Search for Big Cats in the Jungles of Belize

Venture through the world’s oldest jaguar preserve to Victoria Peak in a vibrant Central American jungle.
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Cockscomb Basin from the summit of Victoria Peak

Cockscomb Basin from the summit of Victoria Peak

Only six miles into the 28-mile, three -day out-and-back to the spiritual high point of Belize, I spot a solitary paw print. Four oval toes above a broad base nearly 5 inches wide—could it really be the sign of a jaguar, so early in the hike? I call out to Leon Seguro, my local guide and sole companion, and with a quick glance he confirms: it’s a jaguar print. My heartbeat spikes. We’re headed into the core of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the best place in the world for spotting jaguars, and this print is a good omen. This protected forest in southeast Belize lies adjacent to Bladen Nature Reserve, which doubles the total protected area to 225,000 acres of perfect habitat for this elusive predator.

Leon and I hold the season’s first permit to climb the country’s most revered mountain: 3,675-foot Victoria Peak, a limestone-capped granite promontory in the Maya Mountains. I’m hoping arriving ahead of the main hiking season will increase my chances of a big cat sighting. According to Leon,“Victoria Peak is a patriotic, national challenge,” and can only be hiked with a certified guide.

We left the trailhead at sunrise for our first day of walking. Striding along a 7.5-mile segment of forest road (the aftermath of logging operations that depleted the mahogany and cedar here between 1930 and 1984), I’m surprised by the cacophony of the jungle; macaws and crickets call from tree to tree as larger, hidden arboreal animals shake the branches unseen. There is no such thing as silence here. Near mile 8, the path abruptly switches to faint singletrack. Giant spiderwebs shimmer between the trees. Beneath my feet leafcutter ants parade across the trail, winding upward over dropped foliage and twisted roots. Five miles of jungle paths later, we reach Dead Man Camp, a wooden shelter beneath a rare skylight in the jungle canopy and our only campsite on this trip. Shedding my pack, I finally catch my breath enough to ask Leon about the park’s famous inhabitants.

“Jaguars are solitary and don’t go after humans,” he says. “We’re not their natural prey.” The one jaguar attack on a human that was ever reported in Belize was by an escaped zoo jaguar, not a wild one. “In six years of guiding I’ve only seen three, and they all sprinted away,” Leon says. Still, I’m hopeful I’ll get lucky. After all, the feline’s primary food source, white-lipped peccary, roams in herds of up to 200 and frequents the area around the Dead Man Camp outhouse.

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On the trail just below the peak

On summit day, we embark on a 7-mile scrambling climb through the tangle of interwoven jungle. Bright purple orchids cling to the slope and hummingbirds and enormous blue morpho butterflies dart from bloom to bloom. One gully requires ropes—Leon rigs them while I wait at the base, a 5-inch butterfly hovering near my shoulder. At last we reach the top, where smaller vegetation replaces the soaring trees and reveals a bird’s-eye panorama of brilliantly green equatorial backcountry. I turn slowly through 360 degrees of mountains, wondering how many unseen jaguars prowl below.

I never end up seeing one, but that’s not so much cause for disappointment as reason to return. And in the meantime, I have a head full of jungle hiking and mist-clung mountains to tide me over.

Do It

 Trailhead Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary office Permits Non-national CBWS/Victoria Peak Entrance Fee ($4.96 per person). Victoria Peak Trail (VPT) camping ($9.93/person per night; two night minimum). Hammock rentals at CBWS office (required for VPT; $9.93/person per night). Season Dry season is February through May. LODGING Trailhead cabins ($20 to $81.75 per person per room per night, with lowest price for a dorm and highest for a private cabin); camping ($10/person per night). Guide Required; $100 per person/three-day trek