jc travels

Around Iceland in 10 Days

Iceland has always been this dreamy travel destination of mine, but always just out of reach due to random circumstances (i.e. bad timing, lack of planning, I’m just too broke, etc.) But surprisingly enough, this trip was rather spontaneous considering how many times I’ve tried to visit and had it not work out. Somehow the stars aligned and just a couple weeks later, I found myself at the Berlin airport with a 40L backpack strapped around my waist and an excitement I simply could not contain.

Traveling around the “Land of Fire and Ice” does require a fair amount of research and planning, especially if you’ll be driving on deserted stretches of road with no mobile service, temperamental weather, and infrequent towns (and yes, restrooms) for extended hours at a time. But without a doubt, all the hard work pays off in the end.

If you’re planning on doing a roadtrip around the country, the single most important thing you need is a trusty 4WD car. You want something durable, reliable, and efficient so you can drive both safely and comfortably for long distances across various types of terrain. Although most of the main roads are paved, how solid the car is will make or break your experience – because you’ll find yourself wanting to make unplanned detours every few minutes and you’ll definitely need a car that can do that for you. Plus, most likely most of your time will be spent in the car anyways (which is much better than it sounds, I promise).

*Traveler’s Tip: I rented a Toyota RAV4 4×4 from SAD Cars – recommended by a friend (hi Kyle!). Don’t be fooled by the name – it was the furthest thing from sad. Responsive service, the most affordable prices I found, and guaranteed Iceland-ready vehicles. They were also really flexible about pick-up and drop-off times, and the price included a free shuttle service from the airport to their car pick-up lot as well. Even cooler – you don’t have to return the car with a full tank of gas and they offer discounts at partnering gas stations that you’ll find often along the Ring Road. Yep, true story. One of the best decisions I made for the trip.

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Anyway, I’m sitting here racking my brain trying to put how incredible this country is into words, but have come to terms with the fact that no matter what I write, it’s just not going to do it any justice. But I did scribble some thoughts at the end of almost every day in my travel journal, so I think I’ll share those – if anything, it’s real :o)

Day 1 / Arrival in Reykjavík

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Day 2 / South

The Ring Road is an inexplicably beautiful drive. For all you roadtrip lovers out there – this is the crème de la crème of roadtrips. As I drove along this route, I quickly became fully immersed in the epic landscapes and scenery around me, taking on the endlessly open lands not knowing where it would lead. Here we are thinking we’re going to be driving from “scenic spot to scenic spot” but in reality, the whole island is really a “scenic spot” in itself. There’s never a dull moment – the nature here is so moving that it simply demands your respect.

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One of the best things about driving the Ring Road is the stillness. No noise, no distractions, completely undisturbed – in the best way possible. Often times I think we as humans in this age of technology, social media, and fleeting thrills tend to shy away from silence. But lately more and more I’ve began craving for it – and Iceland gives that to me and more.

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We trekked to an abandoned plane wreck later in the afternoon. 4 kilometers of openness and nothing in sight, besides the snow-capped mountains that circled us far in the distance – luckily it was a straight walk there otherwise with we’d probably have gotten lost (well, with my direction sense at least). It was dead silent besides the repetitive sound of the gravel-y road crunching below our feet as we made our way. What felt like a million crunches later, we finally reached the wrecked plane – resting solemnly in quite literally the middle of nowhere.

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A short drive further down the Ring Road took us to stretches of empty, black-sanded beaches. In place of the golden beaches I’ve seen time and time again were these matte, charcoal black shores. Where the tide washed over, the sand took on a dark, sleek obsidian sheen, glimmering ever-so-slightly whenever the sunlight caught the surface. Lovely in a ghostly kind of way.

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The evening turned into an unplanned dance party in our room. We had picked up a bottle of Bacardi at the Berlin airport before flying to Iceland, knowing that alcohol was both expensive and almost impossible to come by here. But we failed at rationing and finished it on the second night. Granted, it was a pretty epic dance party – the guests staying in the room below us were gifted a complimentary night for the inconvenience. Not sure if I should feel more sorry or happy for them.

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Day 3 / Southeast

We had a late start today – completely hungover and unable to get out of bed. Worth it though.

When we did manage to leave the guesthouse, we headed to the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Unassuming when you park, but if you hike up to the top towards the far end of the canyon, you’re rewarded with an incredible view of the depth and length of the canyon, the clear blue water running through, and the empty golden fields surrounding it.

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Today’s schedule was fully-booked with glaciers and all their magnificent splendor. We hiked to the foot of Skaftafellsjökull Glacier, a spur of the Vatnajökull ice cap at Skaftafell National Park. The hike down was an incredible experience on it’s own. Something about walking along this path on a crisp morning, so casually surrounded by the spring foliage, wildlife, and mountain ranges.

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It’s a pretty great build up of what’s to come – the glacier. At the end of the hike, the path opens up into a sprawling valley – nested within it, the Skaftafellsjökull glacier and the small lake formed around its base. The water was a wonderful opal hue, with faint currents delicately brushing across the surface – the movement and texture of the water reminiscent of pleated chiffon.

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I walked to the edge of the lake and dipped my hand inside the ice cold water, tracing clear ribbons as the minerals started to disperse around the movements of my hand. We were the only people there, and it so silent that I could hear the ripples moving across the water, as modest as they were.

In the evening, we drove to Jökulsárlón – a mind-blowing, can’t-believe-this-is-real glacial lagoon. A massive body of water with floating pieces of ice densely scattered across it. If you look closely enough,you can see the ice just barely moving back and forth with the movement of the water. There was a pretty intense cloudscape looming over the entire region when we arrived. A couple rays of sunshine snuck through right above the mountains that backdropped the lagoon, reflecting back off the glassy surface of the water. I mean, it’s just one of those places you have to see in real life to understand. And when you do see it, all you can really say is “Wow.”

Or, let’s be real – “@#^% $#!%!!”

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Day 4 / East

The drive along the Eastern fjords was my favorite stretch of the drive, by far. We had a pretty dope, Caisey-Neistat-esque soundtrack playing in the background as I cruised for hours along the winding, up and down hills that outlined the Eastern edge of the country. I was soaking in every minute of the ever-changing landscapes and surprises behind every turn. If you’re like me and find long drives and open roads meditative and therapeutic, then this is it. This is the good stuff. It’s like watching one of those movies you wish would never end.

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We didn’t have any real destinations in mind for this day, so we just coasted and stopped wherever we felt like it especially called for it. Kilometers upon kilometers of untouched land – no construction, no commercialization, and barely any human habitation.

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It felt like we were driving through a different microclimate every half an hour. At one point I was rolling down the windows, burning up from the heat of the sun beating down on us – just to roll them up a few minutes later as I saw a looming storm quickly approaching in the distance. We eventually drove through the storm and came out the other end, passing between two mountains completely blanketed in fresh snow.

And I thought San Francisco had insane temperature swings.

Just a wide-eyed visitor on another planet, obediently abiding to the ebb and flow of Mother Nature.

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Day 5 / North

The northern part of Iceland is much more snowed in overall, even in May. But even after a harsh winter in Berlin, I was thoroughly enjoying an extended winter.

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For example, the road we wanted to take to the Dettifoss waterfall had completely disappeared underneath the snow. The top of the sign that was supposed to point us in the right direction was just barely peeking through below the surface.

By some stroke of luck (when I was in desperate search for a restroom while being stranded on a snowed-in road), I met a lone cyclist from California who had some time off from her bartending job and decided to spend a month cycling around Iceland (so cool). She gave us an inside scoop about an alternative route that could take us to the waterfall that she had rode through.

Eventually we made it there. We trekked across the snowy terrain of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, to reach the falls. Waters rushing into a snowy canyon – with two rainbows arched magnificently from one side of the canyon to the other. Yes, double rainbow!!

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If you backtrack and hike a bit further in the opposite direction, you’ll quickly come upon another waterfall – Selfoss.

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As you drive up closer towards Lake Mývatn, you’ll come upon the Hverarönd geothermal area. (Maybe you’ll even smell it before you see it – but hey, I guess that’s a good indicator that you’re going in the right direction!) I’ve been to geothermal areas before, but this place is just really special. I think it’s something about the multi-colored rock, and the fact that you’re in an area with land on polar opposites of the temperature scale, coexisting right next to each other.

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We arrived early to our guesthouse this evening, so decided to explore a crater that was nearby. On the way there, we saw some lone horses and decided to pull over.

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There was one that specifically caught my attention – usually when we pass by horses, they stick somewhat together. But there was one horse that was standing alone, staring off into the distance towards the lake, far from the other others. I walked slowly towards him. His side was facing me, but as he sensed me approaching, he turned his head and looked at me. *blush*

A few moments later, he started to make his way over to the fence. He put his face right up against me and allowed me to pet his face. He had such sad, kind eyes. As I started to walk away, he followed me along the fence. He made it so hard to leave! When I got in the car and started to drive off, he followed for some time before stopping, and I just watched him stare back through the rear view mirror. Talk about heartache! (Cue: Lady Gaga – Brown Eyes)

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Eventually (i.e. 2 minutes later), we made it to the crater. Hiking up the crater was not easy – it was a long hike along a steep incline of slushy snow and gravely stones. The hike wrapped along the edge of the crater, which was cone-shaped, so we had to consistently make sure to keep our weight shifted towards the side of the crater to make sure we didn’t slip off the path. Reaching the top was worthwhile – both impressive and intimidating to see the magnitude of the impact from the meteor crash there. And, watching the sunset from the top of the crater was kind of sweet too.

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As the sun set over Lake Mývatn, it illuminated the opaque, pastel blue waters of the lake into a rich, egg yolk orange.

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We’re staying in a different guesthouse every night throughout the trip. It gets a little tiring living out of a backpack and picking everything up and settling back down on a daily basis, but eventually it becomes second nature.

Usually, the guesthouses are one home with multiple bedrooms, shared bathrooms, and a community kitchen, living room, and sometimes a patio. Reminds me of dorm life, a little bit. Some guesthouses even throw in a free breakfast! (I highly recommend Guesthouse Carina if you’re planning on traveling to Vík). They’re pretty great – affordable, clean, and you get to meet and mingle with a lot of friendly and like-minded travelers. The best part is that often we ran into the same people along our route, considering that there’s not too many housing options when you’re driving through nothingness and chances are, they’re going in the same direction as you.

But the communal feeling. It’s wonderful.

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Day 6 / Northwest

The drive along the Ring Road is also a pretty communal feeling. There’s not that many people traveling around the ring (especially during the off-tourist months), and you run into some familiar faces from day-to-day on the road. The drivers on the road all have a mutual respect and you’ll find yourself waving and giving friendly head nods to everyone that you cross paths with. It’s pretty chill.

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The highlight of the day was Godafoss, also known as “Waterfall of the Gods”. It’s pretty much this massive waterfall that empties into a huge basin. If it wasn’t so cold, it would be a pretty sweet swim spot. I mean, how could you resist this?

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Day 7 / West

We didn’t have enough time to explore the entirety of the Western fjords (more reason to come back again) as we had ideally planned, but we were able to tackle the Snaefellsnes region, which was plentiful with sights and stops along the drive.

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It was also today when we discovered the beauty of Icelandic hot dogs. I’ve always heard people talking about it. One of those “must try’s” as you drive along the Ring Road – but the one I tried at the gas station was pretty gross actually. Though today on our drive, we made a quick stop at a really quaint fishing village, Grundarfjörður. It was drizzling and windy outside, but we found warmth at this hot dog stand in the middle of a parking lot.

I got a classic hot dog with melted cheese and fried onions nested at the bottom of the bun. The hot dogs are always (or should be) eaten with the famous Icelandic mustard, pylsusinnep, which is essentially a sweeter brown mustard. The hot dogs are a mix of pork, beef, and lamb – with the lamb being the special flavor-boosting ingredient. Although unfortunately, I’m not a fan of lamb so this was a bit of a turn-off for me, but I can definitely see the appeal of these things, especially with the fried onions. They would have been incredible sans the lamb.

It seems that still, my heart remains loyal to the polish dogs at Costco. So simple, so delicious. A+ hot dog game.

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I’m consistently amazed by the unique variety of nature that exists here in Iceland – purple bushes, white-bark trees, sinking soil, mossy carpeted lava fields, small creeks carving their way through vast plains of thick snow, craters from meteor crashes, icy mountains disappearing into the clouds, giant crystal-like rock formations, glacier lagoons, rivers that look like they’re flowing with liquid metal, black-sanded beaches, and clouds hovering low enough to seem close enough to reach up and touch.

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Being in such a pure environment for an extended period of time really takes you out of your day-to-day realities. You sort of lose touch with what’s happening back at home, in a nice way. It’s liberating to not have internet or mobile service every once in a while. I never want to be one of those people that’s always glued to their phone, anyway. It’s been years since I’ve had time to be away from all that noise and genuinely clear my head. Genuinely. It’s relieving, and it’s freeing. Times like these are most definitely healing for the soul – clarity, silence, and reflection on everything and nothing in particular at the same time.

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Day 8 / West

This was our most chill day of the roadtrip – a short drive from the Snaefellsnes region back down the Reykjavík, where we would be based out of for the remainder of our stay. No real activities planned, just driving from point A to B, making a couple of stops for coffee in small towns along the way, (e.g. Borgarnes – super cute town).

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But, if I must say, the highlight of the day was discovering a Taco Bell right outside of Reykjavík. There are few things that make me happier than a cheesy gordita crunch, especially after months of miserable separation. I ordered two of these bad boys, but was disappointed when I saw they had forgotten to include the hard shell inside the gordita the first time around. But Taco Bell never disappoints – they gave me two proper CGC’s on the house. Score. Happy belly.

Ended the day with a night of good ol’ cranberry vodkas, Viking beer, cheeseballs, good music, and dancing at home. Couldn’t ask for more, really.

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Day 9 / Southwest

We spent our last big driving day along the Golden Circle, a famous scenic route in Southern Iceland. I’m glad we saved the touristy regions for the end of the trip – they say save the best for last, but I think for a 10 day road trip, you want to see the best things first when you’re the most engaged and receptive. Thingvellir National Park, the Geyser, and Gullfoss are all incredible places undoubtedly – although it’s heavily overrun with tourists and lacks the enveloping quietness and integrous quality of nature that I grew to admire everywhere else along our drive.

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Tucked away from Golden Circle, a maze of a drive and a hike away, is Brúarfoss. A brilliantly turquoise stream of water, carving its way through dark, edgy rock. The most unique and least touristy sight in the area, and truly unlike anything else.

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Day 10 / Final day in Reykjavík

On our last full day in Iceland, I slipped away from the city and headed to the biggest tourist trap of all – the Blue Lagoon. Yeah, it’s hyped. Yeah, it’s touristy. Yeah, it’s pricey. But it’s definitely worth the hype, influx of Americans, and price. I spent a good 4-5 hours by myself just straight chillin’. I was surrounded by an overwhelming amount of couples on their honeymoon though (and was asked to photograph them after being seen with a GoPro) – but other than that, the solo time was very much enjoyed.

The iconic mineral-rich water of the lagoon is a beautiful, milky sky blue, blanketed by a layer of steam gently arising from it.

It was about 4°C, but you don’t feel how cold it is because the water is perfectly warm – with pockets of hotter regions hidden randomly around the lagoon. You just have to wade around and find them (though it’s not that hard, just look for areas where there are awkward huddles of strangers for no reason at all). Inside the lagoon is a floating bar, where you can rehydrate with some organic smoothies or even better – alcoholic beverages. On the other side of the lagoon is a mask bar, a self-serve station for you to pamper your skin with the natural silica and algae minerals of the lagoon. And you don’t feel silly at all doing it, cause everyone else around you has their face plastered in white goo also.

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Beyond that, there’s a steam room (caution: scorching hot, kind of painful) and sauna, underwater benches, and a miniature waterfall to stand underneath.

Basically, go here, stay awhile, and you’ll walk out feeling like a million bucks. It’s been a week, and my skin still feels as soft as baby’s bottom (just realized that’s a pretty creepy analogy). Next time I head back stateside, I’m looking for a flight with an extended layover in Reykjavík – taking a leaf out of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle’s book (re: Parks & Recreation #treatyoself). Plus, Wow Air seems to be having pretty good prices between Europe and the US lately.

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It is about an hour out from Reykavjík, but on the bright side – you can pick up Taco Bell on your way back. I definitely did.

As I’m typing this, I’m at home full-faced in an algae mask I picked up at the lagoon. My couch isn’t nearly as luxurious as a geothermal spa, but hey, one can dream!

Our last night was by far one of my favorite evenings in Iceland. We went out to the city center to a bar, Prikið (which will now remain special to me forever, but I’ll spare you the details), for some drinks. We had the intention of going out for just one drink (we had to get to the airport by 4am), but somehow never really found our way home. After a calm and quiet 10 days, I think it was only right to go out with a bang.

The sun doesn’t really set during this time in Iceland, so you sort of don’t realize how long you’ve been out. Long story short, we went straight from the club to the airport and it was the best thing ever. AKA best plane sleep of my life.

Such. an. incredible. 10. days.

I’m coming back for Iceland round two, definitely. Hopefully not too long from now either.

Planning a trip to Iceland? For recommendations, questions, and suggested itineraries, drop a comment below!

4 comments
  1. Jen says: June 14, 201612:19 am

    Gorgeous photos, as always! Maybe we should meet in Iceland??

    • Jacqueline says: June 14, 201610:53 am

      I wish!! But… maybe we can squeeze in a 2-day trip somewhere nearby if you’re interested :) So excited!

  2. Chrystal says: June 18, 20163:58 pm

    Love your photos! Always A+ IG and blog game.

    • Jacqueline says: June 19, 201612:48 pm

      <3 <3

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