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Although vulnerable to hurricanes, the northern tip of the Shipstern Peninsula (also called the Sarteneja Peninsula) has remained populated and prosperous for thousands of years. Sarteneja village's Mayan name translates to "water between the rocks," referring to a massive piece of stone within the village. Although the village itself has been rebuilt several times, this giant slab has persevered and served as a freshwater source throughout the area's geological history. Legend has it that this well has never run dry.

Entrance to Sarteneja
Entrance to Sarteneja
The Original Water Between the Rocks Well
The Original "Water Between the Rocks" Well

Seafaring Maya, recognizing the importance of its convenient location on the Chetumal Bay and unique freshwater source, inhabited the area for hundreds of years. Merchants traded obsidian from Guatemala and incense and gold from Mexico for sea products and salt from the Bacalar Chico lagoons. Archaeologists have uncovered over 350 sites on the peninsula, especially around the abandoned village of Shipstern, though only one ancient structure has been excavated.

Sarteneja sign

The Maya abandoned the region in the 18th century, but by the mid-nineteenth century, the region once again bustled with activity. Mestizos from Valladolid, Mexico and Maya fleeing the Caste Wars of the Yucatan reestablished the community and revived their shipbuilding expertise. Today, more than ninety percent of Sarteneja's 1500 residents earn their income from the sea-a statistic that has earned Sarteneja a reputation for supporting the country's most skilled fishing community. Over 300 Sarteneja fishermen now work in fishing cooperatives stationed in Belize City.

Sarteneja Water Front on Corozal Bay
Sarteneja Water Front on Corozal Bay
Drying Fish
Drying Fish

Sarteneja's fishermen sail on striking handcrafted vessels (called "lighters") as far south as Guatamala and Honduras. The tiny sailboats sometimes transport as many fifteen fishermen as they travel along the coast fishing the barrier reef and the outer atolls for conch, lobster, shrimp, and a variety of finfish species (according to the seasonal regulations). Once the ice supply on board has dwindled, the fishermen sell their catch in Belize City, San Pedro, and Chetumal on the way home. Upon returning to Sarteneja, the boat is immediately prepared for the next voyage. Every Easter, boats vie for various prizes in an annual sailing regatta in the Sarteneja harbor.

Main Street, Sarteneja
Main Street
Fishing Boat
Sartenejan Fishing Boat

Located just northeast of the Shipstern Nature Reserve, Sarteneja is shrouded in dense, waterlogged jungle, savannah, and mangrove swamp forests that support a vast assortment of wildlife. After Hurricane Janet in 1955 devastated much of the Shipstern Peninsula, the area's vegetation quickly regenerated and once again turned the area back into one of Belize's richest and most ecologically diverse tropical rain forests. 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.

Wild Tracks at Shipstern Lagoon near Sarteneja
Shipstern Lagoon at Wild Tracks Field School near Sarteneja

Almost every mammal species found in Belize reside in the region. Whether in the reserve or not, bird enthusiasts will encounter hundreds of different species, including the spoonbill and flamingo, that feed around the lagoons. Shipstern is also home to the Butterfly Breeding Center at the reserve's headquarters. Over 200 species of butterfly accompany the 200+ species of birds swarming the skies. The swamps also accommodate manatees, Morelet's crocodiles, sixty species of amphibians and reptiles, and an incalculable number of insects. 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.

Tarpon caught out of Sarteneja
Tarpon caught out of Sarteneja
Bonefish out of Sarteneja
Bonefishing is great out of Sarteneja

Some nearby cayes offer snorkeling and diving and local guides often arrange horseback riding or canoeing trips within the peninsula. Guests can also charter a boat tour of the nearby Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve in the village. A growing sport fishing industry in the waters off the peninsula utilizes generations of fishing expertise. Barracuda, snook, grouper, yellowtail, and tarpon have recently enticed anglers to this unexplored region. And, as with many urban areas in northern Belize, the sugar industry is never far away-an abandoned 19th century mill stands a mile south of town. Accommodations in the village are inexpensive and easily accessible upon reaching town.

Panorama of Sarteneja

Daily buses depart from Belize City for the three-hour trip to Sarteneja Village. Travelers can also drive to Sarteneja via the Northern Highway. A road branches off at the main bridge over the New River just north of Orange Walk Town. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, as the roads are often muddy. Although more expensive, visitors can charter a private boat to Sarteneja from Corozal Town, Ambergris Caye, or Consejo Shores.

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