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Belize’s Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

At the edge of the lagoon, a stork runs with its wings prepared to take flight.
A Jabiru stork at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo © Larnie Fox, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Crooked Tree is only a 33-mile drive from Belize City, or a little over an hour by bus. The island village and the wildlife sanctuary are primary destinations for serious bird-watchers. Other visitors will enjoy paddling in the water, hiking numerous trails, or reveling at the annual cashew festival. Most visitors to the area can also enjoy the simple pleasure of mingling with the islanders, the majority of whom are of Kriol descent and were born and raised here. Walking through the village will reveal the simple farming and fishing community lifestyle they lead. Most villagers are related by blood or marriage, making it “one big family” in every sense of the phrase.

The Crooked Tree area itself is a network of inland lagoons, swamps, and waterways. The sanctuary also encompasses the freshwater lagoon that surrounds the area. The Crooked Tree Lagoon is up to a mile wide and more than 20 miles long. Along its banks lies the village of Crooked Tree, settled in the 1750s during the early days of the logwood era. This island, surrounded by fresh water, was once accessible only by boats traveling up the Belize River and Black Creek; the waterways were used to float the logs out to the sea. It wasn’t until 1981 that the three-mile-long causeway leading into the village was built, bringing cars, buses, and other modern conveniences to the village.

Crooked Tree Village

The village is divided into three neighborhoods: Crooked Tree, Pine Ridge, and Stain, with a total population of about 1,000. Villagers operate farms, raise livestock, and have a small fishery. Visitors will find the village spread out on the island, with more cattle trails, half roads, and fence line than roads. There are a few wellgrazed athletic fields, five churches, a couple of eateries, a nurse-staffed clinic, and scores of stilted wooden houses, each with its own tank to catch rainwater. It’s a tranquil community with children playing football and softball, biking around, racing horses, or whacking a ball around the cricket pitch.

Getting to Crooked Tree

To reach Crooked Tree by car, drive north on the Northern Highway to Mile 33 and turn left. Continue until the dirt road turns into the three-mile-long earthen causeway that leads into Crooked Tree. You can also catch the Jex Bus (34 Regent St. W., tel. 501/663-3301 or 501/663-2740, US$5) in downtown Belize City to Crooked Tree. The bus leaves promptly at 10:55am Monday-Friday, arriving in Crooked Tree at 12:30pm; it is parked an hour prior to departure. You can also hop on any of the buses heading north from the main Novelo bus station to Corozal; starting early in the morning, request a stop at the Crooked Tree junction and then get a ride from there into the village.

From Crooked Tree back into Belize City, the Jex buses depart mornings only at 5am, 6am, and 6:45am Monday-Friday, and 6:45am only on Saturday; verify the times before departure. Other options include catching an hourly bus back toward Belize City from the Crooked Tree junction on the highway, which is an easy option, or hire a taxi or local tour operator. Check with the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 501/223-5004) for additional transportation information, rates, and an updated schedule.

Accommodations and Food

There are several options in low-key Crooked Tree as the area continues to gain popularity, starting with Tillet’s Village Lodge (tel. 501/671-7100, US$40-80). The famous Sam Tillet—renowned as one of the premier Belizean naturalists—died in 2007, but his family is carrying on the tradition. The lodge is located in the middle of the village, not on the water, and the guest rooms are small and plain but clean and with private baths and tiled floors. Nature walks are US$15, and you can also go horseback riding or do a “jungle survival” trip.

As you approach the island on the causeway (on the shoreline off to your left), you’ll see Crooked Tree’s most upscale property: Bird’s Eye View Lodge (tel. 501/225-7027 or 501/203-2040, US$80-120 d). This hotel stands above the rest in modernity and service, and that is reflected in its higher rates. The 20 guest rooms all have private baths and various comforts, including air-conditioning. Camping (US$10) is also available. The rooftop bar and patio is a nice spot to take in the breeze and bird-watch, even after your four-hour daybreak bird-watching boat cruise on the lagoon. Meals are US$12 for breakfast and lunch; dinner is US$15. Boat rentals, tours, and airport pickups can be arranged. Boat tours for up to three people cost about US$125; ask about village tours and cashew-making tours in season (Mar.-June).

Not far off is Da Hibiscus Cabanas (tel. 501/661-7034 or 501/668-7491, US$80), with four small but clean guest rooms set in a long stand-alone wooden cabana to the back of a well-kept yard. Guest rooms include a full-size bed, a small bathroom, a fan, a TV, air-conditioning and a porch. Friendly owner Rose Kelly recently retired from her life in Nevada and moved back to her native village.

On the shore of the lagoon north of the causeway, Crooked Tree Lodge (tel. 501/626-3820, US$40-60) is a small, well-landscaped, and quiet retreat of 11.5 acres with six stilted en suite wooden cabanas, including a bigger one for families (sleeps up to 7, US$120). Camping (US$10) is possible, and pets and children are welcome. Three daily meals are available at additional cost. Wide-ranging boat and birding tours are available with local guides. There is wireless Internet, a restaurant, and a small bar, all on the lagoon’s edge.

The lagoon-front Jacana Inn (tel. 501/604-8025 or 501/620-9472,, US$50 d) has 13 ground-floor guest rooms with queen beds, mini fridges, private baths with cold showers, fans, and Internet access. The building isn’t much to look at, thanks to a second-floor extension left under construction, but being steps from the lagoon at this price is a highlight. There are bikes and canoes for rent as well as in-room meals on request.

In the village, dine at Triple J’s or Carrie’s Kitchen (10am-9pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-11pm Fri.-Sat., US$4-5), a cute little spot with plenty of seating and local Kriol dishes. Both restaurants are found by walking into Crooked Tree Village, although the latter may require a drive or bike ride.

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

At the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, 16,400 acres of waterways, logwood swamps, and lagoon provide habitat for a diverse array of hundreds of resident and migratory birds all year long.

The sanctuary was established by the Belize Audubon Society to protect its most famous inhabitant, the jabiru stork—the largest flying bird in the western hemisphere, with a wingspan of up to eight feet. Multitudes of other birds (285 species, at last count) find the sanctuary a safe resting spot during the dry season, with enormous food resources along the shorelines and in the trees. (During my visit, I saw beautiful vermillion fly catchers and a white ibis, among many others.) After a rain, thousands of minuscule frogs, no more than an inch long, seem to drop from the sky; they’re fair game for the agami heron, snowy egret, and great egret, quick hunters with long beaks. A fairly large bird, the snail kite uses its particular beak to hook meat out of the apple snails.

Two varieties of ducks—the black-bellied whistling duck and the Muscovy—nest in trees along the swamp. All five species of kingfishers live in the sanctuary, and you can see ospreys and black-collared hawks diving for their morning catch.

Black Creek, with its forests of large trees, provides homes to monkeys, Morelet’s crocodiles, coatimundis, turtles, and iguanas. A profusion of wild ocher pokes up from the water, covered with millions of pale pink snail eggs. Grazing Brahma cattle wade into the shallows of the lagoon to munch on the tum tum (water lilies), a delicacy that keeps them fat and fit when the grasses turn brown in the dry season.

Although several organizations had a financial hand in founding the park, the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 501/223-5004,) runs the show, with the continued help of devoted volunteers. Sign in at the small visitors center (a green building on the right just as you enter the village, 8am- 4:30pm daily, US$5 per person) at the end of the causeway. You will always find a knowledgeable curator willing to answer questions about the flora and fauna of the sanctuary. It’s possible to explore the area in a rented canoe or kayak, motor through on a guided tour, or hike the system of boardwalks through lowland savanna and logwood forests; observation towers provide wide views across the lagoons.

Hunting and fishing are not permitted.

Crooked Tree Lagoon

The best way to experience Crooked Tree Lagoon is by boat, and there are all kinds available at each hotel. The Belize Audubon Society (tel. 501/223-5004) will be happy to have a guide and boat waiting for you when you arrive at Crooked Tree; the best days to find a full staff are Wednesday-Friday. All accommodations in the village can arrange birding and village tours. Birding is possible year-round, but peak times are February-April.

Chau Hiix Ruins

The Chau Hiix archaeological site is being studied nearby. Archaeologists have made some startling discoveries, including a ball court and ball-court marker, along with small artifacts. Preliminary studies indicate the site was occupied from 1200 BC to AD 1500. Chau Hiix is located south of Crooked Tree on Sapodilla Lagoon and is accessible by canoe.

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