Shipstern Nature Reserve
One of Belize’s richest and ecologically diverse tropical rain forests, the Shipstern Wildlife Reserve is located three miles south of the small fishing village of Sarteneja on the same peninsula that bears its name. Jutting into the Chetumal Bay, the reserve covers 22,000 acres of unspoiled, waterlogged jungle, savannah, and mangrove swamp.
In 1981, the Switzerland-based International Tropical Conservation Foundation established the area as a nature reserve and named it after the abandoned fishing village of Shipstern once located on the reserve’s south side. Now managed by the Belize Audubon Society, Shipstern Wildlife Reserve protects Belize’s largest and most pristine tract of northern hardwood forest and mangrove shoreline.
Separating the forest from the lagoon, vast belts of savannah, mudflats, and limestone hills dotted with palm trees house almost every mammal species found in Belize (save monkeys due to the reduction of large trees via storm activity). All five species of Belize’s native cats, as well as the tapir, armadillo, peccary, deer, paca, and coat-imundi dwell in the forest and savannahs. The swamps accommodate manatees, Morelet’s crocodiles, sixty species of amphibians and reptiles, and yes, thousands of species of insects-bring repellant!
Shipstern is also home to the Butterfly Breeding Center at the reserve’s headquarters. The Breeding Center has supplied Great Britain, United States, Japan, and Singapore with pupae for their own man-made butterfly habitats. Visit the Butterfly Center on a bright, sunny day as butterflies often hide behind foliage on overcast or rainy days. Over 200 species of butterfly accompany the 200+ species of birds swarming the skies above the Shipstern Lagoon and beyond. Many of these birds migrate from North America during the winter. Of the long list of aviators, the five species of parrot and flamboyant toucans that reside within the area often receive the most attention from visitors.
Exploring Shipstern Lagoon by Boat
While there, visitors can take a self-guided hike along the Chiclero Botanical Trail. The headquarters provide a booklet explaining the traditional uses and medicinal value of much of the flora along the trail. The Belize Audubon Society hopes to create a successful, self-supporting conservation area through low-impact tourism and the controlled production of natural products, i.e. butterflies. The Society continues to educate local residents, especially children, in conservative practices in an effort to replace age-old destructive habits with a sustainable land use mentality.
The Butterfly Breeding Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours along the trails are $12.50 for groups up to four, and an additional $2.50 for each extra person. Belizeans receive a 50% discount. Night tours into the jungle can be arranged with guides in Sarteneja, but a permit from the reserve’s management is needed if the trip crosses the reserve’s boundaries. A bus departs at noon from Belize City for the three-hour trip to Sarteneja Village. The bus stops in Orange Walk Town and Chunox on the way, so travelers can also access the Village by picking up the bus there. A direct bus from Orange Walk through Chunox which is right across from Cerros Sands departs at 6 p.m. The bus returns at 3, 4, and 6 p.m.
Good All-weather Road to Sarteneja and Shipstern
Travelers can also visit Shipstern via car by driving one hour from Orange Walk Town or two hours from Belize City. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, as the roads are often muddy. On the way, you’ll pass through San Estevan and turn right en route to Little Belize, a small Mennonite community. Continue on to Chunox and Sarteneja; the reserve is three miles before Sarteneja. Although more expensive, visitors can charter a private boat to the reserve from Corozal Town, Ambergris Caye, or Consejo Shores.