My Figure-It-Out-As-I-Go Amazing Icelandic Adventure!
Updated: Dec 25, 2019
Have you ever gone on a vacation by yourself with no plans? I'll admit it may not seem like the best idea, but this is exactly what I did! Before I left for Iceland, all I had was a flight there and a flight back seven days later. Now if you know me well, you know that I'm the type of person that plans everything in advanced. And when I say everything I mean everything. From my daily schedule to my weekly meal plan I take comfort in blocking out every hour of my day. So this whole flying by the seat of my pants thing was not normal for me at all. It started out super stressful, but ultimately I learned a lot and it led to the best vacation of my life!
So how did this happen you might ask? Well, long story short there was a super last minute change of plans leading to my first solo trip. I've done some solo hiking in the past and I'd consider myself a pretty independent person, so at first it didn't seem like that bad of an idea to just take off and do my own thing. I figured I could rent a car and drive the ring road, staying in the car or Airbnbs along the way.
When I got to Reykjavík I didn't have a car booked so my first stop after customs was the rental car counter. Unfortunately, this is the busiest time of the year for tourism in Iceland so getting a car without a reservation was nearly impossible. Another obstacle was that I can't drive stick, so that significantly cut down my options.
After striking out at the airport, I found an Airbnb in Reykjavík and took a bus there. This was Tuesday morning and my flight out wasn't until the next Monday night, so I had a full week to explore and figure out what I wanted to do.
I spent Tuesday wandering around Reykjavík a little bit but mostly just settling in. I got a hot dog at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Hot dogs are Iceland's most popular food and they say they have the best in the world. They were really yummy, but I have to say they weren't the best hot dogs I've ever had. That goes to the Brezelkönig pretzel dogs from Switzerland!
When I was at the airport waiting for my flight, I met a guy who had been to Iceland a few times and recommended a few things for me to see. He said that you can rent quads just outside the city and I had never been on an ATV before, so I thought that would be a fun adventure! On Wednesday I rented the quad and took it up to Slóði að Mordal (don't ask me how to say that), a mountain where you can see over the whole city and Esjan, the table shaped mountain outside of Reykjavík. It was so much fun!
At this point I needed to find some other things to do outside of the city since all of the beautiful Icelandic sights are outside Reykjavík. I hate tourist traps and crowded attractions , but since I didn't have a car I figured visiting a few of them was my best option. I ended up booking a tour of the south coast with a commercial company for Saturday.
After, I ended up meeting this guy named Flosi who had a big land cruiser that goes up on top of glaciers. I went with him on Thursday to the Golden Circle, a popular tour route that can be done in a day from Reykjavík. The first stop was Þhingvellir National Park where you can see the tectonic plates. It was super busy with tons of visitors which was less than pleasant, but seeing where the two tectonic plates pull apart was really interesting.
Next up was Laugarvatn where there's a lake that's fed by hot springs. This was awesome! There were spots where the hot springs bubbled up and there was boiling water coming out of the ground. My favorite part was that it was really quiet. No tourists or any other people. I wish I had brought my bathing suit with me because I was so tempted to swim in the warm lake. It was crazy to look out over the large body of water and know that the whole thing was the temperature of bath water! While we were here I tried a special rye bread that's baked underground with the hot springs used as an oven. It was really surprisingly delicious.
Next was Geysir, where you guessed it there were a bunch of geysers! The word geyser was actually derived from the name of the town in Iceland because of Great Geyser that is there. The big one only erupts about once a year, but there was a smaller one that went every few minutes. There were also a few other hot springs and pools but we didn't stay too long because it was really crowded.
Then we drove onto Langjökull glacier which was the highlight of the day! I had never been on a glacier before so it was really cool to be standing on one in the middle of the summer! I drank some of the glacial water and we hung around a bit to take in the views before continuing on our way. I loved this stop because it was another place where there were no tourists.
After that we went to Gullfoss, a really big and popular waterfall. It was huge! This was the first big waterfall I've ever seen so it was really cool. The downside was that this was the busiest stop of the day and at that point I was kind of done pushing my way through crowds. We went inside the visitor center for a quick lunch hearty of lamb soup, another really popular Icelandic food.
After this we went back to Reykjavík, stopping quickly to see a volcanic crater on the way. It was really big and the red volcanic rock was really interesting.
On Friday I didn't have anything planned so I explored Reykjavík for most of the day. I had been thinking about going snorkeling in Þhingvallavatn where you can swim between the tectonic plates, but it was pretty expensive so I decided not to. I'm not going to lie I was also nervous about it because the water is so clear you can see 600 ft down. That sounds pretty scary especially with the huge fish in the lake!
Instead I did a self guided walking tour that I had seen in Trail to Peak, a hiking blog that I read often. I started with Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church in the center of Reykjavík. It was really big and there were lots of tourists there. I didn't go in but it was a nice sight.
Then I went to Tjörnin lake which was really pretty. I know there were other things to see between there but they were mostly museums and historic buildings. I'm not a huge fan of those kind of attractions so I walked by and took some pictures instead of going inside.
After that, I walked to the city hall and tourist information center. Then I went to Harpa concert hall on the water. It's a really interesting looking building and the views of the bay are great. You can see Esjan, the mountain in the background and it's very peaceful. I sat here on the rocks for a while and read a book while taking in the beautiful scenery.
My last stop before making my way back was sun voyager sculpture was nice looking over the bay.
That night I decided to check out Kaldi, a bar and brewery that the guy from Logan had recommended. It was full of townies speaking Icelandic, indicating that it was a good local spot. Icelandic is a super difficult language with really long words and crazy pronunciations. It sounds a little bit like Swedish but more complicated. I can get by in most of Europe with my little knowledge of Spanish, French, and German, but this wasn't like anything I had ever seen or heard before. Good thing everyone also speaks English!
At Kaldi I asked the bartender for a flight of local beers on the lighter side. They were all really good! One of them was brewed with bananas (I guess that's a popular Icelandic thing) although I couldn't taste them in the beer. I met two American naval fighter pilots and ended up bar hopping with them for the rest of the night. We went to a bar named Boston, which actually kind of reminded me of The Draft in Allston. I had been talking about wanting to do some ice climbing and they met were also interested! The issue was that I didn't have a car, but since they did we booked an ice climbing tour for Sunday. I was super excited because I used to ice climb as a kid and where better to get back into it than on Icelandic glaciers!
On Saturday morning I was up bright and early for my tour of the south coast. After a long drive, we finally arrived at Seljalandsfoss, the famous waterfall that you can walk behind. As you can probably tell by now, waterfalls are a big attraction in Iceland. When you're driving on the ring road that goes around the whole country, you can see amazing waterfalls just in the rocks faces off the highway. Iceland is interesting in that it's completely flat with huge mountains and volcanoes sticking straight up out of the land. There are no hills or smaller mountains really. When you're in a flat spot you can see the ocean on one side and then mountains or glaciers on the other.
From there we went to Skógafoss, another famous waterfall and the southern terminus of the Laugavegur Trek. This is a notoriously beautiful hiking trail that starts in Landmannalaugar and stretches 34 miles to Thórsmörk. It can also be extended to Fimmvörðuháls for an extra 11 miles. I'm really sad that I didn't get to do this hike because it's known to be one of the most beautiful treks in the world. I guess that means I'll have to come back! Skógafoss was really cool because you can walk to the top of it and stand right where the waterfall drops off. You can also stand in the pool below the waterfall and get really close. But make sure to wear a rain jacket because you'll get wet!
After that we went to Reynisfjara beach, also known as the black sand beach. This was beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen before. There were huge basalt columns that you can climb up. The puffins were still nesting in the cliffs above so we could see them circling, flapping their tiny wings. We got lunch, more lamb stew, and headed over for a glacier hike.
When we got to Sólheimajköull glacier we were equipped with crampons and axes for the hike. It was a big group with ten of us so it was slow going. It was really fun though! Sólheimajköull was a lot of volcanic ash so we were walking on it most of the time we were up there. I haven't used crampons in a while so it took a few minutes to get used to them. They were also not the intense climbing ones that I'm used to, so the traction on them was okay but not great. I had a little too much faith in my spikes at certain points, sliding a little bit but I didn't fall so that's a win!
After the glacier hike I parted ways with the tour bus and met up with my friends from the night before. We went back to near where the black sand beach was and hiked up to Dyrhólaey to get a different view of it.
When we went down to the beach it was a few minutes before sunset so we climbed up the basalt columns to take in the beautiful scenery.
From there we went to Vík for dinner at a local brewery called Smiðjan Brugghús. The burgers and beers there were great! That being said for three of us it was 13000 kr which translated into about $130. These are typical Icelandic food prices. Crazy I know! I had mostly been eating food from the grocery store, which was actually really good and saved me a lot money. I also brought a bunch of snacks with me so that was nice to have.
Sunday was by far the best day of the whole trip for me. We got on the road a little extra early in order to see Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon with diamond beach before ice climbing, and boy was it worth it! The diamond beach was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Soft black sand, bright blue icebergs, and chunks of ice that were perfectly clear sitting on the sand. The sun was still rising in the distance making for a gorgeous morning. There were even seals playing in the water just off the shore!
Jökulsárlón was equally as beautiful if not more so. The icebergs were fresh off the glacier and just a sight to be seen. We were there early in the morning so it was too foggy to see the entire glacier and ice cap behind it, but the mist gave the lagoon a more calm feeling. There were seals playing in the water here as well. This is one of those places that you kind of just have to put the camera down and take it all in. Pictures really can't capture the beauty of it.
After the beach, we drove to our next destination, Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park for ice climbing. Here we met our climbing guides and geared up for our adventure! This time we were equipped with climbing boots with metal plates, better climbing crampons, real ice tools, and more sturdy harnesses than the day before.
Then we hiked onto the glacier being careful not to fall in any of the giant crevasses, and scouted out a spot to climb. The first one had two routes, one being about 30 ft tall and the other about 25 ft. The 25 ft route had a slight overhang, making it a lot more difficult than the other one.
I've ice climbed a few times before when I was a kid with my dad, but never anything too serious. I knew the basics so my instincts on tool and foot placement were really helpful. After doing both the harder and easier tracks, we moved on to find another spot to climb.
I just need to pause for a second to talk about the Canadian family we were on the tour with. It was two teenage boys with their parents on the tail end of a two month backpacking trip through Scandinavia and a few other Eastern European countries. These kids had been to 30 countries and had already done most of the hiking trips on my bucket list! So side note they were future life goals.
After going a little ways to find another spot we came to a big crevasse that we couldn't cross because it was so deep. There were places to stand but the walls were so steep we were going to have to climb up it! Our guides anchored the ropes and we strapped in to lower ourselves into the crevasse. We then climbed out and repeated the process on the other side where there was a second crevasse. It was pretty cool but one of them was so deep you couldn't see the bottom! We were also being belayed from above (obviously because there was a giant hole below us), so that was a new technique that I had never seen before.
After we all got up and over both crevasses it was time to head back down glacier. I was actually kind of sad it was over because it was so much fun! I haven't ice climbed in so long that I forgot how therapeutic it can be. It sounds counter intuitive but having to focus on something so completely that you forget about all of your other worries was exactly what I've been needing the past few weeks. Not to mention slamming ice picks into a wall of frozen glacier is one hell of a stress relief. I was exhausted by the end but sad it was over. You don't get that kind of rush often!
After the climbing we hiked about a mile in from where we had started in Skaftafell to see Svartifoss. You may have noticed that "foss" means waterfall in Icelandic. This one was probably one of the best I saw on the whole trip, and that's saying a lot since there were so many! It had the same volcanic basalt columns we saw at the black sand beach, creating a beautiful frame around the falls. Like most things in Iceland, words and pictures don't really do it justice.
After hiking back out we were in serious need of some food. All we had to eat so far was Clif bars and some jerky, so we headed back to Vík for burgers and flights at Smiðjan Brugghús where we ate the night before. It didn't disappoint!
We had a long drive back to Reykjavík but decided to see Gljúfrabúi, one last hidden waterfall on our way. This one was right near the waterfall that you could walk behind. It was in a cave and crazy beautiful. We had to rock hop through the stream and pool at the bottom to duck inside the cave but once we were inside we were surprised to find a 130 ft waterfall. The cave was completely moss covered. This one was hardest to capture on camera so it was a real had-to-be-there type of moment. Totally worth the short pit stop!
We finally made it back to Reykjavík around 9pm where I promptly passed out at my hotel. Monday brought another long day and the dreaded flight back to reality.
Yesterday I woke up early for my bus to the Blue Lagoon. Like I've said before, I'm not a big fan of all of the tourist traps, but I figured the Blue Lagoon is something you kind of have to do when you're in Iceland. They also give you a ride to the airport which is super convenient. I've never been to a spa before so this was a new experience!
It was absolutely beautiful! The water was bright blue and opaque but the temperature of a hot tub and it was all outside. The water has volcanic silica in it making it that milky blue color. Taking pictures was hard because the steam and rain made the lens all foggy. There was a bar you could swim up to and the pools itself were really big! It wasn't too busy because the weather wasn't great, but I'd gladly sacrifice nice weather if it meant smaller crowds. It was really relaxing and I talked to a few people while I was there. That being said after about two hours I got a little bit sick of the whipping wind and rain so I finished up with a nice sauna and went on my way.
Then it was time to head off to the airport, which I had been dreading all week. I had been having so much fun I didn't want to leave! It was made a little bit better by the fact that I had been upgraded to business class for the flight home and had access to the premier lounge before the flight. Even though I didn't quite look like the typical business class customer, I took advantage of all of the perks they offered for about five hours since my flight was delayed. When I finally got back after a long day of flying, I was sad that the trip was over but happy to be home.
If you had told me two weeks ago that I was going to go on an international vacation by myself and have the time of my life I would have said you were crazy. Even though I'm pretty independent, the idea of going solo in a foreign country with no plan completely stressed me out. It could have gone a lot of different ways, but in the end I couldn't have asked for a better trip. I definitely got lucky meeting such great people and having so many amazing experiences. In the end I learned that no matter how far in the weeds I feel at the start, it just takes a positive attitude, some creativity, and a little bit of luck to come out on top. And I made some amazing new friends along the way! This has been one of the best vacations I've ever had, and I think this whole solo traveling thing might become more common for me in the future! All of that being said here are the few things I wish I could have done and absolutely will do next time I come to Iceland.
1. Rent a car and drive the ring road 2. Hike the Laugavegur Trek and a few other trails that I've heard great things about 3. Backpack and camp to avoid unnecessary lodging costs 4. Bring more food and be more strategic about my meal planning to save money 5. Maybe bring a friend to share it all with!
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