Iceland Diaries: Chasing Waterfalls

Tuesday, Feb. 14

Sleeping in the back of the Land Rover is what I imagine it’s like to sleep in a Japanese capsule hotel. There’s not quite enough room to sit up so you are stuck sort of propping yourself up on an elbow. In order to change your clothes, a complicated process ensued that included lying on one’s back to shimmy into pants, then sliding through the window into the front seat to put on one’s boots.

The night had been too overcast for any potential Northern Lights viewing, and the morning greeted us with soft rain. We snacked on granola bars for breakfast and got teeny cups of coffee from a gas station. I’m all for downsizing ridiculously gigantic American portions when it comes to pretty much everything except coffee. I could easily go through 3 Icelandic-sized coffees each morning, but that would cost me over $12 so I savored each sip of my little cup.

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“Where’s my precious??”

Tuesday was a day full of waterfalls, which made for a lovely scenic backdrop for Valentine’s Day. The first stop was Seljalandfoss, which is one of a series of waterfalls along a rocky ridge. We wandered up and down the road, getting closer glimpses of each set of falls. Plenty of people were out in their rain gear, taking group photos and selfies. I saw a tourist climb up a small hill to pop into a tiny cave-like opening in the rocks for a photo. Since I like to think that I am half woodland creature, I clambered up the muddy slope so Kurt could take a photo of me in the same cave. As I tried to make my way down, I lost my footing on the slippery mud and skidded the rest of the way down on my bum, sentencing myself to wearing my other (snow)pants for the rest of the road trip. In his rain jacket and waterproof pants, Kurt ventured into one of the cavernous openings and got right beneath Gljúfrafross. Changing in the Land Rover promised to be even more interesting after this outing.

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

After a brief drive, we arrived at Skógafoss, a gigantic waterfall which now also has the dubious distinction of being featured in a Justin Bieber video. We climbed the giant set of stairs to see the falls from the top to get some photos, then spent a little more time at the base of the falls. In the parking lot, Kurt was slowly backing the Land Rover out of our spot when another car suddenly honked at us. It was our friends, who had left the Airbnb a day after us for a road trip to Höfn and coincidentally pulled into the parking spot right next to us. Small world! We chatted for a bit before we continued back on our separate journeys.

By the time we reached Vík, the town at the edge of the black sand beach, visibility was practically nonexistent. A thick fog hung over the area, preventing us from being able to see much of anything. We followed another car up a steep series of switchbacks to arrive at a scenic viewpoint, but the detour was worthless as we could see nothing from what was probably a scenic vantage point (later, we deduced that we were atop the Dyrhólaey peninsula). We white-knuckled it back down the switchbacks and found another place to park and view the black sands beach and a few of the rock formations in the water.

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We had a late lunch at the Black Sand Restaurant, giving ourselves time to dry off and warm up while utilizing their wifi. The sky was already growing dark when we got back on the road, but we wanted to get some more miles in before we stopped to camp. Our plan for the next day included Glacier Lagoon, which is in southeast Iceland. Stuck as a perpetual passenger due to my lack of manual driving skills, I played DJ while Kurt navigated the wet roads in the dark. Just west of Skaftafell, we pulled over at a rest stop. According to our map, we were on a small unmarked road that led straight to Skaftafell National Park (there’s a funny story about this which I wrote about in detail for Drinkers with Writing Problems and I will entice you to click the link by mentioning it’s about a brush with death, sorta). Parked out on the open road, we got a taste for the legendary Icelandic wind that the car rental place had warned us about–the kind of gust that can damage a car door if you don’t open it cautiously with two hands. We ate sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover, drank boxed wine, and watched some Netflix shows Kurt had cached on his iPhone while the wind howled outside. Not a bad way to spend Valentine’s Day, not bad at all.

Valentine's Day dinner

Valentine’s Day dinner

Iceland Diaries: On the Road

Monday, Feb. 13

Kurt and I woke up at 8 a.m. and repacked our backpacks, leaving our city clothes behind in the Airbnb which our friends and I had rented for the full week. We only brought along stuff we’d need for our 3-day camping road trip. Iceland was having an unseasonably warm winter, much like Chicago, with temperatures for our entire trip staying in the 40’s during the day. I left my winter coat back at home and wore my nano-puff jacket, which I layered over a wool hoodie and t-shirt. I packed my rain jacket, which could fit over all of my layers. I also brought a pair of camping pants and waterproof snow pants. For pajamas, I packed long underwear and a Thermawool base layer.

We took a cab to Kúkú Campers, the company through which we booked our rental. The cab driver was a friendly local who, upon hearing our American accents, proceeded to grill us on our thoughts on President Trump. He chuckled while listening to our moans of outrage and disbelief over what was going on back home. “I have a friend from Oakland who wants to move to Iceland,” he told us. “I told him to wait 2 years and come here as a political refugee.”

At Kúkú Campers, we checked in and got the keys to a rental Land Rover, our home for the next few nights. The team at Kúkú has an irreverent sense of humor; their business card reads “In case of emergency, use this card to wipe your ass.” Along with your camper, you can rent items both practical (sleeping bags, pillows, GPS) and recreational (guitars, surf boards), and purchase the unexpected (an ‘outdoor sex mat’ along with a map of good locations for doin’ it, with a disclaimer “P.S. This map is not intended for gingers”). The Land Rover’s back cab consisted of a folded-up bed, a seat that could be turned into a bench with storage underneath, a small cooler and butane stove, and a wall of cubbies to keep kitchen items from rolling around.

Our first stop was at a local grocery store so we could save money on meals, and picked up bread, lunch meat, plenty of Skyr, burgers, hot dogs, and snacks.  After that, our journey officially began. Instead of doing the classic Golden Circle loop, we skipped Pingvellir National Park (knowing we’d get there near the end of the trip as part of our Game of Thrones tour, but more on that later) and drove to Geysir, with a quick stop at Keriô, a volcanic crater lake.

Strokkur

Strokkur

Geysir is the inspiration for the word we use in English, ‘geyser,’ so you can say it’s OG. It’s located in an area with high geothermal activity by a few other hot springs, including Strokkur, which erupts roughly every 10 minutes and has a pretty metal name. A walkway circles each of the hot springs, and the whole area is flanked by a restaurant, parking lot, and souvenir store. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone, both for the scenic wonder, sulfuric smell, and hordes of tourists buying overpriced sweatshirts and shot glasses.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

From Geysir, it was a quick drive to Gulfoss, another incredibly popular tourist attraction and one of the waterfalls you’d most likely recognize from photos. The Hvítá River widens and drops dramatically into a giant waterfall which from certain views, looks like it vanishes into a crack in the earth. Some legends say that Gullfoss (‘gold’ and ‘falls’ in Icelandic) got its name because of a farmer who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else taking his gold after he died, so he locked it up in a chest and threw it down the waterfall. This would not be the first time on our trip that we’d hear an old tale of someone not wanting anyone to touch their stuff so they threw it down a waterfall, hence, many waterfalls being named after gold or discarded mistresses.

Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon

During our last few hours of daylight, we visited Secret Lagoon in Hvammsvegur. Secret Lagoon is a natural pool with a much more local vibe than the sprawling Blue Lagoon (though there’s still tourists aplenty). The steamy hot water was a welcome treat at the end of the day. Kurt and I waded through the pool, walking across the pebble-covered bottom to make our way closer to the bubbling hot spring just beyond that was the obvious source of heat. A few tourists in parkas stood on a path by the spring, taking photos. Light chatter in an assortment of languages filled the pool area. We soaked and watched the sunlight slowly fade, but not before creating a double rainbow in the distance.

With the last of our light, we found Airhus Restaurant in Hella, which offers a winter campground. The facilities (bathrooms, rec hall and dish cleaning station) were closed for the season, but we were allowed to park the Land Rover for free in a small grove hidden by a row of trees, creating a nice private space. After cooking burgers on our butane grill, we went inside the restaurant for a drink and to use the wifi for a bit. Right before close, we used our headlamps to find our way back to the Land Rover in the darkness. We folded down the seat to make our bed and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the tree-lined grove far from any main roads, we had our first night of outdoor solitude under the stars, just on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.

Iceland Diaries: Arrival in Reykjavík

It’s impossible to visit Iceland and not fall in love with it. Kurt and I, along with 6 of our good friends, just came back from an 8-day trip on the northern Atlantic island nation, and I can’t stop thinking about it. With a few more friends planning upcoming trips and asking for advice, I figured I’d write up my travel diaries so I can keep my notes in one easy-to-access place.

Friday, Feb. 10/Saturday, Feb. 11

Our flight left O’Hare on Friday night at 6:30 p.m., and landed in Reykjavík the next morning at 6:35 p.m. We also learned shortly before our departure that the night of Feb. 10 would also see a full moon, lunar eclipse, and a comet passing close to Earth. Given these unusual circumstances lining up together, I joked that we’d have Outlander-esque conditions lined up to accidentally travel through time and arrival in feudal Iceland, to which my friend replied “Geothermal Tub Time Machine?”

We tried to get some decent sleep on the plane, and landed in Rekjavík without incident or unexpected time travel. First things first, we followed the advice of our Airbnb host and stocked up on beer, wine, and booze at the airport Duty Free. We had been warned that alcohol in Reykjavík is extremely expensive, and we could get it for nearly half the price at the airport, which is something even the locals do.  Afterwards, we took a Flybus (roughly $20 in USD per person, a pretty good deal) for the 50-minute drive from the airport to the Reykjavík bus terminal. Our Airbnb wasn’t ready until 2 p.m., so we stowed our luggage in the large lockers at the bus terminal, which were roomy enough to fit 2 fully packed bags, or house a down-on-his-luck muppet.*

Reykjavík

Reykjavík

We walked into town, and kicked off our trip by taking the elevator to the top of the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja, a cathedral. It offered one of the best views of all of Reykjavik and was a nice way to start our day. Afterwards, we got coffee and a traditional breakfast across the street at Cafe Loki. I picked a sampler plate and gave the fish paste on toast and sheep’s head jelly a whirl (mostly because I wasn’t entirely sure what I ordered). I’m a pretty adventurous eater and finished most of my plate.

img_0159After walking around a bit and checking out some shops, we picked our bags up from the bus terminal and checked into our Airbnb. Our house was conveniently located just a few blocks from all of the bars and restaurants on Laufásvegur. Even with 7 people, the house was roomy and comfortable. A few people napped while the rest of us sampled our Icelandic beers in the kitchen. We weren’t that into the Viking Light, so we’d have to give Viking Hev** a shot later.

Once everyone woke up, showered, and assembled themselves, we had our first group dinner at Vegemót Bistro Bar. Just as we’d been warned, it’s pretty impossible to get a meal in Rekjavík for less than $25-30, even a burger and fries. Beers are an additional $12-14. The flash sales on IcelandAir may convince you that Iceland will be an affordable vacation spot, but once you land, it’s an entirely different story. At least dinner was good. We followed up with drinks at Ölstofan, which reminded me of the Ukrainian Village bar scene circa 2002. Memories get murkier after we moved on to Bar Ananas, a tiki bar where Icelandic rappers happened to be performing. Outgoing Americans that we are, we chatted with a few locals including one performer who I decided to call “Icelandic Justin Timberlake” for the rest of the night (it was the hair). After many rounds of Einstok, we staggered back to the Airbnb to catch up on an overdue full night of sleep.

*Who doesn’t love a Great Muppet Caper reference?

**similar to Bud Hev