We’ve been licked by a jaguar and now we love them even more (an inspiring visit to the Belize Zoo with kids)


May 28, 2015 by Terumi

animal travel experiences that kids won't forget

We are so lucky these days to have the world at our fingertips when we plan for our travels.  We can buy tickets, research places and send emails across the world late at night without even leaving our homes and I am so thankful for the travel blogging community and how amazing and responsive people are when you ask for help.  For our Belize trip, I am especially thankful for Mary from The World Is a Book because a picture on her blog of the Belize Zoo is what inspired me to visit Belize in the first place and I loved the idea that we could stay in the Tropical Education Center there and I really wanted my kids to meet Sharon Matola, the zoo’s founder.  My kids are really into the idea of animal rescue because of our involvement with the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and because of their love of all things Octonauts and we read about Sharon in a book we bought about Junior Buddy, a jaguar at the zoo before the trip and I thought that meeting Sharon in real life would be even more inspiring.  So when I heard we could STAY at an amazing rescue center like our beloved Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica, I was ready to pack my bags and leave immediately.

Carrying some of the school supplies they brought for pack for a purpose

I also read that the Tropical Education Center partnered with Pack for a Purpose, and we brought some school supplies with us for some communities in need nearby the zoo.  (Oh I wish we brought more.  Apparently they do wonders here with even just a few supplies!)

where to stay in Belize with kids Tropical Education Center Pond House Pond House

The Tropical Education Center is gorgeous.  It isn’t exactly IN the zoo, but right across the street and we stayed in a Pond house and had ample room with two beds on one side of the kitchen and a big bed and a little bed on the other, a private bathroom and a shower.  There was a huge jug of bottled water on the counter and we had a fridge and fans to keep us and our things cool despite all the heat of the Belizean sun.  At night we sat in the hammock on the net-framed deck and looked for baby crocodiles without getting bit by mosquitoes.  The food we ate at the main lodge at the Tropical Education Center was also really delicious(and you can request vegetarian options too!) and breakfast and dinner were included in our stay.  It wasn’t a luxurious resort but it almost could have been-it was clean, comfortable and relaxing and we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves even though other people were staying there too.

staying at the Belize Zoo with kids

The morning we had our zoo tour with Sharon, we were driven to the zoo from the Education Center and we met some amazing animals.  We learned why Sharon started the rescue center in the first place and she showed us so many beautiful animals like tapirs, ocelots and coatimundis that were native to Belize.  My guys fell in love with Sharon-especially when she showed them how to eat termites and I love how she taught my family so much about animals and why they were important and how each animal had a really inspiring rescue story. She was so caring and patient with my kids and addressed all of their questions-she is definitely as inspiring in real life as I thought she would be and I’m so thankful that we had the chance to meet in person.

walking the Belize Zoo with Sharon IMG_5042.JPG Helping Sharon with the morning treats helping with the morning feed at the Belize Zoo

I was a little terrified though when we ended up in a cage inside Junior Buddy’s enclosure to meet him.  I never imagined how powerful and majestic a jaguar could be up close, and here was one standing above me and all my most precious loves-with only a little bit of wire separating us.  He was beautiful and frightening and my kids were thrilled to meet a jaguar who they had read about and then he licked our heads!!  Junior Buddy has such an amazing rescue story as well, and I can’t imagine a better jaguar ambassador for kids to see why we need to help protect his species and their habitat in the wild.

animal travel experiences that kids won't forget in Belize Zoo belize zoo with kids private tour in jaguar cage

I thought my kids would have had enough zoo, but they even wanted to stay up late to go back and do the night zoo tour.  (I have very few pictures from this tour.  We were too busy hanging out with the animals and supervising two little boys with flashlights!  And we even had people from Seattle on our tour too!) Some of the animals we didn’t see during the day were awake and active at night.  My favorite was the kinkajou. I also don’t usually buy a lot of things in gift stores when we travel, but I loved that all the profits from the Zoo Store went back to helping the animals so I was happy to buy souvenirs there and we ate lunch in the zoo cafeteria and it was very tasty!

Belize Zoo Night visit with kids

I really can’t imagine a more perfect place to stay in Belize and it is truly unlike any place I’ve ever been.  It felt like we had a little home far away from our home in Seattle full of lovely people we’d love to see again.  If I go back to Belize one day I will definitely pack more school supplies and I know we’d stay here at the Pond House at the Belize Zoo again because it was perfect.

(PS. I wore a Columbia women’s insect blocker mesh jacket for most of our Belize trip because I am terrified of bug bites and it did its job pretty well and because it was mesh it breathed a lot better than wearing long sleeves in the hot weather.  The kids had insect blocker shirts from Columbia too, but for some reason I don’t think they make them anymore and I totally wish they did!)

(PPS. If you are planning to visit, pack lots of sunscreen, bug-spray, headlamps or flashlights, and your camera)

(PPPS. just in case you’re curious, all of the animals we were feeding were part of the tour we did with Sharon.  Please do not feed animals at this zoo or any zoo without permission.)



  1. Katie Reed says:

    Aw, how adorable! My hubby and I visited Belize a few years ago, and I’d definitely go back. It was so perfect. As all the locals kept saying, “You’d better Belize it!” 😉

  2. Jaime says:

    That’s adorable! How cool you were able to get so up close and personal with these animals.

  3. I had to click on this post once I came to your blog from the Part-Time Travelers Facebook group! I did my graduate school field work in Belize, and I knew I’d see Junior Buddy in this post. Wasn’t it the coolest experience? Love that sandpaper tongue. Belize is such a great location for family travel. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Terumi says:

      How awesome that you actually got to work with Sharon and Junior Buddy. This is an amazing place. So much love for the animals and so much hard work. I hope one day we can revisit. I was definitely terrified and in awe of this beautiful jaguar.

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