All this time stuck inside due to The-Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named has got my feet itching. I had a number of upcoming trips cancelled and further ahead ones up in the air. While I know there are much more serious consequences of our current situation, my experience has got me reminiscing about simpler times…
Like a time where I, stressed upon my return to teaching after a year of adventures, spontaneously booked a flight to Iceland, made friends with 3 strangers, rented a car together and went exploring around the island, chasing those elusive northern lights. I thought I’d take this time with a captive audience to share some of my favourite places and hopefully inspire some of you to get out, get abroad, and get adventuring when all of this is over.
I have to say that Iceland is one of my favourite places I’ve ever been. The barren volcanic landscape, interspersed with glacial lagoons, thundering waterfalls, powerful geysers and towering cliffs is nothing short of magical. I do however have two main tips for budget travellers like myself: buy booze in duty-free in your own country, pack a few packets of super-noodles/tinned tomatoes and get the hell out of Reykjavik. I think my whole trip there cost about £500 for a week (including having to rebook flights, but that’s a story of my idiocy that need not be shared). So without further ado, here are some of my “must-see” recommendations.
Things to do
Two mexicans, a german and an irish girl get in a car. Sounds like the start of a semi-racist joke but these were my amazing travel companions who must be mentioned. After being chased by the police for a short while (turns out it’s illegal to drive without lights on in Iceland, even during the day) we arrived our first stop: Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. We didn’t make it to the Blue Lagoon due to the extortionate entry-fee (£60? No thanks.) Anyone who knows me will know that I am never happier than when in the great outdoors, and this pleasant 1 hour hike definitely made me happy.
A meandering gravel path leads you gently uphill between hot springs that you could happily make a cup of tea with if it weren’t for the smell until arriving in view of the steaming thermal river. The further upstream you go, the hotter it is.I would recommend wearing your swimming costume there as this is very much wild and the small wooden slats afford little privacy; as one might expect in Scandinavian culture! It was not particularly busy here, however we did notice a small group of young men with beers which seemed like an excellent idea – just remember: take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints!
At Skaftarhreppur there is a short, steep walk up to the top of the twin waterfalls (Systrafoss), where you can see a beautiful flat lake that comes with its own local myth. I’ll not spoil it for you (i.e. can’t remember it!) so you will have to make it to the top to find out for yourselves. The path begins by the hotel and brings you past a traditional icelandic dwelling before continuing upwards.
Of course, there is only one real reason that anyone would go to Iceland during Autumn/Winter and that is to chase the notoriously elusive Northern Lights. I am lucky enough to live in a country where they can be seen, but despite years of trying I have never managed to catch them in Scotland. While there are many organised tours to take you to see the Aurora, for the budget traveller I offer an alternative. Using the app ‘Aurora’ you can see the likelihood of seeing them, cloud cover and where in the world they are currently dancing. Skip to me, lying in bed, pissing off my new travel companions saying “It says that they’re here, but there’s 40% cloud cover, maybe they’re dancing, maybe we can see them, it’s all I want on this trip…” until Andrea broke. “Just go and look out the window for fuck’s sake and then we can all get some sleep.” Minutes later we are all stampeding out the door, mesmorised by the shifting grey-green lights in the sky. I can honestly say that it is one of the most incredible sights I have ever experienced. I would like to note however that they do not appear green as you would see on a camera and you need a camera with long exposure in order to capture them. However, some things should be experienced with the eyes, and not through a screen; something that I am terribly guilty for.
Landmarks to See
It is impossible to drive around the corner in Iceland without coming across some majestic, foaming waterfall. I won’t bore you all with rambling passages describing each of their incredible features, but I will add a wee photo gallery for you here. A photo says a thousand words as the saying goes. However I would like to add a note here: please don’t feel you must see everything in the “Golden Circle”. While many of the landmarks there are truly magnificent, there are equally beautiful and significantly less populated landmarks further afield; the Golden Circle landmarks have been named due to their beauty but also their proximity to Reykjavik and the ability to do them in a daytrip.
Vik’s black sand beach – Reynisfjara – is like nothing you’ll have ever seen before. Unless you’ve already been to a volcanic beach, in which case it’s still pretty cool. We’re used to seeing blinding white sand, deep turquoise waters with the sun bouncing off and dazzling the eyes; but this could not be more different. To me, there was something fascinatingly ominous about the deep, black sand and the dark, geometrical caves. It serves as a reminder of who is really in charge – Mother Nature – through the evidence of eruptions past.
If you’ve ever been to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland you’ll be reminded of it as the cliffs are lined with hexagonal stones – perfect for pretending you’re in a band.
If you have the time to make it further afield, Jokulsárlón glacial lagoon is well worth a visit. Diamond icebergs glitter in the water as the glacier looms in the distance. Seals can be spotted in the lagoon, their heads bobbing up above the water in between their hunt for fish. There are boats available to take you into the lagoon (at considerable cost), but the shore provides a stunning opportunity to stretch your legs.
Thingvellir National Park is home to the breath-taking Oxarárfoss waterfall pictured above at sunset. If you can coordinate the timings, try to go just before sunset as I genuinely believed at that point how the country can be full of mystical tales of fairies and omnipotent gods. The golden light was resplendent as it bounced off the surrounding rocks, basking the whole site in a magical glow… I nearly burst into song but I was afraid that would scare everyone off. Thingvellir also allows you to walk between the tectonic plates dividing two continents, which move apart roughly 2.5cm per year.
Finally on my list of landmarks is the west of Iceland. Any Game of Thrones fans out there will recognise Kirkjufell as the Fist of the First Men. Kirkjufell erupts out of the flat landscape, watching over the small village of Grundarfjordur. While we were there we saw a couple getting their wedding photos taken at Kirjufellfoss – can you imagine a more beautiful location? There are a number of beautiful walks and stops to take on route here – but the road itself is worth the journey. Every corner you turn brings with it scenery that would bring a smile even the most cantankerous human.
Places to Stay
As a traveller on a shoe-string budget, my travel recommendations are based solely upon my own experience and budget. I receive no commission if you decide to book these places. When I travel I largely stay in hostels, however due to having a small group of travellers we were able to stretch out to some small self-catering places. We all booked using booking.com and were able to build up discounts by sharing the app with each other and getting initial booking discounts – it’s worth checking if anyone in your party doesn’t already have the app in order to save a bit of cash.
Hellisholar Cottages are quaint self-catered cottages close to Seljalandsfoss. The cottages sleep 4 comfortably and there is a restaurant onsite if you can’t be bothered cooking. I think this worked out about £30 each – less with our discount. Click here to see the booking.com page.
West Park Guesthouse is located on the road to Hellissandur, and due to its remote location is perfect for viewing the northern lights – not that they decided to show up while we were there. While not the most luxurious of places to stay, it was self-catered, cheap, clean and the staff were friendly. Plus we had the whole house to ourselves which added to the appeal. Click here for the booking.com page.
Galaxy Pod Hostels in Reykjavik is a slightly more expensive hostel than I would usually go for (£36 for a bed in a 24 bed dorm), but you get to sleep in a pod and feel like an astronaut so if like I did, you’ve a bit of spare cash at the end of your trip it’s worth splashing out for. Click here to see the booking.com page