Back for Seconds at the Buffet

After over four years of wandering through the Caribbean and exploring dozens of islands and hundreds of anchorages, you would think we are used to the excitement of arriving at a new locale. The thrill, however, never wears off. Each place can be so dramatically different in culture, landscape, language, food, customs and immigration procedures, and amenities that we always have butterflies in our stomachs when we get close to an unfamiliar landfall.

The exhilaration of sighting a distant shore from our boat after days at sea cannot be matched by air or land travel. Although we have charts and GPS that tell us exactly where land is and when we should expect it, we still yell “Land ho!” every single time as if we were a seventeenth century tall ship plying uncharted waters. There is immense satisfaction knowing we got there under our own power and navigation. Modern aids and a trusty engine notwithstanding, we feel like true explorers.

Isla Quinquindup, one of our favorite spots to chill in the Guna Yala

Arriving in a new country is just the beginning. Unlike the streamlined clearing in procedures at most international airports; clearing customs, immigration, and port authorities when arriving by sea on a small vessel can range from the surprisingly simple to a Kafkian nightmare that resembles an episode of The Amazing Race. Sometimes customs officials arrive at your boat within minutes of anchoring and take care of all the paperwork on your vessel (Dominican Republic), other times they seem to purposely hide their existence within sprawling port complexes to make you amble cluelessly as far as possible (Curaçao), and other times you simply have to visit a local coffee shop and check in on a computer (French West Indies). One thing is certain, no two procedures are identical. In some countries, the clearance forms made us wonder just when was the last time they had been updated. For example, in the Bahamas, we had to “list the number of dead and ill on board.” Seriously? If I had dead crewmembers aboard Pura Vida, I would not be calmly sitting in a port office completing a form by hand in carbon-paper triplicate.

The differing procedures are part of the experience. The more remote the place, the more exciting it seems. That is why we were overcome with anticipation at arriving in the Guna Yala (San Blas Islands) in Panama just over a year ago. This isolated archipelago had loomed in our minds and danced in our dreams for years.

Remote and isolated anchorages abound in the Guna Yala

Fast forward twelve months and we find ourselves arriving back in the Guna Yala. This time, as “seasoned” sailors familiar with the area. This is the second time we have changed our plans to spend an extra season in a place we love. We previously did this in the Eastern Caribbean, and spent almost two years sailing up and down the chain of islands from the Virgin Islands to Grenada and back, twice.

The feeling is completely different when making landfall in a well-known destination. We call it “going back for seconds at the buffet.” This time, you know what you like and what you want to avoid, you get a little more of your favorite stuff. You may even have room on your plate to try those exotic little things you were unsure about the first time. The thrill of exploring new regions is replaced with a joyous feeling of coming home; a delight of consistency that too often alludes us nomads.

Our 2019 track  in the Guna Yala was all over the place. This year, we’re focusing on our favorites.

It is as close to a homecoming as we experience during our travels. Those narrow, shallow, reef-laden channels into anchorages that had us on pins and needles the first time around, now seem wide and welcoming. The foreboding storm clouds forming over the mountains now signal familiar weather patterns instead of alarming us. Dying winds tell us when it is time to leave an anchorage to avoid the bugs instead of learning the hard way, and itching for a week covered in tiny bites. Even the local boat merchants greet us with “welcome back,” as they recognize us and Pura Vida.

Local fishermen in a traditional dugout called an “ulu”
Fishermen regularly offer us crab, lobster, and fish

Daily life in the Guna Yala as a familiar territory becomes different too. We develop a more relaxed routine without feeling a need to explore every anchorage. We settle in to do more mundane activities. We read more, we do more boat chores, try new recipes, and we stay put in one location longer than before. The patterns of nature become noticeably palpable. We know which anchorages to visit during windy days and which to avoid in all but the calmest conditions. At one anchorage, we knew to anticipate a visit from a heron every evening. At another, we started recognizing the same pelicans fishing each morning. The subtleties we missed the first time around became unambiguous and sharpen like the details of a forest emerging from darkness in the light of dawn.

This pelican became easy to spot once we noticed a missing feather on his right wing
A hard day at the office
Never get tired of the view from my hammock
Floating in crystal clear waters
Visiting uninhabited islands by dinghy is one of our favorite pastimes

While the coziness and comfort of returning to a familiar destination can lull us into complacency, it also allows us time to research and plan the next adventure. We rest contented and allow ourselves to unwind partly because we know it is not permanent. A new passage to an unfamiliar location lurks just around the corner. Our self-imposed timeline keeps us moving at a pace that balances our craving for exploration with our desire for a respite. We love putting down roots and getting to know a place, and the impending departure, whether it’s a week or several months away, makes us appreciate where we are and savor the moment that much more.

We know we will miss the serenity of the Guna Yala once we leave on our next adventure