Iceland was never originally on my radar- mostly because I thought it would be far too expensive. But it kept coming up again and again, and I couldn’t ignore the universe trying to send me a message. I was already in Europe, who knew when I would be back next… so why not? I looked at flights and while it was still an expensive flight, I had started dreaming about Iceland and knew I had to visit this place. I knew I made the right decision when my dear friend Emilee from back home in Canada messaged me to tell me her and another friend were heading to Iceland at the same time as me! That settled it. I booked my flights and made plans to meet the girls for an epic week long road trip through Iceland’s Ring Road. Emilee and Caitlyn had two weeks in Iceland, so we were going to start with the most exciting stuff in the South and work our way East then North, and then I would catch a bus from wherever we ended up after a week back to Reykjavik.
We all arrived the same day within an hour of each other, so I waited anxiously at the airport for them to arrive. As Em came through the gate, I held up my poorly written “Velkomin” sign that I had scribbled and squealed with excitement. I ran and scooped Em up in a huge hug, squeezing her tight. It’s always so nice to see a face from home when you’re on the road! I embraced Caitlyn too, knowing a friend a Em’s would be a friend of mine! We were picked up at the airport by our Sad Car Rental associate and taken to the agency to get our car. Sad cars is a great option for Iceland- you rent older, used cars at a much cheaper rate than newer rentals. We thought we were getting a Yaris (and thank goodness we didn’t!), but turns out all they had left was this beautiful beast, a 1991 black Toyota Corolla. I yipped with delight- my high school car was a Corolla, only two years older than this baby! It was a hatchback, with a few dents and scratches, some windshield cracks and some sad looking tires. She was beautiful. I assured the girls, who at first seemed a little skeptical of our ride, that Toyotas were wonderfully reliable, tough cars. I related the story of how my car once drove itself across the street (I left it running in winter to warm up, e-break on, thought it was in neutral, turns out was in reverse…) at top speed, smashed into the neighbours car, which then smashed into her house – but there wasn’t a single scratch on the Toyota! In retrospect, I don’t know if I relieved them, or concerned them more with my story!
We loaded the bags in and drove into Reykjavik with the help of my old trusty Maps Me app. Like all cars in Europe, she was a standard, but Caitlyn was used to driving stick so it was all smooth sailing for us. We rolled into our hostel, tired and ravenous. The hostel was a posh looking place by hostel standards, and we left our bags in reception to go on a hunt for food. We asked where the cheapest place to eat was and we were recommended The Noodle Station. We walked down the street towards where they directed us and then just followed our noses, because you could smell the heavenly aromas wafting down the street a block away. I’ve never smelt anything so divine! The spicy fragrance, a pungent mix of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and heaven knows what else teased my senses and set my tastebuds alight. I’m no expert in Pho, but let’s just say it was the best I’ve ever had. The $10 price tag was actually worth it! It soothed us down to our souls and put some life back into us, as we had all spent the night before sleeping on shitty, cold airport floors (at least trying to). With bellies full, we headed back to the hostel and began getting to work planning out our grand adventure. We would take off the next day to begin the Ring Road- starting South East of Reykjavik instead of heading North as many of the online itineraries suggested.
In the morning, we packed the Toyota up nice and tight with our gear, a few snacks and hit the road! It was rainy and miserable in Reykjavik, but as soon as we cleared away from the coast and headed inland it began to clear up and we had spectacular weather! We blasted Coleman’s 2 Heads as loud as our little car speakers would allow before distorting. Our spirits were high; we simply couldn’t believe we were in ICELAND!!! our first stop was to check out the Mid Atlantic Ridge – one of the only places on earth where you can see it on land. We stopped a few times along the way- the beauty of driving yourself, rather than taking a tour or bus – and snapped pictures, and practically screamed with excitement at the scenery around us. Already Iceland was beautiful and we hadn’t even really seen anything! The Ridge was neat- a huge disjoint in the earth, the two pieces separating from each other over thousands of years, at a rate of 2.5cm per year. I’m pretty sure we saw it move… ! We played in the rift it created and climbed about on the ledges before heading back to our ride. We pondered a name for the Toyota, because what is a road trip without a name for your ride?! We started out with Babe – I mean, look at her, she’s a total babe! But after a full day on the road and many, many sheep, Caitlyn had the perfect name – “THE BLACK SHEEP!” she shouted at us out of no where from behind the wheel. Well that settled it! We settled in to the black sheep and hit the open road, feeling alive, excited and up for anything that came our way!
Road tripping through Iceland is much like the three day safari through the Bolivian Salt flats (read about that awesomeness here!)- you are never bored, and you fear to blink in case you miss something. We cruised into Thingvellir National Park, parked the car and began the first of many short hikes through the country. We hiked into Öxarárfoss waterfall, the first of hundreds of waterfalls that we would see on our journey. We hiked along the Mid atlantic ridge to reach the waterfall and lingered a while to enjoy the beauty.
Next up on our list was the renowned gesyir park! Geysirs are in abundance in Iceland (the word comes from the Icelandic verb geysa – which means to gush!) but two in particular are famously huge and active. The Great Geyser used to be highly active, and was the highest erupting in the world at 122 meters, however eruptions are now rare. But Stokkur, located a just 100 meters away erupts every few minutes, 30 meters in to the air. The land around these two geysirs is sprinkled with hot pockets of steam rising from the active earth beneath it and streams of hot steaming water flow in rivulets all around. We sat and watched Stokkur erupt over and over, I am telling you, it doesn’t get old! We hiked up a hill behind the geysir and had a great view of the eruptions from above.
We grabbed a bite at the cafe ($10 for a pre made chicken burger wrapped in tin foil…!) and hit the road to get to Gulfoss Waterfall, one of the most famous in Iceland. This fall is massive, and tiered in a few levels. The throngs of people heading out on the pathway to see the falls was a little intimidating and put me off from the whole experience a little. But I recalled my time in Argetina at Iguazu falls and realized that this was nothing compared to the thousands of tourists you shared the paths with there (you can read about Iguazu here!)! We made our way to the look out and it was a stunning sight as the wide river plunged over the cliffside, huge clouds of mist rising up from the depths to drench us. The sun shone down and displayed little rainbows all over the place. We soaked it in (and got soaked!) and then hit the road for our final stop of the day, Vik.
On the drive towards the town Vik, which means bay in Icelandic, we drove past a few signs with the ‘command’ symbol on a Mac keyboard, which meant ‘attraction’. (cool fact, Apple actually chose this symbol from the attraction signs in Scandanavia!) Naturally we stopped! The first stop was a double waterfall called Hjalparfoss. The two large falls curved around the large rock between them and met in a small, blue circular lake, where local men were lazing about with their fly fishing rods, trying their luck. The next stop was a soaring, narrow waterfall and we just knew we had to make a pitstop! This was Seljalandfoss (foss means falls), a towering 60 meter fall that plummets down and even offers a chance to wander behind the fall, if you’re willing to get absolute soaked. Which we weren’t.
We took a small trail down to the left side of the fall and found ourselves another hidden waterfall! While the hoards of tourists flocked to the well known Seljalandfoss, we had the lesser known, secluded Gljúfuráfoss to ourselves! Em and Cait went to the base while I made the climb up the rocks (they have ropes to help, just be careful!) to the side to see where it would lead. When you come across a ladder perched against rocks, naturally you climb it! And I’m so glad I did! I was afforded a spectacular view of the 40 meter high water fall spilling down right in front of me! I felt privileged to be up there all alone, to have this incredible view of this little secluded waterfall all to myself, yet at the same time I felt lost at not having anyone to high five and gush about it with! I made my way back down, met the girls and told them they had to go up, and they told me I simply had to go underneath were they had come from. I didn’t think the ladder view could be topped, but going beneath the rocky overhang, hopping on rocks to keep my feet dry in the little steam, I came face first with the howling smash of water on rocks. It was so beautiful! The walls were glowing mossy green and I was slowly becoming soaked through but I didn’t care.
After these two detours we had to push through to make it to Vik. We had one hell of an ambitious day and covered huge ground, seeing so many extraordinary sights already. But the day wasn’t over yet…we had a slight crisis when we pulled into Vik that quickly escalated. The crisis was we couldn’t find our guesthouse – but no big deal – we would just ask someone. We heard Icelandic people were really friendly! We pulled into a parking lot and saw two burly looking men and thought about asking them but decided last minute to instead go to the tourist shop just ahead. I asked the girl working and as her brow creased and she shook her said, I got worried. I had booked the hostel last night, but her reaction was telling me something was very wrong. “No… I’m so sorry, this is very far away! Like 400 km far away!”
WHAT!!!!! Turns out this happens quite often, but we had booked accommodation in another little town also called Vik on the east coast. Great. She suggested we call and explain what happened as often times people were understanding and you could get your money back/not be charged for a no show. I explained that we didn’t have working phones and she graciously offered hers. I called the guesthouse and what ensued was a very one sided conversation of me trying to explain what happened and her responding with “what??” over and over. The store clerk kindly offered to explain for me after listening to our conversation. The relief in my face surely expressed my thanks as she took the phone and explained in Icelandic our dilemma. We were lucky and got off the hook! Now our problem was we had no where to stay… Once again the store clerk comes to our rescue and explains that her mom runs a guesthouse and may have a room. She offered to call her mom and check for us. Her kindness was limitless! Great news – she had a room! Bad news – it was for a staggering price that we just could not bring ourselves to dish out… She kept chatting with her mom on the phone while we hashed out our plan – go door to door of guest houses to find a place more within our budget? Sleep in the car if we must? The store clerk came back to us and offered us a much lower price, nearly half in fact. What?! Who is this woman?! Our guardian angel!?
We all stared in silent disbelief for a moment before all spewing forth thankful rushed ‘yes’s’. As she hung up with her mom after telling her we would take the room, we expressed our deepest gratitude, and let her know that she really saved us this night. She was so kind about everything I just wanted to hug her! She pulled out a map, drew us directions to her moms place and off we went, as the night was wearing on. We arrived at a great little guest house, the nicest one we stayed at in all of Iceland by a landslide – I could see why it was so much more expensive! We explained our situation to her, though her daughter surely already had – while we couldn’t understand Icelandic, I’ve no doubt when she was chatting with her mom, she was explaining that we looked pretty desperate, and couldn’t she do us a favour and drop the price just this once? Though I have a feeling this wouldn’t be a first for people as kind as them. We could see that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, the mother was so kind and accommodating and welcoming. She asked us not to mention the price to the other guests, as we were getting quite the bargain. We sealed our lips. We got settled in to this great little place, made ourselves a delicious dinner and crawled into the oh so comfortable beds. We decided against an alarm and woke up on our own, sleeping in slightly, but when we looked outside we didn’t feel bad for the sleep in- it was pouring rain. We were back near the coast and the heavy mist was proof of that. We decided that we could explore around Vik today and not drive too far, and then overnight again here, since it was such a miserable day.
Even though the weather was awful, it ended up being one of my favourite days in Iceland. We hopped in the car and drove back a little towards a waterfall that we drove past the day before, but didn’t have time to visit – Skogafoss. This was the day we learned why half the people we encountered we all wearing what looked like wind pants, or light ski pants. They were in fact rain pants. If you ever go to Iceland, I definitely recommend bringing a pair, because if you get a day where it rains like it did on us that day, you will be completely soaked in seconds! None of us had ever felt such driving rain like that before. We walked to the waterfall, got completely soaked and decided not to linger, but to run back to the car! We had driven past some cool sights on the side of the road the day prior and wanted to stop and check them out as well, getting further soaked. Iceland was full of shed like structures built right into the mountainside. Icelandic ponies grazed among sheep and we braved the driving rain for a few more minutes to explore and snap a few photos.
Emilee wanted to try her hand at driving stick, so she got behind the wheel and we zoomed off with a few bumpy jerks and headed down the highway to a turn off that had a dirt road marked for Eyjafjallajökull (good luck trying to pronounce that one!) – the glacier that is home to the volcano of the same name that erupted in 2010, causing global disruptions in air traffic. We started out on what seemed a decent dirt road, nothing our old black sheep couldn’t tackle, but 10 minutes later the road began to seriously deteriorate. We kept going a bit further, and passed a couple of men standing outside their huge 4×4 truck. They gave us a look of disbelief, no doubt wondering what the hell we were doing on this road in the little black sheep! We went on a couple more minutes, nearly getting air in our seats from the bumps and decided it was time to turn around. The roads are usually marked to let drivers know that they should have a 4×4 vehicle, but this one had no warnings so we thought we’d be fine. With a sense of defeat, we turned around and as we passed the same men we gave them a shrug of our shoulders and laughed.
Not to be entirely defeated, we drove onwards to find a glacier tongue that we could actually access with our current wheels. We parked the car, and began a short 15 minute hike into Sòlheimajökull (you may have noticed, jökull means glacier). The wind and rain and cold could keep us from nothing! The hike was was like stepping on to another planet, the dark black, rocky terrain, the pregnant mist hovering just above our heads, and as we rounded the corner, the tongue of this massive white glacier, marked with dirty black lines of muck, running through every crack and crevice of the beast, like veins. It was spectacular. We practically ran the rest of the way, admiring all the formations and staring in wonderment at how quickly it was melting, steady streams of water pouring from every tip. We carefully climbed on a ledge of the glacier for a quick group photo (okay, since I was setting the timer on the camera, I may not have been as careful, it may have been more of a mad dash to make it there in time and attempt to look half normal before the shutter went down!).
After the glacier we began to head back towards Vik and stopped in at the hostel to try and dry off and grab some lunch before making our way down to the beach. Though not your ideal beach day, the weather actually seemed perfect for the kind of beach we were heading to. We parked the car and looked out to where the ocean should have been but where instead we saw a wall of white. It was unsettlingly eerie. We hiked a little further down where the beach opened up and the mist retreated a little, but still still hung low and threatening, and there before us were the famous hexagonal Basalt columns: strange formations from the quick cooling of lava long ago. The columns formed a stepped like pyramid that the reached high into the sky.
Beyond this lays the beach and a huge cave with more of the bizarre formations inside in the walls. This section of the beach is covered in small black pebbles as opposed to the further beach which is sand. As you look out to the ocean into the thick mist you can see the massive outlines of two huge rock formations, called Reynisdrangar. Folklore tells us that two trolls were attempting to drag their boats out to the stormy sea when the sunrise caught them and turned them to stone, to stand forever guard at the black beach.
Sea birds were fluttering about madly above our heads and it took a moment but we suddenly realizied… they were PUFFINS!!! I thought we had surely missed them and they would have left for the sea by now, but we were in luck! As they zipped past our head, Emilee and I couldn’t contain our delight and we squealed hysterically and ran to hug each other screaming “PUFFINS!!!!! PUFFINS!!!!!!” while jumping up and down. We watched them for ages as their wings flapped at near hummingbird speed and carried them out to sea to hunt for food for themselves, their partner and their young. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them all along the sea cliffs, in their burrows, the ones they return to with their monogamous mate year after year to nest and lay their sole egg. Flying up to 88km per hour, the birds zoomed past us as we craned our necks and tried to follow their speed as they flew out to the ocean and dove down to catch food.
It was hard to drag ourselves away but luckily everywhere we went on the beach had cliffs with Puffins swooping about. We made our way down to the next section of beach, where the rocks ended and the smooth black sand began. This place was ethereal. With the heavy, cool grey mist draping itself over the cliffs, the startlingly black sand covered in footprints, the vibrant green moss clinging to the cliff sides, the red and orange lichen crawling over the beach boulders, and the flocks of puffins soaring about above us – it felt like I had stepped into some strange movie set. How could this be real life?! I tried to imagine the beach on a bright sunny day but I just couldn’t. This was how this beach was meant to look, always, I could just feel it.
It was hard to leave the beach, even though we were wet and cold. This place completely captivated us: from watching the Puffins bomb about, to staring in wonder at the basalt columns – like they were some temple of the trolls, to feeling our hikers melt into the soft volcanic black sand and leave their imprint, only to be washed away later by the tide. It was nice not to be in a rush here, to take our time and stay as long as we wanted, simply wandering, mostly silent (that is, after our girlish puffin outburst!) in awe and appreciation for this special place. This beach was at one time named as one of the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not the kind of beach that you normally bring to mind on top ten lists – it’s dark and brooding, cold and moody. The sun is a near myth, so you won’t find any sun bathers here. But what makes a beach beautiful isn’t necessarily it’s ability to host half clad folk on it’s sandy shores. If you ever find yourself in Iceland, make this stop a priority and you’ll see why.
Stay tuned for part II of this epic adventure, coming soon!