Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Iceland! Part I: Things I Saw, Places I went, Stuff I Did

Places I went: Even as I type this, it sounds as though I didn't see much, but honestly I was constantly moving and going somewhere. I stopped briefly at each spot to really appreciate everything before moving on. The truth is there is SO many things to see and do in Iceland and one week is nowhere near enough time to see everything. In the winter, hours are reduced in a lot of places too, and when visiting outdoor features, you are limited by the short days. While in Reykjavik, I visited a couple of museums, the National Museum of Iceland and the Aurora Borealis Museum. I wish I had made it to the Saga Museum and the Settlement Exhibition but I ran out of time. All of these places are spread out through the city and so it took some time to walk to them, and of course, I wanted to stop and take pictures of pretty much everything so yeah, the evenings crept up on me pretty quickly. I also wanted to kind of experience a bit of the local culture, so I hung out in a lot of pools and went to a few coffee shops and bars. I did a walking tour of the city, went to the famous hot dog stand, and on Monday night, walking to Grotta Lighthouse, I stopped and sat on a rocky cliff to watch the northern lights. It is said that you shouldn't expect to see them when you visit, so I felt so lucky to see them my second night there.

On Tuesday, the plan was to do the Golden Circle, which I did most of by the end of the day. I never made it to Thingvellir National Park which makes me incredibly sad but it just never worked out. On Tuesday morning it was sleeting, and as I got closer to the park, the roads got progressively worse and worse, and my little 2WD hatchback was not having it. About 3/4 of the way there, I ended up behind a row of cars that were stopped and ahead there was a tour bus that had rolled off the road and was laying on its side down a little ravine. Honestly, it doesn't sound like much here, but it was terrifying to see it and to watch the terrified, disoriented tourists stumble out of the bus. To make a long story short, a police officer came around a few minutes later to tell us they were closing the road and was nice enough to turn my car around for me on the extremely narrow, icy road and once I was closer to Reykjavik again and the roads were better, my nerves finally eased up. I drove to Hverger∂i, calmed down a bit, and decided to just do the rest of the tour backwards. I ended up visiting Keri∂ crater first (which was so beautiful), then a tomato greenhouse in Reykholt for lunch, then Geysir (where I saw Stokkur erupt a few times), then Gullfoss, the giant waterfall.

Wednesday was the day that I finally learned that plans in Iceland are completely useless. I set off from Stokkseyri, where I spent the night, and drove to Oddi (an old church/monastery/graveyard), and Keldur (which are viking ruins that I discovered were closed for the winter). At Keldur, I realized I left my phone charger back at the guesthouse and I made it almost back there when I ran over a screw that punctured my tire. I managed to get to a gas station, call the rental car company, and attempted to change my very first flat tire when a very nice person (the Icelandic Keith Richards) came out to change it for me. I then had to drive to Selfoss to get it fixed which was probably the least fun experience I had in Iceland. Service industries are very different over there (understandably so) and they weren't the most pleasant people to deal with, but the man fixed the tire for me and honestly that's all I care about. By this point, it was mid afternoon and I had to drive to Vik before dark so I only made a couple of stops on the way and those were at Skogafoss and another waterfall (which is the waterfall that you're able to walk behind!) and in front of Eyjafjallajokull volcano (the one that erupted in 2010). I never did get my phone charger back but I'm okay with it. Later that night, at my guesthouse, I happened to glance out of my window before bed and the northern lights were right there! I couldn't believe I had seen them twice now. They only lasted a few minutes before the clouds took over, but they were beautiful.

I think Thursday was my favorite day. I experienced the crazy weather in the morning as I drove to Dyrholaey lighthouse and to Reynisfjara (beach). I set off from there with the goal to make it all the way to Jokulsarlon, a few hours drive. As I drove, the landscape became exponentially more incredible (which I found hard to believe because I was already completely in awe of everything I had seen thus far). I saw vast lava fields covered in green moss, Laufskalavar∂a, which is a rock memorial for a farm that was destroyed in a past eruption. I put a rock for good luck because I definitely didn't want anything else to go wrong. I drove past Dverghamrar, which was a giant rock cliff where elves are said to live (there were a lot of these). I decided to put the Game of Thrones soundtrack on and those few hours driving through Southeast Iceland definitely rank highly among the best experiences I've ever had. The music personified the landscape so perfectly. At one point, the grass and farms disappeared and I was driving through what looked like a desert on another planet. There were these beautiful snow capped mountains in the background and I actually think I shed a tear at this point because I was so overwhelmed by how incredibly beautiful it was. I then began to see the glacier tongues descending down the mountains and stopped for a ton of pictures. It was so calm out here in the middle of nowhere surrounded by this incredible landscape. It was so quiet and at times, I was completely alone. I ended up missing the glacier walk I was supposed to do, so I spent a lot of time exploring Jokulsarlon, which was definitely one of the best places I saw. Across the road, there was a beach with a bunch of glaciers washed ashore. They call it the Diamond Beach or something because the glaciers look like a bunch of diamonds scattered among the black sand. I visited a smaller glacier lagoon on the way back to my next guesthouse. This was the first night we had that was completely clear and I was determined to see the Northern Lights again. It took a lot of trips outside to check, but finally around 11 pm, I went outside and was absolutely overwhelmed by the display. I only saw the green, but instead of looking like green wispy clouds like they had the previous nights, they were very distinct and I could actually see them shimmering among the vast number of stars.

On Friday, I got the pleasure of traveling with an awesome German girl I met at the guesthouse, and her and I drove back out to Skaftafell to do the glacier walk I was supposed to do the previous day. The glacier we hiked on was called Svinafellsjokull, which descends from Vatnajokull, the largest glacier cap in Iceland. Aside from dealing with obnoxious tourists on the walk, some of which were taking pictures of themselves laying on the ice pretending to fall into crevices (and making our guide extremely nervous), it was an amazing experience. Apparently I was standing on the same glacier where they filmed Batman Begins and Interstellar! After the tour, I had to begin the long five hour drive back to Keflavik, stopping in Vik briefly to enjoy the sun set behind a cliff near a beach.

Saturday was my flight home and quite honestly, I was completely exhausted. I had plans to go to a museum, but I decided to just relax and explore local life in Keflavik before returning my car and heading to the airport. I went to a local pool and then to a coffee shop where I had my last cup of delicious Icelandic coffee and a really good donut.

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