At the end of one summer July, I boarded a plane, with only a backpack, to the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. WARNING: this is the easiest Icelancic name to pronounce on this page. Repeat after me. RAKE-ya-vick.
Traveling with my boyfriend, Devin, we arrived at our "newly refurbished room downtown," courtesy of a very sweet Airbnb host, Daniel. We forgave Daniel for trying to get us to eat rotten shark on the first day once he let us borrow his tent for a few days to camp around the Ring Road. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to arriving at the Airbnb. The couple in the room before us was packing up to leave when we got to talking. SURPRISE! They were from the town next to us back home. Just your average small world story.
The Golden Circle
While it's popular to stay in Reykjavik and pay for tours to get around to the major tourist sites, we decided to rent a car and drive to our destinations instead. One of the most popular tours is The Golden Circle. This 190 mile route includes Gullfoss, one of the many enormous waterfalls in Iceland, Pingvellir National Park, and Strokkur, a geyser that shoots up over 50 feet about every 8 minutes.
We made our first mark in Pingvellir National Park. No really... I had to pee so bad that I decided to "mark my territory" if you know what I mean. At least the group of people that spotted me had a good laugh about it. Sorry for spoiling our reputation, fellow Americans. Thankfully you can always count on Iceland to have a beautiful waterfall near by to distract people in moments like these.
Continuing on to Gullfoss and then Strokkur, we were fascinated by the lack of patrol, restrictive ropes, and warning signs. It was just... nature and us... and it was incredible.
Raise your hand if you've heard of the Blue Lagoon. HINT: Everyone should be raising their hand if you just read the title of this section. Now put that hand on the keyboard in front of you and order your tickets to Iceland because you need to go to the Blue Lagoon.
This magical place, also known as a geothermal spa, contains bright blue water that is filled with silica, algae, and minerals and stays at about 100ºF, you know, that body temperature you would fake to get out of high school. About 70 American dollars and 1 required shower later, we enjoyed the pool for four hours. Included in our package was the use of soft bathrobes, towels, a drink each of our choice at the pool side bar, skin care trial packs, algae masks, slippers, and a reserved table at the restaurant on-site built into a lava cliff, called LAVA.
This was the only lava we were interested in seeing, as our next day we would be descending 400 feet into a volcano that erupted 4,000 years ago.
Inside the Volcano
Thrihnukagigur volcano is the only volcano in the world that you can go inside of. You better believe that “being inside of a volcano” became my fun fact at all work events for the next year.
The tour, called Inside the Volcano, begins with a 45 minute hike and a tour guide that stops the group along the way to divulge fun facts about Iceland. Like did you know parts of Batman Begins, James Bond: Die Another Day, and Game of Thrones were filmed in Iceland? Yeah, me either.
While we were gearing up to take the open elevator down the craters opening for a six minutes ride (think: what window cleaners use to clean the side of tall buildings), we were given soup and water. Devin and I received a tour bonus when a baby arctic fox decided to say hello. This was especially cool before we began our road trip around the Ring Road where the only animals we would see for miles were horse, sheep, and cow.
The Ring Road
After returning from our trip and sharing stories with our friends and family, the phrase “we went around Iceland” needed a little explanation. Most thought we meant “we went around Iceland, ya know, checked out different places here and there.” What we really meant was, “we literally drove 828 miles around the country of Iceland, traveling on the road named Route 1, popularly known as the Ring Road.”
There’s a few things you should know about driving on the Ring Road. One. Be prepared to stop every five minutes to gawk at the beautiful scenery. Nine times out of ten you will take out your phone to snap pictures, only to remember that you’re in the middle of Iceland and probably have no service. Two. Do you hate waiting at red lights? Worry no more. On the Ring Road there are traffic circles instead. Think: Ring Around the Rosy, vehicle style. Three. If you go in July like we did, the sun doesn’t set until close to midnight and rises again between the morning hours of three and four. You’ll never have to miss out on the spectacular views* of active volcanoes, icebergs, or waterfalls. Shotty driving the night shift!
*Full disclosure: The sunlight makes it near impossible to see the northern lights during that time of year.
Black Sand Beach
Rangárþing eystra is home to Skógafoss Waterfall. With a width of about 80 feet and a drop of about 200 feet, Skógafoss takes your breath away. Devin and I must have been deprived of oxygen for too long when we decided to climb up the side of it. Needless to say that was a bit dangerous, but I wouldn’t go back and change it for anything. While some people were going behind the waterfall, we were on top of it and I felt like we were on top of the world.
That night we set up camp in Skaftafell. This region of Iceland is a mix of vivid green mountains and jagged topped glacier mountains. After capturing the aesthetically pleasing landscape on our cameras and in our minds, Devin and I packed up camp and hiked to Svartifoss Waterfall. Slow cooling black lava formed black pillars around this waterfall, leaving it with the name Black Fall. I blended right in since typically all of my clothes are black.
Continuing with the theme, Mýrdalshreppur is where we walked along a black sand beach. Fun fact: This black sand beach is the setting of Rogue One’s planet Eadu. Think: Star Wars.
Waterfall of the Gods
“ICEBERG, RIGHT AHEAD!” Probably the most overused movie quote in Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon where you can witness icebergs cracking as they crash into each other and break off into mini-bergs. While others took some of the many tours offered, Devin and I watched the Arctic Tern (in simple terms, seabirds) dive into the cold water for food. These birds and I had a lot in common because I was hungry too.
Next stop, Devin and I drove over to Höfn for some langoustine. Think: mini lobsters. We had to fuel our bodies before taking on waterfalls Dettifoss and Selfoss. Dettifoss is said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. While there is nothing I appreciate more than untouched nature such as here, as the rocks vibrated underneath our feet just inches from the edge, we gained a new level of understanding for caution signs and barriers.
Guess where we went next? To another huge waterfall! One just as breathtaking as the last. This beauty was called Goðafoss, pronounced GO-thuh-foss and translated to Waterfall of the Gods.
After driving through Dalabyggð, we arrived in Stykkisholmur. In preparation for one of our favorite days, we bought our ferry tickets for the next day and reserved two beds in a hostel we found once we arrived. Tip: don’t book your nights along the Ring Road too far in advance. With the exception of our stay in Reykjavik, all of our hotel and hostel stays were booked on the road. We would often get “last minute” deals as we just needed the bed for a few hours and a place to shower.
The next morning, we took the ferry to Flatey Island to see puffins. Think: black and white bodied birds, like penguins, but with colorful beaks like toucans, only shorter. Beginning our walk along the island’s single road in search of the puffins led us to climb aboard a shipwreck, run away from dive-bombing birds, and fall in love with puffins. It was one emotional rollercoaster, but we were relishing our last moments in Iceland.
After this it was back to Reykjavik before home.
See you later, Iceland
Back in Reykjavik, Devin and I walked around town feeling accomplished knowing we successfully drove around the island of Iceland. What better way to celebrate than to get a tattoo! From that day until forever, Devin’s calf displays the Icelandic magical stave, Vegvísir, meant to help the bearer through rough weather.
A few more tips before I shut up and give you time to book your own adventure to Iceland. Don’t exchange too much money because credit cards are widely accepted. Tip: Bring a credit card that waives currency conversion fees. Note: Discover isn’t taken everywhere. Also, tipping is not a widespread custom in Iceland. Although appreciated, it is not expected. Finally, don't worry about learning a new language before you go; English is spoken almost everywhere.
Be safe, have fun, and enjoy the beauty of Iceland!