Planning a trip to Iceland? Need some answers to burning questions? We learned a lot on our trip that would be helpful for those planning to visit this amazing country. I am an uber-nerd when it comes to planning trips. If I could figure out how to make money being a luxury tour guide ... I totally would. My husband and I seriously talked about what that would look like on this trip. He's always amazed by my itineraries and the research that I put into our travels. Not to mention, I take amazing photographs. Maybe one day I'll find some wealthy benefactors that will pay me to be their guides, but for now, you can have all my travel nerdism for free. It's a few months of planning and I was surprised how hard it was to find direct answers for things about Iceland online, so I hope this is helpful.
It's worth noting that I am an american midwestern white woman and this guide is written from that perspective. My husband and I are what we call "adventure level medium." That means we are adventurous enough to travel to far off places and try new things but not so adventurous that we would sky dive, rock climb or drive motorcycles. We will venture off the beaten path but not if it puts our lives in danger. Iceland seemed like a good place to get hurt so we were cautious.
ICELAND IN 5-10 Days
TOP FIVE THINGS WE WERE GLAD WE DID BEFORE WE LEFT.
Get a WIFI Hotspot. We booked a WIFI hotspot that we could pick up at the airport and drop off in a mailbox at the conclusion of our trip. Iceland has amazing WIFI service all over the island and we never needed to use our cell service. It saves us a ton on roaming fees and allowed us to stream Spotify for our entire trip. This service was great. 60 bucks for the week, unlimited WIFI and could even make phone calls with it.
Do the road trip. Rent the car and do the road trip. Iceland drives on the same side of the road as the US and many of the same laws apply. While the terrain and weather can change on a dime, the highways are beautifully maintained and easy to navigate. There is so much to see and it is really spread out. You'll want to drive all over and you'll want the freedom and flexibility to get around the tourist buses. Make sure you rent an automatic car if you can't drive stick. Most of Iceland's rental cars are stick. Cars are all rented from the same spot just outside the main airport. There are about 5 companies to choose from and they are all lined up in a row. A shuttle will take you over there from the airport. It's super easy.
Buy the rainproof gear. We used it all the time and it also allowed us to walk in places that the crowds couldn't go. Good rain boots, waterproof pants that you can slip on over your jeans and a rain jacket were priceless for all the waterfalls and rain we encountered.
Pack dried goods. Food is expensive. You'll read that in every blog. Honestly, we didn't think it was THAT expensive but we were grateful that we packed nuts, dried noodles, oatmeal and a few premade meals like you would for a hiking trip. It allowed us to be selective about how we spent our food budget. You will pay 20 bucks for a burger - but it'll be the most amazing burger you ever had because Iceland's farming standards are phenomenal. We packed all the dried goods in our boots so they didn't take up extra space in our luggage.
Make a google maps list. I spent some time combing google maps and making a list of favorite places of all the things I wanted to see AND all the things I was interested in seeing. Weather can close a park or attraction at a moments notice and having those extra options already vetted made our days really easy. Here is my google list.
Flights / Seasons
I am a big fan of Iceland Air. We flew to Paris on Iceland Air a few years ago and couldn't beat the prices. The stopover program is also wonderful. We got our roundtrip tickets in late April for 340.00 each. That's right. For less than it costs to go coast to coast in the US. They fly into most major airports so if you live near big city, chances are you can find similar deals.
STOP OVER PROGRAM. If you want to work Iceland into another European vacation, you can. They allow to up to 7 days in Iceland for no additional fee. So you really have no excuse. Going to Barcelona? Add three days in Iceland on the front or back end of your trip.
SUMMER IS MOST EXPENSIVE. Most people try and go in the summer. High season allows you to explore the highlands when the roads are safe for travel. If that is important to you, you will pay more for your flights. I recommend booking all your lodging and car rentals far in advance for summer. It is a small island and things can book really fast.
TRAVEL IN THE OFF SEASON. I always like to travel to places in the off seasons and I never mind the colder weather. So we chose April. I was so glad we did. It was a nice, mild 60 degrees the whole time with a little spotty rain. That said, I think we will go back when the highland roads are open. The remote places looked really beautiful and things weren't quite green yet.
BOOK LUGGAE FEES UPFRONT. Sometimes the deal flights don't include luggage. The overhead bins will not fit large luggage. There was a story about a guy who tried to wear all his clothes on the plane to avoid fees and they didn't let him fly. You save money by booking your bags before you go to the airport.
IN FLIGHT SNACKS ARE YUMMY. The food is really good. Rare for an airline.
EXIT ROW. The exit row on these planes don't offer much wiggle room for your hips. While you do get extra leg room, the seat widths are smaller. I have big hips so it wasn't a good option for me. Keep that in might when picking your seats.
The Weather / Car Rental Tips
GET THE RIGHT RENTAL. If you plan on driving in the highlands, you need an off-road vehicle that is high off the ground and four-wheel drive. The car rentals are all low to the ground and they will charge you for any damage to the chassis as well as any sand damage to the paint.
SAND DAMMAGE. What is the sand damage you ask? Especially on the southern roads wind will pick up the sand at high speeds and literally sand the paint off your car. The weather is wild. So pay attention to the conditions.
HIGHLAND ROADS. The highland roads are all gravel. So if you want to drive them, you need a vehicle that won't kick up the gravel and damage the under part of the car. We didn't plan on doing any off-roading and we didn't miss it. The main roads got us to see everything we wanted to see.
WEATHER. The weather, however, is a thing. The island has really unpredictable weather. In April the storms seemed to have a mind of their own. Between the high plains, the mountains, volcano and coastal climates the weather changed every few miles. You could be snowed into a town for an afternoon. The locals are used to this so they can help you figure out accommodations if it happens to you. If you go during months when it snows, be aware of the weather and be ready to have to stop.
DAYLIGHT. In April we had almost 10 hours of daylight to use to explore. That really extended the ammount of things we could see. This site has lots of useful information about the conditions in Iceland that were helpful. In summer, the sun never sets, so you really get a lot of time to explore sites. In the winter you only get a few hours of daylight. This was another reason why April seemed like a good idea.
ROAD CONDITIONS. They have great systems to update you on road conditions, use them, download the apps.
DON'T BE STUPID. Icelanders will delight in telling you how stupid tourists are. They don't want you to get hurt but they don't understand why you won't listen to their wisdom. We learned all kinds of new dangers to worry about. Sneaker waves, Lava sink holes, boiling rivers, sulfur clouds, avalanches, ice currents, falling rock and inclement weather. That isn't to scare you. It's as safe as you are, so don't be stupid. They have a joke about how many sheep died "discovering," new lava caves by falling through a sink hole and being the first to find a new cave. The volcanic earth can be dangerous and they have clearly marked things that are safe and unsafe. Listen to the warnings.
KNOW THE CONDITIONS. This site provides a lot of wonderful information.
REGISTER WITH THE HIKING OFFICE. You can also register with the Icelandic tour department if you plan to hike some of the more remote areas. So if you don't show up and check back in by a certain date. They know where to look for you. Leave your travel plan here. Especially if you are camping.
RENT A PLB. If you are a high level adventurer, and plan to adventure in remote areas. Rent a PLB. It will send your coordinates with a distress beacon to emergency management.
COSTS / BUDGET
Flights: 340 RT per person
Air BNB for one week: 800.00
Car Rental for one week: 300.00
Blue Lagoon: 300.00 for two with lunch
Gas: 40 - 50 per day for a tank, 250.00
Eating out: 150.00
Black Sand Beach Suite: 150.00
Total: 2,910 or 1,455 per person.
If you do the WIFI hot spot add 60.00 to the above.
We splurged on a nice suite to stay in on the south coast and a day at the blue lagoon. I bet you could get this down to 1K per person. If you like camping, you could probably go even lower and do it for 800 per person.
TIP: We got a credit card that had no international fees and 0% APR for a year and put all our expenses on it. Then set a goal of paying off the bulk of it before our trip. We booked most of it 6 months out and by the time the trip came, it was paid off. Then any of expenses while we took the trip we still had 6 months to pay that off. Iceland is a credit card country so you won't need cash. We had the whole trip paid off 2 months after we went. Doing it this way motivated us to work hard and play hard. We try and keep all our big trips to 3K or under.
Monthly: We put away 130.00 per person each month in a savings account and within a year you'll have enough to go to Iceland!
GO IN GROUPS: We agreed that the next time we go, we wanted to find a few more people to join us. Splitting the air BNB and Car expenses 4 ways would make this trip even more affordable not to mention fun.
Rent a camper: Save money on hotels and rent a sleeper van. We saw these on the road and thought they looked fun. Happy Camper.
THINGS WE DIDN'T DO
We looked at a lot of tours. In the end we decided that we didn't want to spend the money. Each tour seemed to take up a lot of time. The only one we wished we had booked would be a guided glacier hike. The glacier looked so cool and we wish we had someone to teach us how to use crampons and walk around on the ice.
BOOKS AND PODCASTS
If you are like me, you'll want to dive into the culture and history before you go. Whenever we book a trip somewhere, I dive into the history of a region full speed ahead. Iceland has some wonderful rich Viking histories and myths that are worth reading before you go. Here are a few of my favorites.
Raise your hand if you love Rick Steves. This book just came out this year and it was incredibly helpful. He's funny and includes a lot of history for us nerds. We took this book with us and read some of the passages while we were standing in some of the places. It made the trip really fun.
We don't recommend skipping the Northern Peninsula like Steve did. In fact, we think you should make it a priority. BUT he does offer a lot of itinerary information, tips and history that made planning easier for us.
Also had lots of maps which were helpful when we weren't using our google maps.
If you like reading about the ancient history, The Sagas of Icelanders was a great read leading up to our trip.
This book was well researched and gave lots of context for the stories in our modern world. As we drove through the landscape on our trip, my mind came alive with some of these stories.
Best thing about this was you could read one story at a time. So I read a few every few weeks leading up to our trip.
My father in law gave me this audio book before we went. I was so grateful for it. It made driving through the landscapes magical. Download this audio book for the road. You'll be driving through the lands of Thor and Loki. It also is easy to do one story at a time. So you can digest it slowly. You'll be driving a lot and sometimes music got old. Having this to switch to was amazing.
I adored Jules Verne when I was a kid. This was my favorite of his books. He got the inspiration to write this book after visiting Iceland.
You can tour the very cave that he visited and see the volcano for yourself.
So I added that to this list. It is a fun refresher and I really enjoyed seeing these places first hand. I can see how the geology here would inspire you to write such an iconic story.
Add One Minute Icelandic podcast to your Spotify list. I even went as far as working them into our music playlists. Icelanders speak English fluently but if you can learn a few greetings and phrases, you'll make instant friends. It's a complicated language but don't be afraid to try. Icelanders have an incredible sense of humor and they enjoy hearing you make an effort.
At the very least, learn Hello and Goodbye it will only take a minute.
MOVIES TO WATCH
A lot of movies and TV is shot in Iceland. There were many times where I was standing somewhere and I yelled out OMG this is the location for that movie. Obviously, I am a film geek, so I think that is cool. Iceland feels unreal, so it makes sense that science fiction and fantasy films are shot here. I also enjoyed the many travel vlogs posted below.
HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO DO
We didn't have the time off work to be able to do the entire ring road. We wish we did. So if you can spare the time, do the full island road trip. Yes, it's a lot of driving but it's driving in some of the most surreal landscapes we have ever seen and the view changes every five minutes.
I actually preferred the northwestern coast to the south coast. I liked the fjords and mountains more than I liked the coastal regions in the south. That said, I'd like to go back and explore Þórsmörk. I'd actually set aside a few days to hike these trails. This area was really interesting and the volcano was beautiful.
Using google maps and Instagram, I studied people's pictures to see where I wanted to go. As a photographer, I gravitate towards the most visually appealing spots. Over a few weeks it became clear to me what regions I kept saving and I used that to plot our course. I included a few of my favorite people below.
Ultimatley you will pick a direction to drive in each day, a park to hike in or a landmark to see.
Reykiavik is fun, plan at least a day there and go out at night. The locals really enjoy being out in the evenings and you are likley to have lots of fun.
There are many beautiful canyons in Iceland, but this one is definitely high on my list of favorites. More than 100 kilometers long and 200 meters deep, it stretches from the inner highlands and out onto the South Coast, carving it’s way through this incredible part of the country. It’s been a while since I’ve last visited this canyon last, and when I finally reached it during my last adventure to the inner highlands, it did not disappoint. #Iceland
Iceland is changing rapidly. I think in ten years, the things we experienced may not even exist in the way we experienced them. Tourism has changed a lot of the local landmarks. Icelanders are very proud of their island but they don't want it destroyed. I quite agree. The island is magical and should be protected and respected. So when asking a local for the location of the amazing photograph you saw on Insta be respectful. They aren't going to give that away. In fact, I won't be giving away a few things were lead to by locals. It's better off you discover them on your own and keep them a secret.
If you want interaction with the locals, you won't find it out on the road. In fact, you will meet more tourists from around the world than you will locals. So if you want to soak up the culture, plan to stay a little bit in Reykjavik.
We made Reykjavik our basecamp and decided to drive out and back from there. This allowed us to spread out the things we wanted to see and beat the tour buses. We planned different things to do on the drive out and on the drive back. This gave us the luxury of being able to cover a few regions more deeply and the luxury of changing things up if the weather was looking better for one activity in the morning versus the evening. But it meant that we weren't going to see the entire ring road. You would need months to see everything the island has to offer so pick a few key things and start there.
5 TIPS FOR PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Decide on a few things that are important for you to see each day. My husband and I had a list of things to do each day. We had our favorites and our back up plans. We didn't always get to see a favorite because of the weather but we were never disappointed because we always had a backup plan.
Google "Iceland Tours," and find the itineraries for tours for the places you want to go. Especially the Golden Circle Tours. Then plan to leave two hours before them. This may mean you are on the road at 4am but you will have sites all to yourself and you will thank me when 6 tour buses of 50 people each are pulling into a landmark while you are pulling out. We LOVED beating the tourists. It felt like winning.
Soak in the local pools in Reykjavik at every chance. Geothermal water is freaking amazing. All the hot water in Iceland comes from the volcanos. It is mineral rich and abundant. We felt amazing after every soak. I wish we could get that in the midwest. The local pools were the best places to meet locals and the cheapest soaks. We really liked Vesturbæjarlaug.
Be realistic about what you can do in a day. If you don't leave time for exploration, this is likely to happen: You'll pull into a site, park and go see an amazing waterfall. You'll look at your clock and realize you have to get on the road if you want to see the next thing because it's an hour away and get mad. We saw so many people run out to something, take a picture and run back to the car. Such a shame. You'll want to have time to sit and stare. Marveling at the wonder of the majestic landscape is why you came. Don't overdo it.
Look at other bloggers. I found our favorite natural hot spring on a blog. We would never have known it existed. In fact, it looks like it was recently removed from google maps. All I can offer you is a coordinate: 64.832217,-22.318500. This spring was all over travel blogger feeds, so it's not a major secret. But you would have missed it in the guide books or driving on the road if you didnt know about it.
Hot Spring tip: If you go to the coordinates above, you are likely to encounter other travelers like yourself looking for a secret dip. Be respectful. I recommend approaching the person soaking and negotiating a time when you can switch. Then start your timer and leave them be. It was really awkward when people stood around and watched our soak. These sites are not managed, so you'll need to take the initiative to be diplomatic. We organically started a line and made some new friends. Also, clean up after yourself.
Everyone online seemed to freak out over the food prices but no one seemed to know the average price of anything. Honestly, I thought it was going to be much worse then it was. The thing is, farming standards in Iceland are high. The mineral rich earth and climate make growing food here a challenge but they know how to tackle it. Everything is organic here. If you stick to the local fare, you won't be sorry. Fish, Lamb, Beef were staples and the most reasonable prices. Yogurt and bread and butter were some of the best things we ate. If you ask us our favorite Icelandic food, we will tell you the yogurt. Buy a great big tub of it and eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We shopped at the local Aldi like chain called Bogus. We stayed away from processed foods and bought meat, dairy, produce, eggs and bread. We spent about 80 bucks on groceries for the week. We brought in granola, noodles and trail mix from the US in our luggage. I had one deyhdrated hiking meal that we used stratigically. Outside of that, we ate fish and chips, burgers and lamb stew at various resturants for about 20.00 USD per person. The food was so amazing, we didn't care about the price. You'll never have anything like it. No, we didn't try the hot dog we were too full when we saw a vendor.
I would budget 30 USD per person, per meal for things like the above. I would budget 50-60 USD per person per meal for a nice resturant. We don't drink so we didn't buy alcohol. That also helped. For groceries for two people, 100 bucks if you didn't bring in anything. 200 bucks for a week for a family. You'll likley have left over budget in the above equations for things like a snack, coffee and pastries. I approached our DIY meals like college. We needed lots of carbs for all the hiking we were doing so ramen and Rúgbrauð off set a few of our meals and snacks.
TIP: We packed dried goods in our luggage. I filled our boots with granola, oatmeal, noodles, trail mix and a few dehyradted hiking meals. It saved us quite a bit of cash.
There is much debate about this lagoon. Yes, you can soak for less in other places in Iceland. But if you like luxury spas, this one is as unique as it gets. In that regard, the price is reasonable. Locals scoff at the price as they used to soak here for free, before it was a spa. So there is a hipster like mentality to damning the corporate man here. Mention it to a local and you are likley to get an eye roll. I say, don't skip it. This place was very romantic and we loved our experience. There is enough space to spread out when it gets crowded and you can't beat the blue waters. All in all, we spent about 300.00 USD on the day and that included an amazing lunch, the upgrade for robes and slippers and extra masks. We've spent more on luxury spa days in the states that were not magical at all. So when you look at it like that, it justifies the cost. Where else can you soak in mineral water of a Viking volcano? See how much fun we had?
We saved money on our flights by getting into Iceland at 7 am. We needed something to do while waiting for our hotel to open so we went here first. We were glad we did this first and not last on our trip. I think it was a great way to start and get over our jet lag.
DO. Reserve your ticket well in advance and plan to either come when they first open or a few hours before close. As it got closer to lunch time it got crowded.
DON'T. Wear a suit you care about. The minerals in the water will starch it. My fabric is still messed up. This was the only place that did that to me. The silica is rough on your hair too so make sure to use the conditioner.
YES. It smells like egg farts at first. You'll get used to it. In fact, all the water in Iceland smells like egg farts at first. It goes away fast.
EAT. The prefix menu in the restaurant LAVA was amazing and reasonable for a five-star meal at a luxury spa. We were expecting to be underwhelmed by the reviews but as foodies, we can confidently tell you that we were wowed by the meal. Reserve for the first time slot they have for lunch and you'll get the best seat.
YOU HAVE TO SHOWER. The biggest cultural faux pas you can make in Iceland is not showering naked BEFORE getting into a hot spring pool. This is to preserve the waters and ensure the springs are clean for everyone. Water is a valuable resource that they treat with respect. So don't be upset if you get schooled by a local, they care about their hot springs. Don't be shy. No one cares. Strip down and scrub scrub.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
At 4am we packed the car and headed out for our first morning in Iceland. There was no one on the road. As the sun came up we had arrived in Þingvellir (Thingvellir). This drive was made more breathtaking by the dawn. It felt like we had all of Iceland to ourselves. My husband is a musician, so we like making road trip mixes. We started by listening to this one. It was the perfect soundtrack for our first drive.
We were the first car to arrive at Thingvellier that morning. That meant we had the whole place to ourselves. We marveled at the continental divide. Laughed about the meaning of the "all thing," and had our breakfast in front of the waterfall above. By this time we had already shed a few tears at how beautiful this place was. When we finished our hike a few people started to trickle in. By this time we were already packed up and moving on to the next stop.
If you Game of Thrones, a few iconic scencs were shot here.
You can scuba dive the continental divide here. We aren't much for diving but that was the other option for things to do in this location. We did stop at the Geysir. It's fun for a minute but we noticed the tour buses were catching up, so we moved on to Gullfoss.
The drive between Thingvellir and Gullfoss was beautiful. Take your time. We parked on the lower level away from the visitor center at Gullfoss. The tour buses all park up top first, so you can beat them if you park lower. No picture will do this place justice. You have to feel it.
We had lunch at the visitor center before moving on to the next thing. At this point, we had a decision to make. We knew we wanted to end our day at The Secret Lagoon. Most people go from here to the krater or the hot springs river. The river was closed while we were there so we opted to drive out to a waterfall that was supposed to be for our South Coast day instead. This ended up working out great. We again beat the tourist buses as we left Selandjafoss.
Selandjafoss ended up being our favorite waterfall of the day. We hit it just as the afternoon sun created rainbows from the spray. If we had seen it at any other time, that would not have happened. It was about 3pm when we saw this. The sun rises behind Selandjafoss, so if you want the best light, see it in the afternoon. A tip: my Iphone 7 plus is waterproof. I took these photos with it. You'll want that rain gear we talked about here. You'll be able to march right up to the falls and enjoy without getting soaked for the ride back. We skipped the second waterfall in this area and saved it for our South Coast drive back. That gave us more time to sit under this one. We cried again here. Nature was starting to take over our souls in ways we were not ready for. The energy of this waterfall was unlike anything I'd felt before. Sitting right up underneath it for a while felt like taking a trip to another planet.
We circled back to The Secret Lagoon to have dinner before a soak. The lagoon is a good ways away from Reykjavik and the tour buses seemed to pull in here at around 3 pm. So I reserved a ticket for us at 6 pm. We had dinner at the fish and chips outside the lagoon entrance for 20 USD per person. OMG the best fish and chips we've ever had. No joke, the fish here is really good and a great price. As we finished dinner, the last tour bus packed up and left. We yet again, had the place to ourselves. #winning
We stayed till closing at about 8 pm and head back to Reykjavik. We made it back around 930pm and went straight to bed. This was a magical start to the trip and we were pinching ourselves at how lucky we were. If you only doing one day in Iceland, The Golden Circle is likely all you'll have time for. If you are doing a stopover - give yourself two days so you can really enjoy this area without having to rush back to a flight.
Bonus hot spring here. Hrunalaug (Hruni hot springs). It's a little hut and a hole in the ground. Again, be respectful of others and clean up after yoruself. This is technically private property that you are allowed to use. If you are using the secret lagoon, try this spot first and see if it's empty. They are literally around the corner from one another.
Use the google maps to find it. Parking is on the road and you walk in.
All the guide books said to skip this if you aren't driving the whole road. But I couldn't miss seeing this part of the island. Two of my favorite authors were inspired to write stories here. Including the first novel I ever read, The Hobbit. New Zealand may be where they filmed the movies BUT Iceland is where Tolkien got inspired to write the books. In fact, Mordor's design is based off this landscape. Jules Verne also wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth after visiting this area. The volcano they enter the earth in, is the volcano in this area. Not enough to peak your interest yet? Do you know a little show called Game of Thrones? Almost all the scenes with John Snow, north of the wall are shot here. So yeah, it's a nerd mecca.
I used this site to pick a few spots to start. There is so much to see and do in this area. I wish we had planned to spend an overnight up here.
Next time, we are going to start in this area and go further along the northern coast.
This was by far the most beautiful drive we did yet. The winding roads and cliffs are unlike anything I have ever seen. I could see why Tolkien would draw Mordor here. The backs of the mountains look like dragons. Local legends are all of the trolls. Lava rock has this amazing ability to play tricks on your eyes. We started to see trolls, dragons and mythical creatures in the landscape.
We started our day at Vatnshellir Cave, rumored to be the cave that Jules Verne used for his characters to enter the center of the earth. It was formed over 8,000 years ago and was formed all in one day. I geeked out hardcore here. Verne and Tolkien. My childhood literary idols. Here I was in the spot of inspiration.
This beach was the most magical mythical place we saw. Our guide said he used to play there as a kid and told us it was his favorite walk. So, I can't tell you where this is. It's a secret.
Just kidding. There is a marked turnoff for a place called, Djúpalónssandur beach. It's marked on my google map I shared earlier. Here the lava meets the ocean and does amazing wonderous things. The formations are wild. I can see why this place is the inspiration for Mordor. We kept waiting for the rocks to come alive and start talking. They all looked like creatures. If you have kids, this place is sure to stir the imagination. We spent a lot of time here. Just be mindful of the tide. It is a coastal beach and those waves are quite powerful.
Our guide told us that it was the beach they used for the Hard Home Episode of Game of Thrones. You know the one with the big white walker battle? We laughed, there is no running from zombies on this beach. The rock is an inch thick and you sink really fast. The shot they reference is the last one where John snow is in the boat and looking back at the beach full of white walkers. I think they used the landscape in some of the compositing. There would be no way to film a zombie battle that big here. It's too risky. But it was freaking gorgeous.
Hard Home Scene for those who don't thrones.
If you are staying overnight up here, you'll have more time to explore. I marked a bunch on my map for you to look at.
Our guide also told us about his favorite bakery. Bakari, in Olafsvik. We stopped there before moving on. Eat all the things like we did. So good.
BUY. Rúgbrauð. If you haven't tried the traditional bread made in the earth ... this is a good place to buy some. We liked it with some Icelandic yogurt on top. It's also a very filling bread. So if you want to save some cash and carb up for your hikes, this is a great option.
We drove from here to the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland. Kirkjafell. Tolkien borrowed a lot of his inspiration for The Hobbit from Icelandic folklore. If you read the Sagas I mentioned above, you can see the connections. Norse mythology is all over the stories. Elvish and Icelandic even sound similar. This mountain, Kirkjafel, is rumored to be the inspiration for the drawing on the map of the lonely mountain.
Driving through this area there are lots of folklore about trolls and hidden people. Even the traditional Viking houses look like Hobbiton, the Icelandic horse looked like hobbit sized horses. I could see all of middle earth represented on this day. Mordor, Hobbiton, Mirkwood, The Lonely Mountain, and the ruins where our necromancer becomes Sauron. This place was unreal. So it was of no surprise to me that someone worked them into myth. I couldn't help but think about how this trip was forming a myth inside me, one that was bursting to come out on the page.
We made our way to the hot springs I gave you the coordinates to earlier and had the most amazing soak before heading back to Reykjavik. The soak was for lack of a better word, magical. Good luck finding the turn-off. It took us a few tries.
THE SOUTH COAST
There is a lot to see along the south coast. Making the decision on where to plot our days was hard. We wanted to drive all the way out to Skaftafel and I knew that meant an overnight. So we split this drive into two days. This gave us a chance to see something on this road twice. The drive wasn't nearly as magical as the Western Fjords until we made it to Vik. We set out before dawn again and decided to drive the full length and work our way back to Vik where I booked a hotel for the night.
The coast was a different kind of breathtaking. A waterfall on every cliff. Cute little farms tucked into the nooks of glacier mountains. We stopped at the touristy spot, Skogafoss on the way out. We ran into a lot of people but thanks to our trusty rainboots we avoided them and walked right up to the waterfall in the river. In a full rain suit, we played like kids in the icy water. Away from the tourists who didn't want to get wet. #winning.
We set out to drive to Skaftafel from here. The canyon no one can pronounce was closed, Fjaðrárgljúfur. I was really disappointed. Fjaðrárgljúfur was the first place I wanted to see in all of Iceland but the rains had left the paths dangerous to walk and I didn't want to risk my death for a photo. So we skipped it, I'll see it next time. We at lunch at Systrakaffi. Everything in town was closed but this and the gas station. This was the last town for a while so we knew we needed to eat. Remember that life-changing burger I mentioned. We had it here.
Before you head out to drive from here to Skaftafel, do yourself a favor. Cue up two songs on your Spotify. Paint it Black and Dark Side of the Moon. About 15 minutes west of Vik, you'll know why. Hit play when it happens. You'll come across another planet entirely, Laufskálavarða. Imagine the lava flowing from the volcano. That was 8,000 years ago. Look around. This is baby earth. Mineral-rich beginnings of our soil. Really puts time into perspective. We couldn't get enough of this place. Laufskálavarða is truly striking.
Be sure to stay on the worn paths and don't off road. We saw lots of tourists stuck on the side of the road here. Idiots who thought they could drive a rental over a lava field without consequences. There are plenty of places to stop that are safe. The lava field is soft and climbing them is risky but we found worn paths and used those to go for a walk. If you want to join the long list of sheep that discovered sinkholes by climbing the formations, be our guest.
About an hour after the lava fields we made it to our destination. Skaftafell / Vatnajökull National Park.
Here we got to see the glacier up close and do some real hiking. The paths here are well marked and easy to navigate. There is a hiking level for everyone. It was easy to see which ones we could accomplish and which ones we couldn't.
If you are playing Icelandic waterfall Bingo, Svartifoss is a coveted box. Up until this waterfall, all the others we had seen were easy to get to. This one requires an elevation hike. The path is well maintained, but I found myself needing to stop a few times on the way up and I was sweating by the time we got there. But it's worth the hike.
Each hike took a while, so plan accordingly. They mark the average amount of time it takes to do the trails in the visitor center. We averaged 2 hours for the glacier trail and 3 hours for the waterfall. The view from the top is not to be missed.
We finished our hikes and headed back to Vik, where we booked an amazing little hotel for the night, Black Beach Suites. Our suite overlooked a horse farm and the coast. It also put us in the best spot to see the black sand beaches at dawn... before the tourists. #winning.
Skip the plane wreckage. It's long hike for a photo everyone has. When we passed the parking area at about 9am it was already full. We decided to hike the cliffs instead. I really loved the big sounds of this area. Ocean force meeting rock. We picked up a picnic lunch in Vik before heading to our next destination. Driving back the weather was different then the day we set out, so this felt like a totally different drive. We headed back to Skogafoss to see the open air museum. If we had more time, I would have liked to hike Þórsmörk. I feel like we missed out on this area due to bad weather. It was too foggy to see anything and there wasn't enough time. We would need another overnight in this spot to do so. So I'll save that for next time. We stopped at the open air musuem to the right of Skogafoss and enjoyed it. The early settlers must have been really short or didn't see the value of building big buildings. We felt super tall.
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool was the next stop for us. The road to the parking area is bumpy, we had to go slow in our little car. We ended up parking out on the road and walking in to avoid any dammage to the car. From here you find the river and walk up stream. A path will reveal itself to you but if you get lost, use the google map location I linked to above. That awesome wifi hotspot comes in handy in places like this. There is a waterfall in every corner of this spot. The pool is not a hot spring. It is a warm pool. So if you were hoping for a hot soak, you won't get it here. We let our bodies adjust and did not regret taking a dip. I think in the winter this might have felt really warm but the water was as warm as the air when we were there.
Tip: We did see quite a few people hiking past the pool. When we peeked around the cliff corner we noticed a few people sitting in what looked like a little hot tub on the river bank. Further investigation reveals that there are tubes where hot water comes out scattered along this path. If you make yourself a little dam in the river, you'll have hot soak if you are patient. There seemed to be hot water running down the sides of these cliffs in any direction. We were not brave enough to touch anything that was steaming. This volcano erupted recently. We had been warned to not touch unmarked hot water and I like my fingers so we didn't try it. Those soaking off of a tube looked happy, so perhaps you could just wait till you see someone who isn't boiling or bring a thermometer?
That path past the pool looked really cool to hike. If we didn't have the long drive back to our basecamp that afternoon, I think we would have explored the areas below Eyjafjallajökull. The energy here is wild. The volcano certainly makes things buzz. This stop will take you at least 2 hours. To hike in, change, swim and hike back out.
We got back on the road and pulled into our final stop for the day. We took one last look at our favorite waterfall Seljalandsfoss and parked at the second waterfall in this spot, Gljúfrabúi. Suit up in your full rain gear and boots here. You'll love being able to walk right into the canyon and up to the waterfall. This will let you skip the long line of tourists trying to stay dry by hopping the rocks to the right. That water is literally ice cold but with your gear you'll stay dry. So I dove right in and got right up against the falls. The waterfalls really moved us, we didn't expect to have such spiritual expereinces everywhere we went. We felt like the earth was resetting our moleculur structure. Between the mineral hot soaks, the fresh air, the new earth and the clean pure water we were often moved to tears. So we cried yet again, the kind of happy tears only travel can bring and said goodnight to our last stop of the day.
This town is a lot of fun. There are so many yummy things to discover and little hangouts that I think it is best that you explore them on your own. The guidebooks got this one covered, so pull up your Rick Steves and see what he has to say. We shopped in the thrift stores to find more affordable wool and I found some vintage fur hats. We ate cinnamon rolls, we did the big church and cried at the architecture. Someone who loves Iceland built that church and now that we had seen the landscape, the inside reduced me to tears. It was the perfect end to our trip. The spirituality of the natural elements was all beautifully incorporated down to the last detail of an ice water crystal baptismal. The basalt cliffs, waterfalls, rock colors and natural light all echo the island. I didn't expect to be so moved but again, this trip turned out to be more spiritual then I expected.
A day was sufficient to feel like we had soaked up the culture but we really enjoyed coming back to our air bnb and heading off to a geothermal pool for a soak every night. We met locals at the pools and felt more like we were learning about the culture in a way that was respectful and fun. I couldn't find any programs where you could eat with a local or sit with a family that wasn't associated with a tour so this was the best chance. We also went to the flea markets, which I only recommend if you like digging in thrift stores.
It was at this market that we had the opportunity to try Hákarl without having to buy it. Hákarl is fermented shark. It's a cultural staple. There is a place to sample goods in the back of the market. I tried it, my husband did not. I can tell you it is unlike anything I have ever tasted and never wish to taste again. It's like spicy fermented malort that has the texture of tree bark and punches you in the face with that flavor a few times before leaving to burn your insides. That really doesn't sell it but I think gives you a good picture of what it was like.
FEELINGS / Thoughts
This trip was more than I was ready for in all the best ways. I purposely left out a few destinations and a few things we discovered that shall remain secret. That is the beauty of Iceland. Go forth and find your own secret spot. I think no matter what you choose to do, you will find something that moves you.
Personally I never felt as connected to the earth as I did in Iceland. I was awestruck and breathless when seeing the sites. The landscape moves and ages in colors. Each ring, each color telling the tale of time. Like rings on a tree. The beginnings of life on this planet. The earth is an ancient thing, of which we are only a spec. I really felt that in my soul on this trip. I was so grateful for the chance to feel tiny and yet so connected to our little home in the cosmos. Everything here seemed to be in transition from an ancient time to the modern time. Earth, air, fire and water dance here in ways I had never seen.
I was touched by the grittiness of the culture. The people here fight hard to protect what they have on this island and they seem to move in harmony with the unpredictable nature that surrounds them. Beauty among the chaos. Living in the midwest, I don't get that much. I don't get the chance to waltz up to a volcano and put my hands on the earth and feel it vibrate and hot. I don't get to drink the mineral water that comes from our planet in it's purest form and I don't get to see a breathtaking waterfall at every turn. I don't get to soak or take my shower in geothermal water.
It really made me question why I still live in the land of corn. I know it's easy to rommantisize living anywhere. Iceland called to me the first time I saw a photo of the waterfalls and I am sure I will answer that call a few times over in my life.
I also found out that I am part Icelandic while I was standing on the shores where many vikings had migrated to the island. I kept telling my husband that I had the strangest feeling that this place was familiar to me. In an ancient sense. Like my soul knew these lands and the island was welcoming my body home. When I saw the results from my DNA test and a percentage popped up as Icelandic, I knew why. My dna did know these lands. So cool.
So that's it ya'll. I hope you discover your own version of this and please post any findings or new tips here. Would love to collect them for my next trip!