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Photo: ambertq

Megan Wood picks up some intel at the world’s only jaguar preserve.

[Editor's Note: Megan Wood is the first writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. Megan is spending the spring in Belize, documenting traditions of the country's diverse cultural groups. Each week, she reports on her experiences for Matador, her personal blog, and for other outlets.]

I’M WALKING THE TRAILS of Cockscomb National Park, dense rainforest to the right, a river with crocodiles to the left. My guide, Sam, tells me the trail we’re on is often used by jaguars as an easy path through the forest. He points to a paw print in the mud to confirm the presence of the big cats.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s very unlikely you’ll be killed by a jaguar today.”

“Sure,” I reply, “just a little mauling.”

Belize’s Cockscomb is the only jaguar preserve in the world, 150 square miles of protected rainforest that shelters 200 of the endangered animals. Other species benefit from the preserve as well, including tapir, peccary, toucans, and howler monkeys.

“How about a hike to Victoria Peak?” Sam asks, clearly teasing. Victoria is the highest point in Belize and requires a permit and a four-day trek under the best conditions.

“Let’s just look for jaguars,” I say. “What’s the best way to spot one?”

Here are Sam’s tips. Next time I’ll follow them, and hopefully spot a jaguar from a safe distance.

Photo: Author

1. Go at night

Since jaguars hunt nocturnally, they obviously sleep during the day. Some visitors have been lucky enough to see one in the early morning, but the safest bet is to stay up and wait.

Cockscomb has camping facilities and cabins for rent specifically for visitors to watch for cats at night.

2. Bring an umbrella and a guide

The rainy season in June and July is when the cats are most active. Go with a licensed guide who can track the cats’ prints and droppings. Park rangers have set up cameras throughout the rainforest to record and observe the jaguars’ behavior. They know what to look for.

Guides are available both in Belmopan and Placencia. I arranged my visit with Sam through Splash Dive Center in Placencia. Another option is Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch outside of Belmopan, with guides that are also trained as medics.

3. Be quiet

This one is hard. Sitting still, in the dark, in the rain, at night looking for jaguars, I would want to talk to my guide just to stay awake. But jaguars are known for their stealth and any foreign noise or scent will scare them away.

4. Pray

Maybe a little prayer to the ancient Mayan Jaguar God of the underworld, Xbalanque, will send some cats your way.

Photo: ambertq

Other activities

Though I didn’t see any jaguars (secretly, I was relieved; I’ve had plenty of run-ins with Belize’s wildlife: barracudas, a viper, scorpions), I did enjoy an entire day at the park walking the trails, which are clearly marked, mapped out, and posted.

My favorite was the waterfall trail, a rugged hike up a hill that ended under a waterfall with a swimming hole.

Birders can try spotting some of the 290 species that live in the park. During the wet season, tubing in the river is also a popular option.

On my way back to Placencia, I had time to check out the Mayan Women’s Center for Crafts at the entrance of the park, with absolutely no fear of being mauled.

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Parks + Wilderness


About The Author

Megan Wood

Megan Wood is a freelance travel writer and full-time free spirit. She has visited five continents and is currently writing a travel memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. Read her blog, My Bohemian Life, for her thoughts on travel, culture, and living without fear.

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  • Madison

    Jaguar hunting? Sounds like a good time, yet at the same time nerve wrecking. Even though you didn’t get to spot one, you still got to go to the waterfall. You are living the dream and I’m am very jealous!

  • Abbie

    I would love to go to a jaguar preserve someday – love the stories you are coming out with!

  • Mary

    I went to the Belize Zoo a couple of summer’s ago and you could go into a cage and feed a jaguar. My husband and I went in and I got to let the jaguar lick my face through the cage. It was really cool! Huuuuge big cat fan, so I would totally be down with stalking Jaguars!

  • Raquel

    My family is from Belize and I lived there for a while, city girl who never experienced this kind of wildlife. One memory I hd from childhood was a large group of flamingos passing over our heads while we played outside. I saw that once decades ago. I have also seen occasionally toucans and large parrots as a child and normal everyday lizards, fire ants etc.. One thing I would like to see is people who travel and write about Belize and it’s culture is for them to go in the inner city take pictures of real everyday living.

    • Hal Amen

      Thanks for your comment, Raquel. Definitely check out Megan’s blog: She’s reporting pretty much daily from Belize. Maybe you could put in a request for some inner city coverage. :)


    Thanks for sharing these important tips…I will share it with my friends !

  • Cherie Chenot-Rose

    Hi Megan,
    If you would like to learn more about Belize’s crocodiles and assist with crocodile conservation efforts on Ambergris Caye, please feel free to email me at ACES/ American Crocodile Education Sanctuary is currently conducting an American crocodile population and habitat viability survey via eye-shine and tag-release survey methods.
    Glad you’re enjoying this beautiful, bio-diverse country!
    Research Biologist

  • Lcmattingly

    This is very useful information – thank you so much!  I am thinking of planning a trip to Belize and all the advice you can give is really helpful.  Thank you, and keep writing!

  • Douglas Trent

     World’s only jaguar reserve?  I started the Focus Conservation Fund and we paid a jaguar hunter in Brazil to officially preserve his land and he created the RPPN Jaguar Ecological Reserve.  I am researching jaguars in conjunction with Brazil’s national parks dept., Instituto Chico Mendes and have documented 39 jaguars with my photography and will try to attach an image.  These cats are diurnal.  Contact me if you want more information…Douglas Trent at or http://www.focustours. com.   

  • John Pascoe

    You can also find guides in Hopkins (a beach resort that is the closest tourist area to the park), and in the park itself – many of the park’s workers live in the nearby villages, and can be contacted at the main village of Maya Centre (which is where most of the park’s accommodations are).

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