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 ligh
| Travel notes|
Though a few cruise lines schedule stops in Belize City, for extended travel in Belize, your best bet is to fly there. Though Belize has no national airline, there are daily scheduled stops from such major hubs as Miami (on American and Taca) and Houston (Continental) , and frequent departures from Dallas (American). While there are no direct flights from Mexico City, Aeromexico operates daily connecting flights from Cancun. There are no visa requirements for U.S. or Canadian citizens, but all foreign visitors must pay a $20 exit tax upon departure.
Where to Stay
Finding a room is no problem in Belizean towns: even in Belize City most options are within 10 minutes’ walk of the main points of arrival. On the whole there’s always accommodation available, though during the peak season, from December to April (and especially at Christmas and Easter), you may have to look a little longer and prices in resort areas may rise even higher; booking ahead by phone or email is easy. Most accommodation is expensive by Central American standards, though fortunately there are budget hotels in all towns except Belmopan and Orange Walk, and the most popular tourist destinations, like Caye Caulker, SanIgnacio and Placencia, have a great deal of choice. If you’ve a lot more money to spend you could try one of the delightful, family-run lodges, most of which are set in a spectacular natural location, with rooms in the house or in private cabañas. Some of these offer bed and breakfast, an increasingly popular style of accommodation.
What to Eat
Belizean food is a distinctive mix of Latin America and the Caribbean, with Creole “rice and beans” dominating the scene, but with plenty of other important influences. Mexican empanadas are as common as pizza, chow mein and hamburgers. In a few places Belizean food is a real treat, with particularly good seafood, but in all too many others it’s a neglected art. The quality of the food in Belize rarely bears much relation to the appearance of the restaurant it’s served in, whether you're eating in a bar, a café or a smart-looking restaurant. Out on the islands and in small seashore villages some restaurants are little more than thatched shelters, with open sides and sand