Belize is a narrow strip of land on the Caribbean coast of Central America, located due south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. It covers an area of just under 23,210 sq. km (9,000 sq. miles), about the same size as the state of Massachusetts, and is bordered on the west and south by Guatemala and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. Offshore from mainland Belize are hundreds of tiny islands, known as cayes (pronounced "keys"), which rise from the world's second-longest barrier reef, which extends for more than 298km (185 miles) along the Belizean coast. From the broad, flat coastal plains, Belize rises to form the Maya Mountains, mountain peaks of more than 914m (3,000 ft.) and the source of the many rivers that wind through the country. For centuries these rivers were the principal means of transportation within Belize. Moreover, most of these mountains are limestone karst formations, which has left them coursed with caves, caverns, and underground rivers.

Even though much of Belize's primary forest and tropical hardwoods were harvested throughout the past 3 centuries, population density has always been extremely low, and the forest reclaims ground quickly. Though Belize lacks much true primary tropical rainforest, it does possess large expanses of tropical moist and lowland secondary rainforest, as well as mangrove, swamp, and even highland pine forests. In fact, nearly 65% of Belize is uninhabited, while over 20% of the country and its offshore reefs are considered protected land, private reserve, or marine reserve. The combination of a low level of human population and conscious conservation efforts has been a boon for a wide range of flora and fauna.

Flora & Fauna

At least 618 species of migratory and resident bird species have been identified in Belize, including the massive jabiru stork, the scarlet macaw, and the keel-billed toucan. Belize is also home to the densest concentration of jaguars on the planet. Revered by the ancient Maya and feared by most jungle dwellers, the jaguar is the largest new-world cat, and can reach over 1.8m (6 ft.) in length and weigh over 113 kilograms (250 lb.). The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was created as the world's only jaguar preserve.

In addition to the jaguar, Belizean forests are home to four other wild cats, the puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi, as well as such quintessential jungle dwellers as howler monkeys, green iguanas, and boa constrictors. The tapir is the country's national animal. Also called a mountain cow, the tapir is docile, curious, and entirely vegetarian. Still, these wild creatures stand nearly 1.5m (5 ft.) tall and can weigh over 227 kilograms (500 lb.).

Bird-watchers will want to visit several of Belize's lowland and offshore sanctuaries, including Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, the Shipstern Nature Reserve, Río Bravo Conservation Area, and the Half Moon Caye National Monument.

Off Belize's coast, the barrier reef is a world all its own. Though the cayes are little more than low, flat coral and limestone outcroppings, the myriad of underwater flora and fauna here is truly astounding. Colorful angelfish, parrotfish, and triggerfish feed on the multicolored coral. Giant sponges provide homes and feeding grounds for hundreds of smaller fish and delicate coral shrimp. Under the rocks and caverns dwell lobsters, moray eels, and octopuses. Larger predators like sharks and barracudas cruise the reefs for their plentiful prey, while manta and spotted eagle rays glide gracefully over the sand bottoms and conch thrive in the sea grass. The Gladden Spit area, off the coast from Placencia, is quickly being recognized as one of the world's top spots to snorkel and dive with giant whale sharks, while Belize's three mid-ocean atolls are wonderlands for a wide range of nature-loving adventurers and travelers.

Although it might seem strange to think of it, the cayes also support a unique and endangered forest environment, the littoral forest, as well as rich mangroves. These saltwater-tolerant environments are major breeding and life-support grounds for a broad range of fauna.

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