THE ICELAND DIARIES: 2 WEEKS PART TWO
At the end of our first week (and part one of our Iceland diaries), we left off in Vik.
Our next day was packed to the brim, which likely won't be a surprise to anyone.
We began at Reynisfjara Beach, another black sand beach with basalt columns. According to local folklore, these large basalt columns were once trolls trying to pull ships from the ocean to shore, but were caught out as dawn broke and turned to stone. This was also another of many Icelandic filming locations for Game of Thrones.
Our next three stops covered the Dyrholaey Peninsula.
From Loftsalahellir Cave we got a view looking out to the peninsula. While driving along the coast we got views from Kirkjufjara Beach (another black sand beach) and Dyrholaey (a large cliff that overlooks the black sand beach and gives you a birds’ eye view of the waves crashing into the shore), as well as spotting puffins along the cliff!
Although Iceland is a relatively small country, it packs so much into the space it has. Like our next stop at the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. Although there was a shuttle option (a giant 4x4 tank-like bus), we chose to walk instead and tt took us approximately an hour to hike to the wreck. It was also the flattest hiking we got to do in Iceland.
The wreck and the location draws a crowd (not that I can blame them). Although it looked like it could be featured in a dystopian flick, in reality a US plane ran out of fuel and fell to the beach in a crash that luckily everyone survived.
Next on the list was a short stop at Solheimajokull Glacier before we hit what I like to think of as "the waterfall portion of our day."
We visited Seljalandsfoss, which is arguably one of the top waterfalls in Iceland. We walked behind the falls, and it was deservedly busy with a constant stream of people walking the short loop behind the waterfall.
Unfortunately, it was also where my camera decided to fog up due to the stress of humidity, the heat in the car, and the cold outside so we left it in the car and didn't get any shots (aside from on our phones in waterproof cases) from behind the waterfall.
This also happened to be a lucky coincidence, because I likely would have brought it to our next two waterfalls as well, and that would have been a mistake.
Right beside Seljalandsfoss, we visited Gljufrabui, an often overlooked waterfall (compared to its neighbour). Hopping stones to avoid the water flowing, we wound up in a secluded, narrow canyon where the water streamed down over the rocks. We were not able to avoid the spray either, and embraced the damp beginning to take hold.
By the time we made the short drive to Nauthusagil, we hadn't warmed up or dried off. Our thought process while reading our itinerary notes describing what to expect on the short hike focused on the description that those hiking be "adept at boulder hopping, or prepared to get wet feet". This description encouraged us to switch from our hiking boots to our runners, just in case.
The wind was incredibly strong, and it took some mental effort for us to get out of the car and make our way to the trail. At our feet, the water streamed out of the canyon in a river, and at first, we easily hopped from one stone to another.
Shortly into the hike, we realized there were no more stones to step on in order to stay completely dry. And, shortly after that realization, we started marching straight through the water. We were already soaked, what could wet feet hurt?
Within the canyon, we were perfectly sheltered from the wind, but not the rain. We stood under a ledge to take brief shelter and were treated to the breathtaking view of rain streaming off the ledge above us into a miniature waterfall.
We had to use a chain posted into the canyon wall to climb up the five-foot waterfall, and then we reached the end where the main, solitary waterfall stood flowing into a small pool. Although we had to walk and stand in the water for the majority of the approximately one-hour hike (there and back), it was one of our absolute favourite waterfalls in Iceland and we got to experience it without coming across a single other person during our time there.
Our last waterfall—and last stop of the day—was Skogafoss Waterfall. We were almost too cold from our river-walk adventure to give it the time it deserved, but as far as photo-worthy waterfalls goes, this one could likely take the cake, so it was a nice way to end a day filled with beautiful views!
Our depiction of the weather may sound dramatic, but that night for the first time in Iceland we actually slept in our tiny Jimny. Seats up, sleeping bags on, and boxes at our feet to keep them off the wet floor. Our tent was soaked from the previous night's rain and hadn't had a chance to dry out due to early mornings and busy days. Plus the campsite had water pooling in all the low spots and was completely soaked.
When we woke—after what actually wasn't a bad sleep—we were told there had been a yellow weather warning overnight due to the heavy rains. So we aren't that dramatic! Or at least not about this.
The next morning we boarded a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar Island.
On the island we wandered around the town, including a visit to Heimaey Stave Church (also called Stafkirkjan), the black church gifted from Norway.
Since we were there at open, we briefly met the gentleman who opened the church for the day before heading inside. Continuing into a neighbouring building, the Landlyst Medical Museum, we were surprised when the same gentleman we had seen shortly prior opening and entering the church was sitting at the guest sign-in inside. It was that sort of small town.
With a bit more time before a planned tour, we made our way to the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale and Puffin Sanctuary. This gave us our first up close view of puffins, and a great view of the Belugas playing with their toys.
We then joined our tour that took us to sites around the island, as well as to the puffin colony on a cliffside. Our guide, who was also the owner, was fantastic. He showed us the ropes—literally. All the islanders learn to Sprangan, or climb and do tricks using ropes on the cliffside, though these skills were originally used for collecting eggs. Our guide demonstrated he was born and raised on the island by quickly scrambling up and using the ropes to swing across and spin back down. Visitors often make the attempt, but it takes skill to swing the cliffs, and even those learning start on the lowest ledge and progress up to the higher and more difficult ledges. Apparently, every year there are tourists injured attempting to test themselves.
He showed us an old, viking, turf-roofed home and told us he owned the place. We thought he was joking, until he pulled out a key to unlock the padlock and open the door. Inside, he had added realistic replicas of a family described in the history and folklore of the island. He had been working to add to the collection to create a small museum of sorts, and had even planned a partnership with the local school to add historical figures from the same time frame as the Viking family to their dinner hall table.
Next, he took us to the puffin colony on the cliffs. Because the morning was too misty for the vision-impaired puffins to fly further than a few metres, he had purposely moved our tour to later in the day. Thanks to this, we saw puffins flying clumsily all around us and even learned the trick for photographs: puffins are bad at landing and will make multiple passes in a figure eight to the exact same spot. So, if you see one flying near you, all you have to do it keep your eye on it and it is likely to come back to the same spot on its next attempt.
While at the colony, he taught us about pufflings. Pufflings fly from their colony to spend several years at sea while they mature, and have traditionally used the moon to locate the ocean when they are ready to fledge. They get confused by the city lights in the night, and crash land in the the small town. Icelanders (specifically school children) carry flashlights and boxes and search the streets between 9:00 PM to 3:00 AM during puffling season to collect and then release the fledglings at the cliffs the following day to set them on the correct path. Although the timing changes from year to year, the pufflings were expected the night after we arrived!
Our last stop on the island was visiting Eldfell, where a volcano eruption occurred in 1973, crippling the fishing industry that was booming on the island and destroying homes. One house had a backyard of lava rock, memorializing it as the lucky house where the lava stopped right before destroying the home (their neighbours were not so lucky).
With the end of our tour, we picked up some supplies (a.k.a. local beers) from our guide's friend's brewery. Like I said, it wasn't a very large town.
After taking the short ferry back to the mainland, we made our way to our stop for the night.
This was our earliest arrival to camp for good reason—we had arrived at our first of two non-camping nights in our whole trip. Plus, it was at a glass lodge, with unimpeded views overlooking the river and countryside.
And it had a hot tub.
And a shower!
You get the idea, we were very excited.
That night we had a late celebration for my recent birthday with charcuterie, champagne, and a G&T with my favourite gin. This stay was one of the most beautiful places we have stayed and it definitely lived up to the high hopes we had for it.
Although we were sad to check out in the morning, we had a long drive into the highlands of Iceland. Before we could enter the F-road to make our way to Landmannalaugar, we passed a conservation officer who provided information about road conditions and how to successfully cross rivers in your 4x4 (since only 4x4 rentals are able to drive on F-roads). Nearly two hours later, we had to do two minor river crossings before arriving at the first parking lot. To get to the next would have required a major river crossing, which is also not covered by insurance in rentals, so we parked and hauled our stuff the short distance to the campsite.
When we arrived, it was insanely windy. Those who were braving the cooler temperatures and the windier weather of the highlands in tents looked almost ritualistic with large boulders atop tent pegs to ensure no tents would be ripped from the ground. We ended up using approximately eight boulders that each weighed at least 25 pounds, even adding two into our tent just to be safe. The wind was so strong that we had small tears where the rocks inside held the tent down as the wind tried to lift it up.
Our sole reason to visit Landmannalaugar (aside from the views, which are almost guaranteed at any Iceland stop) was to hike in the colourful rhyolite mountains and dramatic valleys. After setting up camp, we hiked the 6.6km Blahnukur loop. Although there were some steep sections, the real killer was the wind funnelling through the valley, but the reward was breathtaking 360° views from the top.
The final section of the hike took us through another lava field of black rock and green moss, with steam billowing from the colourful mountain backdrop.
By the time we got back, the wind had almost completely died out, so we grabbed our swimsuits and made our way to the natural hot spring just a few minutes walk from our campsite. Changing in the open and getting in wasn't too bad, but the getting out and changing was more challenging. Especially since we did not want to walk to the washroom in our swimsuits and lose the heat we had just managed to get back. We did manage without too much hassle, then went and cooked a carb-heavy meal before passing out in our tent as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
Ljotipollur, which translate to the completely inaccurate name "Ugly Puddle", was our first stop in the morning. We climbed the short distance from the parking lot and walked along the rim to the far side of the crater while taking in the view of the blue water contrasted against the dark earth and green moss.
Another long drive led us to Haifoss Waterfall. At the risk of saying this for the millionth time and removing all meaning of the phrase, this might have been our favourite waterfall.
Haifoss could be considered a double feature, since it has the aptly named Granni—which translates to Neighbour—beside it. In addition to a view of the waterfalls and the canyon from the opposite cliff, we also were able to hike down into the canyon and approach the base of the waterfall with the stunning views continuing during the whole hike.
From there, we continued on to Hrunalaug Hot Spring. Hrunalaug charges a small fee and only allows in a set number of people to keep it from being too full. We waited for a few visitors to leave and then went and spent time in the small, natural hot pool. This one had the added bonus of a cute, turf-roofed, viking-like hut to change in and also wasn't overly busy thanks to the visitor restrictions.
When we had had our fill, we ended our day by visiting Gullfoss Waterfall. I might get a lot of hate for this since I know it is an extremely popular attraction, but I didn't love this one. It is an extremely powerful waterfall with multiple viewpoints, but without being able to pinpoint why, this one just didn't stand out to me amongst the amazing waterfalls in Iceland.
The next day made up for it. We drove deep into the highlands to visit Kerlingarfjoll, a range of geothermic and rust-coloured mountains capped with snow. Although the drive was long and rough, most of the incline into the range happened near the end of the drive, and we could initially see only mist from the lookout along the road.
We saw only one car on our drive to Kerlingarfjoll, and when we arrived we had the area almost completely to ourselves. With geothermic activity in the mountains creating steam, it was very misty and humid as we made our way from the parking lot down a long stretch of muddy "steps" into the geothermal area called Hveradalir.
To picture Hveradalir and Kerlingarfjoll, you have to picture the contrast of glacier capped mountains with a constant steam rising due to volcanic activity. The contrast of colours from the snow, the moss, and the reddish-brown earth. At the base there were steam vents, bubbling clay pits, and a slate grey river with a turquoise and rust mountain backdrop. These colours were constantly shifting as the day's light changed.
We spent a few hours hiking in the area and taking photos, even having to cross a glacier near the top of our loop. We loved every moment of this stop, and although it is often compared to Landmannalaugar, we enjoyed it even more.
Our final stop activity of the day was Geysir Geothermal Area to see Strokkur Geyser. The geyser blasts steam and water 40-metres high every 5-6 minutes and the area also is home to beautiful pools of water (in the dangerous, scalding way). One even looked like it had a tunnel leading directly to the core of the earth. This was one of the more touristy stops, and brought us back to the world of paved roads. Plus, the weather from here on out was fantastic! So no more complaining from us.
This evening hosted our second non-campsite stay at the famous Bubble Hotel. With the bare essentials interior and the clear plastic dome, it did feel a lot like sleeping in nature (without any of the hassle). We were nestled in the trees and didn't have a clear night to see the stars, but still really enjoyed the evening spent here. My favourite part may have been the heated bed!
In the morning, we made a brief stop to walk around Kerid Crater and see the blue water and surrounding red walls before ending our circumnavigation of Iceland in Reykjavik.
We had no time to waste upon arriving and went straight to our make-up whale watching excursion—which was also our most successful whale watching to date. We saw humpbacks, minke whales, and puffins!
We set up camp and walked to Svarta Kaffid, an extremely popular spot where the option for dinner is soup, or soup. We got the soup! It was exactly as good as it was hyped to be, and the bread bowl was incredible (even though we didn't know the polite way to eat it). We love a carb-heavy meal.
Next, we wandered down to Hallgrimskirkja Church, and took in the view of the basalt-column-inspired tower from outside, and the birds-eye view of the city from the tower.
The rest of our evening was spent visiting different hot spots for drinks, including Bryggjan Brugghus, Bastard Brew & Food, Gaukurinn (where we sat and had a drink waiting for a death-metal concert we had missed by hours) and the English Pub. Reykjavik has an incredible nightlife, and there were so many people bar-hopping and walking the streets until all hours of the night.
That night we scootered back to the campsite, which was ridiculous and so fun in the early hours of the morning.
With only one more full day left, we started our day at Perlan for a bit of science-related fun (the man-made glacier inside was a highlight).
Next up was Kolaportid Flea Market to try Rugbraud, the bread baked underground near a geyser, and a small portion of Hakarl, which is fermented shark meat. A lot of people say it tastes and smells like ammonia, and they are...not wrong. We wanted to try the local brew which is a burnt wine called Brennivin, but we couldn't find anyone selling it at the market. But don't worry (because I know you were)! We found some sample sizes to bring home with us.
For more fun and learning we visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum (that means penis museum!). We saw so many specimens and learned relevant facts about all the species displayed there. Everything was very on theme, the coffee shop had a jar for "just the tips", and all the decor was phallic-related (like the lamp shades made from scrotum).
Conveniently situated just outside the penis museum was the iconic Icelandic snack—a hot dog stand called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur Hot Dog Stand. I am willingly subjecting myself to more hate, but I was not a fan and didn't think the Icelandic hot dog compared to back home. And that is not an innuendo.
We tried out some more well-known places, like cinnamon buns from Braud & Co and coffee from Reykjavik Roasters, and they absolutely withstood the test.
For the last pre-booked activity of our trip, we got a pick-up from our campsite to go just outside Reykjavik to Viking Horses stable, because I was set on riding the Icelandic breed of horse.
Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals (even the Icelandic breed) are not allowed to return, which has kept the breed in complete isolation and allowed them to maintain their unique characteristics. This has also allowed a gene mutation to continue that enables the Icelandic horse to develop a special gait, known as the Tolt. The Tolt is similar to a trot or speed-walk, but less bumpy and was definitely noticeable having grown up riding horses.
Although the ride was only a few hours, I became instantly attached to my horse (who I believe was named Rust, but I could have misheard the guide). The Tolt was so fun to experience, and I loved the fictional story that Vikings trained Icelandic horses to Tolt so they would not spill their ale while riding.
Once back in Reykjavik, we went to Reykjavik Chips for more carbs. So, so many carbs (which we like, if I hadn't mentioned yet).
Our last evening in Iceland became a last minute addition to go see some top-tier Icelandic soccer. We went to cheer on Valur as they played Stjarnan, though they likely didn't need our support as 23-time Icelandic champions. Although it didn't seem 100% Valur's game when Stjarnan scored the first goal, Valur took it back with a 6-1 finish and it was a great game to enjoy in the sun.
We spent the evening getting things ready for the next morning, not because we had an early flight, but because we had an early morning appointment with the volcano eruption happening fatefully near the airport.
It seemed like bad luck to hope for an eruption while we were in Iceland, but after finding out prior to our trip that the last Fagradalsfjall eruption had ended in September and a new one was expected sometime soon, I couldn't help myself.
Fate was on our side this time and the eruption began only days after we arrived in Iceland. I knew we would move things around to ensure we could see the 'fire' component of the land of fire and ice.
Since it was approximately a 4-hour, round-trip hike, we had to be up around 5:00 AM to ensure we would have enough time to visit the volcano before our flight. I didn't end up keeping great track of how long we spent hiking as we spent a good chunk of time just enjoying the experience of the volcano, but it had a few steep switchbacks followed by some really rocky portions. We were happy for our head-start, because as we made our way back down, the path was packed with people making the climb. It was well worth the effort to get to see the volcano spewing lava, and was our (final answer) favourite experience in Iceland and the best send-off we could have possibly hoped for.
From there, we returned our Jimny—3,760km and over 60 hours of driving later—without incident (even though the front license plate was only holding on by duct tape, which we hadn't put on it) before boarding our flight to make our way back home.
We only had 2 weeks, but Iceland was an incredible trip with so much to see and do, and it really felt like we got to do it all. I know there would be more to see on another trip, but the variety and sights we got to experience made it feel like we didn't miss out on a thing.
Thank you for following along on our Iceland journey!