When the New Year rolls around, I’m always looking to the future and making plans for new and awesome adventures, while at the same time looking back at all the things I’ve done in the last year. It always nice to look back at the year, and relive the travels, accomplishments and even the difficulties — all things that I’ve conquered and things that have pushed me forward in my life. This post was a month in the making (really, it was a year in the making). I want to thank all the wonderful people I’ve met along the road – I love you all, and you’re a big part of why I travel.
I spent New Year’s Eve in Groveland California, on the edge of Yosemite National Park with some close Bay Area friends. We partied at the Iron door until it got weird, as usual. I remember using up some leftover Burning Man supplies and having a late night dub step dance party with an iPhone strobe light and a whole lot of table dancing. It may or may not have been a pants-off dance-off. (It totally was.)
In early January, I took off for Mexico to write an article about a resort in Cancun for Student Traveler Magazine. We had a blackout pub crawl bon voyage party with a bunch of old friends in Hayward, California, starting at Buffalo Bills Brewery and ending with a sloppy blackout somewhere down the road from there. The next day I packed my life back into my old backpack and headed to sunny Mexico! After a week in Cancun, I moved south to Playa del Carmen, where I spent the rest of January studying Spanish at the International House Spanish language sch. It was a month of School, beach, tequila, repeat. Viva Mexico!
I hung around Playa del Carmen for a while after my Spanish classes were over. I was working hard on my new website, World Travel Buzz, an online backpacker travel magazine that I had just launched while in Mexico. I needed to get some work done, and being in Playa was just too distracting (too many pretty girls, too much tequila, and too much sunshine), so I decided to head to Merida, in the Yucatan — a big city, hours away from anyone I knew — where I was sure to be able to get some work done. Of course, on my first day, I was sitting in a restaurant eating some tacos and drinking a beer when in walked an old friend I knew from Burning Man. “Is that Justin?!” He yelled across the restaurant with his French Canadian accent. I soon found out that he and his entire El Gua Gua crew (a group of party animal documentary film makers who I’d met the year before at Burning Man), were in town. They had been en route to a festival in Costa Rica when a car accident and the accidental death of 2 local Mexican men had sent one of their crew to Mexican jail. There were stuck in Merida for a while, trying to organize bail. A sad and strange turn of events, for sure.
The El Gua Gua crew had picked up a couple Mexican girls during their travels, and when the crew finally moved on to Costa Rica, The girls and I headed to the ruins of Uxmal, near Merida for a day of culture and history. We hitchhiked back to Merida, and the girls had an extra ticket to Corona Fest, a local music festival, so I joined them for an evening of booze, music, and dancing. It was cool to rock out to local Mexican bands, most notably Nortec Collective’s crazy mix of techno beats and Mariachi madness. You can read my post about my week in Merida here.
At the end of the month, I headed back to Playa for my birthday, and then caught a bus to Palenque with two friends, Deborah and Karen.
We spent a week in the jungle hippie backpacker village of Panchan in Palenque, where we relaxed in hammocks by the river and listened to the growls of howler monkeys in the canopy. After a week of exploring the jungle, bathing in waterfalls, and visiting the famous Palenque ruins, we decided to head down to the Guatemalan Border to check out some other, off the beaten path ruin sites: Bonampak and Yaxchilan. Bonampak is a small site, but home to the best preserved Mayan paintings in the world. Yaxchilan is much grander in scale and was quite impressive. It’s only accessible via a 30 minute boat ride along the river that separates Mexico and Guatemala. There are trees growing out of the ruins, and all the stones are covered in moss – it seemed much more like a legitimate ruin site than some of the other, more sterile sites I’d visited.
After the ruins, we stayed in a little Mayan pueblito in the Selva Lacandona – a relaxing couple days of sobriety and sunshine with a charming family – children, dogs, crazy old grandmother and all.
After a brief stop off back in Panchan, we caught the bus up the mountains into San Cristobal de las Casas. We spent a week hanging out and exploring this beautiful colonial city, and getting to know locals and other travelers. San Cristobal is a fantastic city, with that special kind of vibe that makes you want to live there.
My next stop was Antigua, where I’d be studying Spanish and living with a local family for a couple weeks.
I arrived in Antigua on the first day of Semana Santa. Antigua is the place to be for Semana Santa in Central America. The celebrations is crazy – each day sees huge floats depicting biblical stories carried down the streets on the shoulders of hundreds of men. The locals create alfombras, or carpets in the streets, made out of colored sawdust and giant stencils, forming intricate designs. Sometimes they use pine needles and flowers. They spend the whole day making these beautiful creations, and when then processions pass, the men carrying the floats trample the designs as they shuffle down the streets. A great example of temporary art.
I stayed a month in Antigua studying Spanish, enjoying the Semana Santa festivities (every day was a procession, every night was a party) and with the help of Mick Burton and Ruby Tuesday, we wrote the first World Travel Buzz guide for Antigua, Guatemala.
A couple of us went to San Pedro. lago Atitlan for a week of partying in expat paradise. This town is really unique. My first instinct was to get the hell out of there. The place is overrun with hippies and gringo expats, young and old. English is spoken everywhere, and there is a party every night at one of the expat-owned bars in town. I was looking for something more culturally significant than a gringo backpacker party town, but someone explained to me that if I had stumbled upon a town like San Pedro in the United States, I’d probably love it and never leave. True. You’ve got to take this place for what it is — and it’s awesome. A great place to party, a couple great hikes, some awesome restaurants, and an epically beautiful location on the edge of Lago Atitlan. And scratch just beneath the surface and you’ll find a thriving and welcoming population of indigenous Mayans.
After the lake, I went with Mick and Ruby to Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), and met with Kate to climb Volcan Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America. It was a serious hike, and even the bottle of whiskey I brought with me couldn’t fend off the bout of altitude sickness that sent my brain into a dizzying spin. Still, completed the hike, and sunrise at the summit was an incredible experience.
After the hike, we partied with the Quetzal Trekkers crew at a crazy dress-up fundraiser party and then headed back to Antigua to catch a bus to Semuc Champey. We made some amazing new friends at the hostel, including Marc, Marie, Taina, Joscelyn, and Holli. Together, we explored a cave with a river running though it, with only candles to light the way, doing the one-armed dog-paddle, while while trying to keep our candles above water. We also swam in the crystal clear pools of Semuc Champey – a postcard perfect location.
We all decided to head to Rio dulce together to visit Lisa de Chavan at the Casa Guatemala orphanage where she had been volunteering. After a visit to the orphanage, and a swim in the hot-water waterfall at Finca Paradiso, we headed down the Rio Dulce on a boat to Finca Tatin, a beautiful, isolated retreat on a quite bend of the river.
After a couple days in this riverside, jungle paradise, we kayaked down the Rio Dulce from Finca Tatin to the Caribbean coast at Livingston – an indescribably beautiful adventure.
We caught a boat from Livingston to into Honduras, stopped in at the fantastic D & D Brewery / Hostel at Lago Yojoa, and then caught a boat from Ceiba to the island of Utila where I got my open water scuba certification at Underwater Vision (checked that off the bucket list!) and partied my face off. Utila is an incredible place – another backpacker paradise, full of gringos who come here for the sunshine and the great diving. Utila is on the second largest barrier reef in the world (second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), so not only is it beautiful, but it’s also the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI Open Water SCUBA Certification.
It was hard to leave the island, but after receiving some bad news about a death back in California, I knew it was time to end the party. I caught the morning ferry back to the mainland and headed along the coast to Trujillo. This town is basically the end of the road, one of the last settlements before the isolated stretch of the Mosquito Coast. I hiked the mountain outside of town in the Selva Calentura with Ruby, where we were tracked by a puma or an ocelot, that growled at us from within the dense jungle. Seriously. Scary stuff.
I had friends with me for a couple days, but when they left, I stayed for another few days to just relax and enjoy some alone time. I was one of the only gringos in town, and it was perfect.
I decided it was time to head back to The States, so I booked a ticket back to SFO from Managua Nicaragua and I Caught a bus across Honduras and into Managua. I spent a brief, but awesome few days in Leon, Granada, and Ometepe each, before heading back to Managua to catch my flight.
I didn’t tell anyone I was coming home, and I knew my Bay Area friends were having a weekend retreat at the lake house in Groveland, so I decided to surprise them. I let Ryan in on the secret and caught a ride up to Yosemite with him to surprise the crew. It was awesome!
July / August:
Spent the next 2 months in the Bay Area, prepping and fundraising for Burning Man / The Bureau of Misinformation. We hosted a beach themed burner party in San Francisco as a fundraiser and with that, and all our members paying dues, we were able to raise nearly $10,000 — all of which was spent on building an awesome camp, an awesome bar, and getting thousands of people drunk and misinformed at Burning Man.
Around this time, I started the Radical Travel Podcast, which has been a great new way to share my adventures and talk about travel.
At the end of August, we finally hit the road for Burning Man. Jason, a select few others, and myself went early to set up the Bureau bar and infrastructure. We then partied and got weird / spiritual / awesome for the next week with 50,000 of our closest, strangest, most uninhibited friends.
We tore down and cleaned up the camp, and then spent a couple days chilling out at Chrystal’s cabin with Mickey and a few others.
I then headed back to the East Bay to prep for The World Travel Buzz University Tour, where I’d be promoting travel on university campuses across California.
I spent most of the month traveling to 11 Universities in California, passing out thousands of free copies of our first World Travel Buzz print edition and shirts from our partner Tours4Fun.com. I ended the trip at YouTopia, a Burning Man decompression event on a Native American reservation outside of San Diego. It was an incredible weekend, full of old friends and new.
I made it Back in the bay area a couple days before Halloween for last minute prep and planning for The Bureau Halloween Party fundraiser and to pass out candy with my mom on her favorite holiday of the year.
On Nov. 2nd I caught a flight back to Managua Nicaragua. I spent a week in Granada, revising old favorite spots and I recorded a podcast from the road all about this great city called Granada, Nicaragua: Culture, Chaos, and Coffee with a Cause. You can check out the article about the spirit and struggles of Granada.
Next, I headed south to the surfer’s paradise of San Juan del Sur, where I started researching for the World Travel Buzz Guide to San Juan del Sur (coming soon), and I reconnected with old travel buddy Marc, who was now running a hostel called The Surfing Donkey. My old friend and travel buddy Courtney, who I knew from the old
days in New Zealand came to San Juan del Sur for a couple weeks with her friend Blake, and we had a blast playing in the waves, off-roading on quads, drinking at the bars, and making friends with a local monkey.
I got robbed on my way home from the bar, and they even took my hat, but I was able to get the two thugs thrown in jail (briefly) and I tracked my hat down and bought it back. (long story.)
Jason flew in from the states and I headed down to Costa Rica with my new friend Courtney to meet him at the airport in Liberia. We decided to rent a car and together znd we checked out Volcan Arenal (I got to pet a baby puma cub at the springs resort and spa!) and took our little Yaris rental car off road to Monte Verde to hike in the cloud forest.
We then headed back to San Juan del sur so I could show him how I like to party in Nicaragua. After a couple days on the beach and at the bars, we caught a chicken bus up to Granada – Jason learned how much he hates Chicken Buses because he’s really just too tall to fit. We spent a couple days in Granada and checked out the artisan market in Masaya before catching a bus back across Honduras to Utila to party for the week while Jason got Scuba Certified.
I made it to Copan Ruinas just in time for the end of the world party – the end of the Mayan calender on December 21st, 2012. We drank cheap rum, watched a cultural exhibition, and I used my press credentials to get us into the ruin site at night, where we drank beers at the top of one of the ancient Mayan pyramids, while the rain softly fell around us. The world didn’t end, but I wrote a pretty good article about it, and put together a decent podcast about Mayan culture and the end of the 13th Bak’tun.
When the world didn’t end, I was faced with deciding where to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I decided to stay in Copan for Xmas, and spent the holiday with my new friend Kristy and a local family – lots of food, wine, and Cumbia and merengue dancing – a very lively and unexpectedly awesome Christmas.
With no direction and too many options, I flipped a coin and decided to head back to Guatemala to meet Tatum in San Pedro for New Year’s eve. I got pick-pocketed on a chicken bus on my way to Lago Atitlan, and by the time I canceled my card, the thief had spent nearly all my money at Walmart and pizza hut in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
I made it to San Pedro la Laguna just in time to party at Bario Bar to ring in the new year with a couple old friends and a whole lot of new ones.
Since I was completely broke, waiting to hear from my bank, and had nowhere better to be, I thought I’d stick around San Pedro for a while. I needed a place to pick up the pieces, settle down for a while, save up some money and prepare for another crazy year of travel and chaos.
A year in the life of Justin Jones – exhausting… but awesome.