Europe 2018: Amazing Iceland

Skógafoss

Geez, Iceland. Where do I even begin with? It’s a place like no other.

Seljalandsfjoss

Reynisfjara

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.

Distant islands and monstrous waves as seen from Reynisfjara

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.

Gullfoss

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.

Þingvellir National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site

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.

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Strokkur Geyser

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The basalt columns of Reynisfjara

Key take-aways:

  1. 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! 😊
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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For us though, we booked all our tours from Reykjavik Sightseeing. There are other popular tour operators in Iceland, like Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line. All of them offers similar prices for the tours, and similar itineraries, so it probably doesn’t matter that much which tour operator to choose.

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.

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Rean and I brought a backpack each, it kinda fit the things we needed for this 3-day getaway.

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Walking through the lava fields – rocky pathway to the lagoon proper.

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We have a pre-booked schedule at 4pm. Lines were long, but fast-moving.

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The original plan was to go to Blue Lagoon BUT not pay the entrance fee – just spend sometime in Blue Cafe while staring at the people in the lagoon. A lot of people do that because not everyone wants to soak in the warmth of an artificial lagoon.

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.

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But here I am anyway, enjoying my smoothie. We went because FOMO (fear of missing out :P). Turned out we kinda enjoyed the experience.

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.

img_5354If 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.

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Iceland is expensive, but Blue Lagoon is even more expensive.

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The basic “comfort” package includes a free drink. Skyr is Iceland’s answer to yogurt.

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).

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The fun part is applying the sticky silica mud mask to our faces. All lagoon visitors are entitled to one free mask (rather, one free tablespoon of mask).

I failed to educate my poor bebe on how to apply the mask properly. You definitely do not want to apply it below the eyebrows 😦 he just dabbed it all over like it’s facial wash or something. Now he’s winking like an oppa.

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After some time the mask dried and it looked like our faces are coming out of cracked eggshells. We rinsed our faces in (guess what) the lagoon itself 😀 I know. I have mixed feelings about it, too

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.

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We passed by Fish & Co while walking to our apartment. Grilled cod in a bed of basil!

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.

Sólheimajökull, a glacier tongue crawling from the ice-cap of Mýrdalsjökull.

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.

We had a stopover in Vik for a quick lunch (of lamb burgers).Also there’s a rare sighting of blue skies and the sun 😀

And then we were off to our next stop, probably my most favorite among the waterfalls: Skogafoss.

Rean went up halfway that hill. I, on the other hand, was too old and weak lol

Double rainbows

I felt so happy whenever I saw trees in Iceland. As of writing the whole country is only 2% covered with trees, reforestation efforts are on-going.

And then off to our last stop: Seljalandsfjoss, which is quite famous for that hidden pathway behind the veil of water.

The falls looked harmless from afar. On the right you can see the trail going to the pathway behind the falls. We initially tried to get behind the falls but as we go nearer, the pathway becomes more slippery and the winds blow the mist towards us. The temperature was 4degC, my limbs started to get numb so we just retracted.

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.

It was snowing when we reached our first stop: Þingvellir National Park

“Walking down the lava canyon where the American and Eurasian continents are literally pulling apart” – Reykjavik Sightseeing

Our group. On a regular sunny day this place would have been perfect for hanging around with a hot cup of drink, while taking in the view.

Second stop: Geysir Hot Springs, where the Strokkur geyser erupts every few minutes.

This establisment has a cafe, restaurant and souvenir shop inside.

Third and last stop: the majestic Gullfoss waterfalls.

Walking towards Gullfoss waterfalls.

It was snowing when we got there so we had lunch first inside the restaurant.

We started going back to Reykjavik while dropping off visitors along to their respective individual tours.

One visitor, for instance, had horseback riding as part of her tour so we got the chance to see up-close the cute Icelandic horses.

It was a sunny afternoon when the weather decided to get snowy.

Passing through the snow-covered lava fields. Iceland is literally the land of fire and ice!

And we were back in Reykjavik at around 4pm! This is the first time we saw the city during daylight.

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.

#GratefulEveryday

And then we continued the walk towards the city center.

Babala: Cafe Babalu

I was so grateful the weather gave way for us to walk around this pretty little town on our last day in Iceland.

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 ❤

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