Over 15,000 kilometers covered.
$133 spent on gas.
A lot of Einstock beer, Icelandic hot dogs, stinky socks and laughs-till-we-cried.
It is so difficult to capture Iceland in just one blog post. Every day was so different, every time we turned our heads the landscape changed.
I’m going to break up my posts on the trip so it’s not too much in one:
Days 1 & 2: arrival, Blue Lagoon, hostel check-in and the city; Southern Iceland, featuring Skogafoss, the black sand beach of Vik, Seljalandsfoss and dinner
Day 3: Waffles, Bruarfoss, Strokkur, Gullfoss, cave exploring.
Days 4 & 5: Hallgrímskirkja church, the Secret Lagoon, night out, glacier hiking
Day 6: Northern Lights tour with Sterna Travel and leaving
If you haven’t already noticed, Iceland is mind-blowing. Every day of our trip was filled with endless adventure, and we felt so blessed every minute of it; from the vastness of the outer space-esque emerald green moss covered rocks spanning for miles beneath a multi-colored sunrise sky (when we first arrived, this was the scene we drove through as we headed into the city at 5 a.m. as Zombie by The Cranberries played softly in the background – so Iceland) to the snow-capped mountains, boiling hot water springs and an exploding geyser in our face, to exploring the colorful city of Reykjavik and learning about the culture of the people.
We left the snowstorm stricken Massachusetts and set flight for Iceland on Monday, April 4. The flight with WOW Air was okay besides a few moments of turbulence where we’d drop what felt like a few feet in the air and I’d grab Heather’s hand and we’d share a look of fear.
Once we arrived, we walked about 3 minutes across the street to pick up our car at Blue Car Rental. Renting a car was one of the best choices we made. It is the most convenient, cheap, and stress free way to see Iceland. There is no out-of-city transportation besides spending hundreds of dollars on a tour to sit on a giant bus with a bunch of people, waiting in line and capturing a crowd of people in all of your photos, and we had the freedom to stop whenever we wanted to take photos and pet the majestic horses of Iceland.
Our car rental was 57.800 isk ($464), and we split that between the two of us ($232 each). Originally, we got a Toyota Yaris, but were upgraded to a Kia Sportage (AWD baby!) for a reason unbeknownst to us when we arrived. All we did was sign a paper, hook up the GPS (also essential), and were thrown the keys and on our way!
It was like we just stepped off a spaceship and were driving around on the moon. There was not a soul to be seen, just us and the burning sun rising over a landscape of dried lava into a pool of pink clouds.
I think I can say for the both of us that our first impression exceeded any expectations. As we drove along with the sun slowly peeking over a vast flatness, it seemed as if we were on the edge of the Earth, and the sun was bigger than we had ever witnessed. At one point, Beans (a.k.a Heather) said, “I feel so close to the sky here.”
The city was pretty barren at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. We stumbled upon an open bakery and ordered coffee and pastries – a ham and cheese croissant, powdered donut stuffed with jelly, and Kleina (Icelandic twisted donut).
We headed back towards the airport at 8 a.m. for the Blue Lagoon (45 minutes from the city) which opens at 9. It was not that busy for just opening – Heather was really concerned about changing in front of other women in the lockers; European women just don’t care. I didn’t either but we held towels up for each other and then made our way out into the smoking turquoise waters. Finally, we could relax.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa, and it is essentially a body of mineral-rich water that is heated by the energy from the Earth (by a lava flow nearby). The water is filled with sulfur and the pool is regarded to be healthy and rejuvenating for our skin. It is in fact, however, a man-made attraction.
Heather and I got sparkling wine from the swim-up bar and waded in the pool.
After a few hours, we left and headed back to the city to check into our hostel. We were exhausted.
Kex Hostel is a hip, quirky, and cozy temporary abode for travelers; and a hotspot for the locals who come to drink and watch live bands play almost every other night. The hostel is an old biscuit factory swarming with character: old maps, grungy couches with mustard yellow pillows, plastic baby doll heads lining a welcoming bookshelf, diagrams of the body on bathroom doors…
The bar/restaurant area is great for hanging out with perfect window views of Mount Esja and located within walking distance of the main strip, Laugavegur, and all the shops and restaurants. (Including Bonus, the cheapest grocery and convenience store in the city/country.)
Kex also has a kitchen on each floor with a place for dining, and people leave leftover food behind like cookies, jelly, peanut butter and fruit. So, although Heather and I made a trip to Bonus for some Icelandic chocolate, bread, fruit, and skyrr, we used leftover jam and pb for day trip-packed lunches to save on spending money out.
After checking in, we immediately sat downstairs for a burger. I told Heather the same: It was the best and juiciest burger I ever had. I don’t know if it’s just because I was starving and feeling almost faint for lack of sleep in almost 48 hours and a 4 hour time change, but the Spicy “freedom” burger is made with free range and grass-fed beef from Doddi at Hals (from what I understand, a farm in Iceland), with Isbui cheese, caramelized onion mayonnaise and arugula.
After we ate, we napped in our bunk bed for about 2 hours. We had a full day of glacier hiking on Tuesday and no energy. After two hours, I woke up feeling so strange – similar to the way I felt when I first arrived in Italy 3 years ago – like my body had overcome with fear and I was somewhere I didn’t belong. I think maybe, for me, traveling ensues this initial feeling of fear in me once it is actually happening, but I quickly got over it. I wonder if it was lack of sleep -still, or just that groggy, weird feeling you have when you wake up from a daytime nap and have that sleepy taste in your mouth like you’ve been sleeping for years and don’t know what’s going on.
Also, I’m crazy.
I felt so safe in our hostel and with Beans.
We both took hot showers to rejuvenate ourselves (there are single-use shower rooms and a multi-use one which I ended up using each time-but there was never anyone else in there with me) and then we walked out and around the corner (literally) to Laugavegur, the main street in Reykjavik. There is color everywhere in magnificently detailed street art, painted residential buildings and quirky art from behind shop windows. We spotted a sign that read, “BIG BRUNCHES, WAFFLES, GLASSES of WINE and CHEESES, LIVE MUSIC.”
It was kind of a no-brainer.
Little did we know, we were at one of the oldest cafes in Reykjavik, Tiu Dropar Café, known for their grandma’s recipe-inspired Icelandic pancake – pönnuköku – which is served with whipped cream and jam. It was an intimate basement cafe with a selection of beer, wines, coffees and baked goods. We ordered wine and a cheese tray with prosciutto, cheese, crackers, olives and strawberry jam.
The guys working there looked like California surfers – everyone in Iceland is just beyond naturally gorgeous looking – and were so friendly.
I later found out this phrase: “Peim var eg verster eg unni mest” translates to “The one I treated the worst was the one I loved best” which was apparently famously said by a female viking, Guðrln Ósvífsdóttir. You can read the story here, but I’m not sure where it originates or if it’s true, but the quote is rather chilling.
Day 2 of Iceland didn’t go as planned.
We set off around 9 a.m. with a backpack filled with extra layers, water, 2 apples, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and skyrr. After fiddling with the GPS for 15 minutes for Sólheimajökull glacier where we were due to hike that day, we set off to meet our Arctic Adventures tour in the parking lot at 11:30.
Our GPS said the ETA was 12:10. So I was freaking out a little.
I gunned it the whole way there, passing cars and tour buses and flying past fields of yellow grass, majestic snow-capped mountains, giant green plateaus and the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls. I cut ten minutes off our drive and we finally turned left onto a winding paved road to a bare parking lot. We continued down the road a bit to find another parking lot filled with tour busses, but Arctic Adventures was nowhere to be seen. A guide from another tour informed us that they were usually late, so our hearts took a deep breath for a short minute before we then found out from another source at the cafe there that Arctic Adventures actually meets at the previous lot we were at. We jumped back in the car and drove back up the winding paved road – but the lot was still empty. It was almost 12:30 and they were over an hour late or were long gone. We drove back down the winding paved road again – to stop at the cafe in the second parking lot and call Arctic Adventures. We couldn’t continue on with our day without making sure we could reschedule the tour because we had obviously missed it.
The cafe let us use their phone and I finally got in touch with the tour office.
The tour had been cancelled. An email had been sent out that morning. AND WE DIDN’T CHECK OUR EMAIL.
Heather and I got back in the car and decided to make a day out of being in the southern part of Iceland. We already had a day trip planned for another day to visit the waterfalls and black sand beach in Vik, so we backtracked a few hundred kilometers to see the waterfalls and get back into a positive mood, then drove back towards the glacier to head towards Vik.
First stop was the Skogafoss waterfall, standing tall at 197′ situated between two massive green cliffs. It’s the wider of the two main waterfalls on the road, giving you the option to climb up the cliffs beside the falls to the top and hike along the river over the hills behind it.
If you get close enough, a rainbow appears from the mist of the pool of water. It’s magic. There’s no other way to describe how unreal it seems.
After Skogafoss, we headed towards Vik, which is the southern most village in Iceland, about 180 km and two hours from Reykjavik. The village is very small (291 inhabitants as of 2011 according to Wikipedia) – again, not a soul to be seen besides us, a tour bus that pulled up behind us on the beach and the cashier at a local souvenir store – in contrast to the massive mountains that we skirted to get there.
The black sand of the beaches is made up of volcanic rock. The village of Vik actually lies beneath a glacier which sits on top of the Katla volcano which is rumored to erupt soon and obliterate the entire town. I read online that the town practices drills regularly and are trained to rush to the church at the top of the hill for safety.
As we entered the village, it began to drizzle and a misty haze sat in the air over the beach. The waves were all white and wild as they rose probably 10 ft into the air and curled, crashing into the black ash shore as if the world was black and stark white.
Mind you, the above photo and photo below are in the same day – there is a saying in Iceland that if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes -because it could be snowing or raining one second, and then blue skies and bright sun the next.
Our drive back was just crazy – we passed hundreds of miles of grassy farmland with galloping horses and feeding cows; with little houses in the middle of nowhere, sitting beneath hovering snow-capped mountains; wooden fortresses build into rolling hills, keeping what one could imagine would be dragons or some type of mythical creature.
On the way home, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss. Prepare to get wet if you get close to this beautiful beast, or want to take the path to walk behind it.
The day ended with a hearty meal at Frederiksen Ale House, which is known for their great cocktails. We just got wine, though and I ordered the lamb shank, which came with roasted onion hearts, caramelized carrots, feta cheese and mashed potato. Beans ordered the licorice salted cod – even though she hates licorice – but I think she felt like she had to order it. Licorice is everywhere in Iceland – chocolate covered licorice is everywhere and I even saw licorice soap.
As I keep telling friends and family, Iceland didn’t have the most amazing food, but I loved trying all the different flavors that they incorporate in their dishes – that was really fun.
After all, it was such a wonderful day, and we were blessed with warm and sunny weather- for Iceland. Beans and I rescheduled our glacier hiking tour for Friday.
Stay tuned for day 3: the best day of our lives.