Sissy and I were on our way to see each other for the first time since Puerto Rico. We were flying into Keflavik, the town that houses the international airport near Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, on separate flights that were landing at the same time. There was a lot of planning involved in this trip, which isn’t our favorite way to travel, however since June, July, and August are the high season in Iceland, we had to pre-book everything a month in advance. We would have 11 days in the land of fire and ice, and were going to drive the ring road, which is road 1, around the island counter-clockwise. This trip was the start of our month in Europe before we would head to Africa for a long overland journey. I was coming from a two day stop in New York, which I flew into from Reno, as I hadn’t been there before and it was cheaper than flying from Reno to Reykjavik. Sissy was coming from Munich after a layover in Hamburg. Our flights landed at midnight and we expected it to be dark, both because neither of us had seen the midnight sun before, and because we had read the sun would set at midnight and rise at 3am. As we got our bags and headed to our car rental shuttle, we saw the sun was barely hiding behind the mountains and it wasn’t anywhere near dark outside.
We were shuttled a short distance from the airport to a set of hangars, where we would get our rental car. It was the end of June when we got there, which meant we were in the middle of high season, and car rentals were ridiculously expensive. An average compact car rental was $100 per day, with a 4×4 that was needed to go into the highlands and on the F-roads closer to $200 per day. I had just quit my job and we were traveling on savings, so we went with the only cheaper alternative we could find, which is a company called SADcars. SADcars specializes in renting cars 10 years old or older, at a discounted rate. Our rental was $50 per day, and we had read mixed reviews before renting. We were given the keys to a late 90s Toyota Yaris that had obviously been in more crashes than we cared to think about, but unlike the other rentals that had gone out before ours, it didn’t have the check engine light on!
Luckily Sissy had spotted a sign for our hotel, the Airport Inn, as we were being driven to our car rental office. We skipped the 10 euro per day GPS unit option and drove toward the sign, which pointed us down a nearby road. It took a total of 5 minutes from SADcars to our hotel, which uses a self check in and out method, where your room key sits in an envelope with your name on it. We learned then, and more so later on, that there is virtually no crime on the 350,000 person island that is Iceland.
The next day we drove 45 minutes from Keflavik to Reykjavik, so we could see the largest city in the country. We saw the top of the famous church from the street as we drove in, and easily found free parking within meters of the paid parking. The town is relatively small by any American or European city’s standards, and was easy to navigate as we walked around the shops and cafes. The church, Hallgrimskirkja, seemed more like a tourist attraction as we checked it out. They sold tickets to go to the top of the tower and the doors were wide open to the public. Tourists were inside taking pictures throughout the church as a few people prayed.
In Reykjavik we observed how much Icelandic people think of their trolls and elves as we walked past giant trolls in the street, and we saw elf memorabilia all over. A study was conducted a few years back which showed that roughly half of Icelandic people believe in trolls and elves, which becomes evident as you talked to the locals. Beyond the elves and trolls, we saw lots of Viking memorabilia in the shops. We ate at the Babalu Café, which has a nice terrace area on top that Sissy loved, and decently priced food that was very good. Eating out seemed to be on par with the US and Germany for pricing in Reykjavik, at least in that café and another we had lunch at. We had read on a travel blog that hot dogs were the way to go to save money, but we never saw a single hot dog stand throughout the city.
After a few hours in Reykjavik we had seen our fill, it was time to head to the famous Blue Lagoon, which is a bit south east of Keflavik. We had booked our trip in advance, which was a wise move as we showed up and saw a big parking lot full of cars and well over 100 people inside. As you walk to the entrance there’s a path that veers left that allows you to walk around and see the geothermal pools as they are naturally. There’s a white substance coating the black lava rock as the water meets the air, which we learned is a naturally produced silica, which coats the bottom and sides of the geothermal pools there. It took us about 15 minutes to get through the line to get in, where we were met with crowded locker rooms and not enough lockers. In winter this would be an ideal trip, but in the middle of summer it was a zoo. Make sure to bring your own flip flops and towel as there’s a $15 charge for those if not.
The Blue Lagoon was nice despite the throngs of tourists. Once we got in the silica coating made walking and wading around easy on our feet, even though the area was surrounded by sharp lava rock. There are tubs of liquid silica that they gather from the lagoon that are set out for people to put on their face, which is supposed to be good for your skin. The water in the lagoon was very blue, apparently it naturally filters through the rock and is completely fresh every 48 hours. While the water is warm in the lagoon, it isn’t nearly as warm as a hot tub, so the steam rising may be more due to the cold air than the hot water. All in all the $45 per person charge was worth it as it was a relaxing experience and relatively unique. We’ve both been in plenty of hot springs before, but being in one in such a cold place that’s made of lava rock and so pleasant to move around it made it worthwhile.
After the Blue Lagoon we headed to Laugarvatn to the town’s hostel. A private room in the hostels we stayed in throughout the country averaged about $75 per night, with dorm room beds going for around $35 per person when available which were the cheapest things we could find. We expected a typical hostel with a bar and some shabby rooms, however that’s not at all what we experienced. The hostel in Laugarvatn was hard to identify even though it was on the main road in town, as it was under renovations, however when we entered we found an extremely clean hotel with shared kitchens, no dorms that we saw, and each room had an ensuite bathroom. Out of our window we had a gorgeous view of a lake and a nice full kitchen down the hall for us to cook our food, as we were saving money by not eating out pretty much the rest of the trip. We pulled the curtains on the window which helped block out some of the 24 hours of light per day Iceland gets in summer.
The next morning we set off to see Geysir (pronounced Gay-sure), the geyser all others are named after. It erupts every 3-10 minutes and has shot as high as 80 meters before. We drove two hours to the site and saw a huge store on the side of the road with Geysir written on it. There were cars and tourists all over, which we started to learn would be the trend at almost every stop we would make. It was common for us to drive for an hour without seeing another car, however the second we would stop throughout the entire trip, there would be 5 massive tour buses and 50 cars. We walked into the shop, assuming it was the entrance to see Geysir, however after walking out of the shop, we realized the actual site is across the street through a small gate. Walking up we saw small geothermal pools and steam rising from the ground. When we got to Geysir we joined the group waiting for it to go off, which was a short wait. Every three minutes by David’s watch the geyser erupted, sometimes small 5 meter high ones, sometimes larger, around 15 meters high. After watching it go off a number of times, we moved on down the road to Gullfoss, a large powerful waterfall, and one of a massive number of falls we would see on the trip.
From there we drove on for a bit to Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall that you can walk behind and all the way around. This was one waterfall that was especially beautiful and it was great to walk behind it and get wet from the spray. There’s a small path to the left of the fall as you face it which leads to a very narrow canyon. We walked down to the river and followed the canyon, which is as narrow as two meters wide at a point, and were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall wedged between two high rock walls, which is named Gljufrabui. Not many people were at this fall since it’s hard to see and figure out how to get to it. After that we moved onto the 1 road and drove east until our next waterfall stop, which was Skogafoss.
Skogafoss is a tall, powerful waterfall with a hike up the right side to get to the top. There’s a great lookout point that wasn’t very crowded about half way up the hike, down a narrow trail on the left. This lead to a tall bump that made a sort of natural seat that no one felt like sitting on besides me. It may have been the 20 meter drop surrounding it that kept people off, however it provided a phenomenal view. Once at the top of the fall there’s a ladder that we climbed over a barbed wire fence and hiked on, seeing the snowcapped mountains in the near distance. There were sheep grazing on the hills nearby and more small waterfalls moving toward Skogafoss. None of the hikes we encountered at the major stops, which are typically marked by a white sign with red writing, were very challenging, however they could typically be made tougher by continuing on after the normal trail ended. Most of the hikes around these major stopping areas were 2-5kms without adding anything on.
The next day was one that I had been looking forward to, when we’d move from the green, wet, and waterfall rich southwest, to the icy, glacier rich south. On the way toward Skaftafell, which is at the base of the Vatnojokull glacier, we stopped at Reynisfjara, which is a black sand beach with Puffins nesting on the rocks! It was raining really hard when we got there, so we saw the really cool rocks sticking up out of the sea, checked out some puffins, and ran back to the car soaking wet.
Fjadrargyufur was our next stop, which is a beautiful green canyon with a river running through it and waterfalls dropping down the sides. The greatest thing about this canyon is that there are narrow paths that drop off to nowhere all along the sides of it, creating great places to stand with the canyon dropping away all around you. One of my favorite activities while hiking is to stand on the edge of high drop-offs, so I was having a blast with so many of them to stand on. An hour or so after leaving the canyon Skaftafell was in view.
It was our first time seeing a glacier, and this one happened to be one of the largest in the world. Glaciers cover about 11% of Iceland, with Vatnojokull covering about 8% by itself. Eyjafjallojokull is on the way toward Skaftafell, which is where the volcano eruption happened in 2010 that grounded all flights over that part of the Atlantic ocean. That region is also where a part of one of my favorite movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was set. When we arrived at Skaftafell we learned that you could only explore ice caves in the winter, as they were melting now that it was summer, and were very unstable. We learned that tours of the glacier weren’t cheap either, starting around $75 and moving up toward $300+ per person. We hiked to Svartifoss, a waterfall surrounded by volcanic basalt columns, while debating if we should pay so much to walk on a glacier or not. We drove over to Svinafellsjokull, a glacial outlet of Vatnojokull, and hiked around it for a bit, before heading on to our next stop. We would try to get onto a glacier without a guide we decided, and if that failed we would drive back to Skaftafell the next day and pay for a guide to take us up.
About 45 minutes from Skaftafell we stopped at Jokusarlon, a huge glacial lagoon at the base of a glacier with a river flowing into it from the ocean at the end opposite the glacier. There were seals swimming in the icy lagoon and huge chunks of blue ice floating around and crashing into each other. This was one of our favorite parts of the trip, as the lagoon looked like something from another world. A short ways away was the beach near the mouth of the river that flowed into the lagoon, which was extremely unique as well. The beach was black sand, made from lava rock, and had huge chunks of blue ice all over it. You could watch the waves splash over the ice chunks on the beach, some of which were pushed pretty far up the shore. It was a really amazing thing to see as we had never thought of lava rock and ice being together in one place before.
The next day we headed back to Skaftafell and decided to pay a guide to take us on a glacier as we hadn’t found a way onto one ourselves thus far. When we were about 10 minutes away we stopped for gas and when I went to start the car again we learned that the battery had died. Luckily a tour company was renting the old convenience store at the gas station and they were nice enough to give us a jump. When we got to Skaftafell we paid our $75 each to Iceland Mountain Guides, got bused back to Svinafellsjokull, and strapped on our crampons. We hiked around on the glacier for an hour and a half or so, learning about how they’re formed, how their march down the mountainside occurs, and the rate at which they’re beginning to disappear in Iceland. It was our first time walking in crampons, and it was really cool to be able to climb up and down solid ice with little fear of slipping. While it was really amazing learning about the glaciers, it still felt a little too guided, so we decided while standing on the glacier, that we’d find our own way onto one without a guide that day. We got our sad car jumped again and made another stop at Jokulsarlon, taking turns walking around as we needed to keep the car running. We headed to a mechanic in Hofn, the town we were staying, that SADcars told us would replace the battery for us. With a fresh battery in our ageing Yaris, we were back on the road toward a small glacial outlet near our hostel.
We drove 7km on a gravel road to Flaajokull, where we had read you could get onto the glacier in places. The site we read it on was also from 2007, but we kept our fingers crossed and tried anyway. One interesting thing about 24 hours of daylight is that our concept of time was very skewed. We got to the foot of the glacier at around 7pm and still had lunch left in our daypack and no worries about hurrying up before the sun set. After hiking to the foot of the glacier we were a bit disappointed to find the standard glacial lagoon covering any possible entrance to the glacier that could be seen. After looking and hypothesizing on ways to get to the ice for about 15 minutes, we decided Vatnajokull had gotten the best of us and decided to turn back and head for the car. Just as we were going to lose sight of the glacier Sissy noticed a group of four guys hiking away from the glacier along what looked like an impassable cliff to the left of the lagoon. We hurried to catch them as they got to the trailhead before they could head off to their car. They told us that you could indeed touch the glacier from the way they had come, however they weren’t 100% sure we could really get on the glacier. They were 100% sure however that jumping into the lagoon onto small icebergs was a bad idea, as one of their soaked pants and boots were evidence of.
We excitedly headed toward the glacier on this seemingly treacherous path. After a short 15 minute hike we came to the edge of the glacier. Staring into the crevasses was very cool, but I had to get onto the glacier, so I strapped my metal treads to my boots (you can’t call these things crampons because they weren’t even close), and climbed up. After carefully exploring a small piece of the glacier I got back off and was excited to see a small ice cave in the side of the ice wall. Water was dropping all around as the roof of the cave melted. I took a few steps into the blue ice cave, looked around, and got back out quickly as no part of it seemed stable.
The following day we would head east toward the fjords, lakes, and of course more waterfalls, while dodging the extremely numerous amounts of sheep on the roads along the way. We would continue to try to decide if there were more sheep or waterfalls in this beautiful country, we’d see more of the famous Icelandic horses along the roads, and we’d fall in love with the gorgeous scenery the east had to offer. To read more about it, read our next post about East and North Iceland! If you haven’t yet, make sure to subscribe!