If a volcano and a glacier had a baby, that baby would be Iceland. I won’t pretend to completely understand the complicated climatology responsible for creating the aptly named Land of Ice and Fire, but it started when a ton of volcanos erupted over millions of years and formed an island on the border of two tectonic plates. The coastline is covered in fine-grained volcanic rock (black sand), and several of the still-active volcanoes create a number of hot springs and geysers scattered across the country. Atop the volcanic rock, so much snow falls during the winter that it can’t melt completely during the summer. Over time that created glaciers, which cover more than 10 percent of the country. The snow that does melt during the summer months spills over mountainsides, creating tons of waterfalls.
The best way to see this gorgeous country in all of its dichotomous wonder is to rent a car, stock up on snacks, download a few Icelandic punk albums and embark on a road trip.
Iceland is expensive. Like, extremely expensive. There’s no way around it. Our car—a sick, automatic BMW crossover—cost around $600 for the week. Gas was another $200. It hurt, but it was well worth it. The black coastline turned to mossy green rock, followed by pale yellow grass and snow-capped mountains. White herds were dotted with one or two little black sheep, and stocky, small horses huddled around their feed. When my friend Ben and I weren't driving in stunned silence, we were tripping over ourselves trying to express how unbelievably beautiful it all was.
We grabbed sandwiches at the airport while I tried to shake my jet leg. Our first stop of the day was the Blue Lagoon, but we had some time to kill before our appointment (yes, you have to make an appointment beforehand—they fill up), so we headed straight for the coast.
Not even 10 minutes from the airport, we spotted an opportunity to do some off-roading. Now, you might think it unwise to risk getting your (very nice) car stuck in the mud within an hour of arriving in a foreign country—and I tend to agree—but luckily Ben did not. We slowly made our way down a winding path to a secluded beach that served as a perfect introduction to the country's black sand, bright blue water and volcanic rock formations.
After exploring, climbing and taking about 8 million pictures, we hopped back in the car and headed to the Blue Lagoon. The entrance fee is $97 and includes a free drink at the bar and a mud mask. When you arrive, they give you a towel and a fancy wristband that you can use to open a locker in the locker room and buy additional drinks at the bar. After rinsing off and putting conditioner in your hair, you head outside and wade into the water. The lagoon, which stays at about 100 degrees, is pretty massive and something about it compels you to move in slow motion. There are banks to sit or lay on, a walk-up bar and a waterfall massage thing I never actually made it to despite being there for four hours. It was a lot of fun and a great way to relax after my flights. I wish I'd brought my sunglasses outside with me because the bright blue water, white silica and steam had me squinting the whole time.
After we finally dragged ourselves out of the water, we hopped back in the car and started our nearly three hour drive to Vik—about as far south as you can go in Iceland. We stopped at a number of gorgeous waterfalls on the way, which landed us at Reynisfjara, the most famous black sand beach, around 10 pm—just as the sun began to set. We had driven along the coast for most of the evening and noticed that all the sand in Iceland seemed to be black. We wondered what would make THE black sand beach any different. Turns out it's just the blackest. That coupled with the massive waves and weirdly shaped basalt stacks make it iconic. We hung out there until exhaustion nearly knocked me over, then headed to our hotel in Vik, about 10 minutes away.
The next morning, we jumped back in the car and drove three hours east to Vatnajökull National Park where we met a guided glacier hiking tour. The three and a half hour tour, booked for $105 through Arctic Adventures, takes you on an hour long hike up to the Falljökull glacier, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, one of the largest ice caps in Europe. The tour spends an hour on the ice followed by an hour long hike back. Unfortunately for us, the wind picked up just as we got on the ice and we had to turn back. The rest of the day's tours were canceled, and we got a full refund. But we still got to experience a good bit of the hike and spend some time on the glacier. Before you get on the ice, you have to attach ice crampons to the bottoms of your boots. The metal spikes claw into the ice and prevent you from slipping. It's the coolest thing! If you go, I definitely recommend bringing a pair of gloves and renting sturdy hiking boots from the tour company for $10.
We thawed out a bit on our hour long drive to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Diamond Beach. Chunks of glacier ice make their way across the lagoon and wash up on the black sands of Diamond Beach.
I was beyond freezing at the end of the day (yeah, glaciers are cold) and starving. We knew everything would be closed by the time we made it back to Vik, so we stopped at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon for dinner. After an entire day of rain, the sun came out just in time for us to fully enjoy the view from the restaurant. We got the most insane looking charcuterie board—the cheese was all brie but who cares when you've got this much going on?
To be completely honest, I was dreading the third day of our trip because we signed up to go snorkeling between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates—in 35 degree water. I live in Texas for a reason. I used to skip class when the temperature dropped below 70. Diving into ice cold water sounded like torture, but all the other travel bloggers out there convinced me it would be worth it...And they were right. It was.
We woke up in Vik and drove two hours northwest to Þingvellir National Park, where we met up with another guided tour group. We paid $124 each to spend about 30 minutes in the water. The tour guides strapped us into these super flattering "dry suits" that are supposed to suction around your wrists and neck to prevent water from getting in. They give you a hood and gloves, but tell you that your head and hands will get wet and it will be cold. Both were true. Each guide took four of us out at a time and guided us through the plates, taking pictures of us the whole time (you aren't allowed to bring your own camera...probably because you can't hold it with your gloved hands). It was super cold. I bit down so hard on the snorkel that my jaw was sore the next day. But it was a gorgeous, once in a life time experience.
From Þingvellir, we set off to explore the other two major attractions on Iceland's Golden Circle: the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall. It rained almost all day, so we did our observing and appreciating quickly before running back to the warm car.
Finally, we made our way to Reykjavik. It was our first night in a real city, so we set out around 10 with the sun still shining (in true Icelandic fashion). We wandered around and popped into a few bars. Drinks, like everything else in Iceland, were expensive, but it was a good time.
I didn't feel my hangover until I was offered fermented shark at lunch the next day. I passed and ate what I could of my Icelandic meat soup before setting out to explore the city on foot. Just across the street from the restaurant was Hallgrímskirkja, one of Reykjavík's only notable architectural structures. It's a Lutheran church and the tallest building in the city. The interior is minimalistic and modern, minus the massive pipe organ. After that we headed to the Punk Museum located in a converted underground restroom. The stalls are plastered with a written history of punk music in Iceland and headphones hang from the ceiling blasting the hits. When we got back to our hotel, we downloaded a few of the landmark albums we learned about at the museum. I was happy when my only request, an all girl band called Grýlurnar, turned out to be my favorite. Ragnhildur Gísladóttir founded the band after she got tired of playing with boys.
It provided the perfect soundtrack to what turned out to be the highlight of the trip for me. We drove north of Reykjavík for about an hour along the coast to Glymur, the country's second tallest waterfall. The drive alone was breathtaking and took twice as long to make because we kept stopping to take pictures.
But the hike was phenomenal. Every few steps, a new view takes your breath away. I'm typically not a huge hiking fan, but I could've kept going forever. A few of the best parts of hiking in Iceland: There are hardly any bugs, the temperature prevents you from sweating and you're pretty much always at sea level. I can't possibly say enough good things about it. If you do one thing in Iceland, make it this.
After recovering from having our minds blown by Glymur, we enjoyed a late dinner of whale steaks and gourmet hotdogs in Reykjavík before our last night out. Walking home at 3:30 am, we caught the sun just beginning to rise.