Revisiting the Land of Ice and Fire

Hi folks 🙂 I’m sitting down at my computer tonight from a rather drizzly San Diego to begin retelling the tales from my latest adventures.  I fully intended to do this while traveling, mostly on those cold, dark Icelandic nights inside the van that started around four in the afternoon and didn’t end till nine or ten AM, but it so happens that the loneliness got to me pretty quickly and I started spending a lot more time in hostels talking to new people and a lot less time alone in front of a screen.  Definitely for the best, but I did manage to pull together a couple posts and a lot of notes that I’ll be fleshing out in the next couple weeks.  In the meantime, enjoy the post below, written across a couple days and about 150 kilometers (well, a lot more than that if you count the last bits, which are being written in SD long after the fact) in Iceland back in November and December. If you’re planning on visiting Iceland, make sure to check out a couple tips at the very bottom of this page!

Side note/shameless plug! If you appreciate my blog and want to help in future travels, please consider making a tiny donation for my upcoming volunteer trip to Thailand and Cambodia HERE!  This donation will go directly to the organizations I work with there, I will never see the money myself.  Make a difference in the world, one community to another!  If you’d like more info, please read this post.

11/15/16

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Hey everyone, I’ve now been in Iceland for over a week, and how that time has flown by! I am currently sitting in my van just outside Skaftafell National Park in a decently crazy snowstorm (here’s to hoping I don’t wake up tomorrow stuck!), but we will get back to that. I’m typing all this out on a tablet, so bear with me for some probably horrendous typos as I try to get this all down quickly.

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On the fourth I said a tearful goodbye to Jon in the driveway, got in the truck with mom
and dad and headed to the airport. I didn’t sleep at all on the plane, but did see the new Ghostbusters (which was rad) and managed to catch about 30 minutes of the northern lights iceland16blog3through the window of the plane.  Upon my arrival in Iceland, I took the bus to an Air B&B where my lovely host Heida, her housemate Pavel, and the two kitties made me feel very welcome while I explored the city and prepared to spend almost two weeks living in a van on an epic island-circumventing road trip. Since I had already been to Reykjavik once, there were lots of museums and other cultural areas of significance I had already visited (see here if you’re looking for more info on Reykjavik tips and tricks), so I opted to save the money and spend the time in the city wandering around, only paying for really cheap entertainment that would be worth the price (heads up: if you’re thinking of visiting Iceland, even the basics are super expensive.  Like, 17-22 USD for a small bowl of soup or a gas station burger (which as a side note aren’t awful most of the time)). I spent a lot of time wandering around to look at street mural, and went to the top of the church, Hallgrímskirkja, in town. It’s the tallest building in the city I think, and its placement on a hill makes it the ideal spot to view the whole city from. On the 8th I picked up the van from Kuku Campers (who I HIGHLY recommend, if you’re ever in Iceland.  Their vans are the best deal I could find, the people working there were really helpful, and then van really did come with everything I needed, including an automatic transmission!), which I’m calling Berlingo because it is one, and headed north and west. The goal was to get to Snaefellsness National Park, but since I picked up the van so late (we only get day light between about 9 and 5, to be generous), and after grabbing groceries, getting lost, and not being able to figure out how to roll down the window to pay a toll at the big tunnel, I didn’t quite make it by sundown.

I pulled off of the side of the road on the path leading into a pasture, made a PBJ sandwich, and settled in for a chilly night. I woke to a barrage of texts from friends and family with election updates, found myself numb, wrote a long apology to the people of the world and the disenfranchised in my own nation who now have every reason to feel uncertain about the future which I never posted anywhere, and moved on with my day. Snafellsness Park holds a lot of super cool coastline including black sand beaches strewn with jagged volcanic boulders and columns, and the carcasses of a few shipwrecks too. In the center of the park, which lies on a peninsula that sticks out to the west of the island there is a volcano, and on top of the volcano is apparently a glacier (local legend purports that the trolls inside the volcano rather like the warm lava, and the glacier on top keeps them iceland16blog4from being as interested in eating the humans in the rest of the park). Now, the weather turned rainy as I was hiking along the cliffs above the shoreline, dumping rain and then hail onto me and my camera as well as blocking my view of the mountain, so all I can confirm is that there’s a cool volcano in the park and it can in fact hail next to the ocean (a thought which had never occurred to my silly California girl self before). I left the park, intent on driving a good amount before pulling off to sleep again. I stopped to get gas and had my longest and only conversation on the day with the station attendant who gave me a free coffee and a comforting smile after saying, “new president, hmm?” I stopped off at a couple more waterfalls and really cool mountains like Kirkjufell before finally finding a pullout I felt safe sleeping in near Búðardalur. It apparently wasn’t the right spot though, for as I scoped the skies for any clearing of the clouds to see the northern lights, cars and trucks passing by were honking. It happened three times, and I in decided to move to a smaller pullout up the road and on the other side to ensure I would be able to sleep. I didn’t anyway, or at least not much. The wind had been too strong to keep the stove going outside the van, so I ate a small amount of cold food before trying to sleep.  Maybe I was just emotional over the previous night’s happenings or hangry, but that night loneliness came crashing in full force. I spent the night cold and hungry and tired, and kept texting Jon and mom that I just wanted to come home.

iceland16blog21I woke the next morning to a beautiful scene of snow covered mountains and very little wind. After making myself some oatmeal and watching the clouds moving in over the mountains, I hit the road again. I decided to aim for Blonduos, a little town in the north, to try and find a hostel. Two days without much human contact was enough for me, and though in learned a couple things about myself that night I was not eager to repeat the experience so soon. The drive there was absolutely beautiful, through fjords and mostly unpaved farm roads with snowy mountains visible in the distance. I enjoyed the livestock along the roads, stopping occasionally to call to the fluffy Icelandic ponies or watch a farmer herd sheep with his dog. I came into town before sunset and was surprised to find that if a hostel existed in Blonduos, none my apps knew where it was. I settled for the cheapest hotel could find, where I knew at least I could get a hot shower and a full night of sleep without trucks or wind, even if it was still on the lonely side.

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When I left the next morning, the woman at the front desk asked where I was going, and warned me to be cautious. Apparently the police had just called, and conditions on the mountain road I needed to travel weren’t the best. I hit the road quickly to try and avoid any problems that might arise with time (like snow buildup), and luckily hit zero problems. The craggy mountains on either side of the road loomed with a Mordor kind of majesty through the intermittent rain, and despite all the photos I stopped for I made it to Akureyri faster than I had expected.  Once I found a room at Akureyri Backpackers (I cannot recommend this hostel enough.  Pretty cheap for Iceland, a free beer on arrival, a iceland16blog38great kitchen, very clean rooms, and an awesome common area!) I hustled down to the kitchen to make some food (keep in mind, I’m driving all day and broke all day and night, so I’m eating maybe twice a day and usually cereal or PBJ stuff that I got out the free box when I picked up the van). I was stoked to be warm and have a stove capable of doing something with the potatoes I had bought before I left Reykjavik, and was even more stoked to pick up a conversation with the super tall Canadian who was making a meal for her group, Jessie. After talking about work, and politics, and traveling, and a couple other things I dug into my potatoes as the rest of her travel crew, a young American couple, came downstairs to eat the pizza and fries she had prepared. We quickly discovered that we were going opposite directions, and began swapping advice and pictures to prepare each other for the respective roads ahead. We moved upstairs to the bar, where a couple Akureyri locals chimed in on our conversation about the future over beer, and we ended up having an iceland16blog33interesting conversation about how Iceland tops the charts in all thing per capita, including contradictory happiest and most depressed population statistics and highest number of Nobel prize winners, but not because any of it is true in the way we would think. Iceland has about 350,000 inhabitants, so just based on sample size they come out at the top of nearly every survey. We moved on to a bar a couple minutes walk away where happy hour was still going (alcohol is one of the most expensive things here it seems) and continued chatting, joined by a couple people from our hostel quickly, including a couple of German dudes the Jess, Ciera, and Craig had met earlier on the trip. Eventually we headed back to the hostel where everyone started teaching each other card games and I went to the kitchen to Skype with Jon for and couple minutes. Everyone else ended up joining in and making food, and a couple of us decided the next day we were going to go together to a nearby canyon before parting ways.

I woke up the next morning stoked to have had some social time and ready for the next adventure. Jessie ended up in the van with me while Ciera, Craig, and Stephan went separately. We headed north, stopping in a neat little fishing town to check out the starfish in the icy water and at an ocean overlook to peek over the cliff and look for whales in the distance, before we finally arrived in Asbyrgi. This horseshoe shaped canyon was apparently created when Odin’s eight legged horse set foot on the ground, and was definitely stunning. Stephan acted as our guide, showing us some cool trails overlooking an iced over pool, and then walking us down for a closer look. After a short time, we decided to go see the rest of the canyon since we were losing daylight, and we wanted to try to go see Dedifoss as well, apparently the most powerful waterfall in Europe. We drove iceland16blog42down a dirt road that progressively got worse and worse. Stephan soon took off his shoes and waded into puddles to test how deep they were. We kept on for and while, before we found one that was too deep (Stephan still attempted to usher us through, until Craig asked him to move a little to the left and he stepped into over calf-deep water). The van was too big to turn around, so I backed it out through the water holes as Craig followed me driving the correct direction, until we came to a crossroads. We went down a big hill and ended up in a campground, which led eventually to a footpath into the canyon. We realized Dedifoss was a couple kilometers away and it was getting dark, so Stephan led us to some super cool rock formations and a place to overlook a giant column in the river that looked like an elephant. After made our way back to the cars we said our goodbyes: everyone else was headed back to Akureyri and then west, while I was headed east. The northern lights had given and good show two nights before when in was too tired and stayed in the hotel, and I wasn’t about to miss them again. I wanted to stay in the campground, well away from lights, but found that the warden was gone and I was supposed to check in at the visitor center in the canyon we had been in earlier that day. I debated just staying anyway and paying in the morning, but couldn’t shake the misgivings about having my battery die and getting stuck and not having anyone know where I was with no guarantee anyone would be headed down that way till the campground opened back up in spring. I decided to cut my losses and head up the road a little bit, and found a place with a beautiful open view and a safe place to park not too far off the road. I cooked some free-pile mystery soup (I think it turned out to be hot and sour), and waited for the sun to completely fade from the horizon.

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The aurora jumped the gun and appeared towards the north before the sunlight had faded from the sky, leaving me scrambling to assemble my gear and start testing out settings. The nearly full moon was rising, dissipating some of the light from the aurora, but it still was spectacular. I finished my soup and got in the van to warm up for a couple minutes, keeping an eye on the lights through the front and back windows. I repeated this process and couple more times until it looked like the aurora was on its way out for a while, fading iceland16blog46slowly until it almost couldn’t be seen. I got in the van and started blasting off texts to mom and Jon, I was so excited. I looked out the back window and was puzzled to see a weird looking cloud forming in the south. It looked like the aurora, but in the south? I grabbed my camera to check (if you read my last blog from Iceland or have seen a lower end aurora you know this, but a lot of the time the aurora looks like a weird, elongated cloud lit vaguely by moonlight that moves independently of everything else, not like the pictures you see that require at least a couple seconds exposure to catch the color), and a green hue showed up on the screen. I vaulted out of the van and grabbed the tripod, just as the aurora drifted overhead towards the north. It was breathtaking. I’ve never seen the lights straight overhead before, and the veins fanned out to cover over a third of the sky in ripples as though they were tiny waves created by wind on a still pond. They became brighter so I could start to see hues of green and purple with my naked eye. I sat there clicking the shutter with one hand and holding my other hand over my mouth in awe, just laughing in in delight and watching. It kept on for a good hour before dimming down and heading for the horizon (at this point it was still more impressive than the first round). I returned to the heater in the van and watched the last remnants lazily waltz across the sky before fading. At this point the wind picked up so decided to call the night, and went to sleep happier than I’ve been since I left home.

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The next night the west was supposed to see some weather, and I wanted to be far away to have open skies. I went south first, down another unpaved road which followed the canyon from the iceland16blog66previous day. I came across multiple waterfalls, and followed them upstream towards Dedifoss. After spending a few minutes tromping around in the rain watching the mist from the falls rising up, I headed back towards the ring road. I decided to head west again for a couple of minutes near Lake Myvatn to see the cave featured in Game of Thrones where Jon Snow begins his new life as a vow breaker with Ygritte. Unlike many other Icelandic caves, it doesn’t drop off into an abyss, but instead is filled with a hot spring. Unfortunately, within the last few years volcanic activity in the area has caused it to be too hot to enter, but I went into the cave and swished my hands in the water for a minute anyway and enjoyed the peace of sitting in a steamy cave compared to the cold wind outside. After this, I headed east, searching for a cool backdrop for aurora photos. What I really wanted were some snow capped mountains or a reflective pond, and I found just the thing shortly into the drive. I began driving through a beautiful mountain range with steep black peaks, but soon very dark clouds drifted overhead and the wind began to blow. There was already snow on the ground, so decided to head out again to avoid a colder night than necessary, especially if the clouds were going to block my view anyway. I stopped at a couple more places that just weren’t quite right: this one had a safe place to pull off and park the van but no cell service, in case I killed the van overusing the heater; iceland16blog71another had a neat reflective pool but the wind was so strong in the valley it wouldn’t be reflecting anything anyway. The clouds continued to move in, and eventually I gave up the chase and headed as far west as possible, thinking I would at least find a place to sleep if the clouds were going to sabotage my aurora viewing anyway. I was starving at this point after not stopping to eat all day, so I stopped at the first gas station I saw and was disappointed that the grill didn’t open for another 40 minutes. There was one restaurant in town, so I headed there, but they also opened at 6:00, so I settled into the parking lot to call Jon and wait till I could eat. The wind was rattling everything (Iceland had issued a high wind advisory for the night, which is saying something, since the wind here is routinely pretty gnarly), but shortly after 6:00 I looked outside and found the sky had abruptly cleared of clouds. I hurriedly said goodnight to Jon, grabbed a burger from the gas station, and headed north. Since it was dark already I didn’t have the chance to set up the foreground for the shots I wanted, and as I came up over the first hill the lights began to appear. I hurriedly found a safe space to park and assembled my tripod, but after less than an hour the lights began to fade after and the wind began to blow, hard. I got into the van, and quickly became concerned with how much the van was swaying and shaking. I adjusted my parking slightly, hoping to catch most of the wind on the front of the van instead of the side, but it made little difference. I watched plant matter pummeling the windshield, and then saw the aurora begin again. I used the back of the van to shield myself from the wind for a time, but after catching a few gales that nearly knocked me over I decided to call it and watched the rest of the night through the windshield, then settled in for an uneasy night of sleep (after stuffing the ventilation shaft with a toilet paper roll to muffle the wind roaring above).

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I woke the next day and decided after another two nights out in the wind, I was ready for another hostel stay. I took off south, taking the time to explore off the ring road to ascend a massive mountain on an s-turn dirt road, descend to see a black sand beach stretching as far as the eye could see, and drive through a Grand Canyon like formation topped with snow and filled with a fjord. I crossed the water on a bridge stretching out over the ocean, and then wove my way along the coastline, stopping often to photograph the mountain reflections in still pools and waterfalls cascading down through canyons, and the occasional seal or sea bird soaking up the last bits of sunlight. That evening I slept in Hofn, where I was greatly entertained by a group of Danish boys (as they called themselves when they wrote in the dirt on the side of my van) and finally got a full night of really good rest.

I took off in the morning with the goal for the day to check out the Glacier Lagoon. The road was icy and the wind picking up in gusts, causing me a bit of concern with the van’s iceland16blog32higher than average profile.  I decided to stop a short way from Hofn to check out a glacier which was sort of close to the road and let the sun take care of some of the ice on the road, but upon receiving a text from the boys hit the road again, hoping to meet up with them a
little later in the day. I passed fields of sheep, cattle, ponies, and the occasional reindeer, and snowmelt ponds filled with giant white swans. The weather started to turn a little sour as the wind picked up, and the mountains became shrouded in rainy mist. I pushed on, reaching the lagoon right as the sky opened up and freezing rain began dumping. Knowing this was something I really wanted to see, I waited until a break in the rain, then left the car. I don’t think there is anything comparable to this place. Chunks of ice, ranging from six inches to well over twelve feet tall above the water floated in a lagoon after breaking off a massive glacier in the distance. The ice is magically multicolored: some pieces are glass clear, others teal, some spearmint, a couple deep blue, and the occasional striated one bobbed by, colored by sediment in wavy lines. They were being pulled out to sea by low tide, and I watched their slow progression until I realized my lips were frozen and many of iceland16blog34my shots had water on the lens. The rain picked up a little more and I went back to the van to find a text from the Danes saying they were about 40 minutes away hiking to a waterfall in the next park to the west. I decided to cut my losses and try to come back when the
weather cleared, and sped to the park before they headed down from the waterfall to the beach to hike to a crashed plane. I made it up to the waterfall as they were beginning the decent, and I finished the hike down in a driving snow flurry to see them peeling out if the parking lot after leaving a couple notes scribbled in the dirt layer on the Berlingo. Sunset being less than a couple hours out, I decided to head back to the lagoon, and arrived to perfect weather. I went down to the beach, where hundreds of icebergs had been stranded on the beach after exiting the lagoon, or were crashing into each other in a full viking-ship like battle just offshore as the icy waves buffeted them about. I caught the sunset looking through an iceberg, and then went to try

and find a campsite. By now, it was starting to snow, but upon Googling lodging nearby there was nothing I could even begin to afford. So I found a road into a ditch that looked promising, and I was excited because I could see two glaciers behind me, but as the hard snow came driving down, I decided to move in case the rocky road into the ditch became iceland16blog9too icy by morning. I drove in circles until I found what looked like a better, slightly more level spot with less chance of flooding and smaller gravel that might do better with traction in the morning on the slightly decreased incline. It sounded like the heavens were renovating the driveway, and were pouring gravel onto my car for half the night (this is where the post started, by the way, it’s now one day later, the 16th) I turned the heater on for 40 minutes at a time then went back to sleep, hoping to stay warm enough while not killing the car battery (or whatever the heater was running on, gas isn’t cheap here either), and got up before my alarm to hit the road. The field behind me was snowy, as were the peaks of the mountains with the light from the nearly full moon setting behind them.

 

iceland16blog45Since I had such an early start, I decided to go back to Glacier Lagoon for one more chance at some cool lighting with the sunrise. The sun rises and sets from nearly the same place this time of year, so I knew with the hour or two I had to spare I would probably be in luck. The air was crisp, but the wind was mellow as I drove the slightly snowy road back east, and I was rewarded with nearly empty parking lots. I grabbed a doughnut and a coffee from the tourist booking center on site, and headed back to the parking lot to wait. A bunch of people with cameras were already combing the beach, so I grabbed my gear and went in search of the perfect giant ice cube. I found the iceland16blog49right one, a couple feet taller than me, and began snapping as the sun began to peek from behind the clouds, sending prismatic rays to the heart of the clear ice.  This carried on for some time, until the windchill began to get to me. I headed back to the car, only to have the sun come out almost fully, so I grabbed a scarf and went back. Another 30 minutes later, I abandoned my photos and fled back to the car to drink my now cold coffee and decide where to go next. It was nearly noon by now, so I decided to head down the road a ways with the daylight I had left. I passed through Katja park, but most of the roads to the sights were slippery with ice and snow, so I kept driving on to Vik, where I am currently sitting on a couch in my hostel checking outside every 15 minutes with an elderly Frechman who has never seen the northern lights despite visiting Iceland seven times. I’m hoping we can make that dream come true, and tomorrow I’ll head west for the last, short, leg of the trip to Reykjavik, where I’ll meet up with Jessie, Craig, and Ciera, along with Max and Stephan (the Germans), to split an Air B&B until right before I head to Ireland.

I’ll try to post again sooner, once I’m spending more time reliably in hostels instead of on the road.

Caio for now!

1/11/17

iceland16blog60Well, we didn’t manage to catch the lights that night.  I woke up the next morning to an incredible sunrise, and left early (ish; since the sunrise happens so late there isn’t any rush to get moving quickly most of the time) to try and catch it over the sea stacks.  Unfortunately, I came across a couple of young travelers stranded on the side of the road, after their car had drifted off the road and sunk into the soft shoulder under the snow.  iceland16blog63After attempting to help them push and leverage their way out, we all gave up and they called for a tow.  I moved onto the sea stacks, but eventually decide there were probably more interesting places to be (although seeing snow on the beach was pretty new), and continued west.  The Icelandic weather service had issued another high wind advisory for the day, and since it was blowing in from the south I was completely unprotected while on the road.  Although there is so much rugged beauty in Iceland, by this time I had reached saturation on massive waterfalls and snowy bluffs, so when I made it to the next waterfall, I turned off the road more to see if I could catch a break from the wind than anything else.  The van was being buffeted by the wind so much that I needed to drive in the middle to avoid a gust blowing me off the side, and when I reached Skogarfoss it really wasn’t any better.  I opted to wait for a minute and see if it eased up, but as I watched people try and cross the narrow, rail-less bridge over a frigid creek to get to the falls and saw many knocked down by the force of the wind and some almost falling into the water, I decided I was fine seeing the falls from the car instead.

It became apparent that the wind was not going to die down in the foreseeable future, so after a tiny, expensive bowl of soup at the visitor center, I continued.  On the side of the iceland16blog65road not far from Skogarfoss, I came across the remains of some small farm houses which had (ostensibly) been half submerged in a lava flow during an eruption for the nearby volcano, Eyjafjallajokull.  I think the parts still standing are mostly recreations, as whatever was not incinerated on the spot would have difficulty withstanding the weather without care, but it is still crazy to stand there looking at a wall of hardened lava with a house sticking out of it.  Of course, Iceland is a volcanic island and the people living there are no strangers to the violence of the earth.  Just a little ways down the road lied a dairy farm which has lived in the shadow of this same volcano since 1906, despite the very real risk of eruption.

 

I had driven further than I thought I had, and within no time I was at the next massive waterfall, Seljafandsfoss.  I again opted to stay in the car rather than risk getting blown iceland16blog69over (the photos of all these falls are pretty awful anyway, since most of the water was whipped into vapor quickly by the wind).  Since I was just outside the golden circle, I opted to pop up to Gullfoss, one of the largest falls in Iceland, which I remembered being a little more sheltered from the wind and also very impressive.  Although the wind was better, the lighting was all wrong, and I decided to go find a hostel in Selfoss and plan out my last day with the van instead of pushing to get the most of the remaining daylight.  That night I met a pair of American girls as I sat around drinking tea with my book, and we were joined a while later from a fellow from South Africa.  Together, we found my favorite food in Iceland at a little bar and coffee shop called Kaffi Krús: a delicious fried cheese served with a fruit jelly and a pepper jelly (if you ever go, I highly suggest trying it).

 

The next day we parted ways and I headed off to hike solo to the “Hot River” in Reykjadalur Valley, recommended by a friend who spent some time a child in Iceland.  I passed two other groups of hikers, and all other footprints disappeared from the snow.  Surrounded by nothing but expanses of snowy hills as far as I could see, it was eerie to iceland16blog75stumble across steaming holes and streams with increasing frequency as I gained higher ground.  Pretty soon, these began to be marked by signs warning of temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius, and some of them spewed steam so think it was impossible to see through the plumes, which froze to create horizontal icicles on every post, chain, and sign. Shortly afterward, I came upon the river itself, lined with snow and the occasional changing station.  I stripped down to my bikini and jumped in after a short run through the snow, only to discover that the name “hot river” is very much a misnomer, and lukewarm river at best would have been a much better name.  With the water being too cold to really warm me up and the wind starting to blow with strength, I hesitated to get out and face running barefoot through the snow and then a speedy towel change.  Eventually, I had to buck up and go for it.  By the time I got back to my clothes, my bikini had literally frozen to my body and was crunchy to the touch.  I fumbled with my clothing and towel, dropping items repeatedly in the snow before successfully getting on my thermals, regular layers, a snow clothing.  The hike down was a welcome chance to get the blood to return back to my extremities, and I made it back to the van in no time.

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iceland16blog76At this point, I was cold, tired, and hungry; and Craig, Ciera, Jessie, Max, and Stephan were already at the apartment we were going to share for the next couple nights, so I returned the van early and trudged my way back to the bus and into Reykjavik.  Jessie and I opted to spend the afternoon tromping around the window shopping and feeding the geese in a pond downtown.  Before coming back to pre-game and go out one last time before we slowly began to depart for our next destinations, we popped into a daily flea market where I just happened to stumble across a fundraiser for one of Iceland’s roller derby teams!  We stopped to chat a while and watch a minute of the WFTDA champs games they were streaming on a laptop before heading back to the apartment for a couple hours of silly iceland16blog12drinking games and some tasty curry.  We headed downtown after some time, where we grabbed on of Iceland’s famous hotdogs, slathers in multiple sauces and topped with fried onions, which in my inebriated state I promptly dropped half of down the front of my
jacket.  After minimal time out, we went back to sleep off our fun and woke up the next day ready to figure out the next step.  At this point, Jessie decided to come with me to Ireland instead of staying in Iceland for an additional ten days, and I decided to change my ticket home from Copenhagen to a couple days earlier to surprise Jon.  We continued to peruse the city, doing a taste test of a couple different hot dog stands in the city before visiting a massive swimming complex (Laugardalslaug) across town that evening where we were yet again surprised my pools of water which were significantly cooler than we thought they would be.  We did manage to find the really hot pools, and ducked into one just as the temperature outside drastically dropped and snow started pouring down.  It was super cool to be sitting outside watching the snow spiraling down in flurries, but melt in the vapor from the tub before t reached us.  We trudged home again pretty stoked, and headed to the coolest hostel in Reykjavik the next morning: Bus Hostel.

Bus hostel is a quirky little spot just outside the city itself which offers massive dorm rooms for pretty cheap (about $30 dollars) at least for Iceland.  The front room is full of mismatched victorian style furniture, and the front counter features the last Big Mac to be sold in Iceland ever (in 2009), and they still have a livestream so you can watch the burger over time (spoiler: it doesn’t really look that different from day 1).  The music is great and the coffee is good, so we enjoyed just sitting and talking to people for a while.  We decided to walk about an hour across town to catch a movie, then came home early to get to sleep since we had to catch a 4 AM bus to the airport the next morning.  After rifling through the fridge to pilfer the free section, we slept a couple hours then began the next leg of the adventure: Ireland.

Ten tips and tricks for Iceland

  1. Camper vans and car camping are now a really popular way to visit Iceland.  If you plan on doing this, do your research! Make sure you have the necessary insurance (glass insurance is a must! Really!), and make sure if you’re going out in the off season that you have the correct tires. iceland16blog56
  2. RESPECT THE LOCALS AND THE ENVIRONMENT! I cannot emphasize this enough.  Iceland had over 1 million tourists visit in summer of 2016.  Remember, they only have about 350,000 people who live in the country, so in perspective the national infrastructure is not necessarily designed for so many visitors.  I get it, it seems harmless to pull off to the side of the road and pee.  It seems harmless to park in a field that to you may look dormant.  It may seem harmless to go feed a carrot to Icelandic ponies in the pastures along the roadside.  But when you have over a million people in one season doing the same thing, things get NASTY.  Even if it doesn’t get gross, it’s disrespectful, so do your best to not be part of the problem! Carry receptacles for ALL your waste, and throw it away at gas stations or campgrounds.  Speaking of campgrounds, use them! In the offseason, many are closed, so know before you go.  Do not mess with animals (including feeding them!), buildings, or anything else that doesn’t belong to you.  This is a beautiful place, and if we aren’t careful and mindful, there will begin to be more regulations that make it more difficult to go to Iceland and enjoy how awesome it is.  Protect it for us all.iceland16blog43
  3. Showers! If you’re all about the van life but are worried about your own hygiene, never fear.  In Iceland, any community that has three houses or more will be guaranteed to have a church and a swimming pool.  The pools are cheap (usually 600-900 Krona) and have great shower facilities.
  4. Gas stations.  Your rental company will probably give you a discount card.  While everything helps, it’s not a lot, and gas stations tend to be few and far between in the north and west.  I don’t recommend skipping by gas stations in order to get to one where you can use your discount unless you know how far it is and are certain you’ll make it.  Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere without gas is pretty dismal, especially if the weather is bad.
  5. Speaking of, stick to paths and activities you are prepared for!  There are lots of tempting roads into the interior that are off limits to most rentals.  In winter, the snow can hide flawed shoulders even on main roads, and with icy roads and high winds to boot, every day I saw at least one car stuck on the side somewhere.  Just be mindful and safe.  ALWAYS check the conditions before you go with the Iceland weather service (VEDUR) before you leave.  Also, if you’re not a snow aficionado, please don’t put yourself in danger. I’m all for stepping outside your comfort level, but it just takes one person wandering off into the snow thinking they’ll be fine and having to get rescued (or worse, recovered) to ruin it for the rest of us.  I wouldn’t say this, but I met enough people in my travels who proved that it is necessary.iceland16blog10
  6. Aurora time! I’ve never taken photography classes and am obviously an amateur at best.  Figuring out how to shoot the aurora required a lot of help from websites and apps.  The most important thing is, surprise!, the weather.  A cloudy night means no aurora, so check this VEDUR page which includes cloud cover and the likely strength of the aurora for the night.  I also used the Aurora app (it’s purple with a silhouette mountain or treeline), which predicts how far south it may appear, the best places to view, and predictions for what times will be the best to view for specific locations. The single most important resource I used is Aurorahunter.com, which includes some incredible how to articles on framing and settings, as well as lots of helpful and interesting info on the science of solar wind. iceland16blog58
  7. Coming from the USA, Iceland is pricey.  For perspective, a bowl of soup is usually between 1200 and 1700 Krona, $12-14 USD, and it isn’t even really enough to make a meal usually.  A lower end main dish at a cheaper restaurant will be over $20 USD.  I recommend heading to the grocery store and figuring out what is inexpensive and making it yourself.  I bought a bag of potatoes, a clove of garlic, some sliced cheese, and two packets of powdered broccoli soup and this lasted me a long time with a variety of ways I could prepare my food for pretty cheap.
  8. Lodging is absurdly expensive (the hostel in Hofn I stayed at was about $30 USD for the biggest, cheapest dorm room they had, and this didn’t even include sheets for the bed).  Be sure to check before you stay if they include linens anywhere you go (across Europe), and then check that they allow you to use sleeping bags.  Some hostels won’t allow you to use your sleeping bag and require you to either bring sheets or rent theirs, which isn’t something I considered (why would my sleeping bag be any different than using my own sheets?), so just check before you go.  Also, lots of things are closed during off season, so check that wherever you want to stay is open!
  9. Apparently there is a ferry connecting the west side of Iceland to the Faroe Islands and then on to Europe! It takes three days total one way.  I didn’t take it this trip, but for those of you looking to continue of from Iceland this might be a cool option.
  10. Communication is cheap! I was able to get an Icelandic sim card for about $20 USD that had 1 GB of data and unlimited talk and text to local numbers.  I used the data for EVERYTHING. I had maps going all the time, checked the weather, used my aurora apps, called my family on hangouts and communicated with everyone else on messenger, read the political news during the dark hours when I couldn’t sleep in the van, researched my future travels, etc. and didn’t even come close to going over my data limit after over 20 days of this kind of use.

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BONUS: Is WOW airlines all it’s cracked up to be?  I see this question a lot in travel forums and I was to briefly hit on the most important aspects of WOW to help prepare any travelers looking to try it out. I’ll come back to this  more extensively when I post about my flights back to the US from Copenhagen.  WOW airlines offers flights between Europe and the US for insanely low prices.  They regularly offer flights from major cities like LA and Boston for a hundred USD or less to Iceland, which is pretty sweet.  However, keep in mind while you silently celebrate that your baggage is going to be about $70 USD if the flight is over 7-8 hours, and your carry on will also cost you unless it can fit under the seat (keep in mind, many European airlines have different standards for carry on and personal size items, so be wary! My Jansport backpack was almost too big to be considered a personal item).  To choose a seat, you’ll spend a minimum of $12 USD, and if you want the extra legroom, you’ll be looking at $40-70 USD.  I went ahead and purchased the extra legroom for the flight back, considering it was a flight from Iceland to LAX and I was sorely disappointed to find that the “extra” room (which cost me $50) was still less less legroom than any standard economy flight I’ve been on.  I flew WOW earlier that day from Copenhagen to Iceland and I didn’t see a difference at all in room between the flight I paid extra for and the one I didn’t.  Additionally, the space underneath the seat in front of me was so small my backpack didn’t actually fit under the seat, causing it to take up most of my foot space.  If you’re hungry, you can purchase food, but it was ten dollars for a ham and cheese sandwich.  No snacks or drinks are complimentary, so be sure to bring your own.  Lastly, there is no entertainment aboard.  They have tablets available to rent for movies and games, but I have no idea what happens if it dies (do you have to pay for a new one?).  The bottom line: this is a budget airline in every sense of the word.  The hidden fees add up, so be aware of what you’re signing up for.  It will get you from one place to another (probably with lots of delays, as I experienced and have seen from many other travelers, and if anything goes wrong or you want to talk to someone, good luck with getting in touch with their customer service), but for backpackers on a shoestring who plan ahead well, it can be a good option to get from the US to Europe.

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Once again, please consider making a tiny (or not so tiny, your choice) donation for my upcoming volunteer trip to Thailand and Cambodia HERE!  This donation will go directly to the organizations I work with there, I will never see the money myself.  Make a difference in the world, one community to another!  If you’d like more info, please read this!.

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