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Skimping in Iceland

The sky glowed in soft twilight as we groggily stumbled into our Reykjavik guesthouse around 2 a.m. The next morning we picked up our rental car, grabbed some lobster soup, and headed north.

(View all of our pictures on my facebook album).

Iceland packs all of nature’s most powerful destructive/creative forces into a tiny island. Rivers, waterfalls, wind, glaciers, volcanos, the ocean, mountains, plains, deserts, cliffs, forests, grasslands. It’s as if all of the geography in the world was condensed into an island the size of Ohio. The language and genepool has remained virtually unchanged since the Vikings landed around 900CE. All of the island’s 320,000 inhabitants can trace their lineage back to the original Viking settlers. This, and much more, we learned from Ymir, the hitchhiker we picked up.

Our first day we made an 8-hour drive from Reykjavik to Ísafjörður, the largest city (pop. 2,600) in the Westfjords. The Westfjords are remote. You can drive for two hours without seeing another human being. The road winds its way around sheer crevices carved by glaciers eons ago. The landscape looks like somebody picked up the Rocky Mountains and dropped them in the ocean. We finally reached Ísafjörður around 11:30 p.m. We drove up the road a bit into a secluded cove and parked for the night.

One thing to know about Iceland: it’s expensive.

The cheapest meal that we had was at a gas station. We paid $18 for two orders of fries and a hot dog. We couldn’t afford to rent a car and get a hotel, so we decided to make our car our hotel. We laid the seats down in the back of our Hyundai Santa Fe, rolled out the sleeping backs, and made camp. We picnicked on bird sandwiches. (We couldn’t figure out what meats we were buying in the grocery store, but I found one that had a bird on it, so we got that one). Three bites into her sandwich, Sara grabbed another generous handful of lettuce and stuffed it into her sandwich. Seeing her gratuitous excess of lettuce, I enthusiastically said, “Yeah! Get more lettuce. We don’t skimp in Iceland!” She put her sandwich down, looked at me for a moment, then said, “Davo, we’re sitting in the back of an SUV, eating sandwiches from the grocery store because we can’t afford a hotel or restaurant.”

The next day we hiked. I mentioned that the Westfjords were remote, right? We hiked one of the most popular trails in the entire region. In four hours of hiking, we saw two other people. The trail led up to the highest peak in the region. We didn’t make it all the way up, because we stopped to play in a waterfall.

Our waterfall

Here’s another thing to know about Iceland: It has lots of waterfalls; they’re all awesome.

The isolated beauty of the Westfjords was staggering. I felt like we were bumping around in the Lord of the Rings. Every time we turned a corner we were greeted with a new, breathtaking view. After our hike, we started heading out of the Westfjords, along a dirt road that led us over the mountains. The roads reflected the remote nature of the region. My favorite was the sign that indicated that the portion of the road was to be a 20% downhill grade. (We also checked out Fjallfoss and a natural hot spring on our way.)

From the Westfjords we headed to Mývatn, sleeping somewhere between the two. The region was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions over the past 4,000 years. The lava got dammed and formed a lake. The entire region is alive with geological activity: steam vents, mud pits, and smoking ground. The magma chamber refilled in the late ’70s, so it’s set to go again sometime soon. As we hiked among 30-foot-high lavaflows, giant craters, and towering steam vents, Sara witnessed the nerdy, earth-science-loving, 7-year-old Davo exploding at the seams.

After spending a night in Mývatn, we headed to Dettifoss, the country’s second-largest waterfall. This area of the country we referred to as “the moon.” It was a giant, lifeless plain of ancient lavaflows encircled by ancient volcano cones. This area, like the Westfjords was remote, as we were soon to find out. There wasn’t a house, tree, even shrub for 50km in any direction.

We had left Mývatn with a half tank of gas. As we got a ways further into the interior, we realized we’d need to get gas soon. We found a town on the map that had a gas station and made towards it. Möðrudalur (pop. 40) was situated at the cross of two dirt roads. It was here that Iceland’s record low temperature was recorded: -36°F. We nicknamed the place Mordor because the surrounding landscaped seemed to only lack a black tower. Arriving in Mordor, err, Möðrudalur, we were informed that the pumping tank was empty, and that the refill truck wasn’t expected until later that evening. The woman kindly offered to siphon some of the gas from her own car for us. After discussing with her, she said we probably had enough gas to make it to the next refill station about 45 kilometers away. “If you don’t make it, you can just call me and I’ll come pick you up,” she said. We made it on fumes, and took note to pay more attention to the gas gauge, once it dropped below a half-tank.

Mordor!

We headed south towards the coast and Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, and the largest icecap outside of the poles. For the mountain pass, we decided to take a dirt road to shave off some time. Once we crested the mountain and started heading down, we found ourselves in split-pea-soup clouds. The rain turned roads to slick mud as we careened down 17% grades and hairpin turns. Had we slipped would we have plummeted off a cliff or rolled into a nice grassy field? We have no idea. Visibility was about 20 feet.

We made it safely to the other side and settled in for the night. The next day we drove around Vatnajökull and the glacial floodplain. We found a place where the glacier was flowing into the ocean. Large chunks would break off, pummel in the waves before washing onto the shore. The saltwater would polish the huge chunks of ice like blue glass before depositing them on the black sand beach.

Next we visited Skaftafell and Svartifoss, which is probably the coolest waterfall I’ve ever seen. Svartifoss spills over columns of volcanic bassalt, which have broken off over the years into bizarrely geometric shapes resembling a honeycomb. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever seen. From Svartifoss, we hiked up a ridge to get a view of the glacier before scampering back down to beat the rain.

Finally, we made our way to Geysir and Gulfoss, the largest foss (waterfall) in Iceland. Geysir was cool. I’ve never seen a geyser before, and even to my enlightened, 21st-century mind, the mechanics of it were baffling. I tried to imagine myself a Viking coming across this bizarre phenomenon. What must they have thought? Gulfoss was spectacular, of course. But by this point we’d seen about 100 spectacular waterfalls and kinda just wanted to check it off the list. Check it off we did, then found a place to spend the night.

The next day we headed to the Blue Lagoon, a natural, hot-spring, pool, oasis, spa–Iceland’s equivalent of Disney World according to our trusty, well-used Lonely Planet. It was nice to relax and soak after roughing it for 5 days, but overall, I’d say it’s not worth the time or money. After spending a morning in the tourist trap, we headed to Reykjavik, returned the car, and played in Reykjavik for the evening. It’s a fabulously fun city, with cozy cafes and earthy pubs. We had some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. We stumbled across a graffiti-art festival in one of the squares. A group of kids ages 7 to 13 were breakdancing in the middle of the square for tips. As Sara observed, the city is a hippie paradise.

We were sad to leave, but had an amazing time. Without a doubt, it’s in the top 3 on my list of coolest places I’ve ever been. If you’re thinking of going there, we can definitely tell you what should be on the must-see list and what’s not worth your time (I’m looking at you, Blue Lagoon). We did it on about as tight of a budget as is possible for Iceland, so we can give tips on how to keep it cheap, too.

(View all of our pictures on my facebook album).

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