Let’s Go Exploring! Iceland: Fire and Ice and Surprisingly Nice Part 3

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FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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After my previous posts about the appetizer and main course of Iceland, it’s time for dessert!

Jökulsárlón (The Glacial Lagoon):

Even though we’d rented a car for the week, I agonized over visiting Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s Crown Jewel.

The reason?

Jökulsárlón is almost 400 km from Reykjavik, which means, at a speed limit of only 90km/hour,  it would take us almost 5 hours to drive there—each way.

I tried looking up places to stay in the city of Vik, half way between, but since it was high season even the least expensive Airbnb cost $300 USD a night and most were already booked. Stupidly, at the time, it didn’t occur to me that I could’ve looked at hostels or shared rooms for just 1 night.

Luckily, since we were travelling with friends, they graciously agreed to share the driving to make the 10 hours drive more tolerable.

So, we loaded up the car with sandwiches, snacks, and hit the road at the UNGODLY hour of 8am (Shut up. 8am is an ungodly hour for an early retiree. And yes, feel free to ridicule me.)

Little did I know, expecting a 10 hour round trip drive was laughable. Because just an hour and half into the drive, we hit a snafu.

“CONSTRUCTION AHEAD. ROAD CLOSED.”

F*ck.

We’d already been delayed by 20 mins by a closed highway! Now the only bridge connecting us to the highway leading to the ice lagoon is also off limits.

Here’s the thing about driving in Iceland. Because the country is so sparsely populated and the distances so far between towns, whenever repairs are needed, you’re forced to take a long detour since there’s really only one main road. Also, there are strict speed limits which you have to follow to avoid an expensive speeding ticket.

I naively thought we could make the 5 hour drive each way without breaking a sweat.

But now I was sweating. Hard.

To avoid driving in the dark on the way back, we needed every precious second.  Outside cities, there are no street lights. And with the chilly night temperatures, sleeping in the car at the side of the road wasn’t a great option.

Since we had no choice, we took the detour–which ended eating up a good 45 mins. By the time we got to our lunch stop, it was well past noon.

Skógafoss

Even though the trip to Jökulsárlón is long (and filled with detours), the good news is driving anywhere in Iceland isn’t boring. Here’s the scenery we saw outside the windows:

Not only do you get to see lots of changing landscapes—black ash sand that makes you feel like you’re on the moon, mossy lava fields that look like plush green carpets, dramatic snow-capped mountains—there are tons of attractions to visit on the way.

Remember how I said you can’t throw a rock without hitting a waterfall in Iceland? Well, Skogafoss is one of those waterfalls and you can’t help but marvel at its majesty:

“Okay enough marvelling! Let’s go!” Wanderer yelled, after staring down at his watch and realizing we were an hour behind schedule.

Since all the detours had eaten up a big chunk of our time, we decided to skip the staircase that lets you climb up to the top of the waterfall. Instead we snarfed down a quick lunch of sandwiches, got back into the car, peeled out of the parking lot, and zoomed onto the highway—only to immediately get stuck at a single-lane bridge (which we started calling “squishy bridges”), waiting for another car to pass through.

Did I mention how much fun it is to drive in Iceland when you’re on a tight schedule?

Good thing we didn’t make passing through the “squishy bridges” a drinking game because we would’ve been black-out drunk by the time we got to Jökulsárlón.

By Crux [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Finally, after countless bridges, multiple detours, and a lot of frustrated swearing from me (and I wasn’t even the one driving!) we finally got to Jökulsárlón at 4:00pm, a full 8 hours after we started—even though we only took a 1 hour break for lunch.

I didn’t have time to wonder whether it was all worth it, because as soon as I got out of the car, I was too busy picking my jaw off the floor.

This is what awaited us after a crazy long journey:

Having travelled to over 30 countries, I’d seen majestic lakes, fast-flowing rivers, awe-inspiring volcanos, and breathtaking mountains but nothing compared to this. I stared at the impossibly blue color of the lagoon, heard the rumbling from 1000-year-old ice breaking off from Europe’s largest glacier, breathed in the clean, crisp, Icelandic air and all I could think about was how incredible lucky we were to be here.

I’m not a nature person; I tend to prefer vibrant cities where I can eat pho, go to a sauna, and get a massage. But at that moment, I became a nature person.

There’s just something special about Mother Nature’s ability to make time stop and force you to realize your own insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Standing at the top of that hill, the wind whipping my hair, I looked down at the thousand-year-old lagoon and felt at one with the universe…

…Or at least, not freaking out about the schedule for a second and just enjoying the scenery.

I could’ve stayed there for hours, but since we had to drive back before nightfall, I forced myself to move on to the next attraction, which thankfully, was only 10 mins walk away.

Diamond Beach:

The interesting name for this black sand beach came from all the ice chunks lying on it, glistening in the sun like diamonds.

source: Giuseppe Milo @ Flickr

Photographers from all over the world come to film this spot, and with the back drop of black sand stretching as far as the eye could see, you could see why this is one of the most visited and unique places in Iceland.

 

Just don’t get too close to the water—or you’ll end up with a soaked pants leg and wet socks for your long drive back, like I did.

Our 1.5 hours visiting Jökulsárlón felt disappointing short as we stuffed ourselves back in the car for the long trip back.

Luckily, we still had one more attraction to visit, a perfect stop to watch the sunset and eat dinner.

Vik

The town of Vik is in a serene spot by the ocean with cute little Puffins flying overhead and enough seagulls to make you scream “get OUT of the way, you’re blocking my view of the puffins!”

Sorry seagulls. You’re just not special enough to be puffins.

With our newfound puffin friends circling above us, we ate dinner while hearing the lapping of the waves against the sand, and watching the sun lazily lower itself beneath the horizon.

 

The drive home after that was uneventful and by the time we got back, it was 11pm and completely dark.

After the crazy long day and 13 hours of driving, understandably, Wanderer and my friend were exhausted. From my research, I’d originally expected 5 hours there and back, but I didn’t account for all the speed limit, road closures, and detours, which is something you need to consider when you’re driving in Iceland.

Wanderer mentioned that 13 hours of driving for 2.5 hour of sight-seeing wasn’t exactly a good trade off, despite the unique sights and scenic drive.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree with him.

It would’ve been a much better idea to stay in a hostel for the night in Vik, which I highly recommend if you are planning to visit Jökulsárlón.

There’s also another waterfall called Seljalandsfoss, which we didn’t get a chance to see because 1) we were rushed for time and 2) because we didn’t bring any raincoats and would’ve gotten drenched from standing behind it.

Despite the crazy long trip, I’m still glad we got to visit Jökulsárlón. Unlike the Blue Lagoon I would’ve been pretty disappointed if we had skipped it because it really is unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Okay, so now that we’ve finally come to the end of my Iceland posts, let’s breakdown how much we spent:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $85 USD $106 CAD We stayed in an Airbnb apartment around 10 mins drive from downtown that had a shared bathroom and kitchen. It also happened to be just 8 minutes walk from a community pool with saunas, which we took full advantage of.
Food: $21 USD/day $27 CAD/day ($7.50/day for eating out, $19/day for groceries) Since food was crazy expensive in Iceland and most of it was tainted with lamb (which I can't eat), the only time we went out was for coffee with Rob and Robin, a hotdog (which promptly made me sick because of the lamb), and a bacon-flavoured ice cream (to wash out the taste of the lamb). Turns out that bringing enough sandwiches, fruit, veggies, and snacks for the long car rides worked out great. The 'Bonus' grocery store is your friend–just be aware that it's only open from 10-6pm so plan ahead.
Transportation: $68 USD/day $88 CAD/day ($70 for 1/2 of car rental, $18 for 1/2 of gas) The car rental was by far the biggest cost during our time in Iceland–and we got lucky because we could split the cost with another couple. Since everything is so far away and there aren't any good public transportation options, you basically have to rent a car (if you rely on tours, they'll set you back $200 USD/person just to visit the Glacial Lagoon). Included in the cost above is the $50 USD we paid to add an extra driver for the week and it was worth every penny. We like Blue Car Rental ( because unlimited mileage and insurance are included) and if you use the coupon code #BLUELWV" online you'll get a 7% discount. (Note: flights to Iceland were covered by credit card points converted to cash)"
Entertainment: $36 USD/day $46 CAD/day Most of the entertainment we enjoyed was free, except for the ticket to the crater lake, access to local pools, and the ridiculously overpriced Blue Lagoon. I don't regret going but I wouldn't go again and I'm not sure I recommend it. There are way better FREE attractions like the Reykjadalur Valley and the Glacier Lagoon.
Total: $207 USD/couple/day $267 CAD/couple/day Not included in this cost is the flight on WOW air, which we paid for using credit cards points that we converted to cash.

Iceland turned out to be one of the most expensive places we’ve ever visited (right up there with Switzerland and Galapagos), but all the incredible sights and the experiences (hot river yo!) made it worth every penny. It’s still too cold for us to live there long term but I would go back to visit in a heart beat.

What do you think? Is Iceland worth the cost? Would you go there?



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22 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Iceland: Fire and Ice and Surprisingly Nice Part 3”

  1. First time I hit Iceland was 1996; my high school band took Icelandair to get to London. We didn’t see anything that couldn’t be seen from the terminal windows at Keflavik, but the views were super weird to my Mid-Atlantic sensibilities. I flew through KEF again in 2011 and 2017.

    Someday I’ll get off the airport grounds. But my wife is really not into being outside when it’s chilly (<60°F), so maybe not any time soon.

    Meanwhile I live vicariously through your updates. Thanks for the report and breakdown!

    1. Worth it! Love Iceland. Can’t wait to go back. The driving is a little bit of a hassle but the scenery is so beautiful you don’t mind.

    2. Yeah, we’re big wimps too when it comes to the cold (very embarassing for Canadians).

      If you ever do go to visit, make sure to go in the summer.

    1. I’m just as surprised as you 🙂 My original thought was cold, expensive, need to drive everywhere–forget it. But I’m so glad I went. Hope you can visit some day!

  2. I think you forgot about the flight cost in your transportation line.
    Just ~$1600 for a week for a couple in Iceland is too cheaper. Are you sure you’re not forgetting more items?
    Loved reading it. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I mention in the notes on the “total line”: “Not included in this cost is the flight on WOW air, which we paid for using credit cards points that we converted to cash.”

      I’ll move it to the transportation line to make it more obvious. Thanks.

  3. Gah! You drove all the way out there as a rushed day trip?!?

    Iceland has too many treasures. Travel slowww. Hike. Camp. Explore.

    Go cycle touring for a month. That is a good minimum for setting a pleasant travel pace, figuring out the technical bits and getting over the initial fitness hump for non-adventurous people. Do it in a pleasant place with B&B’s if you need civilized accommodation.

    Travel like you are on FIRE, not like some crazed Toronto (or Calgary) office worker trying to fit a week into a weekend 😛

    P.S. Car camping is fantastic and cheap, just make sure you have sleeping bags (or big blankets in a pinch). Travel the entire ring road one day. Seriously. Take a month or two to do it. Go slowww….

  4. Love this series! My wife and I spent a little over a week doing the ring road in May. While we certainly haven’t traveled like you two, it’s been our most favorite experience by far. Hawaii, Italy, Switzerland, Southwest U.S., Costa Rica all GREAT! But Iceland, just simply one beautiful view and hike after another. We checked a bag and brought some food from U.S. as well as stocking up at the ‘discount’ Bonus location to save money. Beyond that, every hike we did was free and we used AirBNB quite a bit. It would be wonderful to return for the Northern Lights, but our hiking adventures would be limited that time of year! Beautiful pictures as always!

    1. I’m intrigued about the Northern Lights too…but terrified of the cold. So it’s definitely a trade-off.

      Smart move on bringing food from the U.S! We had a couple packets of noodles with us, so that helped.

    1. Could very well do that next time, now that I know I actually LIKE Iceland. The driving is going to make me crazy though–maybe we’ll do another joint trip.

  5. We spend a week in Iceland at the end of September. We rented a car for three days. We found the gas was costing about 2330 isk (Island is krona) per liter or Can $2.60 per liter. Multiply that by 4 to understand about much that is per gallon.

    1. Yeah, you definitely don’t go to Iceland for the deals. Luckily you only needed the car for 3 days. Did you take buses after that? Or tours?

  6. Great photos guys. It really reminds me of Alaska.

    Surprisingly expensive place, but you could easily spend more than that on a hotel room in NYC. Look at it from the right perspective, and it doesn’t seem all that bad

    1. Oh yeah, it could’ve way worse. Good thing we had great friends to share the car costs with and so many attractions were free.

  7. We have just finished 10 days in Iceland. I recommend anyone breaks the journey from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon but avoid staying in Vik. The beaches can be enjoyed in an hour or two and there’s nothing else really that is unique to Vik. We paid a ridiculous amount to stay in awful rooms in Vik – was the cheapest available at over AUD 500, booked months in advance – but on tbe return journey paid half (AUD 270) to stay in a fantastic airbnb in Hella, not far from Vik. Still pricey but much nicer. Overlooked the river.
    In Iceland spend up on location and activities rather than food. Small places have great food, best for lunch then cook your evening meal. The evening restaurant prices aren’t worth it but there are many small places that serve hearty good food.

  8. Yeah, I agree with the comment earlier. You guys probably should have stayed one night. That’s a long drive to do in one day. We enjoyed Jökulsárlón too. The kids liked it for a bit, then they were eager to get to our next cabin. You guys did really well with the expense. Nice job.
    I’d like to visit Iceland again someday. It was a great experience, but very expensive. We’ll visit again when we’re rich so we don’t have to worry about the money part of it.

  9. Hi from Slovenia! It kind of sounds like everyone is going to Iceland these days. If you like caves, go to Slovenia. Somehow the car rental for 8 days is less than your rental per day. I wonder if there’s some error there. No glaciers or icebergs, but lots of waterfalls and the biggest caves I’ve ever been in.

  10. Coincidentally, our family was in Iceland in July 2018 for a few days on our way to Norway and Sweden. We saw many of the same places you did. I really liked the natural beauty of the country. However, it seemed pretty crowded in July. If I ever go back again, I would go in the off season and take the Ring road around the entire country.

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