First stop: Iceland. We had been looking forward to seeing more of this island state ever since a short layover on our way home from Paris a few years ago. Icelandair allows stopovers in Iceland en route to any of their European destinations from the US for no extra charge, so we decided to take advantage. The trip was a bit of a whirlwind, but with our sweet & cheap 2012 Skoda Citigo from SADcars, we were able to see much of Reykjavik and the southwest portion of the island in just five days. These are the experiences that stood out the most during our adventure.
Hot Pots: While we spent the least amount of time in them, they were probably the biggest highlight. Iceland is one of the most geothermally active islands in the world, but it is still mind-boggling at how many public natural hot pots exist. We had received a few recommendations on which hot pots to visit, with one being the Secret Lagoon. Turns out, it lost its secrecy quite a long time ago and in addition to being quite busy, it was also quite expensive at about $30/person. Being on a budget, we opted out but were told about another spot by our hostess, just 10 minutes away from the Secret Lagoon. It was small, but there was a total of six people there at any given time, making it quite relaxing. On our last day, we stopped by another hot pot Seljavallalaug, originally a swimming pool for children’s lessons in the 1930s, for a quick dip and certainly wished we had more time there. The pool is situated in the middle of a glacial valley adjacent to a rushing river with waterfalls cascading over the cliffs in the background. It was easily the highlight of our final day in Iceland and was a great way to end the trip.
Þjórsárdalur Valley: This lesser known area in the southwest hid three major waterfalls which were some of our favorite sights: 1) Hjálparfoss, where historical travelers would rest on their east/west journeys, 2) Gjáin, our lunch stop, which was like something out of a fairytale with its plants and lushness, and 3) Háifoss, the second highest waterfall in Iceland at 122m/400ft and one of the most impressive waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Pro tip: if you want to hike out to Háifoss in lieu of driving the 4×4-only road, the trail starts to the left of the Stöng long house, through the gate next to the horse pen (look for the yellow stakes). The hike is about 10 miles round trip, unless you decide to hike there and hitchhike back, which may or may not save you time (as we learned).
Reykjadalur (Hot River): This short 4.25 mile hike amongst fumaroles and pools is steep, but led us to one of the more fascinating things we’d ever seen: a mountain spring emitting steam, with hikers soaking along the boardwalk stretching hundreds of meters upstream. Like the hot pots, the river is fueled by geothermal activity and has been dammed up into sections to create small pools that allow for relaxing. The pools were popular, but we didn’t have a problem finding our own space. It was well worth the effort.
Skógafoss: While inundated with tourists, Skógafoss is an extremely impressive waterfall. What made this a highlight were the lack of a parking fee (unlike Seljalandsfoss’ charge of $7.75) and the ability to wander along the waterfall’s source through a trail system that is often used as a starting point for backcountry camping. We were able to get some good photos and walk for quite a while without feeling like we were competing for space with anyone else.
Hot Dogs: By far the best kapow for your Kroner, the tastiest dogs came from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which is lauded by both locals and tourists alike. You might have to wait for a bit, but the pop of the dog and the crunch of the onions will soon make you realize that it was all worth it.
The Golden Circle: While chock-full of amazing sights, at least for us the sheer amount of people made these sights lose some of their luster. We visited Geysir and Gullfoss around 9-10:30 PM and were much happier than visiting Þingvellir in the middle of the day. We also used a helpful guide on driving the Golden Circle which points out some great less-popular things to see.
Seljalandsfoss. As mentioned above, the cost was the main detractor here. While it is the only experience I’ve ever had with walking behind a waterfall of such size, there’s not much else you can do around it. So, the parking fee of over $7 seemed a little outrageous. According to locals, managers of many attractions tout using the money to help preserve the area, most of the funds are used on everything but.
Reynisfjara (black sand beach) and Dyrhólaey (holed peninsula): The beach was quite impressive, including the basalt column caves, but the crowds and the lack of explorable territory made this just OK. To see a similar sight and miss the crowds, go to the other side via the town of Vík, and you will have a beach almost completely to yourself with views of the rock formations to the southwest. As for Dyrhólaey, the weather was simply too miserable to enjoy it properly.
Reykjavik: There was nothing wrong with the capital, in fact it is a charming and pretty city, it’s just that being on a budget does not lend itself to getting the most out of the city, and that’s OK.
The cost: Many locals we talked to described their frustration with the increasing prices on the island. Their explanation, simply put, was greed. Many places (shops, tourist attractions, museums) had charged much less until recently, when they realized how much they could be making, hence the $7.75 at Seljalandsfoss. A beer downtown outside of happy hour was around $15. Most museums that looked interesting and only would have taken about an hour or so to explore cost upwards of $25. A small hut with information on the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a cool tenner. Despite this, we felt like we were still able to enjoy much of the country while on a budget, and wrote a post about how you can do the same here.
Iceland is a wonderful country, rich with opportunities for exploration and enjoyment. Five days are certainly not enough to see all that is to be seen, but we felt that we did a good job with the sampler platter and are excited to eventually make it back!