Europe

Exploring Iceland in November

01. – nov. 24 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wow.

What a completely surreal day it’s been.

I’ve been planning this trip since June and it’s finally been realized.  There were so many factors against me getting here – potential airport workers striking, Thanksgiving holiday travel madness, thunderstorms, and a third party ticket that was super cheap but may or may not work.

And by the grace of the universe my ticket worked, the workers are waiting until the 29th to strike, security at the international airport was the fastest I’ve ever experienced, and it was just a light mist.

So with the smallest of delays, I was off to Iceland.  Departing at 7.00pm from Chicago, I arrived at 7.30am in Iceland.

The first thing that struck me was how neat and clean everything seemed.  Iceland’s tourism has been booming since Eyjafallajokull erupted a few years back – Iceland’s board of tourism did a tourism campaign right after that and it’s struck a lot of people’s interest.  Because of this, there’s a lot of infrastructure that seems to be under construction, in order to make an attempt to keep up with the absorbant amounts of tourists traveling in and out every day.

Also, their airport sinks have the faucet and dryer connected through the same piping above the sink.  WUT!

image

This is my first time traveling solo internationally, so I was trying to be patient finding my car rental while also stressing myself out about time constraints.  In the winter months, the sun is only up for a small portion of the day.  I never saw it today because it rained pretty much the entire day but the light started around 9.00am and was gone by 4.00pm.  Honestly not that bad, but in order to compensate for it I made a pretty outrageous itinerary to make the most of my short time here.

With a little bit of luck, I was able to find the shuttle to get to my car rental, and I was in and out in probably all of 5 minutes.  Dude literally wrote down my license number, I signed, we looked at my car for signs of any previous damage and presto, I’m off.  I don’t know why I didn’t just take more time to chill out and get acquainted with my car – I think I was just stressed about the lack of daylight and wanting to utilize it ASAP.  Since I was already a little bit behind on time, I wanted to go Go GO!  So I hadn’t messaged my parents to let them know I was there or plugged in the phone charger or anything, I just needed to go.

And go I did.

In Iceland’s more urban areas, there are a LOT of roundabouts, which I’m not used to.  After missing the first one, I didn’t miss them again after probably 12 or so on my way out of the city and into the country.

Let me tell you this, though.  When the sun is down in Iceland, it is DARK.  While in parts of the city, it was totally cool and there were a bunch of cars around me and I felt safe.  But at some point there was a turn I had to make and suddenly there were no buildings around, cars were disappearing into the horizon, I was surrounded by mountains (though I didn’t realize this at the time due to fog and lack of lights) and I was going to even have to drive on a mountain.  I was kind of scared for my life for a moment because:

Iceland is dangerous.

Remember when I mentioned about infrastructure?  Yeah.  You can be driving down a mountain at 90km/h and there aren’t even any guardrails aside from some wooden posts sticking out on the side of the road.  If there’s a patch of ice and you spin out of control, sorry!

Icelanders basically leave it up to you.  When I visited my stops for the day, there may be a sign on the ground that has an X over a set of footprints but if you ignore it, you could be walking into some geothermal activity, or stepping too close to the edge on a 100ft waterfall and drop to your death because of a gust of wind, get swept away on the beach by 10 foot waves, etc. LOL no big deal.

But here I am, alive (for now).

Once the light started to break through the day, I felt a lot more comfortable driving.  My first stop was Gluggafoss.  I considered skipping it because of the aforementioned daylight constraints but decided to check it out and I’m really glad I did.  I think it was the moment when I had really entered the countryside and I was struck by what Iceland is and could be.

The terrain is just incredible, and this is such a cool time to come.  Greens, tans, browns, whites, greys.  I’m grateful that I’m able to see elements from both the contrasting seasons – some areas still have elements of summer (lush, green grass), but there are also bigger mountains with snow decorating their grooves. That sweet spot of the year!

After Gluggafoss, I went to Seljalandsfoss, one of the more iconic waterfalls in Iceland.

Gljufrafoss a few minutes away.  I was going to actually go through the crevice but I stepped in the water and was like F this.

image
image

And Skogafoss – another super iconic waterfall.  There’s a staircase (a LONG staircase) that leads to the top of this gigantic waterfall, which I climbed.  Mountain Climber!  I was super out of breath.

image
image
image
image
image
image

Dyrholaey.  So many birds flying around this lighthouse.  The drive up was crazy, just zig zag zig zag on a narrow gravel road where you have all these blind spots when making sharp turns.

And Reynisfjara.

image
image
image

This beach was, honestly, the highlight of the day for me.  I’ve been to so many beaches before, but something about the greyscale, ominous atmosphere was really incredible.  It was the most metal fucking thing I’ve ever seen.  Ten foot waves that can sweep you up and murder you (this is true, this has happened).  And these crazy tourists be trying to walk right up to where the last wave crashed!  As I said, Iceland leaves it up to you.  There is no barricade.

image

I hadn’t eaten really so I went to the Black Beach Restaurant right next to the beach and got a kickass burger and fries.  It was set up kind of oddly because there were menus at the tables but then there was also a coffee bar looking thing, so I asked one of the workers if it’s just a coffee bar or separate and she was like “I don’t understand” and came off totally cold and I felt like an idiot tourist.  But I got my food and then Lady Gaga came on the radio, and after that 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Going On?” came on and it was like a message from my buddy Mike ‘cause he loves that song and it cheered me up.  I ate my burger alone and then finally went to check in at my hostel.

I hadn’t slept since 9am on Wednesday, and it was now 4pm on Thursday Icelandic time which would have been 10am Thursday in Chicago.  I know I should have stayed up, but I literally could not.  I’ve been sick and needed the rest, so here I am at almost 1 in the morning, needing to be up in 5 hours to get my second day started.  Oh well!

Who needs sleep when you’re exploring paradise or whatever?

.02 – nov. 25 (my golden birthday!)

I wasn’t really able to get to sleep after I wrote last night’s blog due to me crashing as soon as I got back to my hostel.  So, I laid in bed and tried to sleep for a couple of hours, and around 5am I decided to get an early start.  The aurora forecast was showing little cloud coverage in the area I was going to be heading for my sunrise destination, so I decided to wing it.

I mentioned in my last post that driving in the dark is scary.  Day 2, I still agree.  It’s so dark that the only thing you can see is the road and the wooden sign posts with an inch of a reflective material at the top.  Driving down the highway at ~80km/h in the dark, your brain starts imagining things.  It’s hard because you look down at the dashboard to see how fast you’re going and the lights from the dashboard are so bright that when you look back out into the darkness, it takes a second to adjust back to looking out into the dark.  I couldn’t tell the whole trip if I was surrounded by water on either side of the road, if I was driving up a mountain, or if it was just a highway to hell.

You get the idea.  Driving in the dark is bizarre.

UNTIL!  There was this reflective shimmer in the sky, almost as if there was a spotlight or something.  And as I paid closer attention with each moment I could spare to glance to the left, I saw definite movement.  And it was the aurora borealis.  For. Sure.  The thing with auroras is their coloring depends on their intensity.  This particular aurora activity was pretty low, so it looked like slightly shimmery/dancing clouds to me.  But cameras capture images better than the eyes do so I was able to squeeze out a green aurora.  Green is common, sometimes if they’re intense you get pinks, cyans, etc.

 

Unbelievable.  Happy birthday to me indeed.  Seeing the aurora borealis is a bucket list item without a doubt, and even if I don’t see them again, at least I got to once.

But actually they were in a few different places before I got to my first place of the day.

Which was…. Jökulsárlón.  Wow, I was NOT prepared for this one.  I’d seen pictures briefly while trying to figure out places to go, and everyone who’s ever been to Iceland said this is a must see and one of their favorite places.  So I was excited, but I didn’t realize that it would be one of my favorite spots.  It was breathtaking.  Incredible.

image
image
image
image

It’s essentially a glacier lagoon, with chunks of ice breaking off from Vatnajökull – Iceland’s largest glacier that takes up I think 1/3 of the country.

Across from Jökulsárlón is Diamond Beach.  More Wow.  Just truly incredible.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so truly spectacular in my life or will again.  But I still have a lot of the world to see before I can make that judgment.

image
image
image

There was also Fjalsarlon down the road, which provided a closer view of Vatnajökull.

image

Next on my list was to head over to Hofskirkja – a picture of it being the reason I decided to go to Iceland.

I don’t know what it was, because I’m sure I’ve seen pictures of Iceland before and thought it was amazing, but I think the image I saw really personified Iceland and it called to me.

image
image

I didn’t stay long, but I was glad I was able to come full circle, from inception to realization.

image

I had told myself I wouldn’t be able to see Svartifoss on this trip because it’s a 2hr long hike from the visitor center, but I was doing really good on time and thought to at least check out what the visitor center/that area looked like.  While looking at my map, I saw that there were two waterfalls that aren’t as far away as Svartifoss, so I decided to give it a try and see what I could find.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Quick detour, awesome reward.

image
image

Bonus: This dude’s fence says Private.  The waterfall belongs to him.

image

Then came Fjaðrárgljúfur.  Jesus, that name haunts me.  When I was trying to fall asleep last night I kept trying to pronounce it in my head.  And then today as well.  Maybe I’ve been doing it for months.  Who knows?  It’s such a bizarre word, and I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced Fyah-thrah-glue-fyur.  Whatever.  This area was so. Windy.  And once again, they don’t even really have barricades, just the thinnest little rope that’s strung along poles.  Anyone could step right over.  The best part is what it says on the signs attached to the rope: Fenced to Protect Flora.  Right, not to protect dumbass tourists from falling to their death.  I was behind the rope and I almost got swept away too.  That wind is STRONG.

The cool thing about this canyon is you can hike the top of it, and if you’re brave, you can hike through the bottom too, but not if you want to keep your feet dry.  I decided to keep my feet dry but took a picture from that vantage point anyway.

image
image

Fjaðrárgljúfur was my last intended stop for the day, and I still had daylight to spare which was great, so I stopped back at Vik, bought a lopapeysa sweater, then got a hot dog everyone says to try.  (And some ice cream too).  Basically they have hot dogs at every gas station – I think they’re made of lamb, and yes, they are good.  They give them to you with grilled onions and then you can put on ketchup, mustard, and some other Icelandic(?) condiment.

The hot dog was good.  The ice cream was baller.

image

Food was my jam today.  I was so fucking hungry from late last night up until Jökulsárlón this morning and the problem with Iceland is that everything is only open from 10am-7pm or something like that.  Even gas stations.  So if you’re not near the city (where stuff is 24/7 in some places), you basically have to starve.  When I discovered there was a tourist shop at Jökulsárlón with sandwiches I just about died.  I got myself a donut too since it’s my birthday.

image
image

With my extra time, I decided to check out a place I missed yesterday that I had wanted to check out.  Near Dyrholaey there’s a cave called Loftsalahellir, where you can overlook Vik and Dyrholaey.  I had seen it on my drive back from Dyrholaey yesterday but was too exhausted to check it out.  So tonight, I climbed into it and sang out loud to Björk for like 30min probably.  Then I sat in my car to try and hunt out some more auroras.  Instead, I got a killer picture of the stars which is a huge accomplishment because I had been practicing astrophotography prior to this trip for the sake of this trip.  Incredible.  Yay me!

image

I’m going to take a shower and go to bed now (it’s 7.47pm here) because I have to wake up at 2am to pick up my brother Dan and his friend Dan (from here on out they shall be called Double D) from the airport.  GoogleMaps says the drive is only 2hr 47min but what I’ve learned here is that it really just depends on what the weather conditions are and how fast you’re able to drive.   There was not a drop of rain today so I was able to make a lot of headway, but even still there are things that cause delay.  The aurora forecast looks like there will be hardly any cloud cover that early in the morning on the way to Keflavik airport too, so that’s also part of why I want to head out earlier – in case I can see some more magic!  Really hoping to see some of those pinks and cyans.

03. – nov. 26

It’s been another long day – seems to be the theme of this journey!  That, and unbelievable landscapes.

It’s my fault, though.  My brother was getting in at Keflavik airport at 6.05am, and the distance from Vik to the airport was around 3 hours according to GoogleMaps.  I had checked the weather/aurora forecast and it looked like there were going to be some really nice clear skies on the drive if I were to leave a little bit earlier. Plus, you never know how long a drive is really going to take here (weather can be crazy, traffic, etc).  I don’t know why, but I woke up at 1.30am, and headed to Keflavik.  There was no aurora.  And his flight was an hour late!  So after I got to the area, I went and explored in the dark for a little bit.

There were some stars in the sky though!

image

At 7.30, I picked them both up and we started our journey of the Golden Circle for the day.  First stop was Kerið crater.  I’d seen pictures before but I had no clue it was actually going to be as large and deep as it was.  Total shocker.  We were able to walk the circumference.  And there was even a trail leading to the base of it.  Way cool.

image

The sunrise was beautiful.

image

The thing about the Golden Circle is that it’s essentially the whole of Iceland squeezed into a small area that’s easily accessible from the main city, Reykjavik.  So a lot of tourists that have quick stopovers will go to it, making it a total tourist hotspot.

I was not prepared, especially after having spent two days basically alone.  There were tourists in the south, but not this many.  There were hoards of them.

After Kerið, we were heading for Gullfoss but saw a point-of-interest sign and decided to check it out.  Super glad we did because it ended up being a kickass random spot.

image
image

What is this?!!

Then there was Geysir, which has a lot of geothermal activity.  I’ve never seen a geyser before (the name Geysir originated in Iceland, and the geyser it’s named after is… Geysir.  It’s been dormant for a while now, but there’s a baby one called Strokkur Geysir that erupts every few minutes.

image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image

Fun fact: The area smelled like rotten eggs from the sulfur.

Gullfoss.  What a cool waterfall.

image
image

Þingvellir – the area where Iceland’s first parliament was formed.  Lots of death sentences were given here.  People were drowned and hanged, witches were burnt, etc.

 

image
image
image
image
image
image
image

Once we finished up at Þingvellir, we started our 2+ hour trek to Ólafsvík in Snaefellsnes, or as Dan likes to call it, Snailfish, to stay for the night.  It was pretty smooth sailing until the last 45 minutes or so, when it started raining with heavy fog, making a drive in the dark really difficult and scary especially when going up and down a mountain.

But here we are, at our Air Bnb and I’m so grateful!  The place is decorated so nicely and we have a living room and kitchen to ourselves.  Dan made fish, now both Dans are going to a bar while I type this up and then hit the hay.  It’s been a long day!

Tomorrow is pretty lax.  The main sights we’re going to see are all within an hour of this current location.  Then we’ll head back to Reykjavik to stay for the night so I can head to Keflavik airport the following day.  So soon!

image
04. – nov. 27

I can’t believe I leave tomorrow already!  But it’s been an incredible experience.  I feel like my life has been changed.  I’m truly blessed and lucky that I’m in a place in life where I’m able to come explore such a magnificent country.

God Bless America and our easy entry into most countries lol.

I was kind of on edge this morning because of the drive to your AirBnB last night.  Rainy, foggy, up and down a mountain, it was scary.  And I wasn’t even driving!  I think that’s what was the most nerve wrecking.  Like my dad, I like to be in control when driving especially if it’s in crazy conditions.

I think I was kind of holding a grudge against Snaefellsnes peninsula because of the conditions from the night prior.  I was really hoping to see the lights again in such a remote area!  Oh, well.  Maybe tonight!

image
image
image
image

^–the inside of the volcanic crater–^

We started the day off right, by climbing up a volcano.  Saxhóll had imploded 3000-4000 years ago.  Very cool to stand in a place where once something so powerful lived.  It gave me a newfound appreciation for lava rocks, because I could really see the lava remnants/indentations.  Luckily it wasn’t raining either!

image

We drove 20min away to Djúpalónssandur beach which was incredible.  I went to Reynisfjara my first day, so thought it would be redundant, but this beach was completely different.  It wasn’t finely ground sand like at Reynisfjara, but rather larger black rocks.  There were large rock formations in the water, a shipwreck from 1948 where 14 people lost their lives.  WhoooaaAAH! I did a little bit of rock climbing which may or may not be frowned upon, and just soaked in the atmosphere for a while.

image
image

Just a casual walk to the beach lol.

image

As I was walking back to the car I saw that Dan had made a friend – an Icelandic sheep!  It had dreads in its fur and was just living amongst the land.  Lone wolf.  Er, sheep.  It had walked down the hill by the time I got there.

image

On our way to Londrangar basalt cliffs, we saw a rainbow.  Cool!

image
image

Fun, sad fact: There was rope around the edge of this cliff to keep people safe and for the first time this whole trip I took a chance and broke the nature rule because there didn’t seem to be any moss growing, just regular wheat-looking vegetation.  I NEEDED to take a picture of this damn cave that I couldn’t really see from behind the rope.  So I walked a couple feet past the rope, took the pic, then headed back.  And of course, being the first time I did this, an Icelandic dude came over and was like “Can you please respect our nature?”  Lol.  It’s funny because I had respected the nature the entire trip and the one time I didn’t, I get reprimanded. OH WHALE.  I’m sorry, Iceland, I respect you.

image

The photo for which I disrespected nature.  Worth it?  Debatable.

My guilty mood left when we made our way to Songhellir Cave – a hike up some mountains right near Snæfellsjökull.  It was a pretty rough incline that took maybe 30min.  Then we explored the cave and enjoyed an incredible view from the mountain.  Wow wow wow.

image
image

This country has spoiled me, though.  We drove to Kirkjufell which is probably Iceland’s most popular mountain and on the way saw so many waterfalls.  I say the country spoiled me because while it was totally awesome to see these waterfalls, it kind of starts to turn into “oh, look, another waterfall.”  “Oh, look, another volcano.”  “Oh, look, more mountains.”  Life is hard.

image

Before heading to Reykjavik for the night (my first time coming to the city since being here), we stopped at Grundarfjörður to see if we could find any whales.  It’s a hot spot for orca whales in the winter months.  We didn’t see any, which is fine…. But instead, we met a curious seal!  It would pop it’s head up every twenty seconds or so for a few minutes.  I’m glad I was able to see one pretty close, and it acknowledged us and then disappeared.

image

Tonight, we’re going out to eat to celebrate my birthday, then check out the aurora website to see a good spot to maybe wait for thirty minutes or so and hope to see the lights.  Unfortunately, it’s been pretty cloudy.  There are some clear spots though, so here’s hoping!  I would love to see them again, with more intensity.  I feel a little guilty because when I saw them, I didn’t spend enough time just looking up at them.  I was on a long drive and was seeing them in multiple spots along the way and they were low intensity.  I thought I would be able to see them at my destination but by the time I got there it was starting to get light out already. I definitely feel blessed that I was able to see them but I wish I had parked somewhere for longer than I had and watched them for longer while I had the chance.

05. – day of departure

I can’t believe I’m at the airport about to leave this beautiful country.
It has been the trip of a lifetime and I’m glad I was able to share it with my brother Dan and his friend Dan.
They’ll be here another two days, doing what I did my first two days solo.

Last night, we went to the Fish Company where Dan treated me to a four course meal for my birthday.  Holy shit, SO GOOD!  I was not expecting it to be that delicious, but it was incredible.  The presentation was remarkable, the food was delectable, everything was perfect.  Fish, duck, tuna, this, that, and the other thing.  Dan would know better.  All I know is it looked amazing and it tasted amazing as well.

We drove to the Grotta lighthouse afterwards because there was a chance of seeing the northern lights and sure enough, as soon as we pulled up we were seeing them!  They weren’t very strong and only lasted probably five minutes but I was able to see them again before I left.  Feeling very blessed.  And this time too, I wish I had just watched them more instead of trying to get a stupid picture!  The exposure time is 20-30 seconds though so after I clicked the button on the camera I was able to look up and enjoy with my own two eyes.

It was partly cloudy and the intensity was low, but still.  Bucket list item checked!  So grateful.

image

Image below doesn’t capture the lights but rather the sky right after they were gone:

image

We made a plan to get up at 6am because it looked like the skies were going to be clear in Keflavik for a couple of hours… but the boys went out to a bar after we got home last night and I hadn’t set an alarm so no one ended up waking up.  Instead, it was 10am by the time we were all out the door.  Bummer!  But hey, at least we saw them last night again!

When we were leaving, we realized that the car battery had died because someone left the lights on overnight…. not me, they were the last ones to drive haha.
Luckily this was in Reykjavik and not any of the other places I’ve been staying (Vik would have been TERRIBLE, a town of only 300 people.  What would I have done???)

We had called the police who were no help and told us to call the rental company, the rental company said they would call us back.  I had emailed the rental company and they said to call their number.
Not helpful at all!!!!

A very, very generous man who worked at the Apotek store (pharmacy) down the street was able to help us out.  After a few unsuccessful tries, we were finally able to get it to work.  I tried to give him some krona for his help, but he refused.  He owned the pharmacy and said he didn’t need it.  I am stunned by the goodness of humanity sometimes.

There is a happy ending after all.

image

We went to Raufarholshellir cave, 30min from Reykjavik and looked around for a little bit.  It was snowing/hailing on our way back to town, which was a first since I’ve been here.
Very cool cave!  You can go down it if you have ropes and know what the hell you’re doing but we didn’t.

image
image
image
image

I was trying to wrap up last minute things before I left.  My flight is at 4.45pm and it was 12.30pm by the time we left Raufarholshellir.  The PENIS MUSEUM!!!!

I was debating whether there would be enough time and we decided to chance it.

$15 later, we were looking at dicks of all different types of animals.  Wow!  There are some big ones out there!  Sperm whales in particular.

image
image

And then suddenly I was on my way to Keflavik airport to leave this incredibly breathtaking country.

I feel like this experience has changed my life, but it’s too soon to tell.  All I know is I have left with the sense that I am truly blessed.

My plane is boarding soon, and at around 6pm Chicago time I should be arriving back home.  Deal with some annoying customs, grab an Uber, and I am HOME.

Regardless of all the travel in the world, there is still something incredibly rewarding about coming home and cuddling up in your own bed.

I will write a synopsis of my trip later tonight or tomorrow!

lasting thoughts

It’s been a full 24 hours since I’ve left Iceland and to be frank it feels like a dream.

A plethora of incredible sights as well as experiences.

I feel like I’m more humbled and confident after visiting Iceland.  Iceland, like life (and the world in general) is beautiful but challenging.  I was put in situations that were scary, confusing, and questionable but I was able to persevere regardless.  Sometimes in life I feel like I’m some co-dependent human just floating around in the universe, asking people for their help.  But I’m not.  I can be independent, I can figure things out by myself, I can be an adult.  And I am.

Favorite moments:
-Aurora borealis
-Jökulsárlón & Diamond Beach
-Singing in Loftsalahellir cave as it got dark
-Both Reynisfjara and Djúpalónssandur beaches
-Bonding with my bro & his friend

Least favorite moments:
-Car battery dying
-Driving in the dark with crappy weather
-Lack of guardrails on the highway
-Sore body from sitting on my ass in the car/hiking all day