Viewed from the sea, the jagged peaks of the Cockscomb Range take on the appearance of a colossal recumbent head whose sloping forehead, eyebrows, nose, mouth and chin warrant its epithet of the Sleeping Maya. At 1120 meters, Victoria Peak, the Sleeping Maya’s nose, as it were, is the highest point in the Cockscomb and the second-highest mountain in Belize. It’s no giant by world standards but I’d been promising myself for years that I’d climb it, and now, with the rainy season over, the time had come to begin the arduous two-day trek through the jungle to the mountaintop.
Named when Belize was a colony of British Honduras, Victoria Peak was first climbed in modern times by the governor and his expedition in 1888. Surely though, the ancient Maya, who have inhabited these lands for millennia, had scaled the mountain over a thousand years earlier, perhaps to perform sacrifices at the summit of what to them was a representation of witz, their sacred mountain. Now it’s a protected natural monument overlooking the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a vast and virtually untouched area of over 450 square kilometers of rainforest and fast-flowing, crystal-clear rivers.
The sanctuary is better known by its entirely appropriate nickname Jaguar Reserve, as most visitors have experienced the thrill of seeing fresh paw tracks (though the chances of seeing one of these magnificent cats in the flesh are pretty slim). The area achieved its protected status in 1986, when the Maya, then living in a settlement which became the reserve headquarters, agreed to relocate to the new village of Maya Center on the Southern Highway in an early attempt to demonstrate the benefits of ecotourism. Since then, the long-established craft center run by the village women’s group has been joined by a couple of comfortable budget accommodations and modest restaurants and the men of Maya Center are now considered the best guides in the country—important to know if you’re planning to walk the reserve trails, especially the trail to Victoria Peak.
I had originally intended to hike with only a guide for company, but when I mentioned the trip to friends in Belize, it rapidly became a small, international expedition, with two Englishmen, two Americans and one German. Also along were two Maya companions: Raul, our guide, and Ignacio, the senior reserve warden, as per the Belize Audubon Society’s instructions which stipulate that all hikers hire a guide from Maya Center. The ultimate goal may have been to reach the peak, but our primary mission was to stay ecologically conscious.
To lessen the impact on the environment, the maximum group size, according to most conservation guidelines, is 10 people. We obtained permits and paid a small camping fee, both of which are common requirements for ecotourists. Though there is neither a national nor an international organization that sets universally recognized standards for certifying ecotourism, the Planeta website, by far the best resource for information on environmental issues in Latin America, describes ecotourism as a combination of meaningful community participation, conservation measures and sustainable profitability.
With this in mind, we began our climb in a pre-dawn mist; it’s best to begin each day’s walk at first light when it’s coolest—heat exhaustion is a very real danger. Creeks cross the trail at least every couple of kilometers and the water is generally safe to drink. Simple shelters, built with help from volunteers, are adequate stand-ins for tents, though tents are good guards against biting insects.
The trail begins at the reserve headquarters and follows a relatively level, abandoned logging road through secondary forest for 12 km to the first rest point, where Sittee Branch River provides a chance to cool off. On the river’s far bank is the trail’s first campsite, a sturdy thatched shelter with a kitchen and pit toilets. Beyond