The Chiquibul National Park
Belize is best known for its fantastical shoreline, barrier reef, beaches and the high-end resorts located along the oceanfront, but within the interior lie spectacular primeval forests that are not only national treasures but repositories of natural riches that beg to be explored. Located in the Cayo District, the Chiquibul National Park is one of these locations and its immense wealth of animals, trees and plants is just beginning to be fully exposed.
Established in 1995, this 414-square mile park remains as natural and pristine as it was when the Maya people first came to this part of Central America hundreds of years ago. This lush broadleaf forest surrounds Caracol, a Maya stronghold and designated archaeological reserve. Most of this park’s resources have remained untouched since indigenous people abandoned this location following the arrival of Spanish conquerors, thus it remains today one of Belize’s most fascinating studies in biodiversity.
Situated along the Guatemala border and bumping up against the Maya Mountain Range, the park sprawls south along the Vaca Plateau where the highest peak in the country, Doyle’s Delight, is located. Perched atop a layer of limestone, Chiquibul Forest Reserve is also home to a spectacular cave system that has been declared the longest in Central America. Carved over the centuries by water from the Chiquibul River, these caves are the largest known underground passages reported and they’re so extensive, one could travel from Belize to Guatemala using this subterranean route.
Given the park’s relatively isolated location, animals and plants that have called this area home for hundreds of years continue to thrive and reproduce. Among the most fascinating are jaguars, Baird’s tapirs, margays, jaguarundis, ocellated turkeys, ocelots and Yucatan spider monkeys. Varieties of birds include majestic king vultures and the park is the largest scarlet macaw breeding ground in the hemisphere. Further, naturalists continue to find new insect and crustacean species. Because the entirety of the park has yet to be mapped, there’s a chance researchers will add to the already-extensive list of plant species compiled by visiting U.S. botanists in 1993.
The park’s appeal
As the largest national park in Belize, visitors can expect the unexpected if they spend a day or more exploring this vast expanse, much of which has still not been revealed. Visitors, whether on their own or escorted as part of a tour group, can expect to marvel at waterfalls and river pools, hike the Maya Mountains and explore the nooks and crannies that make up the dramatic Caracol archaeological site.
The park’s future
For the moment, Belizeans and tourists alike will find at this epicenter of conservation, a peaceable kingdom that remains exactly as it did when the first Maya community settled this land.