrates encountered during a four day survey of the Praco Ha Creek area. Further work, resulting from a second 4 day expedition, examined Tzimin Che Ha Creek (Mountain Cow Creek) and Chaque Ha Creek (Wood-quail Creek) areas. Common tree species are listed with further notes on the un-described Eleutherodactylus frog, other amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, fish crustaceans and molluscs. Findings from a 2 week study by Parker et al. (1993) provide seminal additional information, including numerous new Belizean records for plant, bird and amphibian groups. The collection of over 400 plant specimens produced a large number of new records for the country, with 15 out of 68 fern species collected previously un-recorded for example, reflecting the botanical neglect of the lower montane wet forests of Belize. Botanical data collected from Little Quartz Ridge also tended to support Matola' s assertion of an un-common vegetation community. In regard to birds, Parker tentatively concluded the area was 'unusually rich' , with 224 species recorded, including 232 (over 90%) restricted to evergreen forests in Belize (this did not include a further 8 species recorded by Matola . Other birds included typical wet foothill species and a small contingent of montane species. Overall, at least 15 of the birds identified have restricted ranges and are described as threatened by forest clearance elsewhere in their ranges. An additional 35 considered rare or accidental in Belize by Wood et al., are represented by large populations in the reserve. Of the migrant community, Parker asserts that the reserve 'may support globally significant numbers of Neotropical migrants'. The potential importance of the lower montane forests for the Cerulean Warbler is also noted. No new records of mammals were found, the mammal community being considered typical of lowland forest, albeit somewhat depleted in commonly hunted species. In addition, 2 new frog species previously un-recorded for Belize were identified (Hyla minera and H. bromeliacea) (the first has since been found in Monkey Bay and Bladen Nature Reserve and is therefore probably widespread).

    Monkey Bay Research Facility

    The population of the reserve's fringe is composed almost entirely of Kekchi and Mopan Maya Indians. Sixteen villages are considered as being within daily communication distance, approximating to a 5 mile radius of the management area. All are farming communities.

    The reserve includes a wide variety of landforms. The majority consists of medium to high limestone karst (southern foothills of the Maya Mountains), and is steep and rugged in nature. In common with other similar geological environments in Belize, caves are common and, with numerous sinkholes, surface drainage limited- It also includes Little Quartz Ridge, a unique physiographic feature in Belize, comprised of a fitted fault block of Paleozoic prophorytic rocks, distinctly separate from the Maya Mountains, and with a summit running for 9 miles on a southwest- northeast alignment with an altitude of 870-980 yards.

    Terrain within the reserve vanes from 900-2700ft above sea level . Average rainfall over the area is estimated to be in the region of 100 inches a year, with much higher figures for the parts of the reserve at higher elevation. The Rio Machiquila is the only Belizean stream draining into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Caribbean (this may have implications for aquatic fauna).

    The western portion of the reserve has a well-defined trail which links together abandoned logging camps.

    Many of the caves show evidence of Mayan use, and there is strong evidence that at least one major ceremonial centre lies in the reserve.

    Here are some points of interest in the area:

    The Southern Highway at Elridgeville
    Toledo district in the south of Belize is an area unparalled in beauty. In 2003 the southern highway remained to be fully paved and Toledo was not yet connected to the national electricity grid. Although those infrastructure improvements have now been made, Toledo still remains an emerging destination with all that implies for exciting authentic experiences with diverse traditional people and cultures.

    The older generation in Toledo remember the days when the only way to Belize City was by the coastal ferry which kept the deep south in touch with the outside world. Later the James Bus took eight to twelve hours to bump its way over one hundred and eighty miles of mainly dirt road. When the paving of the Southern Highway was completed in 2009 the last piece was in place. Toledo was finally “part of the rest of Belize” with modern infrastructure and quick and easy access (3.5 hours from Belize city) on some of the best and quietest roads in the country. And these days ten flights a day bring other visitors to Toledo.

    Toledo is Caribbean on the coast and Central American inland. The coastal communities from Barranco in the south to Punta Gorda, Punta Negra and Monkey River Town in the north are either Garifuna or mixed communities with Creole, Hispanic, East Indian and other races. The Garifuna village of Barranco has its own thatched temple (dabuyeba) and the village museum tells the story of the Garifuna in Belize. Inland there are around sixty villages of Mopan and Kek’chi Maya whose civilization dominated this part of Central America until the arrival of the conquistadores.

    Aguacate Village
    The village of Big Falls is located right in the heart of the district. It was founded in the 1920s by Hispanic families from Honduras; Aleman, Palma, Caliz, Martinez and Hernandez who remain in the village today although Kamela Palma is currently Belize ambassador to the United Kingdom and others have also left to make their living elsewhere.

    The rivers Sarstoon in the south, Temash, Moho, Rio Grande, Golden Stream, Deep River and Monkey River all flow from the Maya mountains eastwards into the warm shallow waters of the Gulf of Honduras and towards the Sapodilla Cayes at the southern tip of the Belize barrier reef about thirty-five miles off shore. The Maya mountains are karst limestone with a multitude of caves and underground water systems carrying streams like the Rio Blanco that swirls down into a sink-hole and re-emerges three miles south at Blue Creek (Hokeb Ha) Cave with a new name and colour. Having reached the broad flat coastal plain the rivers, home to important breeding populations of the endangered American Crocodile, meander through the lowland rainforest, itself home to troupes of Black Howler Monkeys and a myriad of exotic tropical birds. Only in March 2011 Wilfred Mutrie, Lee Jones and others positively identified a number of Great Potoo on the Rio Grande just north of Punta Gorda and thus added one more species to Belize’s list of around 575 different birds.

    Belize Parks Home / Bacalar Chico / Bird Sanctuaries / Burdon Canal Nature Reserve / Blue Hole National Park / Great Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef / Chiquibul National Park and Caracol / Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary / Columbia River Forest Reserve / Community Baboon Sanctuary / Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary / Five Blues Lake National Park / Glover's Reef Marine Reserve / Guanacaste National Park / Half Moon Caye Natural Monument / Hol Chan Marine Reserve / Laughing Bird Caye / Marco Gonzales / Mexico Rocks / Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve / Payne's Creek National Park / Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area / Shark Ray Alley / Shipstern Nature Reserve / Turneffe Atoll /

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