Northern Belize comprises two districts: Corozal and Orange Walk, both traversed by the straight, flat Northern Hwy. Off the main road, adventurous travelers will find pretty fishing villages, pristine jungles, ancient Maya cities, and anachronistic Mennonite communities. Then there’s the food. Exhibiting influences from Mexico, Northern Belizean cuisine is more diverse and more daring than its southern counterpart. If you’re ready to trade rice and beans for seafood ceviche, you’ve come to the right place.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The Orange Walk District includes the archeological site of Lamanai and its impressive rainforest trails, the Río Bravo Conservation Area (a large private nature reserve), and the majestic New River, Belize’s largest body of freshwater —28 miles long with abundant birds and wildlife. Morelet’s crocodiles and Mesoamerican river turtles, locally known as hickatee turtles, inhabit these waters, along with numerous fish, wading birds, and waterfowl. Orange Walk Town is the area’s hub, a small commercial and farming center. Orange Walk’s annual summer fiesta and a full-blown Carnival on Independence Day lure most of the country up north to partake in Latin-flavored celebrations. Corozal, a peaceful bayside town, is an hour’s bus ride north from Orange.
One of the biggest and best excavated Maya sites in northern Belize, Lamanai lies 24 miles south of Orange Walk Town up the New River (or 36 miles by unpaved road). The ruins are known both for their impressive architecture and marvelous setting, surrounded by dense rainforest overlooking the New River Lagoon. The translation of the word lamanai – which means ‘submerged crocodile’ in Mayan – gives a pretty good indication of the local residents of this jungly setting. Most visitors approach Lamanai by guided river trip from Orange Walk, not just to avoid the long and bumpy road, but to take advantage of the river trip itself. The boat ride is an opportunity to observe the river’s prolific and colorful birdlife, as well as crocs, iguanas, monkeys, and other wildlife. Most guides who do the 1½-hour trip are experts in local archaeology and ecology, making this tour a two-for-the-price-of-one experience. Besides the beautiful jungle and lagoon, the river voyage passes the Mennonite community of Shipyard before reaching the ruin site. There are a number of excellent tour guides in Orange Walk who specialize in the journey.
RÍO BRAVO CONSERVATION & MANAGEMENT AREA
If you’re looking for the true, wild tropical rainforest, this is it. Encompassing 406 sq miles in northwest Belize, the Río Bravo Conservation & Management Area (RBCMA) takes up 4% of Belize’s total land area and is managed by the Belizean nonprofit organization Programme for Belize. The RBCMA harbors astonishing biological diversity – 392 bird species (more than two-thirds of Belize’s total), 200 tree species, 70 mammal species, including all five of Belize’s cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay). Río Bravo is said to have the largest concentration of jaguars in all of Central America.
Parts of the territory of the RBCMA were logged for mahogany and other woods from the 18th century until the 1980s, but distance and inaccessibility helped to ensure the survival of the forest as a whole. The area also contains at least 60 Maya sites, including La Milpa, the third-largest site in Belize. At the RBCMA the PFB is seeking to link conservation with the development of sustainable land uses. Programs include tree nurseries; extraction of nontimber products such as chicle, thatch, and palm; experimental operations in sustainable timber extraction; and ecotourism.
The country’s northernmost district, Corozal is wedged in between Orange Walk and the border. Its proximity to Mexico lends it a certain Spanish charm, and also offers easy access to travelers coming from Cancun or Chetumal. In recent years Corozal has been ‘discovered’ by outsiders, who are racing to buy up the affordable seaside property and build retirement homes on their little plots of paradise. However, this district is still relatively unknown to Belize-bound tourists, who don’t often venture off the Northern Hwy.
The ruin at Cerro Maya is the only Maya site in Belize that occupies beachfront property. In late Preclassical times, its proximity to the mouth of the New River gave it a key position on the trade route between the Yucatán coast and the Petén region. Cerro Maya (‘Maya Hill’) is composed of a series of temples built from about 50 BC. The temples are larger and more ornate than any others found in the area, and archaeologists believe Cerro Maya may have been taken over by an outside power at this time, quite possibly Lamanai. Cerros flourished until about AD 150, after which it reverted rapidly to small, unimportant village status.
If you came to Belize in search of crystal-blue waters, delicious fresh seafood, fauna-rich forests, and affordable prices, look no further than Sarteneja (sar-teneh -ha). The tiny fishing and shipbuilding village, located near the northeastern tip of the Belizean mainland, is a charming base from which to explore both the nautical and jungle treasures of the region. Stroll along the shoreline to admire the wooden sailboats that are still constructed in workshops around town.
The village spreads just a few blocks back from its long, grassy seafront. It’s a delicious place to chill out for a few days. From this lovely seaside setting visitors can also head out to the Shipstern Nature Reserve and take birding, fishing and wildlife-watching trips all along the fabulous coast of northern Belize, including to Bacalar Chico National Park & Marine Reserve, on the northern tip of Ambergris Caye.
SHIPSTERN NATURE RESERVE
This large nature reserve, which protects 43 sq miles of semideciduous hardwood forests, wetlands and lagoons and coastal mangrove belts, has its headquarters 3.5 miles southwest of Sarteneja on the road to Orange Walk. Lying in a transition zone between Central America’s tropical forests and a drier Yucatán-type ecosystem, the reserve’s mosaic of habitats is rare in Belize.
All five of Belize’s wildcats and scores of other mammals can be found here, and its 250 bird species include ospreys, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, and a colony of 300 pairs of American woodstorks, one of this bird’s few breeding colonies in Belize. The Belizean nonprofit organization Shipstern Nature Reserve Belize is funded by the Swiss-and Dutch-based International Tropical Conservation Foundation.