Belize has a broad mix of national parks, forest reserves, marine reserves, natural monuments, wildlife sanctuaries, archaeological reserves, and private reserves. All told, more than one-fifth of the country's landmass and much of its offshore waters are, to some extent, protected areas. In fact, the entire Belize Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
Most of the national parks charge a BZ$10 per-person per-day fee for any foreigner, although some have begun charging slightly more and a few slightly less. Belizeans and foreign residents often pay less. At parks where camping is allowed, an additional charge of around BZ$4 per person per day is usually charged. Fees at private reserves vary, but are similar to those listed above.
The following section is not a complete listing of all of Belize's national parks, protected areas, and private reserves, but rather a selective list of those parks that are of greatest interest and accessibility. They're the most popular, but they're also among the best.
Northern Cayes & Atolls
Bacalar Chico National Park & Marine Reserve -- This is one of the newest additions to Belize's national park system. In addition to being home to scores of bird, animal, and plant species (many of which are endemic), the park also features several ancient Mayan ceremonial and trading sites. Nearly 200 species of birds have been spotted here, and the park allegedly contains all five wildcat species found in Belize, including the jaguar. The park is only accessible by boat, but once you get here, there are several trails. Location: On the far northern end of Ambergris Caye.
Half Moon Caye National Monument -- This is a combined land and marine reserve. Half Moon Caye itself is the principal nesting ground for the red-footed booby, as well as for both hawksbill and loggerhead turtles. There is a visitor center here, and overnight camping is permitted with prior arrangement. Location: On the southern tip of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve -- Hol chan is a Mayan term meaning "little channel," which is exactly what you'll find here -- a narrow channel cutting through the shallow coral reef. The reserve covers 7.8 sq. km (3 sq. miles) and is divided into three zones: the reef, the sea-grass beds, and the mangroves. The walls of the channel are popular with divers, and the shallower areas are frequented by snorkelers. Some of the exciting residents of the area are large green moray eels, stingrays, and nurse sharks (harmless). Location: 6.4km (4 miles) southeast of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary -- The world's first jaguar reserve, this place covers nearly 389 sq. km (150 sq. miles) of rugged, forested mountains and has the greatest density of jaguars on the planet. Other resident mammals include tapirs, otters, coati-mundis, tayra, kinkajous, deer, peccaries, anteaters, armadillos, and four other species of wild cats, as well as nearly 300 species of birds. The sanctuary is part of the even larger Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve. Trails inside the park range from gentle and short to quite arduous and long. During the dry season, you can even climb Victoria Peak here, which, at 1,122m (3,681 ft.), is the country's highest mountain. Location: 10km (6 miles) west of the Southern Highway, at a turnoff 32km (20 miles) south of Dangriga.
Five Blues Lake National Park -- The main attraction here is a stunning cenote, whose various hues of blue give the park its name. All around the park lie forested lands and beautiful karst hill formations. Location: Mile Marker 32 on the Hummingbird Highway.
Glover's Reef Atoll Marine Reserve -- This stunning and isolated mid-ocean coral formation features an oval-shaped central lagoon nearly 35km (22 miles) long. The steep-walled reefs here offer some of the best wall diving anywhere in the Caribbean. The entire atoll was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Location: 121km (75 miles) southeast of Belize City; 45km (28 miles) east of Dangriga.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary -- This swampy lowland is home to over 250 resident species of birds and serves as a resting spot for scores of migratory species. During a visit here, you are sure to spot any number of interesting water birds. However, the sanctuary was established primarily to protect Belize's main nesting site of the endangered jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere. Crocodiles, iguanas, coati-mundi, and howler monkeys are all frequently sighted. There are six major lagoons here connected by a series of creeks, rivers, and wetlands. The best way to explore the preserve is by dugout canoe. Location: 53km (33 miles) northwest of Belize City.
Rio Bravo Conservation Area -- This 105,218-hectare (260,000-acre) tract is a mix of virgin forest, sustainable-yield managed forest, and recovering reforestation areas. The land is home to nearly 400 bird species and over 200 species of tropical trees. It also supports a healthy population of most of the new-world cat species, and is one of the best areas in the Americas for spotting a jaguar, even better than Cockscomb Basin. La Milpa, one of Belize's largest known Mayan sites, is located within this reserve, and Río Bravo is bordered by some 101,171 hectares (250,000 acres) of private reserve at Chan Chich, as well as the Kalakmul Reserve in Mexico and the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, making it part of a massive regional biological and archaeological protected area. Location: 89km (55 miles) southwest of Orange Walk Town.
Shipstern Nature Reserve -- The 8,903 hectares (22,000 acres) of this reserve protect a variety of distinct ecosystems and a wealth of flora and fauna. Shipstern Nature Reserve is home to over 250 bird species, and its mangroves, lagoons, and flat wetlands offer some of the best bird-watching sites in Belize. The lagoons and wetlands here are home to manatees and Morelet's crocodiles. The reserve also has lowland tropical dry forest unique to Belize, as well as a butterfly-breeding project. Location: 60km (37 miles) north of Orange Walk Town.
The Cayo District & Western Belize
Blue Hole National Park -- This park gets its name from a crystal-clear pool, or cenote, formed in a collapsed cavern. A short, well-marked trail leads to the main attraction here. Dense jungle surrounds a small natural pool of deep turquoise. This park also features St. Herman's Cave, one of the largest and -- at one time -- most easily accessible caves in Belize. The trail that connects the cenote and the cave passes through lush and beautiful primary and secondary tropical forests that are rich in flora and fauna. Location: 19km (12 miles) south of Belmopan on the Hummingbird Highway.
Caracol Archaeological Reserve -- Caracol is the largest known Mayan archaeological site in Belize, and one of the great Mayan city-states of the Classic era. So far three main plazas with numerous structures and two ball courts have been excavated. Caracol is located deep within the Chiquibil Forest Reserve, which is a largely undeveloped tract of primary and secondary tropical rain and pine forests. The bird-watching here is excellent. Location: 80km (50 miles) from the George Price Highway at a turnoff just south of San Ignacio.
Guanacaste National Park -- This 20-hectare (50-acre) park is named for a huge old guanacaste, or tubroos, tree that is found within the park. There are nearly 3.2km (2 miles) of well-marked and well-maintained trails in the park. The park is bordered on the west by Roaring Creek and on the north by the Belize River. Among the animals you might see are more than 120 species of birds, large iguanas, armadillos, kinkajous, deer, agoutis (large rodents that are a favorite game meat in Belize), and jaguarundis (small jungle cats). Location: 3.2km (2 miles) north of Belmopan, where the Hummingbird Highway turns off the George Price Highway.
Monkey Bay -- The combined Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Bay Nature Reserve represent over 1,344 hectares (3,320 acres) of private, protected reserve of forest and wetlands. Over 250 species of birds have been recorded here so far, and the number is growing. There are hiking trails, as well as canoe tours on the Sibun River. Location: 50km (31 miles) west of Belize City, just off the George Price Highway.
Tikal National Park -- While it's obviously not in Belize, the close proximity and convenient access have earned this spectacular Guatemalan national park and ancient Mayan ceremonial city a place on this list and in this guide. Surrounded by dense, virgin tropical rainforest, the Tikal ruins are perhaps the most spectacularly preserved and restored Mayan ruins yet uncovered. Location: 100km (62 miles) northwest of the Belize border; 64km (40 miles) north of Flores.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.