Smitten with Iceland
Interested in visiting Iceland? Check out my guide for traveling here in a camper van!
It would be wrong if I didn’t immediately say WOW, Iceland is beautiful! The varied terrain, stunning waterfalls, glaciers, and sweeping vistas are stomping my expectations. If there was a I Heart Iceland shirt, I’d wear it.
A week into our trip, I’m struck by how everything here reminds me of somewhere else…almost. Instead, trying to reconcile the landscapes with past experiences – “this beach is like Big Sur mixed with New Zealand!” is proving impossible. I’m failing because Iceland is so singular, a unique island planted a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.
I’m writing this at 10:30pm and the sun won’t set for an hour. It takes forever to drop six inches on the horizon – golden hour wears out my camera batteries. The sky stays so light that we don’t even need a headlamp at night. Sadly, this means the Northern Lights don’t appear, but that just gives us an excuse to come back.
What Are We Up To?
In a big counter-clockwise loop, we’re exploring Iceland for a month via camper van. We’re on and off the Ring Road that encircles the island, nipping off on gravel roads to explore quiet corners whenever possible. Lots of wild camping in the van, plus miles of hiking, tons of photography, soaking in hot pools, and laying in soft, thick moss beds looking at the fjords dominate our days.
Once we’re all done, I’ll write a highlights post. This one aims to capture some interesting aspects of the country, the things that pop out at us.
A Few Observations About Iceland
In a small town in the east fjords, we saw a guy in a leotard standing on the end of a long board over icy water. While his buddies hooted, he sawed away the part under his feet. Hack hack hack SPLASH into some seriously cold water. Welcome to an Icelandic bachelor party!
I haven’t seen a police car since leaving Reykyavik a week ago. Instead, there are speed cameras. Luckily, they announce their presence via a warning sign a few miles ahead of the actual camera. No surprises here, people. Even funnier, digital speed signs beam a smiley face at us when we’re under the limit and an angry red frown when I’m gunning our zippy little camper van.
When I’m in a foreign country, I’ll usually lead with a greeting in the local tongue. If I’m passable at the language, I’ll stick with that. Otherwise, I ask if they speak English. Don’t even bother in Iceland! Same as the Netherlands, everyone here has better grammar than me does.
A lovely feature in even the tiniest village is a geothermally-heated hot pool. Directions require showering naked and scrubbing all the dirty spots, with diagrams dictating what to wash. (Use your imagination.) Only THEN can you head to the pool – swimsuit on, please. Oddly enough, even though the pools are outside, I have yet to see any locals wearing sunglasses.
Be warned: the weather here is variable. You may notice many of my pictures feature gray skies? It’s mid-July, but temps still skim the low 40s at night, the rain is cold, and the wind blowing off glaciers ain’t exactly a palm breeze in Tonga. Bring your warmest and most waterproof gear. Chelsea brought every item of winter clothing she owns and has her Eskimo impression nailed.
Dodging the Crowds
Apparently tourism to Iceland has tripled in the last six years. I won’t lie – the southern part of the country felt crowded. Get to the outskirts, though, and things calm down. As always, hike a mile past any attraction and you’re practically alone.
Our first two nights were at busy campgrounds. Since escaping outside day-trip-from-Reykyavik range, things have mellowed out. We’ve parked our Go Campers rental van in secluded spots and enjoyed peaceful, lingering sunsets with views like a nature preserve or a carpet of flowers in a mountain valley.
For a quiet corner, head to the eastern fjords, home to a scant 11,000 people (and ~2.6 million sheep, I’d guess). Here, it’s clear tourism is still an ungainly, friendly teenager. Compared to a surly campground owner in the south, the campsites in the too-cute fjord town of Seydisfjourd didn’t even have an attendant on site between 12-8. It even featured honor-system laundry. I only hope tourists are respectful and don’t wreck the trusting spirit.
My friend Eli, whom I met 10 years ago couchsurfing in Spain, is guiding in Iceland this summer and joined us for the first few days of our journey on his weekend. Along with a little language instruction (the town of Hofn is pronounced HUP), he also shared that Iceland is experiencing some growing pains while dealing with the onslaught of tourism.
As a small sliver of that, we searched for ice in Seydisfjour and the only place to get it was to have a grocery bag filled at the gas station. With so many camper vans rolling around, this is a missed opportunity for a local business. I’d wager next time we come through town, ice will be for sale.
That said, don’t worry about having cash on you. Every single merchant accepts credit cards, finding good food is simple, and travel logistics are easy. If you can travel in the U.S., you can travel in Iceland.
Iceland Won’t Empty Your Bank Account
Everyone will tell you Iceland is expensive. In a few areas, they’re right: car rentals, lodging, and restaurants carry a premium here. Otherwise, we’ve found prices to be quite reasonable, especially considering that mangoes and everything else come from SO FAR AWAY.
Don’t eat out unless you’re cool with $25+ entrees. (Iceland servers are paid well, so there’s no expectation of a tip.) We love the flexibility of renting a camper van, but it also makes sense since it combines lodging and transportation, not to mention takes away the need to book ahead.
When I compared prices for nice outdoor gear, items cost the same as Patagonia or Mountain Hardwear in the U.S. A bike rental in the fjords was $12/hr, a campground is ~$10/person, organic bananas are $1.50/lb, a cup of coffee costs $4, and groceries are shockingly similar to the U.S. There are also extensive affordable vegan options available (score!), which I’ll discuss in a comprehensive post later.
Iceland also wins big with their cheap, fast, get-coverage-anywhere data plans. For 1/12th the cost of data in the US, I got a Nova SIM card at the airport that I popped into my unlocked iPhone. Are we Americans getting scammed or what?! Apparently cell phone companies back home are staffed by crooks from Enron and Lehman Brothers.
Come See For Yourself
If you follow me on Instagram, you may think I’m a paid shill for this country. Here’s a paraphrased recent photo caption: “THIS PLACE IS AWESOME. Yesterday, we woke up wild camped by a beach on the Arctic Ocean. Next was a whale watching tour, where blue and humpback whales surfaced around us. After an hour drive, we found bubbling volcanic activity and this scenic hike. We finished off soaking in a giant hot springs for a couple hours, calling it a day when it closed at midnight.”
Nope, Iceland isn’t paying me to be here. (Unfortunately!) I’m simply another fan after experiencing what this kickass country has to offer. Perhaps I use the word AWESOME in all-caps too much, but hey, I’m a child of the 80s.
Plus, sometimes tubular just doesn’t fit. All I know is I’m in love with this place. With almost three weeks to go, the fun is just getting started.