A while ago, I got the offer to join a group of people that was going to travel to Iceland, during my university's closing week. An offer I couldn't refuse, as I had nothing planned (even if I had something planned, I might have skipped it :p), and this was just the perfect opportunity to explore this country whose beauty is often heard of, but probably only known for its elves, dóttirs and sons, its almost bankruptcy during the financial crash and that volcano that paralyzed air travel in large parts of Europe in 2010.
Let us first introduce Iceland a bit, but as this post already is quite long, I'll keep it down to one sentence!
Iceland is a Nordic representative democracy and a parliamentary republic, the only NATO member without a standing army, that is situated near the Gulf stream giving it - notwithstanding the name - a mild climate, and is the most sparsely populated European country, counting about 320 000 Icelandic-speaking, -reading (99% literacy!) and -writing mainly Lutheran people (with two thirds living in or near Reykjavik) that came into existence about 20 million years ago by volcanic activities and was left uninhabited for many years, up to the 9th century A.D. when Norse inhabitants made attempts to dwell there, but left disillusioned after the harsh winters that killed their live stock, and so it remained till 874 A.D. when the Norse settler Ingólfur Arnarson arrived and said in all his craziness "Hey, this place actually sucks less than Norway!", but for real this time, and promptly sprouted sons and dottírs in this newly founded place called Reykjavik, on this mountainous island that's mainly made from volcanic material and rocks and up to this day is still geologically and volcanically active due to it being situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and at the same time lying on only a thin layer of the Earth's crust, giving rise to geysers and those delicious hot pots, and it's this hostile tundra environment that gives Iceland this typical look and limited the original fauna and flora to small animals and plants, unlike these days when cattle can roam freely in the meadows and are mainly for own consumption as Iceland's main source of income is the export of fish (49%) and aluminum (34%), but lately also software production, biotechnology and tourism, and one might also say they export Björk, Sigur Rós, Emilíana Torrini and Of Monsters and Men.
*inhales deeply* The more you know!
My part of the trip started on Saturday, when we left for Zaventem airport.
As it was a black weekend (i.e. many people returning from vacation, while other just started theirs, like us!), I expected a huge crowd on the roads and in the airport, but all was normal.
At the airport, Gail was - surprisingly! - already checked in and waiting at the gate, sipping her coffee.
Shamma was about to arrive, so we waited in the main hall. A girl that looked like her (we actually didn't know how she looked like exactly then) went to the check-in counter, and after sneakily peeking her passport, we introduced ourselves, and went on to meet Gail, and Julia (a colleague from university who had her flight to Spain a tad later in the gate next to ours). We got ourselves some smoothie, played some foosball, and boarded the plane.
During the flight we were seated to a Reykjavik girl, Gunnþóra.
She'd worked in tourism, so provided us with quite some tips, information and stories
(e.g. the Icelandic people have an app that warns you if you want to start a relation with a close relative, something that is quite possible on an island with only 320k people, all descendant from a small 9th century settlement. It uses data from Íslendingabók, a public genealogical database)
On the plane, I was surprised to see that my tablet's GPS actually worked at that height and speed. Much better than those overhead televisions!
The first visible strokes of land from the air looked black and with large cliffs into the sea and desolate, just like the airport, where the whole crew was seemingly waiting for us to get out so they could close. We hoarded some nourishments (1kg of nuts, beer and chocolates, the base for every healthy diet!), as one of our Icelandic guide's tips was that this was much cheaper at the airport.
The trip from the airport to Reykjavik, a 25-minute ride, was amazing due to its barren nature, very unlike anything I'd seen before.
Most people who do the ride to the capital say it looks like the surface of the moon.
And, although I've never been on the moon, I can fully concur.
But, then the landscape changes to large, sharp volcano rocks as far as the eye can see, only to change again some minutes later into a moss-ridden meadow near the sea. And then one finds himself amidst uncanny coastal buildings and seemingly desolated US military buildings. And, how could one forget the sight of the typical rocky elf houses found throughout?
25 minutes later of gaping through the window and eating nuts, we got off at the terminal, and looked around like idiots for our hostel. Of course, terminal does not mean it's the terminal station (ugh): we should have gotten off at the second terminal. Luckily that one was just a 10 minute walk away.
While being busy with walking and admiring all the graffiti and being amazed, we passed a couple of local drunks that seemed to mock us in Icelandic. Another guy, drinking a beer at his front porch shouted to them "What the fuck is wrong with you?" and some other things, but by then we were already out of reach. Icelandic people have the reputation to get completely wasted in weekends (but whoever even dares to drink a single beer during the week, will be frowned upon as a severe alcoholic)
Reykjavik looked so uncanny but also small-scale, like a village. And everywhere beautiful graffiti. At the hostel we met up with Jan (yeay, with 5 now!), who showed us a wonderful lookout point, and then we went on a quest for food, ending up in Vegamot bistro (it was a tough choice, when you have a Chuck Norris grill bar around!). After 10 min we had our seat, and ordered our food (nomnom, Deluxe burger!).
At midnight, it was still darkish shimmering — hello, long nights!
After a binary search for a bar in Laugavegur, the main street, we ended up in The Big Lebowski-themed eponymous bar where it was quite crowded and a girl couple dj'ed 60s music. Night life in Reykjavik is centered around this main street, and starts around midnight, yet the street seemed pretty desolate nonetheless.
That night's sleep was quite bad as some people were packing way too early and way too loud.
At the breakfast table that day's plans were made: first shop for food at 10-11. Then, take a peek at the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja, an interesting architectural highlight (73m!), shaped like a rocket but apparently designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland's landscape.
By then I had lost the map (the only one in our possession) of the area, so we had to go for the information center. On the way there we bumped on a hot dog stand, selling Iceland's favorite fast food. Equipped again with a hot dog in our tummy (and a map), we headed for drum roll a flea market! It was a bit a mix between the flea markets I've seen in Tampere and Tallinn, with food, clothes, random props, LPs, army stuff etc, and it had Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling.
The town hall was a 2 minute walk, next to Tjörnin, a lake with a lot of birds! Rested, a couple of us visited the phalola... philalog ... phoala ... ehm ... penis museum, right next to our hostel! Interesting and funny by times.
Feeling adventurous, the Viking museum awaited us, but upon closer scrutiny it appeared to be a restaurant. As we were now in a conquer mood, we audaciously bought a 24h bus ticket and promised to jump on the first bus we'd encounter! (But Shamma had already polled for an interesting bus, so we took that one). Bus 11 took us for a small ride around town. We hopped onto a new, idle bus, but upon seeing another bus was going to leave, we left the mystified bus driver alone and entered Bus 15 swiftly!
It took us far east, for a nice hike in a grassland where horses were grazing.
Wanting to go back, some other horses desperately craved for attention (so we gave them some salted peanuts), and made us miss the bus by 5 minutes.
Next day was the Holiday of the Merchants, i.e. a free day, so we thought about doing a pub crawl as there'd be plenty of people out. However, our kick-ass Dodge car would arrive the next day at 8 in the morning, and somebody had to drive it, so we refrained from any drunk shenanigans and kept it quiet.
Sometime during the night, the last one of our group, Eshani, arrived, but we were somewhere else, dreaming about the wonderful days ahead.
Early morning the car arrived. They seemed quite flexible and reasonable, but did not provide us with the promised roof trunk. Luckily, not all of us were tall guys with big luggage, and everything fitted inside the car.
However, after driving some 500m we noticed the "brake" sign didn't go out, and it took us a while and a phone call to turn off the hand brake.
After the first marvels (and murder plots, against every one of us!), we arrived at the first attraction: the Haukaladur valley, which is known for its hot pots and geysers, with the Strokkur being the big active one (and the original Geysir being just a small shadow of his former self). Every couple of minutes there is an eruption, and a magnitude of people watching it (some are even hilariously waiting in certain poses until the next eruption). Near the geysers and hot pools, the sulfur makes the air smell like eggs. If one wanders a bit around, there are amazing views, especially from the top where one could see for kilometers around, sometimes a cloud sprouting from the ground, and mountains all around.
Next on the map was Gullfoss (gull means gold, and foss waterfall, Icelandic 101). The most amazing double (!) waterfall ever -- majestic to see, to feel, to experience! The sound, the sheer force, the magnitude! And full of treasures, if one can believe the tales of a pot of gold hidden at the end of a rainbow.
After this refreshing and humbling break, we continued the trip.
Then we continued our course, but the car's GPS kept on sending us on roads that were not doable or staff-only. After the n-th route we shouldn't go in, we finally cracked, and Jan drove our 4WD into the staff-only area.
We ended up on a one-way one-lane road that led to a Hrauneyjafoss dam, bordered at one side by water, and the other side by a cliff of a couple of meters (luckily there was no staff coming from the other way :)), with no return possible.
It was a pretty interesting ride, and Jan conquered those bumpy roads like a Paris-Dakar driver :) The road brought us to the Fjallabak Nature Reserve that had an amazingly picturesque Hnausapollur lake, an over 1100 year old volcanic crater. (Cue selfie-time) Looking at the map, though, reveals there are soo many beautiful spots around there (of course).
As it became rather late by now, we wanted to go eat something.
But then we realized the directions to our hostel weren't so clear as we had wanted, and the GPS didn't know where the Volcano Huts hostel was situated. Gail called the hostel a couple of times, but it was only after several tries that we got an answer. The hostel woman told us that the bus we needed to take, had already left (and it was the last one).
But, nonetheless, we were actually really, really lucky (really!) as that particular last-of-the-day bus had broken down (I like to believe those sturdy buses almost never break down), and had a delay. So if we were fast enough, we might catch up by car and hop on for the last river crossing.
One must know that on the road to the hostel there are quite a lot of small rivers that are crossable by a 4WD. These rivers change during the course of the day, so one day there might be like ten rivers, and then next day you'd have to wade through 20 of them. They're all doable, however, the final river, like a game's big end-game boss, was a monstrosity that could only be crossed in a bus. And in the dark, this river was also the only option to get to the hostel.
So we got on the road crossing some small rivers, and after some driving we could see some red tail lights in the distance! And only fools drive in the dark there, so it must be the bus!
And there was much rejoicing!
We have a chance of not having to sleep outside!
We quickly caught up, and were tailing the bus (which was good, because it gauged the depth of countless smaller rivers for us).
And then, now what?
The driver didn't know we wanted to get in. Honk the horn? Flash our lights? As if the bus driver was going to let in some horn-honking light-flashing weirdos. Drive in front of it and stop? Drive next to it and try to push it off the road? :p While devising a plan, so cunning you could brush your teeth with it, we were hanging behind the bus, and the monster river came closer and closer, and our only chance to get to the hostel became slimmer and slimmer! So we had to think of something soon, the quicker the better!
Surely, there was this plan - so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel! - of calling the hostel, telling the driver to stop at the latest river, so we could hop onto the bus full of grudgy people because they had to wait a long time for a replacement bus, and we could just jump on in.
And that's how it went, hooray :)
The river was quite deep indeed with strong currents, but the bus slowly and steadily waded through, and the driver got a sitting ovation after we arrived safely on the other bank.
When we arrived, the hostel was closed, but the hostess was so friendly to provide us with a delicious sandwich. We went to sleep in a smelly wooden hut, with very small beds, but none of that mattered; we dozed in quickly after this quite intense day :)
The break of day brought us breakfast, and a trail in the beautiful mountains.
We started by walking the river bedding, but we left it a bit too early, and ended up doing a different and more challenging route, especially for the unprepared.
Sometimes we had to cling to protruding rocks, slide down very slowly on muddy paths, and through various types of environment like rocks and sand and bushes.
Nonetheless, it was a breathtaking hike - so many stunning views! And, we saw the Mount Eyjafjallajökull (want to pronounce it?)!
Somewhere during the trip we even had a spontaneous musical moment (one of those where everybody suddenly starts singing, background and clothes change, and of which you think they only exist in fictional TV series ) where we sang "In the jungle", a capella, after having tasted pure mountain water (the things Iceland does to a man ...). Unfortunately, and despite the numerous cameras available, no existing recordings of this exquisite performance are known :(
At our starting point, some were tired and planned to do a sauna, take the car and drive around a bit in search for food to cook ourselves, instead of buying the quite expensive food at the hostel. I and Moorkens, however, were still fresh and fit and in for another shorter trail.
Hey ho, let's go! 20 minutes later we stood at the top of the mountain, with such a splendid view, which I count as one of the highlights in my travels, seeing the joining of two almost completely dried up rivers, volcanoes in the background, a glacier, mountain ranges, muddy river beddings, and far-distance cars and buses crossing the waters. Can't get much better than this.
Returning back, we got into a small cave, that seemed like a collapsed volcano, but probably wasn't. At the hostel, the others were eating already in the restaurant, as there was no immediate bus to take them to our car.
Tired, I went to sleep early, while the others got stuck in the algae-ridden swimming pool. :)
The next day we had to leave this beautiful reserve.
We paid for both bus rides at the hostel (we hadn't paid yet), and went our way to the car, wading again through the river.
Now in clear daylight and having it done before, the trip back didn't seem as daunting as before.
We drove off to Vatnajökull National Park to first visit Fjallsárlón glacier lake. Such a beautiful view with magnificent ice bergs. A small iceberg (or a large ice cube?) washed ashore, begging us to lick its thousands of years old, pure and clear water (with some traces of authentic volcano ash!). Who are we to deny such a plea?
A bit later, while still feeling small in the presence of this all, some funny looking people in bright red suits came ashore. They'd just done a trip on the lake. It seemed like quite an experience, and 15 minutes later, we looked as funny as those other people, guided by the son of Thor himself, called Thorson! He navigated us skillfully through the ice rock ridden waters. It was just plain amazing (and cold too).
Thorson, noticing we were interested in his stories, started to passionately tell about the glacier, but also funny stories about tourists (like those who put a camping table on an ice rock to have lunch, and having to be rescued after it drifted off), or about how the sheep graze freely in the country and are gathered in a huge operation by all farmers during one week before winter starts.
After this cool zodiac boat trip, we did another glacier: Jökulsárlón. It's more famous, but also much more touristy and crowded (though with some seals in the water!)
Something unique in Iceland is the hot pot (not the dish), a natural pool or an artificial tub, fed by geothermally heated water. One of those happened to be close by (recommended by Thorson!), so we had to experience it! There was a small box in which you put 500 kr (but this was not enforced), five hot pots, and a small house to change clothes. The water was hot, very hot.
After the "refreshment", it was time to head back, and enjoy a meal. On our way back we encountered a tank station, filled her up, and went to the Systrakaffi restaurant. We got in right on time; in front of us was a family, but Gail skilfully claimed the table in the hall for us, so we could sit and observe everybody coming in and waiting for a table :)
A couple of us went to check out the "church floor", called Kirkjugólf. It's a natural pavement of basalt. These are basalt columns in the earth, but only the tops can be seen, and, as the name suggests, they have the appearance of a paved church floor.
After that, we decided to call it a day and headed back to our HQ in Reykjavik.
Early morning, 15 minutes before we had to wake up, we were all sleeping tightly and dreaming of elf houses and stuff. Until this peaceful picture got suddenly disrupted by a couple of seconds of fire alarm. Everybody awake, but not awake enough to get up, and we fell back asleep. Alas, 30s later the same scenario unfolded, jumping up, but this time I decided to go take a shower.
The whole trip long we've been seeing stuffed puffins everywhere.
This day was the day we finally might have a chance to see live, clumsy flying puffins! We were traveling to Vestmannaeyjar, or, Puffin Island as we called it lovingly and due to a lack of Iceland language skills (but I just discovered Puffin Island is another island that actually exists).
During our drive to the boat, we stopped at some unexpected places (damn you Iceland, always being so beautiful!), and our ETA slowly increased from 13.30ish to 14.35, while the boat was leaving at 14.30. So Jan put on his glasses, shifted a gear higher (figuratively speaking, as it was a 4WD with automatic transmission) and put on his speedy boots to cruise at a speed far above the allowed 90 km/h. A couple of minutes before our 14.25 arrival, Gail suddenly announced in a disappointed voice that 14.30 was the boat's departure time from the island to the mainland, so not the boat we needed to catch.
Well, now we had plenty of time to book our 16.30-boat and go see Seljalandsfoss a large foss that's so famous it has its own IMDB page. We'd passed it a couple of times but never inspected closely. We never made it there, unfortunately, as it was too far away, which we only realized when we were passing mountain after mountain without any waterfall, and so we went back to the port to catch our slide.
As the boat slid to the island, we passed the Elliðaey island, which contains just a single house: Björk's house (not really hers) aka the World's most secluded house (well, there are other most secluded houses too). Nobody lives there, though, but it used to be a lodge for puffin hunters. The picture unfortunately doesn't not show the lodge, but you can see it on the internetz!
Closing in to the island, we were sided by huge, impressive rocks.
The island itself was a very peculiar place: it's only 5k people strong, but has an airport, hospital, own police force and fire corps, and had the feeling of wanting to be a giant port, yet lacking the surface and number of people.
And, just like in Reykjavik, on the mainland, art is prevalent.
And despite its tiny size, it is loaded with (mainly devastating) history, but Icelanders have a remarkable resilience.
In 1627 Barbary pirates from Morocco and Algeria raided Iceland (known as the Turkish Abductions), among which the island Vestmannaeyjar. 234 people were captured, and 34 killed (with the island's total population of like 500 people back then, this was quite something). Some returned, but the fear remained, and a law was established that legalized killing Turkish people in Iceland. This was until Turkey played the Handball World Cup in Reykjavik in 1995, and the law came under scrutiny and somebody said "Hmm, maybe we should remove this".
Then, in the late 18th century there was an illness on the island that caused more than three out of four newborns to die during the first two weeks of their life. The sanity movement solved the problems some sixty years later.
Finally, in 1973 people saw some orange glow, and thought it was a grassfire lit by little rascals. But then they realized it was a large eruption of the Eldfell volcano. Half of the town's houses were destroyed because of the lava and molten lava rocks and weight of ash on the roofs.
The people fought the volcano by cooling sections of the lava down, and directing the hot stream like that into the ocean. Crazy!
We walked around, and saw some interesting things like the Heimaey stave church, a gift from Norway in 2000 to commemorate 1000 years of Christianity in Iceland. We intended to visit the lookout point for our dear puffins, but it was very cloudy and rainy. So we didn't go as we probably wouldn't have seen anything :(
Also, apparently, it is quite dangerous as the puffins are installed in steep cliffs. While hunting for puffins here, TV chef Gordon Ramsay got his nose almost bitten off and nearly died after careening off one of the island’s 85-metres high crags, tumbling into to the sea below.
On our way back, we noticed a football game just starting. Two girls-only teams were competing. They took it quite serious, as there were three referees and a commentator. The tribune was not really crowded (less people than the fingers on both my hands), but when the first goal fell (hup hup, team red!) a lot of cars started honking their horns! They were all supporting them from within the warm comfort of their cars :)
We found a restaurant serving puffin (we should have at least seen a real one in some form or the other, right?), and after a whole circus of deciding what to order (menu or not? Divide and conquer what? How much?) we got a whole range of foods. It was nice to try it out, but not my favorite (hmm, Icelandic sheep is so much better!).
With a strict time constraint (we didn't want to miss our boat, because Jan and Eshani had their flight back to Germany, and everything was tightly planned) we payed quickly, got to the boat on time, and dropped our two fellows at the airport, an hour before departure. :)
We went back to the hostel, and decided to go out for a beer, but on a Thursday, everything closes quite early, so in the end it was just a small walk and we went to sleep.
So far we'd only been to the South of Iceland, and that day we had planned to go North, to the Snæfellsnes peninsula! We indicated a couple of viewpoints, and off went!
But we forgot (again) this was Iceland, and ended up stopping like every 20 minutes :p
The lighthouse was one of the highlights (pun intended!). Very nice view with another smaller lighthouse 100 m in front of it. The proud lighthouse keeper enlightened us (pun intended!) that it was here, in the small Akranes that Ólafur Arnalds shot his music clip Old Skin!
Hungry for lunch, The Settlement Center was next on the menu (pun intended — last time, I promise!), but as we were running out of time due to all our unplanned stops, only ate there.
On the trip there were so many amazing views ...
like volcanos ...
... huge rocks ...
... seals ...
... Barður Snæfellsás, half man, quarter troll and giant who disappeared into the Snæfellsjökull ice cap ...
... rocks ...
... craters, such as the Saxhóll crater that used to be a volcano (3000 years ago, it decided to expose some lava and stuff, creating this hole) ...
... etc :)
With a lot of seats available, we were opting taking some hitchhikers, but, although we saw a couple of them, in the end we never took any with us.
We got back to Reykjavik HQ and took a quick nap, until 23h, we said.
But, Gail got lost in reading her book and we in our dreams, and came to wake us at 1h. We headed out, sleepy headed, ate at Subway, and checked out the Big Lebowski. Too crowded, so we checked out Kaffibarinn after queuing a while. It was crowded as well, but we stayed there nonetheless until 4.45, when suddenly the lights went on, music stopped and the bouncers kicked us out into the bright morning light.
Our last day we checked the Aurora Borealis museum, pretty small but there is only so much you can tell about a single natural phenomenon :) It was interesting, but still I don't consider my quest for the Northern lights not yet completed.
The entrance was quite expensive, but very much well worth it: surrounded by volcanic landscapes, you puddle in troubled blue water, with some warm and hot spots, a small warm waterfall that massages you, hot spring in the pool, cleansing white clay and even a bar inside the lagoon.
A lot of thought was spent in the details (e.g. plastic bags to put your wet stuff in, cotton swabs etc)
Before going in we said "after one hour, we get out".
Needless to say that only two hours later we were ready to leave not only the lagoon, but also our amazing home for a week, Iceland.
On the way to the airport, we passed the moonlike landscape we saw when we were still green behind the Icelandic ears, and my thoughts wandered over our marvelous stay here.
At the airport we said goodbye to our four-wheeled companion, and headed home, a place where mountains, waterfalls and elves only exist in your imagination and the mundane is reality.
Iceland is a magnificent country. It belongs with ease in my top of most beautiful and awesome countries I've been too (sorry Iceland, but Colombia still kicks your ass :)).
Having your own car is indispensable when traveling around. Firstly, because outside of Reykjavik there is no public transport, so to get to other places you need to take a travel bus, which is quite expensive and very sporadic, even in high season. But the main reason to have your own car is the freedom to stop wherever you want, indulge yourself in what Iceland has to offer and go on adventures (4WD needed!) well outside the realm of organized tours. (and it's also pretty cool and fun to drive in a 4x4 jeep)
But, if you bring your own car or rent one; please, ensure yourself that you can play your own music: Icelandic radio sucks :p They seem to play only a couple of popular songs, and the reach of the music stations is quite small, so every ten minutes you have to switch the station, probably to one that's playing the song you've heard ten minutes before on the previous station.
I think we didn't get as much as we could out of Reykjavik, without a local guide. And, although it's a pretty city, with all the art and views, it just didn't capture me as much as the rest of Iceland did. It wasn't as lively as I would've thought it to be, with just one main street and not much more to visit and do it seemed like a town you could find anywhere in Iceland, only a bit bigger.
The surreal landscapes (sometimes very LOTR-like, just like a lot of the place names), the diversity in things to see (it seemed like everywhere you stop, you could get out and find something worth seeing), friendly and passionate and proud people (at least the one's we've met), and just the fact that you're basically on a giant inhabited volcano between two tectonic plates (sometimes running amok) where sheep freely wander around, and geothermal sources do their thing made this vacation a marvel. And, together with a group of good and crazy people (hooray for you guys :)) you can't but have an amazing trip!
But maybe, very maybe, we had a little bit too many selfies