Saturday, November 26, 2016

Iceland Recap

Ice at Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, Southern Iceland
Today I'm excited to recap my most recent adventure: Iceland! 

In a nutshell, Iceland is the most 'different' place on earth I've been. To be fair, I haven't been to that many places on earth, but Iceland definitely had its own evident, attractive uniqueness right from the start. 

It was wild, and remote, pleasantly quiet and unhurried: even the capital city of Reykjavik was calm and quiet when we visited. The country is noticeably socially isolated: I noticed that there was no overwhelming presence of consumerism or advertising, not a lot of superficial 'stuff' clamoring for your attention in the city. Reykjavik felt simple, clean, quaint, and unassuming. And in the countryside, natural, pure, wild beauty was the main attraction. 

Most of Iceland's small population (only 323,000 people live there) lives in the capital. The countryside is dotted with small clusters of farm and guest houses, and these 'towns' are populated with anywhere from 20 to a few hundred people, at most. 
Street art in Reykjavik 

So, Why Iceland?

Well, I've been traveling a lot this year. My sister, who lives in San Francisco, found a really good flight price a few months ago on an Icelandic budget airline (they were great! Except for the 24 hour delay on the way home...) and she booked it. I was tempted. 

A few weeks after she told me, I was downtown in Estes Park working on my computer in a coffee shop with a friend one night. I had just picked up a check from a shop in town where I sell my cards. As we sat on our computers, I started thinking about it. I looked at the check, looked up flights, and (encouraged by my friend, who of course always points me in the direction of adventure), I booked the flight. Iceland has always been on my list so I thought, why not! 

Where We Went

We flew into the capital of Reykjavik (the airport is actually in Keflavik on the map), and stayed there for three nights. From there, we drove east and stayed in a town called Hof (just east of Vik on the map) one night. We then kept traveling east to Hofn and stayed near there a night.

The Ring Road (in red) in Iceland loops around the whole country, but after Hofn we went back the way we came, one night staying in Vik, then Selfoss, before we flew home. 

In Reykjavik we mostly just explored around the city and frequented cafes and shops. We did the famous Blue Lagoon the night after we arrived, which was very relaxing and the perfect way to rest up after twelve hours of travel time (for me, coming from San Francisco by way of Chicago).
Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's tallest church
Site of Silfa, in Thingvellir National Park

Snorkeling In Silfra

Our second day was one of my favorites, because we got to go snorkeling in a National Park! I would totally recommend doing this if you're in the country (but maybe go in summer if you're not good with the cold...). Our tour company was fun, knwoledgeable, and helpful. I'm not much for pre-booking excursions when I travel- I much prefer to go and explore things on my own- but for this adventure obviously appointment and some instruction was necessary. 

If you look at their website you can see the conditions under the water where we snorkeled- it was truly just this magical. The area, called Silfra, contains some of the clearest glacier water in the world and you could see straight down for hundreds of feet. The water appeared in gradients of turquiose, green, and blue. 

The total time in water was about 35 minutes, and it took longer to suit up and get ready than it did to actually dive, but it was worth it! (And surprisingly dry- and not too cold).
Underwater at Silfra (photo credit

Traveling the Ring Road

Reykjavik is a very navigable city and is easy to get around on foot, but when we began our adventure out to the country, we obviously needed a car. Several Icelanders told us we lucked out with the weather: usually it's much colder and more rainy (and snowy) than the weather we got, so driving wasn't too problematic aside from occasional rain storms and frequent high wind.

For sleeping arrangements, we picked the spots we wanted to stay in and booked on Airbnb before we left. We discovered that the Icelandic countryside is spotted with guesthouses (formal commercial 'hotels' were uncommon), and a sense of warmth, hospitality, and personality was evident at each of our stays. 

Since it was by no means the crowded height of tourist season while we were there, we probably could have found lodging day-to-day as we traveled- but it was nice to have everything laid out. (Especially because we weren't working with a ton of daylight: the sun rose around 10 am every day and it was dark by 5). 
Skógafoss waterfall, right off of the main road in South Iceland 
Sólheimasandur plane wreck site

On our way to our first guesthouse, we stopped at several waterfalls (they're everywhere!) and visited the iconic Sólheimasandur plane wreck site, which wound up being pretty easy to find off of the main road. We used this great site to help us locate it, as it's unmarked and a little off the beaten path, but truth be told there were plenty of other travelers around to make its location evident enough. 

It was a long and windy walk (about 2 miles each way out to the site of the wreckage), but worth it. It was hard to photograph the plane people-free, but definitely worth seeing; a very surreal and curious sight. The eerie black sand and vast ocean behind the scene made for a sort of gloomy, somber-yet-beautiful experience.
On the way to the wreckage site, we passed the famous Eyjafjallajokull (the only Icelandic word other than 'hi' that I learned how to say) volcano, which erupted in 2010. We spent the night at a guesthouse east of Vik with wonderful hosts, and met some fellow travelers from Boston and Manchester, England. In the morning we enjoyed breakfast there and a rainy tour of their farm. (Check them out if you are traveling in this area, we loved their hospitality and couldn't recommend them enough!)

Glacier Exploring

One of the most surreal things about Iceland was the glacial landscape. We came suddenly upon Jokulsarlon, a large glacial lake, on our way from our first guesthouse stay, and pulled over to explore. It was rainy and gloomy, but we stopped here again on out way back from our last guesthouse stay and had a totally different experience in the sunshine (although we concluded there was something cooler about seeing it in the blue, misty rain). 

In the town of Hof, we stayed in another wonderful guesthouse and farm- complete with animals, a lovely breakfast with coffee in the morning, and interesting conversation with two Icelanders on a hunting trip passing through the area and sharing the house with us.
Hofn guest house farm
When we left Hof and headed back west, we had our first real day of sunshine and no rain, which meant we could see Jokulsarlon again with a little better weather. I'm so glad we stopped here again because for as cool and haunting as our first visit was, the sunshine allowed for a much more beautiful view of the amazing glacial ice on the other side of the lagoon, which was totally wild and surreal to wander through.

We also stopped at Skaftafell, a glacial area in the country's southernmost national park (Silfra was in Thingvellier National Park, Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park), and walked around a bit. It was about a thirty minute walk from the parking area to the glacier itself (below), though we didn't take a guided tour to walk up on to it. 
Skaftafell glacier

Iceland was a beautiful place and I would love to go back, maybe in the summer time when the weather is more opportune for hiking and lots of time spent outside. Constant rain and a single backpack-full of clothes over the course of eight days made for a lot of roughing it without optimal gear- but it was so worth it. Definitely a wonderful note to close my travels on this year, and hopefully it's not too long before I get to do it again!
Black sand beach, Vik 

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