the Land of Fire and Ice
It is truly a special place with a little bit (or a lot)
to offer to every kind of nature enthusiast -
from breathtaking waterfalls right off the road, to hidden lands of moss that you can walk on for miles and miles, to hot springs that make you question ever going into another body of water again - as long as you're ready for a wild adventure,
Iceland will surely give you what you are looking for... and then some.
I guess, Iceland even has something to offer for those who prefer to spend their time at fancy resorts in the spas too... but I wouldn't know anything about this.
Last month I took on the island and hit the road with just a few things:
my 48 L backpack, a puffer jacket, a pair of gloves, some boots, my camera,
but more importantly,
a decked out white camper van aaaaannd good company.
You can check out my short film I made of our trip HERE.
We had no plans but the beauty in traveling with someone who is just as easy going as you means that any plan is a good plan, and any plan you don't have is an even better plan. I'm serious. Too often I see people focused on the end destinations and totally miss the beauty of the journey. This was my favorite part of the trip - the journey to wherever the hell we were going
(confession: we literally had NO IDEA where we were going 99% of the time)
Iceland is confusing.
Ok let's be more clear about that:
Iceland itself isn't necessarily confusing, the Icelandic language is confusing.
Basically, Icelandic words and names go something like this:
In english our words consist of consonants with a few vowels (a,e,i,o,u),
For Icelandic words you would switch the consonants with vowels, then maybe add a few consonants to make the word seem legit, and then add in a few more vowels and make sure the word is at least ten letters long. Bonus points if you can make it nearly impossible to pronounce. Oh and they also have letters that appear to be a combination of two english letters like "p" and "b" so have fun with that.
AH-HA now we have the name of nearly every single destination you will be visiting.
Although, I must take a moment to brag I was actually complimented on my pronunciation a couple of times by locals. yes, this happened more than once.
Oh ya, Did I forget to mention that Icelandic people are also extremely nice?
(But let's just all assume that i'm a natural at pronouncing Icelandic words)
ANYWAYS, I truly had such an incredible trip and I hope that if you are considering visiting this mystical, magical, and eerie Island -
YOU ABSOLUTELY DO.
I just wanted to share what I experienced during my week there, and i'm here to do my best to give anyone who has no idea where to begin with this whole damn thing a starting place (and save you some time, fuel, and money along the way):
SO, HERE IS MY BEGINNERS GUIDE TO ICELAND:
(It's long but it'll save you time that you would spend doing research)
Let's go over the basics first:
HOW to get there:
WOW! Air has very cheap airfare from the US! I got my flight there for $150 dollars. YES, an 8 hour flight pretty much to the other side of the world for $150. But heads up, they charge extra for EVERYTHING! Baggage, seat assignment, food and water during the flight. The baggage fees suck! They let you bring a "personal item" which was my backpack that honestly just barely fit in the bin they make you put your stuff in to check that it's actually their allowed size. Ok, that's a lie. My backpack definitely did not fit - and I knew it wasn't - so I left half my stuff in my parents car - got the tag on my half full backpack - and then went back and filled my backpack up again. Oh yeah, and I was also wearing 5 layers of sweaters/coats, 2 additional sweaters wrapped around my waist, 3 layers of pants, my boots, a hat, and a scarf.
(I had to bring stuff for my 4+ months of traveling around Europe)
$50 for a carry on MY ASS!
Not on my watch.
Thank you very much WOW air for the cheap flight, I appreciate it
WHO to do it with:
yourself, your best friend, you mom, your partner (in adventure, in crime, or in bed, these are all perfectly acceptable), your pen pal, your grandpa that has never flown in a plane before, your second cousin, your internet friends, your dog, your yoga teacher, your coworker from that yogurt shop job you worked in highschool, your toddler, your favorite photographer (if you can't swing this, anyone who can function a camera is a fun addition)...
Basically any and all. Anyone who is down to take a trip to Iceland is someone that is on the right track to being a perfect travel buddy.
But most importantly,
make sure whoever you do this trip with is someone who is just as easy going, and someone who you know is down to go over all the bumps in the road (literally).
Or you can most certainly go SOLO. Which I am a huge supporter of the idea -
yes, even in ICELAND.
We actually gave a ride to a solo female traveler from France that was hitchhiking around the island and she had some pretty rad stories... which brings us to the....
HOW to do it:
There are so many different ways to do Iceland!
We opted for the camper van (WITHOUT A DAMN DOUBT!!).
But, there are resorts, hotels, hostels, air bnb, and i'm sure even couch surfing (people still use that site, right?!).
oh yes. and hitchhiking. (which usually would mean camping from destination to destination... so let's keep that plan for the summer months - unless you're planning to hitchhike your way back to a hotel/hostel every night)
CAMPER VAN was a no brainer for us - him being the OG Van Lifer the past two years before moving out of the country and then me being the heiress of the babe of a van that was once the home to OG Van Lifer himself, made the decision easy... We like van life in case you couldn't tell.
We rented a decked out camper van from kuku campers, a local Icelandic business, that has got it goinnnnn on! They offer a huge line of all kinds of automobiles to get ya around the island.
We got an automatic, diesel, two person sleeper van equipped with a stove, all dishes and utensils, aux cord input, AND A FREAKIN HEATER. But not just any heater - this heater was v. special - this was a heater you could leave on all night long even when the car was off. In the Icelandic winter this is a god send. Also the heater up front was perfect for defrosting hands after spending time outside of our little home on wheels.
If you can't get a camper van with a heater during the winer I'd highly recommend making sure you have a good snuggle buddy. Although, I'd highly recommend this option for any occasion.
We also paid extra to rent two sleeping bags (necessary), two blankets (not necessary, and I don't even know if these things could pass as blankets, they were thin pieces of felt that you would find at JoAnns Craft store for whatever the fuck people use felt for), and extra insurance (which turns out we didn't need but it was only £10 extra a day and between him and myself we're not the most responsible humans out there so I decided to be a responsible adult for a few days just for fun)(side note: being a responsible adult really isn't that great... not sure why everyones in a rush to be adulting all the time).
but yes, the camper van was awesome. it was also expensive (like literally everything else in Iceland - $30 gas station salad bar i'm looking and you and to be honest, i've still not completely accepted you for who you were/are/ever will be)
WHEN to do it:
This depends. There is truly no bad time to visit Iceland.
So ask yourself, what do you want from the trip?
If you want to see the northern lights (like we intended) and go glacier exploring then you need to visit in the winter months. The days will be much shorter. The sun rises as late as 11:30 am and sets as early as 3:30 pm on winter days.
If you want warmer weather, grassy green hills, better hiking conditions, and access to all of the island- opt for the summer months. The days will be much longer. The sun rises as early as 3:00 am and sets as late as MIDNIGHT!
There are benefits and losses to any time you go.
We were convinced that we were going to see the Northern Lights, which was a big focus for going in the month of February but unfortunately, we never got to see them. This was because we ended up getting a lot of clouds and rain during our week there so visibility was not good.
Despite checking the auroa forcast and cloud coverage everynight - and driving hours to areas that were predicted to be clear skies - we just didn't find the magic.
http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ - is the site we used to check the radar. BOOKMARK this site. You will thank me later.
BUT: We were able to justify sleeping in because of the late sunrise at 9:30 am. Which was fun. And truthfully, we both agreed that even though the sun was setting at 6:00 pm we didn't feel like our days were cut short.
We made the most of the daylight we had and it wasn't a nuisance.
As beautiful as Iceland was in the winter, with white snowy waterfalls, and fog everywhere - I am looking forward to the day when I get to visit again but in the summer months.
I'm a sucker for green grassy hills.
WHERE TO SLEEP, WHERE TO EAT:
One of the most unforgettable things about the trip was being able to park our camper van literally ANYWHERE to sleep. We would drive a few hours at night and have no clue what our surroundings were. We would then wake up in the morning to some serious OOOS and AAAAAS.
There are tons of roads to drive on that are off the main road and you just find any place to sleep. Iceland is not busy by any means, so its more than likely you will be the only one around for miles and miles.
You can also park in campsites if you want to be able to conveniently use facilities.
We ended up sleeping in some pretty EPIC spots...
and eating: well this is a bit tricky, especially if you have certain strict diets like us (vegan and vegetarian). Iceland isn't known for its luscious vegetable farms and abundant exotic fruit frees. We're talking the land of fire, ice, yogurt and meat. Unfortunately, our camper stove was a bust and didn't lite so we ended up spending a decent amount of time at gas stations. We found this gas station buffet that was apparently a tourist "must do" and we did it and let me tell you - i can't be the only one who says it was a must don't.
But it was food so that cool.
We also ate our weight in dates, sesame crackers, and trail mix.
I'm still a fan of dates. Santi.... not so much.
Heads up: Iceland only has a few established towns with restaurants and such. So if you refuse to eat at gas stations, plan ahead. Reykjavik (Icelands Capitol) had an impressive amount of vegan and vegetarian food and with GLO being my favorite. A decent amount of the gas stations also carry this vegan wrap with hummus, some greens, and pomegranate seeds - along with a few other vegan options if you're ok with spending $10 on bread with possibly a filling or two inside...
girls gotta do, what a girls gotta do.
we also had this reeeeeeeaaaaalllly reaaaaalllly good, hot, flavorful, delicious, hot, filling, all you can eat, and did I mention hot? soup from this cute little fisherman cafe in Grindavik by the KEF Airport called Bryggjan.
We needed this place, and you probably will at some point too.
AND HERE'S WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR
There are so many things to see in Iceland but here is what we personally ended up seeing and doing:
This is a good starting point. The airport is about 40 minutes drive from this capitol of Iceland. It's fairly small and has a few main streets to walk up and down. Very cute little town with coffee shops and food and local Icelandic stores. If you're flying in from the West Coast of the US like I was, you'll want to grab a bite to eat here
(and enjoy it - you might be relying on gas station food from here on out).
There are also tourist shops where you can book tours if that's something of interest to you. We didn't do any tours (not into that whole tourist vacation sorta thing, but if we would have known the Northern lights were going to be hard to find I would have definitely considered doing a tour since they know where they're going, what to look for, and obviously if people are paying to see northern lights - they're going to do their best to make sure they're seen. In addition, walking through a glacier yourself is very dangerous even the locals recommended against it. So if you'd like to add that to your list of stuff to do - i'd recommend stopping by one of these tours shops)
We spent some time in Cafe Babalu one night on our way up North and it was one of my favorite places we stopped. It's a cozy little multi level cafe with couches to cuddle up on and good music.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE:
The Golden circle is a popular drive covering 300 kilometers of land in Southern Iceland. There are many stops along the way such as waterfalls, national parks, and geysers. It's a beaaaautiful drive! Take your time and really enjoy it - no rush to finish the loop. We did the entire loop in a few hours because we started late and were running out of daylight hours -
but I easily could have spent a whole day or two doing it.
A waterfall on the golden circle drive. Easy walk to it and platform to view it. Less than a 3 minute walk once you park.
PINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK:
This national park is where the falls I mentioned above are. The waterfall is to the left, and there is a path and hike to the right. We didn't go very far on the path because we were running out of day light hours and wanted to visit one more waterfall that day.
SHE WAS POWERFUL! Surrounded by white snow and for the first time I truly felt like I was in Iceland in the Winter. Easy walk to the falls from the lot - less than 1 minute. We also walked up the path to get a different view of the falls which took just a few more minutes.
We were on our way down South to chase the Northern Lights at night and randomly ended up driving past this massive, magnificent, and damn majestic beauty. She was far off in the distance and was lit up with flood lights. We were trying to figure out what it was - almost looked like a building. As we got closer we had our doubts, was it REALLY a waterfall?! Holy shit! IT WAS.
and oh my god. this was my favorite Iceland memory.
We parked in the lot - which looked like a lot of other camper vans were sleeping there (um, yes! highly recommend this, such an amazing spot - if we weren't on such a mission to find the northern lights we would have stayed here and called it a night, i'm sure of that). Got out of our car and walked up to this queen! We couldn't resist getting closer and closer and ended up running on the path behind the waterfall and stood there in complete and utter amazement as we watched her roar. It was seriously something special. I didn't want to leave but we were both soaked, at night, in the middle of an Icelandic winter. Would I do it again? A million times YES.
Such a beautiful way to start our morning. The sun light was dancing through the valley and reflecting on the stream below. I highly recommend going to this canyon in the morning.
SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK (GLACIER):
We pulled off the side of the road at one of those command signs Iceland uses for attractions. Why not, we thought? A very bumpy road later we found ourselves a parking spot (make your own parking as per usual) and decided to go explore. The ground was black bits of lava rocks - that we were convinced we geodes - so we hiked while trying to bust the occasional rock open hoping we'd find sparking magic inside. No luck unfortunately. (Santi was more convinced than I was haha). We walked for a long time towards the glacier off in the distance, and it felt like we were walking on the moon with all these strange holes in the Earth. We finally made it to frozen water and we sat and enjoyed the beauty a top a mountain.
What an amazing and unique waterfall! This was the waterfall I was most excited to see, and it really was everything I had imagined. I'll let the photos do the talking.
REYNISFJARA BLACK SAND BEACH:
We decided to sleep in the parking lot at the black sand beach near the town of VIK. I'm pretty sure there were signs that said no overnight parking in the lot but we were never bothered and didn't see these signs until the next morning. We were the only ones in the lot at night but in the morning we woke to at least a hundred tourists EVERYWHERE! And massive tour busses parked around us.
We didn't care, opened up our back doors, laid in bed, and enjoyed the ocean breeze and sounds of waves.
Heads up: this is the most touristy waterfall in Iceland. So I suggest getting there early to avoid the crowds. We went mid day and it was swamped with people. It was still enjoyable and fun to visit! I recommend hiking up the stairs and viewing the falls from above - so worth the climb!
This is a not-so-secret "secret" waterfall less than a 10 minute walk to the left of Seljalandsfoss (the waterfall we ended up seeing at night). The walk was short, easy, flat, and the hidden falls were easy to find. There were also a ton of people here which makes me think this secret waterfall is not so much of a secret
(and here I am talking about it publically, definitely not a secret)
I recommend wearing waterproof shoes and going in between the tiny canyon walls to really get an incredible view of the falls tucked away between the rocks.
This is a hotspring we attempted to find but didn't have any luck. On our adventure to find this hotspring tucked away off the main road, we wandered our way through a land were trolls, gnomes, and elves definitely live. It was lava rocks covered with dense, thick, and bouncy moss. EVERYWHERE! This land was like a childhood dream. We had so much fun just walking though this it really didn't matter we never found a hotspring.
The tourist trap of them all. We blew it and didn't make blue lagoon reservations (you need to do this months in advance because it has become SO popular)
Anyways, being the jedi that I am, having quite the long list of places i've snuck into, I thought this wouldn't be any issue. I was ready for the challenge, but let me tell you this place is high security and not possible! (damn it!)
We ended up talking to the front desk concierge and after giving them a story about how we booked our trip around going to this lagoon (not true, but come on - if you go to Iceland you've gotta at least try to go to the blue lagoon) and we ended up getting in during the last hour they were open. It was night so you didn't know you were in blue milky water, but damn did it feel amazing!
The cold night + the somewhat emptier lagoon + the 100 degree water was everything I could have dreamed of. and it's quite romantic at night, I must say so myself.
SO yes, we got in - But don't rely on this method - they charge more for walk in's so we ended up paying more than the already very pricy lagoon entrance fees and you only get to stay an hour (whereas whenever you go during the day you can stay as long as you'd like).
THINGS WE DIDN'T GET TO BUT WANTED TO:
LANDMANNLAUGAR: pastel hills. need I say more?
SELJAVALLALAUG: a hotspring pool with rolling hills behind and all around you. The hike in is apparently beautiful as well.
NORTHERN LIGHTS: this is a hit or miss. sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.
GLACIER TOUR: These glacier caves are only around for a season before they melt and reform again in the winter. This will always be a new experience every time you visit. Definitely something i'll do next time.
For navigating and getting around easy - open up google maps on your phone and star/favorite the places you want to go. Also, be sure to download the map of the island so you can use it offline (settings --> offline areas --> custom area). This will help you so much! We would just start driving in the general direction since theres one main road and we would just simply look at our map and decide what we wanted to do or what we were close to. Since the names of places are so confusing, it's hard to remember what's where - this solves that!
book blue lagoon far in advance! I already talked about this. But seriously, do it now!
know there are two main roads to drive:
Golden Circle (goes around a small south area of Iceland - takes less than a day)
Ring Road (the major road that goes around the entire island - takes a few days)
things to remember:
Iceland is expensive! Be prepared to spend way more money on everything.
Food, gas, accommodations, etc. Have money saved! You can do this trip very simply, but it will still add up and might be more than you think -
I was there for 7 days and ended up spending exactly $800 dollars.
This included transportation to and from the airport, the van rental, a hostel for two nights after Santi went back home, food, gas, and my blue lagoon entrance.
On the plus side, TAP WATER is totally safe to drink and that's what every single local does. They thought we were crazy when we tried to buy bottled water.
Bonus is their local grocery store if you are trying to buy food to cook for yourself to save money.
BRRR! - it's cold, so pack warm! Think layers. Lots of layers, a pair of good gloves, and a couple pairs of thick socks. Especially if you are doing van life.
Weather - It's unpredictable in Iceland. We experienced it all! Be prepared and know that there's always something to do still. Don't get bummed out if it's raining or stormy - Hotsprings are plentiful in Iceland, and most of the waterfalls and attractions are short walks from the parking areas or right off the road so rain shouldn't stop you.
Aux cord and car chargers: you'll be driving A LOT! I'm talking hours of driving a day. Having good music and a charged phone to play music will make it that much more enjoyable.
Extra camera batteries: you'll be taking a lot of photos (Even while you're in the car driving there's always some sort of beauty around you). You won't have too much time to charge your battery at places you stop. Don't be that guy who drains his camera battery on the first day and cant take any more photos of the trip.
Bus shuttles: Yep, you guessed it- These are expensive too but unless you are hitch hiking, this is going to be your only way to and from the airport. Book a round trip - it's cheaper than buying individual tickets when you arrive and when you depart. You can book this right at the airport once you exit baggage claim and customs. There were two companies... I used FlyBus!
AND HERE WE HAVE IT:
MY BEGINNERS GUIDE TO ICELAND.
I hope you are feeling more ready to take on this beautiful land.
less stress, less planning, and more enjoying.
If you have any additional questions,
please feel free to email me in my contact section of my site.
I will do my best to help!
and with that
all I have left to say is:
It truly is a special place and if you are lucky enough to visit,
you are lucky enough