Exploring Belize’s Guanacaste National Park

Guanacaste National Park: An Overlooked Belizean Gem

A busy roundabout serving two of the country’s main highways might seem an odd place for an amazing national park. Like many attractions in Belize, you have to experience it to believe it.

You could blame the weird location on the guanacaste tree after which it was named. When the tree sprouted some 360 years ago, it probably had no idea where the Western Highway and Hummingbird Highway would be. The tree had grown to be more than 25 feet in diameter, and used to host over 35 exotic species, including orchids, bromeliads, ferns, philodendrons, and cacti—as well as birds and a termites’ nest. It was a stopping off point for travelers when rivers were the main means of transport in Belize—the spread of its branches was so large they could spend the night under their protection. However, the tree was cut down for safety reasons. This is particularly sad because it had survived centuries of logging expeditions thanks to its crooked trunk.

The good news, though, is that several other large guanacaste trees remain in the Guanacaste National Park. Guanacaste trees are known for being among the largest in Central America. Guanacaste wood resists decay and insects, so it’s highly prized for making dugout canoes. The canoeing tradition these days includes the Ruta Maya annual canoe race in March, which can be watched from the park as the race proceeds down the Belize River.

If your itinerary includes a lot of time on the cays without a stop at a rain forest lodge, it’s possible to spend your whole holiday in Belize without seeing the forest up close, even though it covers 75% of the country’s land mass.

Guanacaste National park is a perfect opportunity to drive right up and be instantly immersed in foliage. If you’re traveling by public transport, it’s equally accessible as you can have the bus or taxi drop you off right at the entrance to the park.

Step onto some of the two miles of level walking trails and you will be surrounded by towering trees, lush vegetation, and wildlife including agoutis (a guinea pig-like rodent that hops sort of like a rabbit), armadillos, coatis (a member of the raccoon family with a similar long striped tail), deer, iguanas, jaguarundis (a small weasel, like wild cat), kinkajous (another raccoon relative that looks like a monkey), and more than 100 species of birds.

You may hear a thundering noise overhead, followed by a large splash. That would be an iguana, leaping from the trees over your head into the water. You will surely encounter leaf-cutter ants, bustling along in a never-ending stream, bits of leaves larger than they are loaded on their backs.

Although some traffic noise from the highways does penetrate the park, it feels like deep, real rain forest. Take a hike on a day when it’s been raining recently, and you will know beyond a doubt how rain forests affect the world’s climate by retaining moisture. You may feel like you’re hiking through an open-air sauna.

Among the riot of greenery that you will be passing, especially on the water’s edge, are amate fig trees. These fruits are a favorite treat of howler monkeys, four troops of which live in this small park. A key contributor to this monkey-fig ecosystem is the tuba fish, which eats the figs that fall into the water, dispersing the seeds up and down the river to produce more amate fig trees.

Birding is especially good here during the winter, when birds from northern climes come to Belize for winter. One rare species, the blue crowned motmot, is actually resident in this park. It’s a stunning green bird with a turquoise trim on the wings and long tail, black and turquoise stripes on the head, and a rosy underbelly.

Located at the junction of Roaring Creek and the Belize River, this park is a great place to cool off mid-journey, whether your destination is Cayo (an hour away) or Placencia or Hopkins (two hours). A loop trail includes a spur to a swimming deck, where you can cool off in Roaring Creek just before it joins the Belize River.

From there, you can continue on the loop trail (after retracing your steps on the small spur leading to the swimming dock) and stop at the birding deck, or simply retrace your steps back to the parking lot. The park offers covered picnic tables and a visitors’ center. Hiking the loop trail, minus time for a swim or a pause at the birding deck overlooking Roaring Creek, takes about 20 minutes.

This whole trek takes place in the corner of the park nearest the highways. Longer hikes, up to 45 minutes, are available beyond the visitors’ center. Three of the park’s four troops of howler monkeys live in this more remote corner of the park.

The visitors’ center is a homespun place, along the lines of a junior high school science fair. Slick it’s not. But the rangers are sincere and heartfelt, as are the exhibits that demonstrate what’s going on above and underground in the park. It’s run by the Audubon Society, since the Belizean government is too small to afford a national park service.

The park had its origins thanks to a British engineer who was brought in to build the new capital of Belmopan after Hurricane Hattie decimated Belize City in 1961. He chose the spot for this home because of the tree. A keen birder and member of the Audubon Society, he first designated the area a reserve in 1971, but now it is a park.

The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and admission for non-Belizeans is 5 Belizean dollars (US$2.50).

If you go, you might want to bring a bottle of water, some insect repellent, your swimsuit, and some water shoes or rafting sandals. The river bed where you launch your swim is a bit mucky and waterproof sandals could make it more comfortable.

As you can see, there really is more to Belize than the cays!

Kacie Crisp