Welcome back! I apologize for the lateness of this post, but I won’t delay any longer. In this post I recount my travels in the land of ice and fire!
Long distance trips always start with a plane ride, but often you aren’t hit with the excitement of travel until after landing. For me, this wasn’t the case. I ticked off a bucket list item on my flight from Minneapolis to Reykjavik – seeing the northern lights.
My gaze only occasionally drifted away from the North-facing window I purposefully sat next to. During the entire six-hour plane ride, I maybe slept 30 minutes. It paid off. Halfway into the flight I began to notice a vague haze just behind the wing. Too high to be a cloud, the gray beginnings of the aurora strengthened and took on color. More bands of light joined in, and soon I was watching three bright green ribbons dance above the Eastern coast of Canada. I didn’t even think to distract myself with a picture until it had almost died away. After seeing the aurora, I briefly fell asleep and woke up before landing in Europe.
Keflavik airport is small and far from Reykjavik centre. It processes over 7 million people a year, yet is almost as small as the airport in my city of 170,000 people. From Keflavik, you have to take a bus or car 40 minutes to Reykjavik center. I opted for the $30 bus, dropped my bags at the hostel, and went to tour the city.
My first stop was the most notable building in Reykjavik: Hallgrímskirkja. A church that looks like the graph of 1/x^2, it was built to mimic the basalt columns found in Iceland. Inside I found minimalist architecture worthy of the Sagrada Familia’s jealousy. I personally love the design.
Just in front of Hallgrímskirkja is a monument of Leif Eriksson. It was given to Iceland by the U.S. in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Icelandic parliament.
Next was Haarpa – a concert hall also modeled after Icelandic nature. It almost wasn’t completed due to the economic crisis in 2008, but now it hosts concerts of all kinds.
From Haarpa I followed the shore going away from the harbor until I hit the sunseeker monument. It’s a small art installment meant to symbolize the maritime history and hopeful future of Iceland. The tridents found throughout the ship represent the hope of the sun (which I saw very little of during my stay).
I didn’t plan my walk very well, so I back tracked, passed Haarpa, and arrived at the harbor. There I at last found two museums. The brightly colored aurora museum caught my attention first, so I ventured there. What I found after paying the fee was more of an aurora themed art and science gallery rather than a museum. Aside from the explanation of northern light formation, the only interesting display was a projection room of different aurora borealis scenes.
The maritime museum where I went next was better curated. Covering the expansive fishing history of Iceland, the multi-story museum had explanatory videos, scaled fishing boats, and even guided tours of an old Coast Guard vessel. Of all the museums in Iceland, I was most impressed with this one.
However, Reykjavik offers an even more novel experience. The Icelandic Phallological Museum sits in an unassuming grey building in the city center. When I first walked by, I didn’t realize I had passed the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts.
I’m not kidding.
Initially erected in 1997, the museum was started by a former principal with an obsession. Inside I found hundreds of artifacts lit by testicle lampshades. Coming from hamsters, humans, trolls, and sperm whales, the collection actually turned out to be a thorough comparative physiology museum. It’s novelty and central location make it a popular tourist destination.
That day I was also supposed to meet with a representative from CarbFix – a carbon sequestration research project. They inject CO2 into basalt where it is absorbed naturally into the rocks. However, when I changed the date due to a flight cancellation, they had prior commitments in London.
Instead, I walked around Reykjavik some more looking for cheap food. I ended up buying a $12 panini (what a steal!) and going back to my hostel. I had never stayed at a hostel before and was excited for the experience. For $20 a night, I didn’t know what to expect. Somewhat surprisingly, it was a calm and nice night. I shared my four-bed dorm with three older French women who didn’t speak much English. Before falling asleep, I only managed to eat my dinner and talk with one of them who was a carpenter. We discussed the quality of our cheap bunk beds before falling asleep. It was an odd end to my first night abroad.
I feel it’s important to take a break and discuss Iceland’s ability to suck money from a tourist’s wallet. Iceland is EXPENSIVE! Even after living in Switzerland for two weeks (the European country most known for expense), I can still safely declare Iceland to be the most expensive country I’ve been to.
Travel from the airport to Reykjavik is $30 minimum, the cheapest filling meal I could find was $12, and regular groceries have the prices of organic foods anywhere else. To top it all off, the exchange rate for U.S. dollars to Icelandic krona is 1:105. When you’re paying 1,200 of anything for a sandwich, you feel it.
But why would I still label Iceland a must-see country? Nature. Diverse and wonderous nature!
Song Land of Ice and Fire
The next day I took a bus tour of popular tourist destinations collectively called the Golden Circle. During the day trip I practiced my Chinese with two elderly ladies from Taiwan and discussed sushi with a Japanese university student. Our route took us to see the following:
Faxi Waterfall – a large waterfall often overshadowed by its neighbor Gullfoss
Gullfoss – A 32 meter (100ft) tall wonder. Falling down two steps, the waterfall seems to disappear into a crevice while a constant mist jets out from the cliff’s edge.
Þingvellir – Home to two continental plates and the world’s oldest parliament
- Althing – Iceland’s parliament that started in 930AD. Until 1799, each year parliament would meet at the Law Rock in Þingvellir, modify the laws, and hear court cases. Before writing down the laws, Iceland had an elected position of Lawspeaker. It was this person’s duty to recite the entire collection of laws from memory.
- Silfra – Where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. You can walk, swim, and even dive in the fissure.
Icelandic Horses – They have five gaits instead of the traditional three. In addition to the walk, trot, and canter, Icelandic horses have the tölt and flying pace. These horses are also incredibly pure because horse imports are banned, and once they leave the island, they can never return.
Haukadalur – A geothermal valley home to the original Geysir – the geyser that gave its name to all others. Nearby are other bubbling pools of varying color and activity.
It was an amazing tour, but I still didn’t see even half of Iceland’s beauty. My dream now (and what I’d recommend to those wanting to see Iceland) is to spend a week camping. Take a flight from a major U.S. city where roundtrip prices can be as low as $300 during a sale, rent a car at the airport, and tent camp around the entire island. Things you can see in addition to those above include:
- A dormant volcano where you can go down into the magma chamber
- Multiple, blue and white glaciers – see em’ before they’re gone!
- Vacant lava tunnels
- Icelandic beaches with sea stacks
- Basalt, basalt, and even more basalt
- The small town of Vik
- Skogar folk museum
- Skogafoss waterfall – one you can walk behind
- The Blue Lagoon – a silicate filled pond popular for its blue color and psoriasis healing properties
Iceland may be small and expensive, but its natural beauty makes a visit more than worth it!
Travel Hostel Experience
After my day of nature wandering, I returned to Reykjavik and switched hostels. It rained the entire 50 minute walk to the new one. As of October 29th, that still remains the only time I wore my rain jacket. Little did I know the miserable walk would be worth the new hostel environment.
When I arrived at the youth hostel, nothing immediately seemed different. The showers were hot, the kitchen slightly messy, and the dorms filled with bunk beds. I sat down to my dinner of milk and crackers and resigned myself to another early night. A few minutes later, a young guy came and sat on the couch across from me. He opened up a book.
You know the feeling of wanting to start a conversation with someone but hesitating because you don’t want to interrupt? I embodied that feeling. I consider myself an outgoing person, but at that moment, I felt shy. Do I speak? Or do I just occupy myself with my phone? After several long minutes, I opted for the first option and asked where he was from. I’m so glad I did. That question was the beginning of a great night, and never again would I hesitate to start a conversation.
I found out he was from Germany and was hitchhiking around Iceland. We got to talking and discovered we both were previously having the same dilemma. We both wanted to talk with each other, but didn’t want to intrude! Our conversation gradually drew others in and continued for the next eight hours.
First to join us were three quizomba dancers from Vermont. They taught me a bit about different dance styles and the festivals they were dancing at. Next was a girl from Texas who wanted to talk politics. But, the conversation quickly moved on when three Ukrainian journalists joined in. They were in town for a soccer match but normally write for an economics magazine in Kiev. I talked with them about alleged Russian infrastructure hacking – not in America, but on Ukraine’s electrical grid.
The journalists also brought vodka and a weird canned meat reminiscent of cat food. Together they helped liven up the party.
Later, two gap year students from Wisconsin would join. We three agreed that Aaron Rodgers would never outdo Brett Favre. That wasn’t surprising, but what did shock me was the next person to join. A Columbian woman who had never met any of us introduced herself. Then she quickly followed the small talk with an offer to camp around Iceland in her car for two days.
An offer that trusting caught me off guard. She hadn’t met any of us before, but was willing to share her rental car with two of us. Two complete strangers. I of course declined, but others joined her. I had expected hostels to be social environments, but this was just the first of many encounters to show just how outgoing travelers can be.
I describe this night in detail because it shows the gregarious attitude that’s so far defined my trip. I talk to anyone, anytime, about anything. What I love most about travel is learning new things. Since everybody has something to teach me, I just have to listen.
I’ve talked to people from nearly 50 countries and learned what it takes to illegally move to Europe from Libya, the major problems facing coastal sea grass near France, how to wire a 300 year old building, and what it was like in Prague during World War II.
In my first days of travel, I already knew taking a gap year was a good choice. I experienced nature, talked with interesting travelers, and made a commitment to learn everyday.
The next post will cover my two weeks in France and Monaco – repairing old buildings and building new ones, foraging for food and water, and experiencing wine country.
If you have any advice or specific topics you want me to cover, leave a comment or use the contact box below!