Iceland: Come for the northern lights, stay for the volcanos

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Iceland. The first time I said I wanted to go to Iceland in winter, my family thought I was crazy. Why would I go to the most northern capitol of the world in winter? Lady, you are from Chicago, land of winter wind so deep it cuts to the bone. Go to a beach, they said. Take that pasty white skin and get some color, they said. So I went. To Iceland. Twice!

Where to start with Iceland? Iceland was first settled in 874 AD by Norwegians. It holds a similar socioeconomic structure as its Scandinavian counterparts. It is the world’s eighteenth largest island and holds 130 volcanos. Icelanders are taught in four languages: Icelandic, English, Danish, and then a language of the student’s choose. Yes, almost all Icelanders are fluent in four languages.

After the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull halted European air travel, Iceland was suddenly thrust into the tourism scene. Since that eruption, tourism has increased from 360,000 people in 2004, to 1.7 million travelers in 2015. With a population of only 332,000, tourism now accounts for 30% of the economy.

The North American and European tectonic plates join here. This is why it has so many active volcanos. You can snorkel or scuba dive between the tectonic plates. I did that – yes, in winter! It was amazing, and I thought I would die of frost bite, or at least lose a finger. I did, I typed this up with only 9 fingers! No, just kidding – although would that be a story!

People

The icelandars are a warm and welcoming people. English is no worry here. It is always fun to try to learn a few words in every language. Well, good luck with Icelandic! Many words are at least 16 letters long, with lots of h, j, and k’s.

VAÐLAHEIÐARVEGAVINNUVERKFÆRAGEYMSLUSKÚRAÚTIDYRALYKLAKIPPUHRINGUR 

Yes, that is an actual Icelandic word. Luckily, it is said to be the longest.

Housing

I always avoid hotels if possible. Iceland is very expensive.  Hotels in Iceland are no exception. A typical room will cost you anywhere from $250-$450 per night, so guesthouses are common. These are a cross between a hostel and a hotel. You will have your own room, but will share a single stall bathroom with several other rooms. Guesthouses also come with access to a fully-stocked kitchen. I highly recommend these. I will find a local market and buy eggs and bread, voila! Now you have breakfast and a few lunches for the cost of one Icelandic meal. This is particularly important if you plan to leave Reykjavik, as the countryside is sparsely populated and finding restaurants can be difficult – you will end up eating cold sandwiches from an unknown decade at a gas station.

If you plan to spend some time around Reykjavik, a great center point is Hallgrimskirkja. This is the famous church that is downtown, just west of it is the shops, bars, and restaurants. I would personally choose a hotel, guesthouse, or airbnb within walking distance, as you will be in the heart of the city. Public transportation is buses. Taxis will cost you about $20 for a 1.5 mile trip.

Money

As mentioned above, Iceland is very expensive. The currency exchange is about 115 Iceland to 1 US dollar. A quick sandwich at a cafe will cost you around 1500. A restaurant meal is usually closer to 3000 Icelandic. Beer is the cheapest, at around 1000. Luckily, alcohol is much cheaper at the Duty Free shop if you plan to share a bottle of wine with your guesthouse mates!

Tours

This is where it gets tricky. Tours in Iceland are, shocking, very expensive. If you are used to cold-weather driving, rent a car. You can visit many of the sites for free. The national parks (discussed in further below) are all free. Parking in Reykjavik is tricky, but near the church Hallgrimskirkja has street parking if you can parallel park. Unfortunately the side streets are often covered in ice – I would exit the car and help my partner parallel park as getting over those ice chunks without slamming the car behind you can be difficult.

Weather

As expected, Iceland can be cold. However, you may be surprised, as the most northern capitol in the world, it is temperate because it is an island. In winter, temperatures hover around 0*C (32*F). In summer, Reykjavik averages 11*C (52*C).  The northern latitude means for only 2-3 hours of daylight in the heart of winter, yet 20-21 hours of daylight in the summer. Going in winter makes for interesting mornings, as it is not light until 11 am, so those 8 am alarms feel like 4 am! A good set of hats, gloves, and scarfs are usually sufficient, but tights or thermals for hiking is needed.

But the lights!

The northern lights are spectacular. Really, they are worth the flight. However, the aurora borealis is a result of solar flares hitting the earth’s atmosphere. Yes, that is a very simplified version. Importantly, they can be very hard to find. You must wait for a night with no cloud cover, and hope the solar flares were active a few days before. My first trip to Iceland I spent 6 nights desperately hoping for a glimpse, and only saw one very small shimmer. My second trip was more successful. Iceland has a great northern lights forecast, I have posted the link below. This combines the cloud cover (green is clouds, white is cloud-free) with activity. You can find the activity in the upper right of the website.

If you are in Reykjavik, the light pollution will drown out the lights except for very rare times. However, a quick ten minute drive towards the grotto (lighthouse) will allow for a view. Be careful, because the throngs of tourists converge. If you drive your own car, make sure your headlights are off, or you will have angry tourists tapping on your window! The countryside is much better to see them, although that is challenging as you will have to spend quite a bit of time in the countryside or be extremely lucky.

http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/

This should be obvious, but the northern lights are only visible in winter. Which means you must go to Iceland, yes, in winter.

And now, the good stuff

Iceland is unique in its landscape. It is truly like no other.  Beautiful black sand beaches jut against incredible volcanos. You could spent months traveling and still not see it all. I have broken it down into manageable sections. I will post other blogs with specific tour companies and travel recommendations, as well as further details on these sites. For pictures, please see my instagram, coffeemeetsair.

  1. Golden Circle: The most visited part of Iceland after Reykjavik itself. This is a quick day trip, first stop is the park and takes about an hour to drive. The next two stops are much closer. It consists of 3 sections:
    1. þingvellir national park: this is where the tectonic plates meet and you can scuba or snorkel at Silfra. This is one of the 3 large national parks in Iceland. Great for hiking, lots of hidden waterfalls. Note: the scuba/snorkeling you will not see fish or marine life, it is a large crack in the earth’s surface with crystal clear water, and you can see down 100 feet. It was amazing!
    2. Geysir: this is actually a misnomer, because there are many geysers in Iceland. Notice the spelling of Geysir vs geyser. The largest here erupts every few minutes. Truly spectacular.
    3. Gullfoss: large waterfall. Legend has it the original farm owner couldn’t bear to see his gold go to anyone else, and he threw it into the falls.
  2. South Iceland: Driving in south Iceland is a full day trip. It takes two hours to the first site.
    1. Svartifoss: 12 meter waterfall. It cuts through the lava at the start of Vatnajökull. The water has formed a heart-shaped basin rift in which the water cascades. You can hike behind this fall, which is unbelievable to see.
    2. Skógafoss: this massive waterfall is situated right off of route 1. You can trek up what feels like a thousand stairs to the top.
    3. Black Sand Beach: the sand is black from the lava. Stories of a beautiful mermaid in the nearby cave are abound. The sand is incredibly soft, but don’t get too close to the water, as sneaker waves kill an average of one tourist per year. Truly amazing.
    4. Eyjafjallajökull: yes, this is the same volcano that erupted in 2010 and halted air traffic.
  3. Southeast Iceland: this requires an overnight trip at the minimum. It is about 5-6 hours of driving time from Reykjavik each way. This is also where the largest glacier in Europe exists.
    1. Crystal cave: the highlight of my trip! This cave is formed by melting glacier rivers in the summer. In the winter, the underground riverbed is dry, and you can walk into this cave. It is formed purely by ice, and it is bright blue! The throngs of tourists have forced Iceland to have an upcoming vote on limiting the number of tourists per day, so plan ahead. While I was able to book a tour two days in advance, that may not be the case much longer.
    2.  Jökulsárlón lagoon: this is where tours to the crystal cave start. This lagoon is formed by melting glaciers. The Atlantic Ocean meets the lagoon, and causes huge blocks of blue ice to form. These huge blocks are easily the size of semi-trucks.
    3. Diamond beach: large chunks of pure water form clear ice blocks on the beach. This is directly across from the lagoon. Note: everyone goes to the beach of the east side as it is directly across from the lagoon, but the blocks on the west side are much better.
  4. North Iceland: we unfortunately were only able to make it to Snæfellsnes. The roads were too bad due to ice, and we had to turn around. However, it was beautiful! Hellnar is a cute little town we had horse stew soup (I know, I know).
  5. Reykjavik
    1. Lave tube caving: lave tube caves are formed when a volcano erupts. The lava is incredibly hot, and as it moves towards the sea it forms rivers. The top layer will cool and harden more quickly and form a hard crust over the flowing river. As the volcano stops spewing lava, the rivers eventually run dry, leading to a cave system. The hard, upper crust remains, and under becomes a system of caves that you can explore with a guide.
    2. Hallgrimskirkja: this large church is near downtown. While Icelanders are not particularly religious, you can go to the top of the bell tower. Here, you will find beautiful views of the entire city. It is the tallest building in Reykjavik.
    3. Museums: there are plenty of museums in Reykjavik. Most notably are the Whale, Music, and Phallus museums. Yes, the latter is exactly what you think it is.
    4. Nightlife: Icelanders enjoy their beer, especially in the winter when nights are long. Lebowski bar was a favorite of mine. It is based off the movie, and there is a bowling lane on the second floor. The country is very LGBT friendly, and Queer bar is a favorite dance spot.
    5. Food: Icelandic hot dogs are a staple. I personally was not a fan, however they are very cheap and are conveniently stationed around the bars and open late!

I plan to write further blogs with in-depth details of each part of Iceland, including the snorkeling in Silfa.

If you are in doubt, trust me, go! It is my favorite country. Words cannot describe how beautiful this place is, both in its physicality and its people.