Back on the mainland, the jagged peaks of the Maya Mountains rise to the west of the Southern Highway. The tallest summits are those of the Cockscomb range, which includes Victoria Peak (1120m), the second highest mountain in Belize. Beneath the ridges is a vast bowl of stunning rainforest, over four hundred square kilometres of which is protected by the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (daily 7.30am–4.30pm; Bz$10) – better known as the Jaguar Reserve. The basin could be home to as many as sixty of Belize’s 800-strong jaguar population, and though you’ll almost certainly come across their tracks, your chances of actually seeing one are very slim, as they are mainly active at night and avoid humans. Over 290 species of bird have also been recorded here, including the endangered scarlet macaw, the great curassow and the king vulture.
The sanctuary is at the end of a rough 10km road that branches off the main highway at the village of Maya Centre, runs through towering forest and fords a couple of streams before crossing the Cabbage Hall Gap and entering the Cockscomb Basin. Here, you’ll find the sanctuary headquarters, where you can pick up maps of the reserve. Beyond the headquarters, a system of very well maintained trails of varying lengths winds through tropical moist forest, crossing streams and leading to a number of picturesque waterfalls and ridges. For those who have the time – and have made the necessary preparations – it’s also possible to take the four- or five-day hike and climb to the summit of Victoria Peak. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, however, you can float down South Stann Creek in an inner tube, available for rent (Bz$5 per day) at the headquarters.