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I've just spent a year of service with an AmeriCorps program in Boston and it was...so many things. I stretched, grew, and learned an immense amount. But a lot of self was also lost along the way. Current American political climate as it stands certainly hasn't helped. Originally, this trip was meant as a reward to self for finishing the entirety of the program, and as something to plan for and look forward to when the days got especially long. Along the way I realized it had become something more: A way to get my soul back into balance.
A place I'd never been with people who remind me of who my best self is. Because that's who they bring out of me. Mental health professional I am definitely not, but this formula seems to work pretty well for me:
Nature + new surroundings + friendship = peace
Day 1: FLY IN & Reykjavik
WOW Air is a new but quickly growing airline that offers "cheap flights to Iceland and Europe from USA and Canada." They are a huge part of how I could afford to take this trip even after living on an AmeriCorps volunteer's stipend. I flew out from Boston on a Friday evening and landed at Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavik in the wee hours of the morning. After meeting up with my travel companions we were picked up by Lagoon Rental and taken to our car (a Kia Rio, the cutest car in the land!). We drove to our hostel (Bus Hostel Reykjavik) to kill time while waiting for the city to wake up. Another option to spend the early morning that a lot of travelers take is to go to the Blue Lagoon first thing. We didn't get around to making our reservations in time for that though.
Reykjavik isn't all that big and is very walk-able, so once mid-morning came around we walked toward Hallgrímskirkja, the huge church that can be seen throughout most of the city. The church was opened in 1986, and the minimalist design was inspired by the natural basalt columns throughout Iceland. We paid 900 kroner ($9) to go to the top of the main tower, and the view did not disappoint. From there we walked through some shops to the water and the Sun Voyager sculpture. It was built to commemorate the 200th birthday of Reykjavik in 1990 and is an ode to the sun. We walked along the water to another huge impressive structure inspired by the basalt: Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center. We spent some time wandering around inside admiring the geometry of the walls and the unreal model-like good looks of some Icelandic people all dressed up for some event. Jet lag was starting to hit hard. It was time to EAT.
We walked uphill towards an area with lots of pedestrians, and asked the girl working the visitor information center for a restaurant recommendation that wouldn't demolish our wallets (Iceland is notoriously rather expensive). She suggested the most perfect bar in all of history: Íslenski Barinn. The fact I hadn't slept or eaten in almost 24 hours may be strongly affecting this analysis, but it was definitely good. Later on in our travels we learned to NOT order things like fin whale and puffin, as they are endangered. In fact, the only reason they're on menus at all is because of tourists. Thank goodness we didn't. I did however order a burger topped with an "Icelandic pancake" that came with a heaping pile of perfectly crispy waffle fries. My companions also recommend the Viking beer.
We headed toward the nearest Bonus discount store to get groceries for our trip. This is how my food budget ended up being so small. Bless you, pink Bonus pig. Our meals mostly consisted of PB&J, pasta with pesto, and various non-perishable snacks. If you're planning your own trip, see a map of Bonus locations here.
Finally, it was 3 pm and time to check into our room at the hostel to crash and nap a bit before our Blue Lagoon reservation. The lagoon is about a 45 minute drive south from both Keflavik and Reykajavik. You must register in advance. It's an international hot spot tourist destination for a reason, and oh is it worth the hype. We got the minimal package and spent several happy hours floating around, playing with the silica mask, and enjoying the bar. I definitely recommend the smoothies and cider. It was also a nice place to shower after all the traveling of the past day or so. It's not only nice, but the pre-shower is mandatory. Much to my [pleasant] surprise, there were options to shower privately which is not usually how these things go in much of the rest of the world. We Americans are typically more prudish than others concerning nudity.
Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
After checking out of our room by 10 pm and getting breakfast at the hostel, we drove to Iceland Camping Equipment Rental to pick up our reservation. I needed a sleeping bag and a mat (for a bit of extra cushion, but also the layer of air keeps you off cold ground), and we also got a 3 person XL tent and a 10 GB mobile hot spot so we could use WiFi for directions. We definitely could have gotten the 5 GB though, we came no where near to using it all. With the WiFi we needed to get a converter so we could plug it in and we also picked up a can of fuel. Lexi brought her JetBoil from previous trips, and we all brought bowls and utensils. All of that and more can be rented though, Iceland Camping Equipment Rental has a ton of options.
Tip: If you think to, bring an adapter so everyone can plug their phones in while driving. Very convenient. Also, if you're not camping and staying in hostels get an adapter anyway so you can plug into the wall.
We were all set to officially begin our road trip, and headed toward the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a bit of a detour from the main ring road but definitely worth it if you have the time. On our way to Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village, we stopped to hike around a bit at a random waterfall. We just couldn't stand driving through so much breathtaking scenery without being in it for a bit. Rauðfeldsgjá ravine was next. It was pretty cool, especially since this is the ravine where the great Bárðar is supposed to have pushed his son Rauðfeldr (see the story below). We walked along the coast at Arnarstapi, all of us barely believing the beauty around every bend. Here is also a huge statue honoring Bárðar. Below is a bit of his epic saga I copied from Wikipedia which is very similar to the plaque we read at Rauðfeldsgjá ravine:
Bárðr's mother was human, but his father was half risi (giant) and half troll, and he was fostered by Dofri, the "mountain-dweller" of Dovrefjell. By his first wife, Dofri's daughter Flaumgerðr (who also had a human mother), Bárðr had three tall, beautiful daughters: Helga, Þordís and Guðrún. By his second wife, Herþrúðr, who was human, he had six more daughters.
Bárðr, his wife and his daughters emigrated to Iceland and came ashore at a lagoon on the south shore of Snæfellsnes which they named Djúpalón; he built himself a farm which he called Laugarbrekka. Þorkell, Bárðr's half-brother from his mother's second marriage to a jötunn, lived at Arnarstapi and had two sons, Rauðfeldr (Red-cloak) and Sölvi. The sons of Þorkell and the daughters of Bárðr used to play together. One day, when there was pack ice along the shore, Rauðfeldr pushed Helga out to sea on an iceberg. She drifted unharmed to Greenland and there found a lover, but Bárðr was infuriated. He pushed Rauðfeldr into the Rauðfeldsgjá ravine and threw Sölvi off Sölvahamar, a high cliff on the coast east of Arnarstapi. Bárðr and Þorkell fought and Þorkell's leg was broken; he moved out of the district.
After these events, Barðr gave away his land and vanished into the Snæfellsjökull ice cap. He became known as Bárðr Snæfellsáss, meaning the "guardian spirit" of Snæfell, because "they practically worshipped him on the peninsula and called upon him in times of difficulty. For many he also proved to be a source of real help in need". He wandered the region "in a grey cowl with a walrus-hide rope around him, and a cleft staff in his hand with a long and thick gaff," which he used when walking on glaciers. He brought Helga back from Greenland, but she pined for her lover and could not stand to stay with her father. When called on, he rowed out alone to save Ingjald of Ingjaldshvoll, who had been lured to a dangerous fishing spot by a troll-woman and kept there by a mysterious fellow fisherman who called himself Grímr and whom people thought "must have been Thor." He and Þorkell are said to have made peace and lived together for a while.
Next we drove to the tip of the peninsula to see the Lóndrangar Basalt Cliffs in Snaefellsjoekull National Park. We could actually walk out directly to the columns and sit on them for a while. There was no one around. Just us and the gulls and the grass and the sea.
Our final stop was supposed to be Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and mountain, but it had started raining and neither could be seen very well. This was our first taste of how the rain could put a serious damper on things, and we spent the rest of the trip avoiding it. This wasn't too hard with the Icelandic weather app "Vedur" and the midnight sun. We would just stay up really "late" sight seeing and nap during the afternoon rains. It worked out perfectly. Going to Iceland in June isn't prime time for seeing the northern lights, but the continual daylight is an experience in-and-of-itself. Bring an eye mask if light keeps you from sleeping.
We reached the town of Grundarfjörður and proceeded to set up camp. Look for the blue signs with a tent, they're all over the country. Not gonna lie, the first night setting up the tent was a little tricky. It was also still drizzling. And the ground at this particular campsite was rocky. But we prevailed.
Day 3: Drive to Lake Myvatn
We slept in and woke up to bright sunshine, so I took some pictures of our campground since the night before had been so dreary. Today was scheduled to be a longer drive as we headed north toward a town called Akureyi. We stopped once in a field of lupine (purple flowers) and once for a herd of ponies with lots of babies. We took a bit of a detour from the main ring road to see Hvítserkur, a basalt stack that is supposed to look like a dragon drinking. We took the opportunity to cook some pasta in bulk and chat with a nice older Icelandic man from Egilsstaðir and his traveling companion. They were very interested in helping us although their English was limited and we didn't really need any help. They shared their chocolate snacks and went on to their Icelandic folk music festival.
Since we had slept so late and the day was so sunny, we decided to drive through Akureyi on to Lake Myvatn. Akureyi is situated near water, and our drive took us up a hillside opposite the town, overlooking the lake. STUNNING. Everything for the rest of the day was pretty spectacular actually. The sun never fully set, but it dipped low enough to create really beautiful light all over an already impossibly beautiful landscape. It was in the midst in this sort of extended magic hour that we reached Goðafoss, our first major waterfall. We stayed for a long time, trying to capture the light in both our lenses and our memories. I really can't use enough words describing beauty to do the scene justice. Just look at some of the pictures.
We drove on towards Myvatn and stopped to take pictures of the light turning mountains in the distance pink. We also stopped to see some really cool pseudo-craters surrounding a lake that was a bird paradise. By this time it was past mid-night so we had the place to ourselves. Seriously, just look at the pictures.
We finally set up camp at Bjarg campsite, or Camping Myvatn, around 2 am. This campsite was pretty special because it was right on the lake. Lots of grass though, so it was here we learned that where there's grass, there's a million zillion tiny gnat-like bugs that are drawn to moisture. Like the kind in your eyeballs.
The care taker here was pretty special too. He had bright white hair, shockingly blue eyes, and a gentle voice. He took our money and went to go get the sticker to go put on our tent, and it wasn't until after he walked away we though, "Wait, that would be a really clever scam. How do we know he is who he says he is?" Which turns out was a ridiculous thought. Every Icelandic person we had any contact with was nothing but insanely pleasant.
Day 4: Explore Myvatn Area
Since we went ahead and drove all the way to Lake Myvatn the day before, we had all day to explore the area today. We woke up really early to beat the afternoon rain, which was awesome because we also beat the tourist buses. First we took a steep walk up Hverfjall Crater, a tuff ring volcano that erupted in 2500 BC. It consists entirely of black rock and felt very moon-like. We just went to the top and back down, but if we had wanted to walk around the whole thing it would have taken about an hour.
Next we went to the Námafjall Hverir geothermal area. It was like going from the moon to mars. Red dirt, steaming vents, and bubbling mud pots all swathed in the smell of sulfur. It reminded us a bit of Yellowstone National Park. We were especially thankful to have beat the tour buses here.
We drove up the road a ways to the Krafla Viti crater lake. On the way, we drove through an area that had a facility for harnessing geothermal energy. "In 2014, roughly 85% of primary energy use in Iceland came from indigenous renewable resources. There of 66% was from geothermal.In 2014, roughly 85% of primary energy use in Iceland came from indigenous renewable resources. There of 66% was from geothermal." That's pretty dang impressive.
Any Game of Thrones fans? Well a lot of the scenes from the North were shot in Iceland. You know that Jon Snow sex cave? It's a cave with a hot springs pool in the Myvatn area called Grjótagjá.
We then took a huge afternoon nap through the rain and woke up to go to the Myvatn Hot Springs. A smaller version of the Blue Lagoon, the shower was very welcome.
Then, since we had gotten in the habit of staying up so late we drove on to see the Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls. Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and you can definitely feel the power. I recommend taking the short walk to the smaller Selfoss too. There are no ropes or pathways, so if you're feeling brave you can walk right up to the edge. Which we of course preferred.
Day 5: Drive to Seyðisfjörður
We left the Myvatn area and headed east, towards a town called Seyðisfjörður. On the way, we attempted to take a short detour to find a basalt canyon Lexi had found directions to in a WOW Air magazine. They led us down a winding, gravel mountainside road through the countryside with lots of really adorable sheep wandering into our way. The directions got a bit fuzzy, so we stopped to ask one of the only people we had seen along the road for help. She was planting trees to "save the Earth," and apparently the directions were trying to lead us to her grandmother's farm. They had noticed more people coming to the area, but didn't know why. I don't think they have any idea tourists are being directed to a canyon running through their property. Seems pretty rude to me, honestly. Shame on whoever is doing that without the landowners' permission.
Anyway. She called her grandmother and asked if it would be okay if we hiked around a bit, and she said it was. So to our slight embarrassment, we parked our out-of-place little rental near a barn and explored the canyon. See pics below.
We moved onward to Seyðisfjörður, turning off the ring road and up and down a mountain pass to get to the coastal town. We were in a bit of a hurry to pitch our tent before the predicted rain hit. The Vedur app was spot-on the entire time, and we used it to plan each day around the rain. The campground was pretty crowded, because it was Wednesday night and apparently it's always crowded then due to a ferry departing for Europe on Thursday mornings. Even so, we had no problem finding a space to pitch our tent, and used the rain as a good excuse to spend some time cooking more pasta in bulk in their kitchen facilities. We didn't have to cook anymore the rest of the trip! The rain was really coming down, so we played some cards in our tent and turned in early so we could wake up early.
Day 6: Drive to Skaftafell National Park
We woke up early and took a short walk around Seyðisfjörður. Like most things so far, the town was stunning. I especially liked a pale blue church building backed by mountains. Pics below. We drove back to the ring road via the curvy mountain pass and made double sure to fuel up in Egilsstaðir, as several sources had told us this would be the longest stretch without gas. If you have much of a problem with motion sickness, I'd bring something. This day in particular had a lot of gravel, winding, up & downs. Beautiful coastal and mountain views, but a little tummy turning at times if you're prone to those sorts of things.
Our main attraction for the day was Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón glacier lagoons bordering Vatnajökull National Park, made because of the Vatnajökull Glacier. This glacier is the largest in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. Like most glaciers right now though, it's definitely shrinking. Parts of the glacier are still in view, and there were icebergs that had broken off floating in the lagoons. We walked around Jökulsárlón for a while throwing rocks and watching ducks. Here is where we really started to notice crowds, and as we drew closer to Reykjavik over the next couple days things definitely got less intimate-feeling.
We moved on to Skaftafell National Park where we pitched our tent and took a 30 minute hike right near our campsite to see Svartifoss, a waterfall surrounded by basalt columns. Lovely.
Day 7: Drive to Skogafoss
We woke up early so we wouldn't have to take down our tent in the rain promised for the rest of the day and proceeded to drive across a black moon-like lava field toward our next destination. The wind was INSANE. We did not envy the tour bus drivers. We stopped and walked around the faerie-like winding green Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon with insanely clear water. I felt that there must be trolls hiding in the corners.
We drove through massive fields of lupine to reach Reynisfjara black sand beach with basalt columns, large caves, and sea stacks. Pretty neat.
Next stop was the Sólheimasandur crash site from where a U.S. Navy plane ran out of fuel and crash landed in 1973. Apparently everyone survived, but they left the plane and now it's a pretty awesome photo-op. Plane wreckage. Black gravel. The sea. You get the idea. From the parking area it's about a 45-minute walk one way, so be prepared for that. The huge mountains and sea created the illusion of a short walk.
Next up was Skogafoss, a huge waterfall falling right into a large pool of water that is even with the ground. It's hard to explain why this is cool, just look at the pictures. You can climb up to the top of it too, which I opted out of due to a bit of ill-timed nausea.
We went ahead and moved on to Seljalandsfoss to camp. We pitched our tent down in a valley, which was a perfect way to keep out of the crazy winds. Next, we went to an N1 to feast on a gas station hot dog. This may sound weird, but they come highly recommended. Apparently Icelanders love their hot dogs. It was also nice to sit in a chair at a table just chatting for a bit. When we got back Lexi and I got a burst of energy so we went walked up and around Seljalandsfoss. This is definitely one of my favorites of all the waterfalls we saw because you could WALK BEHIND IT. We also caught it in that magical extended evening light. We got a bit damp of course, but it was totally worth it.
Day 8: The Golden Circle & Reykjavik
We woke up crazy early for this day so we could beat the majority of the tour buses. The Golden Circle is only a day trip from Reykjavik, and can get pretty crowded. Not traveling in China during a national holiday crowded, but still. Our Golden Circle excursion included:
- Kerið crater lake: We saw a long-beaked bird momma and her chicks!
- Golfoss: Pay tribute to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, a woman who is supposed to have been instrumental in preserving the natural beauty of these falls.
- Geysir & Strokkur: Geysir itself is where the English word "geyser" is derived from. It's bigger than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but takes a while in-between eruptions. If you don't have time to hang around, you can definitely catch the smaller Strokkur going off once or twice.
- Þingvellir National Park: The site of Iceland's early parliament, the continental rift, and the passageway to the Eyrie for all you Game of Thrones fans.
Upon returning to Reykjavik we returned our camping gear, checked into the hostel, and returned our now very dirty little Kia Rio. We had a lovely evening walking around Reykjavik in the perpetual twilight. The extended daylight threw us off a bit, so by the time we got around to looking for dinner a lot of kitchens were closed. The bartender at the third place we went to that wasn't serving anymore recommended a pizza place in a house around the corner, and even though I was getting good and hangry I'm SO GLAD THIS HAPPENED. Mikkeller & Friends has craft beer upstairs, cocktails and pizza downstairs, and interesting decor throughout. One of the pizza's we got was a potato pizza, and it was some of the best I've ever had. We also tried shots of an Icelandic liquor called brennivin, which means burnt wine. It's potato-based like vodka, and burns all the way to your core. It's also alternatively known as the Black Death. We topped off the evening with ice cream made in front of you at Joylato and a final walk on the water, and I'd say there's not many better nights to be had.
Day 9: FLYING OUT
We checked out by 10 am, walked to the nearby bus station, and got a ticket on the Flybus Airport Shuttle to Keflavik International Airport. It's really as simple as that.
Break Down of Expenses
Categorized Total Expenses for Iceland
- Flight: WOW Air
- Hostel: Bus Hostel Reykjavik
- Vehicle: Lagoon Car Rental, split 3 ways
- Equipment: Iceland Camping Equipment Rental, split 3 ways
- Campsites: Split 3 ways, take your pick
- Food: Mostly Bonus groceries, some restaurants and gas station snacks
- Gas: Split 3 ways, N1 is our favorite station
- Pre-buys: HeatTech leggings and long sleeve T-shirt from Uniqlo, and this list from Amazon
- Misc: stickers, Blue Lagoon, etc.