MONKEY RIVER TOWN HISTORY
An easy 35-minute boat ride from Placencia brings you to the mouth of the Monkey River and the village by the same name. At the base of Richardson Peak, one of the highest mountains in Belize, is the origin of the mighty Monkey River, which winds its way southeast through dense jungle and empties into the Gulf of Honduras. The area’s only human population of about 500, lives at the mouth, in Monkey River Village, and the surrounding undisturbed wilderness is home to a multitude of wildlife.
Founded in 1891, Monkey River Village was once a thriving town of several thousand loggers, chicleros, banana farmers, and fishermen; that was then. Now, the super-sleepy village of 30 families (about 150 people) makes its way with fishing and, you guessed it, tourism. Some villagers are trained and licensed tour guides to provide a truly unique wildlife-viewing experience. The handful of daily trips are also a welcome source of income for Monkey River’s three eateries.
Ninety percent of the structures you see in Monkey River have been rebuilt since Hurricane Iris flattened the town in 2001. The village is accessible only by boat–most often through the mangroves from Placencia, but there is also an eight-mile road from the Southern Highway that ends across the river from the village. Park your car and honk, and a boat will come across the narrow span to pick you up.
Monkey River Town was formerly the largest settlement in the area because of its booming banana industry. The former population of Monkey River is the reason it has “town” status rather than “village” status. Status is based on population, and Monkey River achieved town status during its banana heydays. The demise of the banana industry forced the majority of the people inland in search of other jobs. The town was downsized to a village in 1981. In recent years, the village has come alive again. Each family has a boat, and most villagers make a living from fishing, lobster, hunting, or the tourist trade.
Much of its population was lost when blight destroyed its banana industry (now recovered). Most of the rest of the population left when the Belize government ceased its rice growing subsidies and a few greedy local hunters decimated the crocodile population (for their skins).
TODAY IN MONKEY RIVER
Monkey River Town is now a very sleepy little settlement with most people surviving on tourism. Monkey River has one phone (a community phone) at Alice’s Restaurant (a local institution).
The town is small and easy to get around. There are only two main streets. There are no cars, trucks, or bikes in town. The sandy, grassy paths are short and comfortable for walking throughout the entire village.
The village is as “real” as it gets-the houses are mainly wooden; few are concrete. A police station, which is rarely used, is on the east end. The entire village has one community center, one school, one church, two shops, two hotels, and two restaurants and bars. A small boardwalk borders the lagoon at the back where fishermen dock their boats. A roving sand bar protects the river mouth. Wide sandy beaches stretch out along the mouth of the river and the east side of the village. Some of the beaches along the southern edge of town are eroding – Hurricane Mitch in 1998 took its toll.
Not too long ago, the village did not have electricity, using generators for power during designated hours. Now, Belize has brought electricity to Monkey River. The beachfront near the dock is a favorite gathering spot for the villagers to hang out and discuss the day’s happenings while the children spend time playing soccer and basketball. Most of the young adults are off in neighboring towns pursuing their high school education.
THINGS TO DO
The Paynes Creek/Monkey River Wildlife Sanctuary and Punta Ycacos Reserve run from Monkey River Town south to Punta Negra and Punta Ycacos (again, both accessible only by boat). It is the home for a variety of wildlife that you can see when fishing, hiking, and touring the river and jungle.
On water-based jungle tours, visitors are likely to encounter Black Howler Monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles and a multitude of tropical birds. Those who venture into the jungle on foot may also run into groups of Howler monkeys, gibnuts, deer, ocelots, peccaries, tapirs, coatimundis, agoutis and possibly jaguars (jaguars are nocturnal, so chances of seeing one are slim).
Un-looted Mayan ruins are located in the Monkey River Jungle, but no tourist access has yet been granted by the Belize government. Other Mayan ruins outside of Monkey River are accessible to tourists by licensed guides.
The Snake Cayes are only 45 minutes away by boat. One of the islands there – West Snake Caye – is great for swimming, snorkeling, diving, and picnicing.
Fishing is good for snook, tarpon, snapper and machaka (a local species) in Monkey River. A virtually un-fished landlocked freshwater lake just south of Monkey River, Punta Negra Lake, is known for its abundance of fish.
Several mangrove cayes lie off the river mouth. One island is a bird sanctuary for many wading birds such as egrets and herons. The birds congregate in huge numbers to roost for the night.
Back in the village, take a dip in the cool river off the beach, watch the beautful sunset, and star gaze.