Updated: May 18, 2019
You're heading east on Route 1, dusk is approaching and there is a brilliant bluish haze to the air. In the distance you can faintly see a waterfall to your left, so you detour and follow the trail. You can't read the sign but it ends with the word "falls" so you figure you're heading in the right direction. You're hunch is correct and you see a parking lot full of cars and a pathway leading to an astoundingly gorgeous waterfall.
"It's freezing outside, but serenely beautiful and beautifully serene"
The Instagram caption is righting itself at this point. It's freezing outside, but serenely beautiful and beautifully serene. You snap pictures with both your camera and your phone and maybe record a little b-roll on the Go Pro while you're at it for good measure. On the way back a random snow storm starts so you drive slow and grip the steering while tight. As you bend a corner a herd of sheep scampers across the street and you decelerate before stopping completely. You didn't get the insurance on your rental so you can't afford a scrape of any kind. You laugh and continue on your way. You bought an aux cord from the gas station so you can blast Biggie Smalls as you stroll the terrain. Life is good.
Thanks for allowing me to paint that picture for you, you're the real mvp. The land of fire and ice, formally known as Iceland, is an outrageously underrated destination despite it's ever rising stock among travelers. I spent 5 days there for MAPD Episode 6, the official breakdown starts now.
For starters, Iceland is expensive. Like $20 per meal on average expensive. Saving should start before your trip let alone on the trip itself. I was able to snag a ticket for $350 thanks to a flash sale from WOW Air (yes, that's really the name of the airline). The caveat was that I had to book within 48 hours of the sale being announced which was on President's Day (February 17), and for travel only in early March. It worked for me, so I went for it.
It's worth mentioning that WOW has since tanked and seized all operations for good, so this is perhaps a mute point now, but I thought you might like to know the semantics anyway. If it helps, I have since seen similar deals from apps and sites like Secret Flying, Dollar Flight Club, Scott's Cheap Flight's, and Next Vacay.
Also, WOW's main rival, Iceland Air, offers trips all across Europe (aside from Iceland of course) that always stop in Iceland first. They will allow you to add an extended layover in Iceland for up to 7 days and then ship you off to your final destination free of charge! Well, for no additional cost that is.
If you can find a bargain flight to Iceland, take it. You will end up spending the money you saved anyway, might as well spend it on adventure instead of the flight.
It's hostel not hostile
We went the hostel route here because finding affordable lodging in Iceland is exhausting and virtually impossible. Guesthouse Aurora was our choice not because it is distinctly better than any other hostel, but because its location was perfect and also offered free street parking. We paid $375 for the 5 days (two people in total so costs were split in half) so it was fairly affordable as well. Breakfast is included in the cost and is served every day from 7-11 a.m. which is useful. Although some hostels offer private bathrooms, this wasn't one of them. We had a room to ourselves, but shared a bathroom down the hall with three other rooms.
That can be problematic in some cases, but we were fortunate to have clean neighbors and an attentive cleaning crew, The bathroom was pretty tidy and almost always available. I of course can't guarantee you those same conveniences should you book there or any other hostel, but it's worth pointing out.
Hostels tend to scare some, thanks in part to the horror movie of the same name and because the notion of sharing a room, shower, and toilet with strangers can be off-putting. Understandable, but I would encourage you to do some research. There are plenty of hostels that offer private rooms and or bathrooms, and even those that don't usually offer locks for your valuables. It's not all bunk beds and bacteria ridden urinals.
Also, you will find that the majority of hostel guests are young backpackers (usually well traveled and generally social) who just want a cheap place to sleep at night (and are out of the room most of the day). They have their own valuable belongings and itineraries and generally aren't really concerned with yours. I of course can't vouch for the character of all hostel goers, but I said that to say that the folklore of that old creepy guy who lurks in hostels is usually just that, folklore. I've had nothing but positive experiences. I found and booked this place on booking.com but you can search the name itself and book elsewhere as well.
Things to note:
Check in is not until 2 and they are seemingly strict about it. Our flight landed at 5 a.m. and despite calling in advance to notify early arrival, our room still wasn't cleaned and ready until around 1 p.m. We had a rental car where we could store our things and drive around to kill time luckily, but it was still annoying
Breakfast isn't great. Bread, cereal, deli meats, fruit juices, yogurt. Standard stuff. There isn't a chef cooking for you, and if you aren't there early there is no telling how long the food was sitting for. Standard hostel fare
Now for some wheels
Lagoon Car Rental: Having crunched the numbers for average transportation costs (tours, taxis, ubers) we found it slightly more cost efficient to rent a vehicle instead. Slightly is the optimal word. Plus it allowed us complete freedom of course. Considering we are always on the move and would require quite a bit or transportation, it worked better for us. We chose Lagoon Car Rental, who seemed to have the fairest rates, and got an automatic 2017 Kia Sportage 4x4 for about $250 for the four days (you aren't charged for the day you return the car). Not too shabby. We also paid a small additional fee for the GPS device, and you are responsible for your own gas, which is almost always Diesel by the way. Again, two of us on the trip, so splitting down the middle made this an affordable option.
Transportation costs of course varies by itinerary so there is no telling if this would be the cost efficient choice for you also, but it's worth exploring.
Things to note:
Lagoon's office isn't located in the airport, once you arrive and enter the main arrivals lobby, you must wait for an employee with a sign to show up and then drive you in a shuttle to the office. They arrive at the 15th minute of every hour specifically so it can be a bit annoying if your plane lands in the times in between
The airport isn't in Reykjavik, it is 45 minutes northwest in Keflavik, so you're first trip will most likely be into town
There aren't many gas stations in some parts of the highway stretch, so plan ahead and fill up before you take that extended drive across the country. We typically paid about 70 dollars to fill the tank each time, and that was despite not allowing the gas (diesel) to get completely on E.
Many travelers rent camper vans to bundle transportation and accommodations together, but we visited in the winter and most of the camping sites close down (hence we were advised against it). If you're going in the spring or summer, definitely consider a camper van instead of a car and hotel.
GPS works well for the most part, but can be a little bit wonky at times (places you in the close general vicinity, but not always exact). Keep your eyes peeled
Day 1-Downtown Reykjavik and Thingvillar Park
We had a few hours to kill so we took a stroll around Reykjavik, finding some dope street art and swanky shops and cafes. Many Reykjavik monuments are within walking distance from the guesthouse including the Hallgrimiskirkja cathedral (tall pointy church) complete with a Lief Eriksen statue (cue Spongebob reference), as well as the Icelandic Parliament house, Reykjavik Art Museum, and the amusing Monument to the Unknown (rock with legs and briefcase), which is a perceived jab at the meaningless and anonymous job of bureaucrats and legislators.
There is an American bar that is so aptly named American Bar, as well as an English Pub that is named -- you guessed it, English Pub. We chose Paris Cafe, sensational food, a tad expensive. Recurring pattern for Iceland. Once we finally got into the room and settled in, we headed out to Thingvillar National Park.
Thingvillar national park:
Thingvillar (also knowns as Pingvillar) is not unlike any other park. There is a nice hiking trail and some decent views of mountain tops but overall not a particularly thrilling spot. Perfect for nature lovers and joggers/walkers. Worth the short trip, free to get in but you must pay a 7$ parking fee. This is the only part of the day that made the footage for MAPD.
Day 2-Road Trips and Black Sand!
Day 2 was a fun one. We rose early and headed to the famous black sand beach of Reynisfjara on the south coast just beyond the fishing town of Vik. It is a two hour drive from Reyjavik, and is absolutely worth the trip!
The sand is pristinely black. Like pitch black. There is a natural rock formation that resembles an ancient cave, and the scenery overall is gorgeous. No wonder a few scenes of Game of Thrones were shot here.
Full disclosure though, Reynisfjara is a non tropical beach, meaning it's not for swimming, more so for scenery. Both the air and water are freezing and would for sure cause instant hypothermia. Not to mention, the current would drag you in and suck you under before you even realized what happened. Nobody dares to swim, once you go you won't need me to tell you why. It will be immediately apparent. Dress warm (very) and bring a camera!
Seljalandsfoss and Skodafoss (waterfalls):
There was much more beauty in store for us that day, as the trip to the beach was sandwiched in between two stops at waterfalls! There is an indescribable serenity that comes with marveling at a waterfall. Just me? You don't need me to detail my experience here. They're waterfalls. Beautiful, peaceful, and make the perfect photo backdrop.
Both Seljalandsfoss and Skodafoss waterfalls are en route to Reynisfjara from Reyjavik, with the former being closer to Reyjavik and the latter being closer to Reynisfjara. We stopped along the way at one coming and going. You should stop at at least one of the two if you ever make the trip to Reynisfjara (or on their own, they're that dope). A rainbow appeared at Seljalandsfoss, and at Skodafoss daybreak caused a trippy but sensational blue haze in the air. We definitely got lucky with the photo ops.
Day 3-Vegetated Roofs and Lamb Wraps
This was a slower day, it was Sunday so many stores opened later if at all, and we were a little lagged from the previous day's trip. We headed to the Open Air Museum before checking out the history and science behind the elusive aurora borealis (northern lights) at Aurora Reykjavik, and then finished the day with some traditional Icelandic fare.
Open Air museum:
The Open Air Museum is Reykjavik's collection of buildings and structures that the early settlers lived and gathered in before modern industrialization. My favorite was the vegetation covered houses, farmers harnessed the natural functions of plants to filter water and treat air. The other buildings on the property are your standard 1800s structures. Think looting houses in Red Dead Redemption 2. Minus the violence. And the guns. And the horses. And the cash in the chimney.
There is also a small shoddy football (soccer) goal which to be honest was my personal highlight of the place despite the flat soccer balls. We enjoyed trying to score on each other, perhaps more so than the exhibit itself. Make of that information what you will.
Aurora Reyjavik is the virtual home of the northern lights. Since you know, the real home is nature and in the sky spread out across 8 countries and 2 continents. We had no luck finding them in real life, and while I wouldn't go as far to say the exhibit is a sufficient alternative, it is for sure the best you can do to numb the pain. It has awesome cinematic pictures and videos and more importantly facts and figures into the wonderful world of northern lights. Science nerds rejoice.
I don't have many interesting pictures of the place because I instead captured some dope b-roll footage that you will see in the episode if you haven't already.
Afterwards we walked directly across the street to a restaurant called Lamb Street food to try some traditional Icelandic lamb meat. Sensational. The place resembles Chipotle (how the food is set up) and like Chipotle, the food is served primarily in wraps and bowls. I ordered the "Leadership Lamb Filafel" and enjoyed every bite. I'm not a big red meat eater at home, but when in Iceland...
Day 4 - Mush! The Grand Finale
The highlight of the trip for me was the final day and more specifically dogsledding! We definitely saved the best for last. Of all activities in this review, this is the one you absolutely must do! Aside from the over saturated but still dope Blue Lagoon, which I will get to later.
Our dogsledding adventure took place in the snowy hills of the south coast, about an hour drive from Reyjavik give or take. You get to pet and play with the friendliest and happiest Huskies you have ever meet before meeting your musher and setting off. There are four people to a sled, five including the musher. Three of the guest ride on the front, while one guest gets to stand on the back next to the musher while he commands the dogs. You alternate so everyone gets a turn to assist the musher, and no you don't get to drive yourself (or should I say mush). Probably for the better, it's pretty hard to mush and record video and snap pics at the sand time. Enjoy the ride! The sled doesn't go too fast, there is no hill or cliff to fall off of, just an open field seemingly, and they take you for a nice 45 min/1 hour long loop. Low risk of injury.
Now for the details:
We booked with a company called Dogsledding Iceland, and the cost is about $250 per person for adults. Worth every penny. I say about $250 because the cost is 29,900 Icelandic Kronas per person which converts to $248.87 to be exact. We rented a car, so we chose the meet at location option for no additional cost. The company will also pick you up if you require transportation, but it will run you another $120 each. Score another point for renting a car. Just a heads up for those who do rent a car though, the directions seemed a little tricky initially because they include taking a right to an exit from the highway that is poorly marked (the exit, not the highway). It turned out to be a breeze, as you can clearly see a large 16 wheeler in a lot as you approach. They do a great job of communicating via email as well, so you should be fine.
I think I covered all the bases, but if not there is a nice FAQ on their site as well.
Things to note:
Definitely book in advance as they set appointments by time slots and days.
There is no guarantee of snow, so if you book a tour and it doesn't snow you will sled on dry land. We were fortunate to have snow for our tour, somehow dry land doesn't seem as authentic, but that's just me. There are videos on their website of dry land tours and it doesn't look too bad
There is a weight requirement, as you will be pulled by 8 to 10 huskies. I don't remember the requirement, but they are strict
There are no restrooms or portal potties, you essentially meet in a vacant lot. Plan accordingly if you know what I mean
Next up was a dip in the world famous Blue Lagoon...
"Don't let my grumpiness discourage your from going. It is not natural, but it is dope!"
Speaking of booking in advance, the Blue Lagoon requires a reservation made online (Bluelagoon.com). The slots go fast and without a reservation you risk an extremely long wait or perhaps denied entry all together. It cost about $60 and the site lets you choose English and dollars if you desire. It's about a 45 minute drive from Reyjavik and is easy to find on your GPS. With that out the way, here are my absolute candid observations.
As many of you may or may not know, The Blue Lagoon is NOT a natural attraction. The water is actually run off from the geothermal plant next door, and the plot of land was then made to accommodate the run off and offer visitors a relaxing getaway. I don't write this to discourage you from going, but if you're like me you like to know the truth before hand as opposed to being disappointed later.
I still 100% recommend making the trip, it is as soothing and scenic as advertised, and the face mask is interesting. Iceland is freezing, so any chance you have to warm up is welcome and who doesn't like a hot tub? Except this hot tub is massive and crowded and swarming with tourist snapping pictures and holding Go Pros on selfie sticks. Seriously though, the water is a brilliant and vibrant blue and the warmth is a welcome change of pace. Don't let my grumpiness discourage you from going. It is not natural, but it is dope! There is also a bar, and your first drink is included in the price of your entry ticket.
Things to note:
Like I said, book in advance! As early as you can. Book while you're still at home before you even land if you can
Although a reservation is required, there doesn't really seem to be a rhyme or reason (you can stay as long as you want, it isn't as if the 6 p.m. group must leave and make way for the next group for example...We had reservations for 6:30, but arrived at around 5:45, they let us in no issues. Nobody inquired about our time. It does close at 9 p.m though, so book for at least two hours before
It was packed. To the brim. You will be expected to put your belongings in a locker as there are no places to lounge with a chair like a beach. It is uncomfortable changing in a small space with so many people packed in so if you can leave as much things in your car or room I would recommend doing so.
Our Blue Lagoon reservation was set for 6:30 p.m., but we were done Dogsledding by 1:00 p.m. so we had some time to kill. We did one last sweep of Reyjavik, vising the impressive Harpa Concert Hall and Perlan Museum.
Harpa is Reykjavik's concert hall and conference center by day and glorious light show by night. There are 714 multicolored glass windows each containing LED lights that alternate when to illuminate and change color. There weren’t any events going on when we went, so the place was pretty empty by way of foot traffic, but I have been told that when there is something going on in the city, it is place to be. I personally just wanted to see it for myself regardless of whether or not there was an event to attend, and I would suggest you do the same if you’re in the area. Particularly at night, as the lights start to do their thing as soon as darkness rises. It really is a joy to watch. You can’t go inside the building at night though (unless there is an event).
Nicknamed the Wonders of Iceland, the Perlan takes a nice stab at encapsulating Iceland’s natural phenomenas. There is replica glacier that simulates what it’s like to step foot inside of its real-life counterpart, as well as countless exhibits on wildlife and terrain in Iceland. You can choose just the exhibits or the exhibits on top of a cinematic experience, but we chose just the former as we were running out of time before the Blue Lagoon. I will definitely go back for the latter. If you are a museum lover, it is a must do.
Day 5: So Long
There wasn’t really a day 5, as that was the day we departed. We visited the famed Sun Voyager Statue before returning our rental and heading for the airport. The statue sits on the shore of Saebraut in Reykjavik. As part of the Scandinavian art project titled Experimental Environment, its creator, Jon Gunnar Arneson, described the piece as a dreamboat and an ode to the sun and intended it to convey the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.
Now watch it all come together!
Things I didn't get around to (but you definitely should):
Lava Tunnel - dope exhibit of what it's like inside of a volcano essentially
Geyser - massive blowhole of water being rocketed hundreds of feet into the air
Diamond Beach - Similar to the Black Sand beach, but it varies for its crystalized ice chunks that form on rocks and resemble diamonds
Snorkling in Silfra Fissure - Snorkeling, but in a body of water created by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates so you are actually snorkeling between two continents technically