Our week in Iceland was unmistakably one of the best weeks of my life. You can check out a video of our entire trip to Iceland here.
Coming to Sweden, I had two goals: travel throughout Scandinavia (Norway in specific), and travel to Iceland.
Ever since the 4th grade, I wanted to travel to Greenland to see puffins. We learned about the curious penguin-like birds in class, and pictures of green cliffs and families of these birds kindled a 10 year old kid’s desire to go abroad. As I grew older, however, I realized that Greenland is much less accessible than its neighboring country Iceland. Iceland too hosts puffins (but only in the summer), as well as an entire world of unworldly views and geographic gems.
So upon returning to Sweden for my second semester abroad, I gathered together a group of my best friends and professed my need to visit the country. And that is exactly what we did. Good, like-minded friends I have.
I felt like 10 year old me again boarding the plane from Amsterdam to Iceland. Just last year I would see photos of the snow covered mountains and moon-like landscapes, and now I would be there in a few hours.
As soon as we landed Alex and Olivia picked Jack, Hannah, Ben, and I up from the airport. We rented a car throughout the entire trip, THE BEST WAY TO SEE ICELAND. The country is one massive island and there are breathtaking areas in each corner, on each coast, and by each road. If you ever travel to Iceland, plan for a car rental.
We immediately started the journey, heading east from the Keflavik Airport. Simply driving is an amazing experience, the panoramic views and open scenery trick you into feeling as if you’re leading the discovery of a foreign planet.
The AirBnB cabin we stayed in during the first half of the trip was in the southeast part of the country, and along the drive we stopped at Hveragerði, a mountainous range full of hot springs. We hiked around, or more-so hopped around out of excitement, and felt out the water temperatures. Many of the springs were too hot, but the scenery itself made it impossible to be disappointed.
I simply could not believe what laid before our eyes. It was Mars, it was Mordor. It was Earth.
The amount of snow and ice surprised me, for I always like to think that every place I travel to has better weather than Sweden. Traveling in March, although still a “winter season”, had plenty of pros. Firstly, March and surrounding months are low on tourism (which Iceland is generally stormed with), and you get to explore the country relatively on your own. Secondly, the snow itself added to many of the areas we went. The snowfall was light, never interrupted with our adventures, and melted relatively fast. Seeing landscapes covered in snow in the morning, and then uncovered in the day, made drives to places and back astounding each way.
We reached our AirBnB after some late-night searching around a rural area, it was a relief to make it through what seemed like a scene out of a scary movie (driving around dark fields) and get out of the packed car (although 6 people in a 5 person seater is far better than 15 people in a 9 person seater, flashback to Norway).
The next day we drove further east to check out the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, and the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. The waterfalls were absolutely breathtaking, and the canyon filled my heart with the wonder and escape of all the childhood fantasies that brighten our table-sides and movie theaters. I felt like a hobbit in Lord of the Rings and a kid on the Magic School Bus.
Birds flew around the cliffs of the waterfalls, gentle mists sprayed off of jagged and layered rocks, and a rainbow even formed at the break of water and rock to greet our arrival. Pure magic, it filled every crevice of Iceland.
The canyon further heightened the ridiculousness of this ordinary life. Geography out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensively imagined world, surprising views at the turn of every corner, scenes that deserved an entire day of appreciation.
I remember thinking to myself, “Is this real?”. It was hard to grasp, any of it. Any thought, any muddle of what this world was, or how all of this beauty came to be, was silenced. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amazement of our planet.
My mind was clear, swallowed whole by the atmosphere. And I could not have been more ecstatic.
What’s funny too, is that I was physically miserable. I had gotten sick the night before, unable to stomach anything, and that day my body ached in every aspect. I felt like an 80-year old man taking his last journey, fulfilling his life-long wish of seeing the world’s renowned wonders. Simply not myself, and out of energy. But nonetheless, I felt alive.
I woke up that morning questioning my ability to trek through the day and enjoy my surroundings. But two things made that thought irrational: my blessed, human-hero friends, and Iceland itself. My friends took care of me, and made sure I was good, without crippling me. The landscapes were enriching in every sensational manner, and made me feel whole. The thought of accepting an offer to stay back (which I might have) and missing the miracles I saw that day is, well, frightful.
I am so, extremely, out-of-this world lucky to be able to not only witness planet Earth for all of its natural beauties, but to know the beauty that exists in its people as well.
On the way back to our cabin we stopped at Vik, the black sand beaches. The weather was pretty rough then, with extremely strong winds, rain, and freezing temperatures. So naturally, I remained bundled up in the car and ate some goldfish. Watching the crew sprint out to snap some photos and sprint back in a life-or-death manner was quite entertaining.
The next day we headed out to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and beach, a fine drive with loads of breathtaking stops along the way. Driving throughout Iceland is like driving through an amusement park. There are so, so many things to see, some you plan for and some you don’t. You stop a lot, drop your jaw a lot, and scream “this is amazing” a lot.
The glacier lagoon added a completely different look into the country than the canyon or its neighboring landscapes. Chunks of ice floated around everywhere: in the lakes, in the ocean, on the ground. The colors of the sky, clouds, water, mountains, the glacier itself, were so pronounced and illuminated. I felt as if we were running along the pages of a National Geographic issue.
We strolled around the glacier park for quite a while, stopping to eat lunch, skip rocks, talk, and be. We talked, and then we didn’t speak a word. Being in the presence of my best friends in such a personally monumental place was an experience unlike our other trips and travels. At one point we all laid down, because there was nothing to be said.
Sometimes all there is to do is breathe, and receive the stark and unbelievable beauty that this world has to offer.
Walking around the black sand beach, the coastline covered in heaps of turquoise blue ice, I felt as if I left the world. I left the world and was looking at everything from a space-set lens. This was Earth, this was geography. This was a combination of elements, mother nature, a set of miracles that I could barely understood but fully rejoiced in. I could have sat on that beach for hours.
On our way back to the cabin I noticed a field of moss-covered rocks, something I noticed on the way there as well. I had our group pull over to look at the fields more closely, and I am beyond glad that we did.
The moss-covered stone seemed to go on forever, and made up the craziest landscape I have ever seen both in person and in pictures. It was something straight out of an old-time fable, something I had never even imagined into existence. We limboed the barbed wire fence and hopped around from stone to stone, eventually racing each other back to the car. I expected dwarves, elves, or fairies to peak their heads out from beneath the rocks, and tell us where the door to Narnia was.
The rest of the drive back was again, spectacular. Bumping beats (from my Iceland-customized playlist “2. breathe in the world”, follow me on Spotify) and old-school jams while cruising through the world’s most geographically diverse country, was more than any of us deserved.
After reaching the cabin we spent some time in the hot tub, with a mandatory tray of cheese and crackers and the essential tequila sunrise (in this case, sunset). It was a wonderful three days in Southeast Iceland.
The following day Jack, Hannah, Ben, and I parted from Olivia and Alex who had to catch their flights back to Copenhagen. On the way back to Reykjavik for us, and the airport for A & O, we had to stop in a town called Hella. And of course, snap some NorCal pictures with the sign.
The remaining four of us spent the day exploring the city of Reykjavik, joining a walking tour and going off on our own. The weather was perfect and the city was beautiful. There were lots of cool shops and cafes, and a good amount of street art to see. Mind however, if you ever travel to Iceland, the exchange rate between USD and Icelandic kroner is preposterous. A drink is around $10-$15 minimum, nachos $20, and a majority of meals $30 or more. We stayed at the KEX hostel for a decent rate, and it turned out to be an impressive place with lots of cool hangout spots, comfortable rooms, a kitchen, and so forth.
After walking around and hitting up the infamous hot dog stand that Bill Clinton once visited, we headed back to our hostel to make some drinks before visiting Ben’s most anticipated part of the trip: the Great Lebowski bar. We spent some time at the bar and then headed out for an affordable dinner, but low and behold the Domino’s Pizza (which we had been anxiously waiting to bombard) was closed. So naturally, we split some $20 nachos, and proceeded to get Domino’s Pizza for brunch the next day.
There is nothing like American pizza. Or really, just nothing like the food from your home country when you’re abroad.
The next day started the second stretch of our trip. Sunna picked us up in our second car rental and we began the long trek north towards Akureyri, Iceland’s most northern and second largest city (after Reykjavik). To be quite frank, there is very little city-life or related culture in Iceland. The towns are a few houses and a gas station, the cities are what I would normally consider towns, and the majority of people you see are fellow travelers. The urban culture of Iceland is rather difficult to detect, almost as if the culture derives more from its landscapes than its society.
The drive north was just as beautiful as the drive east, and we managed to stop and take a cave tour along the way. The fact that there were so many breathtaking views spaced out along the drive made breaks and switches easy.
A long drive in Iceland, no matter how long, or where-to, is an enjoyable journey in itself.
There were some bumpy, off-roadish roads along the way (that I admit, at first freaked us out), and the ice and snow became more pronounced the further north we got. At one point we were driving on an empty light, and stopped at a couple farmhouses to ask where the closest gas station was. The feeling you get when you aren’t sure if the car is going to make it always initiates a silent suspense, especially in a foreign, freezing country. The first house only had a couple of adorable dogs. Luckily, on our second try a very friendly man answered the door, and the station was just a few kilometers away. It always helps to have a friend who speaks the native language of wherever you’re visiting (shoutout to Sunna).
After finally arriving into Akureyri and finding our AirBnB, we settled in and enjoyed what seemed like the “other life”. The city of Akureyri was larger than I expected, and looked absolutely pristine with fresh layers of snow. Our AirBnB was just as impressive; we were convinced that it was a bachelor pad, stocked with classy furniture, a telescope, a projector, and the overall vibe of a modern Bond movie.
We watched some episodes of a show called “Cuckoo” on Netflix (great first season, otherwise trash), and then called it a night. The next day we travelled to Lake Myatvn, and on the way there stopped at a large waterfall-gaping river.
I hate to be repetitive, but everything was breathtaking. And cold.
The waterfall and river made up a random stop, and turned out to be one of the craziest sights of our trip up north. The falls seemed to stretch around the entire hill of snow, and the temperatures were so cold that we could barely manage to snap some photos without sacrificing the future-function of our hands.
Once reaching Late Myatvn we stopped to walk around, and got a glimpse of some Icelandic horses. The lake was mostly frozen throughout, with patches of water managing to remain. Surrounding the lake were tons and tons of craters, dressed in snow yet still strikingly evident from their shape and elevation.
On our way home from the lake, we managed to stop at a hot springs/lagoon site, finally getting our alternative fix of the Blue Lagoon (which we were told many times not to go to, for various reasons, including price, overdone-tourism, and overall worth). Jack, Hannah, Ben, and I got the package wristbands, which included entrance into the lagoon and a beer of choice (but we managed to weasel out two).
Swimming in the lagoon was amazing. The water was so warm, clear, and surprisingly did not overwhelm us with the stench of rotting eggs. More like a complementary scent of sulfur, that didn’t make you want to gag. The black sand was fun to swim around in as well, and the frozen landscape and funneling springs that set the background of the lagoon made everything seem unreal.
After enjoying a couple of beers, we all continued to wade in the water. And then conversed a little bit about how special this time was in our lives, and how lucky we were to have each other as friends. Cheesy? Yes. Awesome in that moment? Yes.
That’s the best part about traveling, you get to remember how lucky you are. And how many people exist that you are lucky to know.
It still astounds me how a great majority of us are from the same university in Santa Barbara, in the same state in the U.S., and some even honing from homes nearby each other. Yet no one knew one another before meeting in Sweden.
Does that make the world a big place? Or a small place? Maybe just “a place” is a better description.
We stopped at the supermarket and stocked up on supplies, then proceeded home to enjoy our second-to-final night in Iceland. Dinner, snacks, smoothies, and Monopoly. Along with some Tequila and a terrible-tasting spirit from Holland.
The next day we began the long drive back home, and found ourselves another unworldly site. Waterfalls, rivers, rapids. The water was as blue as the gatorade I used to drink every day in junior high, when I thought that sports drinks made me more athletic.
The river hosted a variety of cliffs, rock formations, falls, and rapids, that were a joy to hike around, hop over, and climb. It was an unexpected gem of this earth, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my parents, my grandparents, and my entire family would have loved seeing it as much as I did.
At this point, and back at the canyon from day two, I thought to myself:
Why is there not an accessible, floating chair available to the public, that can hover over anything and host spatial intelligence to avoid collision like drones?
That would 1) be awesome, and 2) let most people go anywhere. Bad knee? No worries, the super-chair is here. Honestly, who wouldn’t buy that. I would buy that for my parents, I would by that for my grandmother. Everyone would be happy.
But seriously, it was weird to think that my family, and my friends back home, didn’t have a solid idea of what I was experiencing hopping around that river, or studying abroad for a year altogether. And that I didn’t have a solid picture of what they were experiencing, or growing through. For some thoughtful minutes I was a bit distraught, at the idea of our lives being experienced separate from so many of the people we care about. But then I recognized something.
Growing apart from people does not mean you are growing apart from them, you are simply growing, as they are simply growing. And growing is a gateway to letting us appreciate more, understand more, and relate more. It amplifies the time we have with other people: our families and our friends, and diversifies our relationships.
And I guess that’s why I write these things, and film those videos, to help fill in the picture of the life I’m living. Not that it matters, and not that it doesn’t. Simply because I like it, and I like this life.
After returning to Reykjavik we dined fancy with another Domino’s Pizza multi-deal. (If you even dare make any judgements, consider buying a $25 ham sandwich, that’s what I thought. Also, American pizza is the extra spice that Mojo Jojo used, secret’s out.)
After grabbing a beer, meeting up with Sunna’s cousin, and feeling a wave of exhaustion hit us like trucks, we called it a night. The next day we flew back to Copenhagen, and bid our farewells to one of the two most beautiful country twins I have gotten to know – the other being Norway.
It was more than I could have ever imagined. Iceland, studying abroad, all of it: these past 21 years.
I continue to be astounded, delighted, and surprised.