When I arrived, I wasn’t totally sure what I was going to do with my 2 weeks in Iceland. I had heard that the country was among the most costly in the world, and that all of the biggest attractions were far from Reykjavik (the capital and home of the country’s only international airport), and not too easy to get to for a penniless backpacker like myself.
I considered the options: a tour was out of the question, for reasons of price and my own distaste for set itineraries. Buses were similarly unaffordable and were limited in terms of destinations, and hitchhiking was just too hit-or-miss in September, as tourist season was waning. After asking around at various hostels, I finally landed on the answer. Together with a group of backpackers, we found an agency that rented well-used cars at a fraction of the price of a normal car rental. Our beat-up Subaru wasn’t much to look at, but she was the answer to all our dreams. We loaded up the hatchback and hit the road.
Before leaving Reykjavik, we hit the essential highlights. We started with the famous “golden circle” of attractions right outside of Reykjavik: the thundering Gulfoss waterfall, Geysir, the gusher that gave all geysers their name, and the stunningly pristine Thingvellir National Park. Next we paid a visit to the world-famous Blue Lagoon. While the entry was a bit pricier than I would have liked, the experience in the ethereally aquamarine geothermal waters was a once-in-a-lifetime luxury.
Having seen the essentials of Iceland’s southwest corner, we hit the road. We made our first stop at hveragerði, where we hiked an hour and a half through lushly rolling hills to a river that naturally runs steaming hot. The sensation of the thermal waters was unbelievable, it was a heavenly feeling that I’ve never experienced before or since. In the same day, we made it to Seljallandfoss, a waterfall that you can walk behind for amazing views through the falling water and a black sand beach that’s home to a crashed plane that has never been cleaned up. Leaving a surprising, and unsettling monument on the sand.
Over the next few days we crossed Southern Iceland, encountering more natural wonders, each more incredible than the last. We camped next to the breathtaking Skogafoss waterfall, hiked through the Skaftafell National Park to see the incredible waterfall with its geometric basalt columns, and passed by the noble tongues of the Vatnajökull glacier on the way to the final destination of our trip: the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
It’s nearly impossible to explain the beauty of Jökulsárlón. The stoic lake, littered with giant hunks of marbled ice from the nearby glacier, carries a singular sense of peace. The blue water, the blue sky, the floating icebergs, and the reticent glacier behind combine to create a truly breathtaking plateau. The beauty, so unearthly and exaggerated, is the perfect summary of what makes Iceland so special and so hard to capture.
Our last stop before heading back towards Reykjavik, was the black sand beach just south of Jökulsárlón. This is where the glacier fragments make their last stand, before washing out to sea. Walking on the sand amongst the sparkling sculptures, I had one of those moments that every traveler aims for. I felt at once far from home but far from homesick, with a sense of interconnectedness with nature. I forgot every external worry, every bit of daily stress, and was, for a brief and precious time, completely lost in the moment.