Geez, Iceland. Where do I even begin with? It’s a place like no other.
Otherworldly landscapes. Countless waterfalls. Rainbows. Volcanoes and lava fields. Glaciers. Larger than life tree-less mountains. Crazy weather. Black sand beaches. Beautiful people. Interesting history and culture. And although we didn’t see it in person, northern lights!
Iceland has gained more and more popularity amongst travelers in the recent years. Before, when someone thinks of touring Europe it only meant the “highlights” – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France; Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain; the cities of Rome and Venice in Italy, London in UK, and others.
Nowadays, many people visit just Iceland and spend days driving around the unique landscapes of the country, sometimes without any other stops in Europe – even though the Schengen visa (needed by Philippine passport holders), that covers almost the entire continent, can be maximized.
Our tour guide from Reykjavik Sightseeing shared that the tourism boom started around 2008 when the country went bankrupt, hence the value of their currency Icelandic Krona dropped and suddenly the country was more affordable to tourists.
The tipping point though, was in 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, the last being 200 years ago. The volcanic ash cloud closed Europe’s airspace for days, resulting to countless cancelled flights, not only those going in and out of Europe but other routes that utilize the airspace as well– thus the country was on a global spotlight.
I’ve read a beautiful phrase from this article: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3956844/In-volcanic-Iceland-eruptions-bring-risk-tourism-boom.html
“An Icelandic volcano brought much of the world’s air travel to a halt. And then it brought the world to Iceland.”
Thanks, Eyjafjallajokull volcano.
So now, in this social media age, “word of mouth” spread like wildfire and suddenly everyone wants to go to Iceland – including me. Hype is one thing, but honestly – who wouldn’t be lured by those professional travel posts on Facebook showing the Mars-like landscapes, rainbow-clad waterfalls and northern lights? When I learned that the boyfriend would be assigned again in Sweden for 3.5 month-work, choosing my side trip destinations was a no-brainer. Iceland, it was so my destiny to meet you.
- Visa. Schengen visa is needed by Philippine passport holders to enter Iceland, and other parts of Europe. Aside from Schengen visa, you might also need transit visas depending on where your connecting flight/s is/are. Please do your research! 😊
- Geography. Iceland is an island country sitting on +0 GMT timezone, hence it is 8 hours behind PH time. It is separated from mainland Europe, situated far northwest nearer the arctic circle where the northern lights appear. Iceland strongly reminds me of Batanes and Taiwan – being surrounded by oceans (and the attractions we went to being in the south coast), it is cold and windy, and weather is super unpredictable. During our 7-hour Golden Circle tour, it got snowy, rainy, windy and sunny.
- Flight. WOW Air offers cheap flights between Stockholm and Reykjavik (Keflavik Airport). In fact, we scored roundtrip flights for Php 4k each. Obviously, flights from Manila would cost more. To those who are wondering how much, I could tell that if you booked a roundtrip flight from Manila to any major city in Europe (including Reykjavik, capital of Iceland) at around Php 30k per person, it’s cheap enough – because normally it would cost around Php 50k, sometimes even more, depending on the airline.
- Accommodation. There are plenty of hotels, hostels and AirBnBs in Reykjavik city center for every budget. The apartment we booked costs almost Php 10k/night, but the place was comfortable enough for a group of 5, and it has a living room and full kitchen, which is not present in most hotels at the same rate. Also, it is a short walking distance to Bus Stop 1 (Radhuseet – City Hall), which is one of the major pick-up/drop-off points for all tours.
- Getting around. Iceland lacks public transportation. It is understood for a large country of less than 400k residents, where there are more tourists and sheeps than locals. There are no trains or subways. There are no public buses from the airport, and in Reykjavik it is scarce, so it is very important to plan how you’re gonna get from point A to point B. A lot of tourists are doing DIY tours by renting a car and driving on their own around the country. Many travelers vouch that this is the cheaper option, especially when they share the ride and expenses with other travelers.
6. Food. Europe is expensive, but Iceland is exceptionally expensive. Even the convenience store microwaveable ready-to-eat meals – which would typically save the day when in other countries (including Switzerland!), they cost an arm in Iceland.
Day 1 – Oct 19 2018 – Friday
It took 3 hours plane ride to reach Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, from Stockholm. We arrived in KEF (Keflavik International Airport) at around 2pm. We had a quick lunch at Dunkin’ Donuts near the exit to the bus terminals, exchanged our pre-booked voucher to bus pass, and boarded the bus going to Blue Lagoon. It was a 15-minute ride from the airport.
Honestly, Blue Lagoon was not originally part of our plan (or rather MY plan because I planned everything :D) Plenty of “Why we won’t go to Blue Lagoon” checkboxes were ticked: It’s expensive, the Trip Advisor reviews were generally alarming, we have only 2 hours to spare there, Rean and I are not exactly the swimwear-wearing bunch, we couldn’t fathom the thought of going out half naked at 4degC, etc.
What was not pictured was after we checked in, we got our (dirty) wristbands and (clean) towels, and proceeded to the changing rooms. Obviously camera is not allowed. In the ladies’ room, aside from the bikini-clad and naked visitors (some nationalities don’t care about being naked around – something we Asians might not get used to) there are plenty of full-length lockers. My 16L Herschel backpack fit nicely there.
If you go with luggages, there is a storage room near the entrance where the buses are parked. It’s quite a walk between that and the lagoon proper, so plan ahead what you’re gonna bring with you in the lockers.
Visitors are required to shower before entering the lagoon. There are plenty of private showers, equipped with shower gel and conditioner. Contrary to reviews in Trip Advisor where you might shower naked and just deal with it, I think they renovated the place to have more private showers. Also, don’t forget to leave on lots of hair conditioner to protect your hair from harmful effects of silica. Silica is good for the skin, though.
After we changed to our swimwear and showered, we brought our phones in waterproof cases and towels. Outside the shower areas, the building is still heated, so Rean and I planned how to run from there to the lagoon itself. We were barefoot and the wooden floor outside was cold, so after he hung the towels, we kinda ran (for our lives).
It was a weird feeling having your body submerged in the warm lagoon (which was very relaxing for me) while our heads are freezing. I thought the 2 hours I planned to spend there won’t be enough, but it got colder since it was nearing evening and our faces started to hurt due to frostbite. We decided to leave after an hour in the lagoon. After changing back to our clothes, we walked back to the bus terminal at the front and waited for our bus onward to Reykjavik city center. It was a 45-minute journey.
I received an email from Reykjavik Sightseeing telling that our Northern Lights tour was cancelled that night. We had that feeling early on during the day that it will be cancelled because of the poor weather conditions.
Day 2 – Oct 20 2018 – Saturday – SOUTH COAST CLASSIC TOUR
830am we were already in Bus Stop 1 waiting for our ride. The weather was still gloomy, but we were still excited because that was the first day of tour and I’ve read South Coast Classic has the most beautiful stops. We met with our tour guide and driver, and took our seat just 2 rows behind the driver. We were given an iPad-like tablet each, to serve as audio and visual guides.
After 40 minutes from leaving Reykjavik and driving through lava fields covered in moss, tree-less mountains and clouds covering the distant islands, we first stopped in a gas station with a store in order for us to grab a quick bite. Then shortly afterwards, onward to our first tour stop: Sólheimajökull.
Second stop: The black sand beach and basalt-columns of Reynisfjara.
And then we left to have our lunch stopover in Vik, a little coastal town of less than 300 residents.
And then we were off to our next stop, probably my most favorite among the waterfalls: Skogafoss.
And then off to our last stop: Seljalandsfjoss, which is quite famous for that hidden pathway behind the veil of water.
Actually going behind the falls is totally doable had I only worn waterproof or leather pants. Although my jacket was waterproof, my pants were not. It was just thermal leggings and regular pants 😀 So, next time I know what to do 😀
Again, I received an email that the Northern Lights tour was cancelled that night. We were back in our apartment at around 8pm.
Day 3 – Oct 21 2018 – Sunday – GOLDEN CIRCLE CLASSIC TOUR
Honestly I was getting frustrated because of the cancelled Northern Lights tour for 2 consecutive nights. We only had 3 nights there! But I couldn’t do anything about it anyway – I’ve always read that one doesn’t go to Iceland and expect the Lady Aurora to show itself every single night. So, even though I prayed really really hard.. I lowered my expectations and instead looked forward to our last tour. 830am the following day, we were again in Bus Stop 1 to wait for our ride. The driver was the same, but the tour guide has changed.
Second stop: Geysir Hot Springs, where the Strokkur geyser erupts every few minutes.
Third and last stop: the majestic Gullfoss waterfalls.
We started going back to Reykjavik while dropping off visitors along to their respective individual tours.
We were informed the Northern Lights tour would push through that night! So we had around 4 hours to spare before the 830pm pick-up time. After thanking Trusty and Siggy (driver and tour guide, respectively), Rean and I walked towards Hallgrimskirkja Church.
And then we continued the walk towards the city center.
We went to Ramen Momo but it was still closed so we walked back to our apartment. Rean was dead tired so I volunteered to find take-away dinner for us. I just returned to Ramen Momo after a few minutes. LOL. The place is kinda popular it was packed when I got there.
At 820pm we walked to Bus Stop 1. There are a lot of people waiting, and the crowds thinned as minutes passed by. I kept on calling our tour operator but they said our bus was on its way. We waited for an hour outside, freezing. The bus finally arrived, and Elizabeth the tour guide apologized. Anyhow, I was so tired I was just asleep during the drive. Around 10:30pm we got to the pitch-dark field in the middle of nowhere, where we would wait for the northern lights to appear. The night was actually clear, but the moon was so bright and the aurora forecast was poor, so we were informed that there was slim chance to see it. We stayed there for more than an hour to no avail, occasionally going out to stare in the sky and going back inside because it was freezing; until Elizabeth excitedly shouted for everyone to come out.
I saw a glimpse of it, and then it was gone. It was nowhere near greenish 😀 So we called it a night and went back to Reykjavik. Maybe next time!
Our airport pickup was scheduled at 330am so we had only a few hours of sleep the following day. At 630am we flew back to Stockholm. We didn’t see the northern lights, but we had a great time in Iceland. The trip is definitely unforgettable and one for the books. I hope we could visit again ❤