The Belize district is located on the central-eastern seaboard of the country and has some 90,000 inhabitants spread out throughout 1,624 square miles. The majority of the people in this district, estimated at 62,000, live in Belize City. The district encompasses the tourist islands of Ambergris Cay and Caye Caulker. It also includes some of the oldest settlements in the country, such as Flowers Bank, Burrel Boom, Freetown Sibun, Maskall and Big Falls. The Belize district was the first area settled by British colonizers who used its extensive network of creeks and rivers – the Belize, Sibun, and Manatee rivers – for transporting logs. The Belize District that surrounds Belize City, is the heart of Creole culture and some of its villages reflect this: Burrell Boom, Isabella Bank, Rancho Dolores and Lemonal are some of the distinctive communities that exist in the heart of the Belize River Valley. Gales Point Manatee, the district’s southernmost village, still retains some of the typical Afro-Belizean cultural practices like Sambai dancing, Anancy story telling under huge mahogany trees, and bramming. Belize City itself originated as a logging camp and export center for mahogany in the 1600’s. Naturally, because it is the country’s largest urban area, one finds all cultural types and mixtures in the city – Creole, Garifuna, Latinos, Chinese, Lebanese, Hindu and the original East Indian descendants and Maya. Here are some of the attractions of this district.
The Belize Zoo
The Belize Zoo, located in the Belize District about 30 miles west of Belize City was founded in 1983 by Sharon Matola, who had been hired to manage a menagerie of local animals collected for wildlife filmmaker Richard Foster who had come to Belize to make nature films for Partridge Films and the BBC. After shooting the award-winning Amate, The Great Fig Tree, the filmmaker lost his funding, and the animals were suddenly out of a “job” with nowhere to go. Because they had lived for some time in captivity, they were ill equipped to survive in the wild. Matola, who had grown to love the wild cats, peccaries and other animals, began what has now become the much visited Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center.
She began by putting up signs in front of the cages and publicizing the zoo and asking for donations to feed the animals. She also began visiting schools to show slides of the animals and issue invitations for teachers to bring the children on field trips to the zoo at no charge. The Belizean public responded with interest and a zoo was born!
The Belize Zoo is unlike any other zoo you may have seen. Each species of animal (there are over 100 animals resident at the zoo) lives in a lush jungle habitat. In front of each habitat area is a hand-lettered and painted sign with a message from the resident animal describing the animal and reminding the visitor of the need to protect its existence in the wild.
The zoo is a favorite tourist destination, but its primary constituency is the children of Belize, several hundred of whom visit daily free of charge. All visitors receive personal guided tours from the well-trained, enthusiastic staff. The zoo’s public education program includes slide shows, children’s books and a lecture series, all aimed at developing public support for wildlife conservation. The zoo has developed a captive breeding program aimed an ensuring the continuation of its healthy animal population, which is frequently augmented by donations of animals who used to be someone’s pet. Some animals are being bred with the intention of releasing the offspring into the wild.
In the early days of the Zoo, April the Tapir became a well-known and beloved resident whose birthday was yearly celebrated by hundreds of schoolchildren at the Zoo. The tapir is Belize’s national animal – of the four species of tapir in the world, the one found in Belize is Baird’s Tapir, often called the mountain cow. Also popular with both Belizeans and tourists are the various wild cats (jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis).
In 1993, after several years of planning, fund-raising, and building, the zoo moved to its new location 1,000-acre site constructed with a master plan donated by an architectural firm in Seattle, Washington. The zoo has an adjacent picnic area, an outdoor amphitheater, a library, a gift shop and the adjacent Tropical Education Center, with nature trails, a library, a guest dormitory, presentation rooms and an office.
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
The Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is located off the Western Highway a mile and a half past the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center turnoff. It is a privately owned 1,070 acre reserve. Its ecosystems include pine and palm savanna, tropical forest, freshwater wetlands and lagoons. Monkey Bay is a haven for bird-watchers (over 250 species of birds have been sighted, including toucans, parrots, storks and the redstart warbler) and jaguar, puma, deer, peccary, coatimundi, crocodile and iguana have also been sighted within the reserve.
The reserve is financially supported by conservation organizations in Belize, the United States and Japan. Their projects include an environmental outreach program for Belizean schoolchildren, an archeological excavation along the Sibun River, and the planting of native fruits and hardwood seedlings. There is a field research station for visiting scientists.
There are two miles of river frontage, including a secluded beach for swimming, picnicking and launching canoes. Admission to the sanctuary is free; campsites can be arranged by writing to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, P.O. Box 187, Belmopan.
Altun Ha Maya Ruin
Altun Ha is 31 miles north of Belize City; via a right-hand turnoff from the Western Highway at 18.9 miles. Altun Ha is one of Belize most well-known ruin sites; excavation has been going on since 1957. There are rest rooms and picnic areas for visitors, who are charged a small entry fee to the site. The site covers approximately 25 square miles, most of which is jungle, and is a good place for birdwatchers, who can venture onto several jungle trails branching out from main plaza. Picture: Altun Ha Maya ruin.
There are thirteen structures surrounding the two main plazas; archeologists have uncovered 250 structures to date. The Sun God Temple is the tallest building, rising 59 feet above the plaza floor. Archeologists found over 300 jade jewelry pieces at the site, much of which was found in the Temple of the Green Tomb. Near the right hand of the man buried there – who must have been someone of great importance – was found a solid jade head weighing nine pounds and six inches in height. This treasure, which is the largest jade carving found at any Mayan site, is on display at the Museum of Belize.
Researchers working with a community of Mayan families who have been living near Altun Ha for several centuries estimate that the city was constructed 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. A trail from the ruins leads to what was once a large reservoir, created when Mayan engineers re-routed a small creek and dug and plastered a deep hole. Archeologists have determined that the city was destroyed and rebuilt several times, but are unable to determine whether its eventual abandonment was the result of a decrease in the available water supply, a war, or a peasant revolt against the religious-political-military hierarchy.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is 33 miles northeast of Belize City, via a left-hand turnoff at the sign located at mile 31.2 on the Northern Highway. Crooked Tree, a world-class birdwatcher destination, was established in 1984 with funding from several environmental organizations, and is maintained by the Belize Audubon Society, which gratefully accepts contributions from nature lovers worldwide. The sanctuary is six miles long and three miles wide, and is actually an island connected to the mainland by a mile-long causeway. It’s made up of a network of inland lagoons, swamps and waterways, some of which can be traversed by boats (during Belize’s logging days, the waterways were used to float logs out to sea for shipment overseas).
Crooked Tree is home to hundreds of bird species, including the snowy egret, great egret, snail kite, black bellied whistling and Muscovy duck, kingfisher, osprey, black-collared hawk, white ibis, American coot, northern jacana, green-backed heron, green-winged teal, roseate spoonbills, olivaceous cormorants, and Yucatan jay. The sanctuary is also a nesting place for the extremely rare Jabiru stork. Black howler monkeys, coatimundi, iguana, Morelet crocodiles and several species of turtles reside in the sanctuary. An occasional jaguar has even been spotted.
Guided tours can be arranged by your hotel, most local travel agents or by contacting the Belize Audubon Society office in Belize City, at 29 Regent Street; the telephone number is +501-227-7369. They can direct you to hired boats and guides to take you to the lagoon area. Ask your guide to periodically kill the engine and allow the boat to float quietly. Crooked Tree Village, with a population of approximately 800, is an island community of small farmers and fishermen. Cashew farming is an industry for the community; and a Cashew Festival is held in early May each year.
The festival offers music, dances, arts, crafts, and food, with an emphasis on gourmet cashew creations such as cashew jellies and wine. Inexpensive bed-and-breakfast accommodations are available in the homes of village residents; these can be arranged through the Belize Audubon Society as well. A few small medium-priced resorts have been built near the sanctuary, including Crooked Tree Resort and Crooked Tree Bird’s Eye View Resort.