We are traveling on budget airlines, which gave was the cheapest route to see the places I wanted to see. On these budget airlines you can only take one carry-on size bag for free- meaning lots of adventure and repeated outfits. (If it looks like I’m visiting all these countries over 4 days, it’s because I only have 4 shirts. It’s nice not to have much stuff, it makes me very mobile and we are easily able to take all the public transportation, plus, I don’t have much that I am afraid of losing.
After the night in Barcelona airport we caught an early flight to Iceland, landing at 8:00am. From the airport we visited Blue Lagoon- a pretty touristy hot spring, but also a place I have been wanting to go for a long time.
Our first two days we had terrible weather. On the first day when we arrived it was so cloudy we couldn’t see any of the mountains. There were lava fields covered in slow-creeping moss as far as we could see- I felt like I had landed on the moon or another distant planet. We saw steam rising from the ground in the distance as we drove away from the airport ( the Blue Lagoon).
Iceland is a hotspot (quite literally) of volcanic activity. It sits on the border of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, has several active and dormant volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. A large part of the country is powered on geothermal energy.
The Blue Lagoon looks blue because the silica in the water reflects off of blue light. The day we arrived was super cloudy, so the water didn’t appear as bright blue as normal. The water was a toasty 100 degrees, compared to the 35 degree temperature of the air. The steam rose off the water, creating an otherworldly sensation as we waded through the water, more people appearing out of the mist, and volcanic rock rising along the sides. it was silent and peaceful.
Although the entrance fee was exorbitant, we could stay as long as we liked in the water and re-enter multiple times after taking breaks in the relaxation rooms. There were pots of white silica mud you could put on your face to gain some sort of cleansing property which only added to the extraterrestrial appearance of the lagoon. It looked like there were aliens emerging out of the mist with faces covered in bright white mud.
Hot springs are spread all over Iceland. They range from outdoor ones which look like tiny lakes (they are not all as expensive as the blue lagoon which is more of a spa) to indoor and outdoor swimming pools which are a central part of Icelandic life ( a woman told me the average Icelander goes at least once a week to the pools).
We made it to the Reykjavik by bus and stopped at our downtown hostel, Hlemmur Square. After we stored our bags in our lockers and taken a short nap we walked down to the coast. It was very cold. I was wearing almost every piece of clothing from my backpack. It was so cloudy you couldn’t see the city mountain right across the bay that graces all the Reykjavik postcards.
The restaurants were very expensive, so we picked up some pasta and vegetables (my go-to college budget meal) and made dinner with the other travelers in our hostel kitchen.
The next day a wind storm hit the southern part of the island. Since a lot of tours were canceled, we used the day to explore the city. We walked down to the waterfront again- this time you could see the mountain but we almost got blown into the water by the wind.
We took a free walking tour with a native Icelander who shared some of the Nordic lore and culture of Iceland. He repeatedly talked about the peaceful nature of Iceland. The police don’t carry guns, there is no national army- he couldn’t help adding in that he thought that was the problem in the US, that people have guns to protect themselves from other people with guns who only have them to protect themselves from the other people with guns… I always think it’s interesting to hear international perspective on how people perceive the policies and actions of the US.
After the tour we visited the city hall and information center. The girl working at the desk was giving advice to a woman planning to rent a car and drive the Ring Road- she said that it is almost impossible to predict the weather in Iceland. As an Arctic island it had weather coming from every direction. There is a saying in Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes and it will change.
I met a lot of travelers planning to rent a car and drive the “Ring Road” which circles the entire country. I don’t know enough about driving in rough weather to make this trip, but it would be very interesting to return someday to drive the road with someone who knows what they are doing. Iceland is famous for it’s nature, and a lot of the best locations have free entry. The hardest part is getting there, but once you do, it is well worth the trip.
We saw the famous church in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja, modeled after the Svartifoss Waterfall.
On our final day it was still incredibly windy, but the sun was finally out. We went to see the sights on the famous Golden Circle, a loop inland from Reykjavik. Since I studied Civil Engineering I really enjoy learning about the geology of the land as we passed by. We passed several dormant volcanoes, the most famous of which is Hekla which is almost 7 years overdue for eruption (this means the next one will be that much stronger), and Eyjafjallajokull which erupted in 2010 and stopped air traffic for weeks in Europe.
Our first stop was the Kerio Crater it was formed from a volcano, and it was the most interesting part of the tour for me. It was nice to climb down into the crater to the water at the bottom and get a break from the wind rushing across the flat landscape above.
We stopped by a farm to visit some Icelandic horses. The Icelandic Horse is a pure breed, it was originally brought by the Vikings almost a thousand years ago, and there are very strict laws to prevent the importation of other breeds who might bring disease into the herds. At the farm there was also a lady selling hand-knitted sweaters. They looked incredibly warm, but they were pretty expensive and I had no room in my small backpack for a thick wool sweater.
Our guide has lived in Iceland her whole life, and she shared a lot about how hard it is to live in Iceland. She said that they are a tough people, they have to be- it wasn’t until about 100 years ago that they began to have the technology to harvest the earth’s energy for heat. Before that, they lived in turf huts and just tried to make it through the harsh, long winters.
Today, the problems are different, everything is very expensive and there is a low minimum wage but she said the people believe in working hard to earn a living. They are also prepared for hardship from an early age. She said if you walk past a restaurant and see a small baby sleeping in the stroller outside the building in the snow this is normal, as a mother she put her babies outside in blizzards for a couple hours to make them tough. Imagine people doing that in the US!
We visited the Geysir which erupts in a fountain of hot water and steam every 5-8 minutes. The wind was so strong that it erupted at an angle. It was smaller than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but it erupts more frequently. There were also several blue thermal springs in the same area.
We visited Gulfoss Falls- a beautiful waterfall that has an interesting history. At one point the government wanted to put a hydroelectric plant near the waterfall which would have buried it under a lake. A woman protested to save the waterfall by walking barefoot to the capital city. They didn’t destroy the waterfall. It’s interesting because a few miles from Iguazu Falls in Brazil there used to be another, larger waterfall which was destroyed when the government ( at that point a dictatorship) installed the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Iceland really works to preserve their nature, and it’s always interesting to see the results of conflict between human progress and natural beauty.
Our last stop was at Pingvellier National Park. This park marks the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other ( at the geographical super speed of 2cm per year). The Eurasian plate is marked by a cliff on one side, and a tall cliff of black rock marks the North American plate. A valley of beautiful lakes lies between them. These cliffs are used in Game of the Thrones-though I have never seen the show so I can’t say which episode. This national park is also the site of the first Parliament in Iceland in around 930 AD. They would assemble each summer in this valley until the 13th century.
Iceland has some interesting foods to try. Take a look at this sampler menu: puffin, whale, horse, and not on the list but a regional favorite: fermented shark. You can see the price is 79.90 ISK, about $70-$75 USD- I didn’t eat at this restaurant.
One thing I did eat a lot of was Skyr– which tastes and looks like yogurt. We had it every morning for breakfast. I also tried a kokoscula, an Icelandic sweet which tastes kind of like a chocolate doughnut with coconut.
Our guide had an interesting phrase she said frequently to describe a surprise or something good that wasn’t expected , ” A raisin at the end of a hotdog.” For example when we passed over a small but beautiful river she would say, “Take a look out the window and you will see a lovely raisin at the end of a hotdog.” A very strange Icelandic Expression.
Iceland is traditionally a matriarchal society. They were the first country to have a woman prime minister in 1980 and they are working towards complete gender wage equality. The naming tradition is different in Iceland as well. The children get a first name, and they usually take the first name of their parents ( a girl takes the mother’s first name as her last name, and the boy takes the father’s first name, or both take the father’s first name) for instance, my name would be Rachel Phyllisdottir. ‘Dottir’ (daughter) is added to girl names and “son” (son) is added to boy names.
There is a lot of local lore and tradition in Iceland. There are trolls, elves and giants, not to mention 13 Santa Clauses.
In Alabama people are openly friendly. They are warm and welcoming. In Iceland, the culture is very different. The people aren’t as openly friendly, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t kind. Some people might call it rude, but I would describe it more as “direct” or “to the point.” Coming from Ohio, Southern culture was a bit of a surprise, and I can appreciate the Icelandic culture.
An interesting fact about the language Icelandic: only a few hundred thousand people speak Icelandic, and the language is not being digitalized because it would cost too much money given the small number of speakers. Many people think that this will put the future of Icelandic in jeopardy as we move forward into the future. We read an article about it in the local Reykjavik newspaper and our guide mentioned it in our tour.
We didn’t see the northern lights- we were the wrong season because it never gets truly dark (it was light until 11:00pm-though I can’t imagine how cold it would get when it is only light for 4 hours a day.
We spent 3 days in Iceland, since everything is so expensive we couldn’t stay much longer (think airport prices at the local grocery store) but I hope to return someday when I have a bigger budget, and when I could road trip around the country with someone familiar with the landscape.