I don’t know about every other millennial’s Facebook feed, but for the past few years, mine has been filled with three things: weddings, babies and Iceland. Everyone seems to be going to Iceland, so I figured there must be a good reason for it. That’s why in August, Chris and I packed our backpacks and flew to the land of fire and ice.
Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, a short drive from the Keflavik Airport. It was the perfect place to relax after our flight from Canada. I spent the entire day just floating around, and eavesdropping on people’s conversations. I must have heard about 20 different languages! It was like a mini world. I also loved going under the waterfall, which felt like a super rough massage. However, my foray under the water came with a price. Even though I followed the recommendation and used conditioner before and after going in the lagoon, my hair still dried out completely. It actually didn’t fully recover until weeks later.
For our first night in Iceland, we opted for a bit of luxury. We stayed in a cozy cabin room at a guest house right beside the airport. It was very conveniently located within walking distance of the town of Keflavik.
Our next stop was Reykjavik, the picturesque capital of Iceland. Reykjavik is a delightful city to explore on foot. There’s plenty to see in the city centre, and the sidewalks are nice and wide. Best of all, it never gets too hot. Despite the fact that it was mid-August, many people were wearing tuques and heavy jackets. The temperature usually hovers around 13°C during the day in summer, and the wind from the ocean is unbelievably powerful.
When researching for the trip, naturally I googled “Iceland on a budget”. I discovered that there really isn’t any way to do Iceland on a budget, unless you bring all your own gear and hitchhike and camp exclusively. Even then, food is still ridiculously expensive, since virtually everything needs to be imported. We were on a somewhat tight schedule and we wanted a proper stress-free vacation, so we joined a G Adventures trekking tour. It turned out to be a wonderful decision, since we had an amazing group. Our tourmates were from five countries: Canada, the US, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Our guide, Oliver, was from Germany, but he had been living in Iceland for many years.
From Reykjavik we headed to Þingvellir National Park. The park forms the boundary between the North American and European tectonic plates, and it’s also the location of Iceland’s first parliament. We learned about how the early settlers used to gather at the site to pass laws, starting in the year 930.
Near the park is another must-see attraction on Iceland’s golden circle route, the Geysir geothermal area. The Strokkur geyser erupts every five to ten minutes, so you don’t have to wait around all day to get that perfect shot. The sign at the area tells you to refrain from putting your hands in the water to test the temperature (“The nearest hospital is 62 km away.”)
Our last site before we left the golden circle was the stunning Gullfoss, or Golden falls.
The falls area had a gift shop, and while browsing around I found a most unusual souvenir. You can purchase “fresh Icelandic mountain air” for the equivalent of $10. I had half a mind to buy a can just for novelty’s sake, but then I realized I would be taking the bait 😛
That night, our group set up camp at Landmannalaugar, the start of the Laugavegur trek. The weather had been perfectly sunny all day, so Oliver told us that we had a good chance of seeing the northern lights. The campsite had a hot spring, so we all went down there for a soak after dinner. It was a bit tricky finding the “sweet spots” in the spring. Some places you got scalded, and other areas were freezing cold. As the night wore on and the crowds left to return to the camp, we were able to claim the good spots.
The super keeners (me included!) stayed in the spring until about 12:30 a.m., hoping to see the show. And sure enough, the lights magically appeared and quite literally danced across the sky. Sometimes they stayed in one place and got brighter and brighter, and other times they slithered across the heavens like a ribbon. It was an incredible sight that left my mouth agape. My only tiny complaint (uh, to Mother Nature) was that we didn’t see more colours. The lights were mostly grey and white with a tiny hint of green. Not the bright green you see in photos, anyway.
On our first day of the trek, we hiked from Landmannalaugar to Álftavatn. Since we were on a guided trek, we did the “somewhat luxurious” version of the Laugavegur. Most of our gear was carried by truck from campsite to campsite, and we had only our daypacks with us. It was nice not to be carrying much weight, especially on the many uphill bits.
The scenery changed constantly as we hiked along. We started the day in a lava field, climbed up to a highland desert, walked along a glacier, then descended into a valley for the night. The weather was crystal clear the entire day. We were incredibly lucky! Oliver said that he saw hot springs that he didn’t even know existed, because they had always been covered by clouds on his previous treks.
During the day, we could shed our layers, but at night the temperature would drop to just below freezing. Leaving the tent to go to the bathroom was somewhat of an ordeal, especially at Álftavatn, where there was no protection from the wind. You may wonder why we would subject ourselves to late fall conditions in the middle of August, but Iceland is awesome enough to make it totally worth it.
The trek from Álftavatn to Emstrur was mostly flat. We crossed through an endless black sand desert, and the skin on my hands dried out completely. My hands were so cracked that any manual tasks were very painful. One bit of advice for would-be trekkers: bring moisturizer and use it as often as possible!
The Laugavegur trail has several river crossings, which range from quick jumps to substantial schleps. Each time we arrived at a river, we would go through the ritual of taking off our hiking boots, putting on water shoes (usually sandals) and venturing bravely into the bitterly cold water. We would lose all feeling in our feet almost immediately, and we would need to fight to stay upright in the current. After reaching the other side, we would dry off and try to regain some circulation before putting our boots back on and continuing on our merry way.
We eventually left the desert and hiked up to Emstrur, our home for the night. That evening, Oliver led us a short distance from the campsite to Markarfljótsgljúfur, an impressive 200 m-deep canyon.
On our last day on the Laugavegur trail, we trekked to Þórsmörk, one of Iceland’s only forested areas. Until this point, I hadn’t seen any trees for at least a week. Like in New Zealand, there’s almost no wildlife. As such, I found the hiking wonderfully relaxing. I didn’t need to worry about getting chased by bears (British Columbia), pushed off a cliff by yaks (Everest Base Camp), attacked by snakes (the Amazon) or mauled by lions (the Serengeti). Altitude sickness was not an issue, since we never rose higher than 1,059 m. My biggest concern each day was whether Oliver had brought the treats I liked to feed us during break times. Life was pretty sweet!
At Þórsmörk, we had the campsite almost to ourselves, and I took my first shower in days. It felt so awesome to be relatively clean, albeit temporarily. I got nice and dirty again the next day on our hike to the volcano that interrupted European air traffic for a week in 2010. I spent the entire trip trying to pronounce its name properly. The German and Dutch speakers in our group managed fine, but the English speakers were hopeless. Well, I was, at least. “Eye-a-fyat-la-yo-k#$%^#$%” was all that came out!
The campsite at Þórsmörk had a firepit, so at night we sat by the campfire and played games while waiting for the northern lights to come out. Chris set up his tripod, and managed to snag a picture right before his battery went kaput. The lights were greyish-white from our perspective, but his camera managed to capture the green.
On our final day of the tour, we stopped at the remaining sites on the golden circle. First was Seljalandsfoss, where we could walk right behind the falls. I posed for a smiley picture, but it ended up being a shadow shot. I really liked the effect.
There’s a hidden waterfall near Seljalandsfoss called Gljúfrabúi. We had to make our way through a canyon and hop over rocks to get up close to it. It looked truly magical!
That day, we explored Sólheimajökull, another glacier. A guide led us onto the ice, and through the narrow crevasses. He told us that he never takes the same route twice, since the glacier is constantly moving. I had done a glacier hike before in Franz Josef, New Zealand, and it was a very cool experience. For this hike, I had to learn again how to walk in crampons. We also wore harnesses, which were mostly pointless (“but they make you look so cool!”) I guess they could be useful for rescue manoeuvres.
Since we weren’t going to do any actual climbing, our guide had us fake some shots (“for your Instagrams!”) He angled the camera to make it look like we were vertical. We had a lot of fun taking the pictures, and I was impressed with how real they looked.
The last waterfall we visited was Skógafoss. We were fortunate enough to arrive just as the sun came out, so a beautiful rainbow appeared. It was the perfect end to our golden circle tour.
We returned to Reykjavik that evening, and had one last meal as a group at a pizza restaurant in town. It was so nice to eat delicious food without having to do the dishes by hand in ice cold water, and to sleep in a proper bed. Camping is great while you’re doing it, but it also feels great to be done with it! But camping in Iceland is definitely an experience that I recommend, and one that I will cherish forever.
“Mom! Mom! He’s splashing me and getting my hair wet! I don’t want to have dry hair for school next week! MOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!”
– A teenage girl whining to her mother about her brother at the Blue Lagoon. Her mother completely ignored both them. Reminded me of my own family dynamic back in the day.
“Oliver’s the best! He feeds us and takes us on walks in the park!”
– Tourmate Leslie describing our fabulous guide
“Hey look! A forest!”
– Oliver pointing at a solitary bush in the middle of a field