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When Dave and I planned our 2 year backpacking trip Iceland was never on the list. It didn’t seem to be close to mainland Europe or Asia and with plenty of countries to see on those two continents it was never even a consideration.
Until of course I was looking into booking our flights home from Italy and it looks like Iceland Air was the cheapest airline to go with. The layover seem to be almost a full day, so I thought, why not see if we can stretch that a few days?
A few days turned into seven. Iceland Air offers up to weeklong layover for no additional cost. Awesome right?
Well that is until you get there and realize it is one of the most expensive places on earth. Seriously. I thought Switzerland was bad. Iceland put those prices to shame. I knew we were not going to end our 2 year backpacking trip in lavish luxury. This was going to be more like living off of hot dogs, sleeping in dorm rooms, and renting a sad car from the 90s. I also knew with limited time and high prices I was going to pack in as many things to do as possible – aka Iceland self drive tour here we come. So in 6 days we drove the entire ring road (running the perimeter of the country), a total of over 1200 km (767 miles) and 23 hours spent in the car.
Let the fun begin.
Day 1: Reykjavik
We arrived late at night and spent 2 nights in Reykjavik, giving us one full day to explore the city. Number one activity for us – Puffin tour (coming in at a whopping $40 a person).
Dave’s favorite animal in the world happens to be the puffin – which I fully support, as there simply can be no argument that this is in fact the most adorable creature in the world. These birds are hilarious. They are small, colorful, clumsy, whimsical, and fascinating. On land they’re not so great, but they really excel in the water – being able to drive down deep to grab fish from the depths. Their take -off and landing could use some work though. Although we could only see them from a distance, getting on a boat and being able to see hundreds of puffins on the rocks and flying over the water truly was incredible. If you’re a die-hard puffin fan this is definitely a must.
Since we blew through our daily budget on the tour, it was going to be a low budget eating day.
Not just any hot dogs though – incredibly famous Icelandic hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. With over 1,200 reviews this is a well known establishment. Great value too. A great simple lunch spot. At $3 a hot dog this is the best deal in all of Iceland.
And since a foodie like me can’t be kept down I also insisted we get some hot steaming soup. I mean it was cold, and we did just motor about on a boat for an hour.
Another great meal – lobster soup at Saegreifinn Sea Baron – though at a hefty price – $23 (yep for a two bowls of soup). Oh man it was good though.
Broke from lunch and the tour we spent the rest of the day wandering around Reykyavik, exploring the city, admiring the architecture and ultimately fully enjoy our first glimpse of the country.
Day 2: Golden Circle Driving Tour: Thingvellir, Geysir, Gulfoss (map of route) (distance: 200 km time driving: 4 hrs )
Day 2 we had wheels. We knew with only a week in Iceland we wanted to do a driving tour. Being overly ambitious, naturally I planned for us to drive around pretty much the entire perimeter of the country – also know as the ring road. Before we got to that though we would start with the Iceland Golden Circle tour – a very popular one day route to see the highlights around Reykjavik.
We had a lot to see and no time to lose. Obviously it took us well over an hour to even find the car rental agency. We walked around in circles going off of a picture of a map in my cell phone. Not a good start to the day. Luckily though we were able to get an automatic car – which was not a guarantee when we made our reservation. We were told there was a *good* chance we would get a rental, but also a possibility of a manual – ugh, not exactly what you want to hear when you do not know how to drive a manual. At least here we lucked out.
First stop – Thingvellir National Park – the spot where where the North-American and European continental shelf plates are being torn apart. and also home to the world’s longest running Parliament. It was cold, foggy and rainy, but even that doesn’t take away from the dramatic scenery ahead of you.
From there we drove on to Geysir – a geothermal hot spot, which you can get surprisingly close to. Though Geysir itself now rarely erupts, a short walk away the reliable Strokkur erupts every few minutes.
I loved standing so close to the geysers, every time being completely surprised when it spouts huge shots of water. You can hear the “woahs” from the crowd around you. It’s incredible how close you can get to everything and there is simply a thin rope separately you from these completely insane natural phenomenons.
Our last stop of the day was the Gulfoss waterfall – an incredible natural feat – where the flow of the water is enough to fill 60 transportation containers with water in one second! Insane right?
We spent the night in Hella at the Care Arhus Hella where we had a small little cabin and in the main area there was a shared kitchen where I distinctly remember preparing an Indian themed chicken meal. For one reason or another this stuck out in my memory. With the cost of eating out so high in Iceland many of our meals were prepared in shared kitchens which you will find in many accommodation options.
This was super convenient when it came to making breakfast, lunch to go and dinner.
Day 3: Skogafoss, Beaches, Glaciers and Jokulsarlon, Stafafell (map of route) (distance: 390 km time driving: 5 hrs)
In Iceland Dave and I developed a nice little breakfast routine. In the morning we would stop by a mini-mart of gas station and pick up the iconic Icelandic yogurt – Skyr, pour in some granola and enjoy breakfast on the road. I don’t know what it was about this creamy and delicious yogurt but I loved it. This was my breakfast everyday and I could not get enough of it. When you’re in Iceland you need to try this – and lucky for the North American and European readers you can now find it in store all over!
On our drive over to the Skogafoss waterfall we made a brief stop to learn more about Eyjafjallajokull. What’s that you say? Remember the volcano eruption in Iceland in April 2010 that grounded flights and stranded travelers from all over? Yep we drove right past that.
From there the drive continued onto Skogafoss – another incredible Iceland waterfall. This is the land of waterfalls. Off to the side of the falls there is a trail that leads up to a metal staircase that you can take up to offer a overhead view of the falls and the valley. Lazy Dave stayed below but naturally I could not leave before making the trip up.
Somewhere along the road when leaving the fall we spotted a couple of hitchhikers and decided to pick them up. Being backpackers like us they looks pretty harmless and considering the cold and windy day it was we decided to do them a favor. I don’t know why but I just love to pick up hitchhikers. I’ve never done so in the US but in the few countries that we have done it just gives me a feel good feeling – like I’ve genuinely just helped somebody out without any kind of agenda of my own.
It just so happened these this couple was also heading towards the beaches nearby in hopes of spotting some Puffins – fellow puffin lovers. We stopped off at a few beaches and split up, running around seeking out these awesome birds. We spotted a good handful, hanging out on the rocks.
The beaches themselves were beautiful with all sorts of rock and cliff formations jutting out on all sides.
Although it was another gloomy, overcast day even that could not spoil the views.
After gawking at a handful of Puffins in the distance we were off. Next stop glaciers.
We walked a bit to see them and then Dave decided that they wouldn’t look much different if we got any closer so we turned back. The wind was seriously picking up at this point – hard to believe this is the Icelandic version of summer. With temperatures in the 50s-60s it was coold.
And now for the highlight of the day (or even the whole trip) – Jokulsarlon – a large magical glacial lake. This developed into a lake after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It has now grown to cover an area of 18 square kilometers. In the summer these icebergs melt and roll out to sea. If you’ve seen the movies Die Another Day, Batman Begins and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider you’ve seen these on the big screen.
In person though – the area looks absolutely insane. Words simply cannot describe it. The blue color of the icebergs is so puzzling and shocking when you see it at first. It’s just hard to believe you’re seeing things correctly. This was by far one of my favorite things we saw in Iceland. The whole area is gorgeous and you can walk around and gaze at the icebergs.
And while in the distance you see the blue tinted iceberg, you can pick up a small piece that has chipped off in the water and see the perfect clarity.
I mean if you’re not amazed by this you can’t be human.
The awesome thing about traveling in Iceland in the summer is that the sun sets super late – as in 11:30pm so you can literally be out and about all day all night – perfect for me, probably not so much for Dave who was like a wilting flower by the end of our long exploration days.
I was happy as a clam though. Long day light hours are perfect for my FOMO and highly packed in itineraries. I mean if I’m in Iceland I’ve got to see all I can right? That night we stayed in a super cute little cottage in Stafafell where I actually wish we had more time to spend because it was so cozy.
Day 4: Seydisfjordur (map of route) (distance:180 km time driving: 3hrs )
On day four I finally decided to give Dave a break so we had a light day. We were headed to Seydisfjordur which was a 3 hour drive away. While driving there you go over a high mountain pass and while Dave was snoozing in the passenger seat I was getting seriously freaked out by the deteriorating road conditions.
The fog was increasing, and clouds rolling in and all I could see to the side of the road was large snow banks and other worlds landscapes.
Needless to say I was happy to be over the pass and heading back down to more level ground. Another waterfall spotted!
We spent the rest of the day exploring the small and vibrant town of Seydisfjordur which seems to have a thriving artistic community that you can see expressing themselves all over town.
With few budget accommodation options in town we stayed in a 6 bed dorm at the hostel which is perfectly nice and had a large shared kitchen with an interesting character. This man, seemingly in his 70s literally seemed to speak every language that any traveler staying at the hostel spoke. On multiple occasions I heard him rattling off in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, you name it. At first I literally could not believe this was the same guy. Just washing his dishes and skipping from one language to the next. One of those people who has seemed to lived 10 lives in one.
Day 5: Detifoss, Selfoss, Krafla Volcanic Park, Godafoss, Akureyri (map of route) (distance: 373 km time driving: 5 hrs)
Day five was a day of many many waterfalls. We started by viewing Detifoss and Selfoss of which Detifoss is said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. A bold statement right there. Well you can see how that’s true right? I mean this thing is intense.
From there we drove on to Krafla Volcanic Park – my second favorite stop in the entire country. This is a collapsed but still active volcanic area where there is a ton to see! Once you park you follow a trail for 10-20 minutes to see the first attraction – the boiled grey mud pots.
Whatever you do don’t turn back now and head to the parking lot. There is a whole world of Leirhnjúkur lava field discovery to be done. This are is completely surreal. It’s hard to believe you have not been transported to another planet and that landscapes like this actually exist right on earth.
I could not get enough of this. I was walking, climbing, running around in awe practically. I wanted to see every inch of this place. Dave on the other hand got a feel for this and was ready to head back to the car. Well I decided I would do a full loop myself then!
With so many weird formations, textures, colors it almost impossible to take everything in.
Definitely an awesome much recommended hour long loop.
That’s not all though. Just a short drive from there you’ll find the Viti Crater – a volcanic crater formed by the eruption of steam. The teal green lake in the center looks incredible with the contrast of all the other colors in the area. You can walk around the rim of the lake and do a full loop – which you know I did (solo).
I absolutely loved the time we spent in this area and would have gladly spent hours exploring.
Can you believe the day wasn’t even over yet?
From there we still had to hit one more waterfall – Godafoss.
After that we were ready to wind down and watch a world cup match back at our hostel in Akuyeri.
Day 6: Whale Watching in Dalvik, Siglufjörður, Blonduos (map of route) (distance: 220 km time driving: 2.5 hrs)
After a ton of back and forth we eventually decided to go on a whale watching tour. We had never been before and this was meant to be one of the best places in the world to see whales so we shelled out the big bucks ($75) each, climbed into our winter jumpsuits and hopped on board with Arctic Sea Tours.
The water was choppy. The boat was swaying.
Needless to say It wasn’t long before we were both feeling incredible seasick. Sitting with heads between our knees we were trying to make the best of things. Eventually I came around and started to feel better. Dave, not so much. It wasn’t long before he joined a fellow seasick Japanese man on the floor at the foot of the boat.
Dave was in better shape than the other man, who had been lying in the fetal position pretty much since the boat started moving. I would let Dave know anytime he needed to bop his head up to catch a whale tail.
We did in fact get to see a few glimpses of whale figures – though nothing super dramatic. Overall while it was an interesting experience, now that we’ve done it once we probably will never go again.
We did have a great guide on board though who did an awesome job catching a bunch of fish and then filleting it right on board to be cooked on the grill when we got back to dry land. Nothing like some fresh fish for lunch (luckily included in the tour price).
When our nausea finally subsided we were ready for one more mini bout of exploring (or more accurately, I was) and decided to walk around the small town of Siglufjörður – which was cute and colorful.
From there we drove to Blonduos where we spent the night and watch the World Cup Final!
Day 7: Grabrokargigar and drive back to Hafnarfjordur (map of route) (distance: 255 km time driving: 3 hrs)
Day seven got off to a rocky start. The place we spent the night was a small cottage with a toilet and sink in the room but no shower. To use the kitchen and shower you had to go to the main house – where the owner (a strange old man) himself lived. When I showered it was a bit tricky and I noticed the shower area filling up a little bit with water. When Dave showered apparently the whole floor started to overflow before he noticed.
Before we even realized this had happened the old man came up to us accusing us of improperly using the shower and demanding us to pay up. He wanted $60 from us for the “damages” – some water spilled on the floor. He kept saying that we ignored the sign on the shower – literally a piece of paper that says “turn on slowly” – which we did do in our own understanding.
Long story short we said no way. Not paying. We’re leaving. And we quickly bee-lined to the cabin, packed our bags, dumped everything in car and screeched off. Yes, the car was screeching (imagine a poorly orchestrated movie getaway).
And then we realized we forgot our computer bag with both our laptops in the room.
We had to go back – and the old man was standing right in the driveway holding our bag. Perhaps he had cooled down a bit by then because he willingly handed it over.
Phew. That was a close one. So we will not be recommending that as a place to stay.
Not a great start to our last day in Iceland. We maintain our innocence though and continued to justify our cause all throughout the long driving day ahead of us.
To break up the long drive we stopped by Grabrokargigar – another awesome natural wonder where a series of wooden trails lead you around the area.
On our drive we stopped by and snapped pics of the Icelandic animals – horses and sheep, and I even encouraged Dave to try to chase the sheep around attempting to touch one (sheep – 1 Dave – 0 )
Our last night in Iceland we spent with couchsurfers. I have looked for couchsurfers in other spots around the country and sent out dozens of messages but since summer is a super popular time to travel around Iceland a lot of people had already committed to host other surfers. In the end I was only to find one couple who agreed to host us, in the town of Hafnarfjörður not far from the airport (perfect for our morning flight)
The couple lived in a nice home and were in their mid 50s. We had a really nice evening with them and were able to learn some interesting quirks about the Icelandic culture.
One of the most fascinating things we learned was that the government of Iceland creates a online family tree style directory where literally every Icelandic native can go online and seek out their ancestors. They were able to show us this and the records go back to the 1700s. Each person can literally see how they are related to their friends, spouses, coworkers etc. Since the country has been so isolated throughout history there really are only so many different families there, so for example the couple we stayed with are actually 6th generation cousins!
How awesome is that? And also there is a special app for Facebook where you can see how you are related to all your friends.
I thought this was incredible.
It was awesome to spend our last night with locals and be able to ask a bunch of questions and learn more about the history, economy, and culture of Iceland.
The following day we had a direct flight to Boston and that was the end of our 2 year backpacking trip. Although Iceland was incredibly expensive (even on a budget) we had an amazing time there and it was a country that will stand out in my memories forever.
Truly a mystical land of gorgeous waterfalls, out of this world formations and incredibly friendly people.
And now on to the costs for a 7 day trip to Iceland!
Total Spent: $1746 Per Person Per Day: $125
Accommodation Total: $437 Accommodation Per Person Per Day: $31 (with 3 free nights out of 8)
Rental Car Total: $639 Rental Car Per Person Per Day : $46 (6 day rental)
Gas Total: $211 Gas Per Person Per Day: $15
Food Total: $193 Food Per Person Per Day: $14
Tours/Activities Total: $230 Tours/Activities Per Person Per Day: $17
Public Transport (Bus from Airport): $35 Public Transportation Per Person Per Day: $2.50
Where We Stayed:
Day 0 – Day 2 July 7-9: Stayed overnight in Reykjavik Hostel B47 (received free nights here)
Day 2-Day 3 July 9-10: Stayed Overnight in Hella – Cafe Arhus Hella ($107 for a room for 2)
Day 3- Day 4 July 10-11: Stayed overnight in Stafafell – Stafafell Cottages ($114 for a room for 2)
Day 4- Day 5 July 11-12: Stayed overnight in Seydisfjordur – Hafaldan (in a 6 bed dorm) ($76 for 2 dorm beds)
Day 5- Day 6 July 12-13: Stayed overnight in Akuryeri – Akuryeri Backpackers (in a 6 bed dorm) ($80 for 2 dorm beds)
Day 6- Day 7 July 13-14 Stayed overnight in Blonduos –Blondubol Room and Cottages ($61 for a room for 2) (DO NOT STAY HERE)
Day 7 – Day 8 July 14-15 Stayed overnight in Hafnarfjordur with Couchsurfers (free)