5 short & sweet days in Iceland
Iceland has always been one of those “bucket list” places – quite literally on the other side of the world from Australia with geologically active earth that photographers on Instagram can’t get enough of. From afar it seems impossibly beautiful. When Adam and I had 6 days spare on our recent European holiday it seemed like an obvious choice, despite the short amount of time we would get to spend there.
We flew in from Berlin via Eurowings, and one word of warning, the snack they give you is abysmal. We got half a stale ham and cheese sandwich – I would recommend eating in advance or bringing your own food – as I was one hungry, grumpy traveler.
We arrived just after midnight on August 7 to find Keflavik airport surprisingly crowded. Lots of backpackers who’d either just arrived or were flying in the morning were trying to find places to sleep. This is, however, forbidden and they kept getting their slumber interrupted by security asking them to move on.
We got picked up by our accommodation for the night – Guesthouse Alex by Keflavik Airport. They offer free 24 hour pick-up from the airport which is really convenient at 12am in the morning. As the name suggests they are also located close to the airport which meant we could go straight to sleep once we arrived. Reykjavik is about 40 minutes’ drive from Keflavik airport, which was too far for us to travel at that time of day.
The room we had was clean and great for one night. Breakfast was a bit of a bland buffet but since it was free I didn’t mind. At about 8:30am the car hire company picked us up from the guesthouse to take us to collect our home and transport for the next 5 days. We were on the road!
Day 1 – Keflavik to Skaftafell
Our car home – the mural made it super easy to spot in a crowd
Our camper van was spacious for 2 people and the bed area was comfy. It also had heating, a fridge and lighting. The only negative was the sleeping bags provided were quite thin and it was still freezing at night despite being summer. I would recommend packing your own sleeping bags too or buying a blanket before you set off – there are some large chain stores in Keflavik or Reykjavik that sell that kind of stuff.
After collecting our camper van we stopped by a supermarket to collect some supplies. Food from a supermarket is very similarly priced to Australia, except for cheese which was weirdly expensive. We stocked up on camping essentials – instant noodles, sandwich making materials, fruits, chocolate and chips.
We then headed south towards highway 1. The roads in Iceland are super easy to navigate, with one main ring road around the island and clear signposting of all turns and towns. The first stop was the waterfall Seljalandsfoss. This is visible from the road so hard to miss!
Seljalandsfoss was beautiful and since it was the first Icelandic waterfall we saw it was extra exciting. Parking is about 700 ISK on site, although no one seemed to be patrolling to enforce this.
After this we continued along route 1 and saw the Eldhraun lava fields, formed from an eruption in 1783-4. The moss covered lava fields seem to stretch endlessly along the road as you drive past and there are roped off areas where you can go out and walk through them. The moss is very fragile and turns brown easily from people trotting along it, so it’s best to stick to the designated areas. It was such a strange, yet beautiful, sight – looking almost other worldly.
Eldhraun lava fields
We continued driving along Route 1 stopping to stretch our legs for an afternoon hike at the tongue twister Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. It’s about a two kilometer return hike, but I’ll let the views speak for themselves.
We parked our camper van down for the night at Skaftafell, at the campsite near the visitors centre. A couple of years ago they made camping outside of designated areas illegal (although we saw some people doing this). You can’t book this campsite in advance but as you can see from the photo there was plenty of room and it has great views of nearby glaciers. There seemed to be no big supermarkets close.
Camping at Skaftafell
Day 2 – Skaftafell to Vik
After a very cold night we woke up early to drive to Diamond Beach and the Glacier Lagoon. I would recommend getting there early because the crowds keep piling in. Diamond Beach, with its black sand and ice, was totally beautiful.
We then went on a boat tour of the Glacier Lagoon. The company we went with was Ice Lagoon – Adventure Tours. They go out in speedy small boats and our guide was really informative. You can also do kayak tours on the lagoon which look very exciting.
Putting on adventure gear and the boats we went out on
The big advantage of doing a boat tour is how close you can get to the terminal face of the glacier and some other pretty big chunks of ice. If you’re lucky you can even see glacier breaking off into the water. Here are some photos of arguably the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life:
I felt like I was in a David Attenborough documentary
After a quick lunch we went back to Skaftafell go on an afternoon hike, we had a quick detour pulling over on the side of the road and doing a short stroll to see this view:
Just a short stroll from parking the car on the side of the road
From Skaftafell we hiked to Svartifoss – the trail is about 3.6km long return. Because of the unique conditions when the rocks were formed they have taken on a hexagonal shape. The walk is steep in parts but not too hard if you are patient on the uphill.
As soon as we got back to the Skaftafell visitor carpark it started to rain and did not stop all night. We drove back towards Reykjavik on Highway 1 and pulled the camper van into Vik Camping. It’s undergoing a renovation but was extremely crowded the night we were there. It has good toilet and kitchen facilities, even though we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table to cook on. We went to sleep soggy and exhausted.
Day 3 – Vik & Sólheimajökull glacier
We woke up in the morning to clear skies! Our first stop was to Vik’s most famous attraction – a black beach.
We also did a hike around the church pictured. There is a picturesque old graveyard really close to it too. It’s even better in real life than the photos.
Church at Vik
We also stopped by a supermarket to top up our food supplies. Restaurants and cafes are pretty pricey (starting about $20-$25AUD for a simple meal) so we only ate out a few times as treats.
After Vik we drove to Sólheimajökull glacier. We did a Glacier Hike and Ice Climb with Arctic Adventures. They provide crampons, hiking boots and all equipment needed. Walking on the glacier was exciting and not scary as I initially thought it would be. Because it was summer and warm (for Iceland) it meant the top layer of the glacier was quite grippy and not icy or slippery.
We chose this tour because they offer ice climbing. We abseiled about eight meters down into a hole at least 80m deep (I didn’t dare to look down whilst in there). Then we climbed out using our crampons and ice picks. Eight meters may not sound like a lot but it was exhausting! Probably due to my terrible technique it took me forever. The instructor we had was a Swedish ex-marine who was calm, knowledgeable and made us feel safe at all times. He was also really encouraging while I was desperately trying to ice climb my way out of the hole despite how clearly terrible I was at it.
I can’t remember the name of the campsite we stayed at that night but it was nice. The only weird thing was it had a communal shower. I walked into the females shower room which had 4 shower heads and no shower curtain separating them, so it was very open. Another great day in Iceland.
The campground views
Day 4 – Reykjadalur valley (hot river), Golden Circle & The Blue Lagoon
This day was action packed – we were rapidly running out of time to even scratch the surface of what we wanted to do in Iceland.
We started off going on a walk along to a hot river departing from the Reykjadalur valley – it’s about 3km return. The earth actually seemed alive here steaming and bubbling away at many points.
Hot hot hot
The hot river was well worth the walk. There is a sign marking on the river where it’s cool enough to enter (anywhere above this point is dangerously hot even the people that were bathing close to the sign only lasted about 2 minutes and came out a shade of pink that looked like they’d been gently boiled). From there you can go down the river until you find a spot at a temperature to your liking. We probably should have left earlier to avoid the crowds but there was still room for everyone to have their own bathing spot with a bit of space around them. We left feeling very relaxed.
We then started the Golden Circle – a 300km loop of notable tourist attractions close to Reykjavik. Here are some of the highlights:
Kerið Crater Lake was our first stop. There is a small fee to walk around the crater (you can walk around the outer edge and close to the water itself). The lake is in a caldera that is believed to have formed when magma that was stored in the chamber depleted itself and the hollow chamber caved in.
Kerið Crater Lake
We went to the Geysir geothermal area and saw the geysir erupt. The park was free to enter and was crowded. There are also some brightly colored geothermal pools around. There is currently expansion works of the park occurring so it will be bigger and better in the future.
Next up was Gullfoss. I have to admit that by this point in the trip I had seen so many waterfalls in Iceland the initial wow factor had worn off. This one, though, was truly spectacular – so powerful. There is so much spray from the water that when the conditions are right there is a permanent rainbow.
The final stop of our rapid golden circle tour was Þingvellir National Park. It was getting late so we didn’t have as long here as I would have liked – you could easily spend half a day here. But we still got some pretty special views. A very cool feature of this park is that you can see the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates above ground. There is also a bunch of historical sites relating to Icelandic parliament.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvallakirkja church at Þingvellir National Park. This church dates back to 1859
We then drove to Reykjavik but the two campsites we tried to stay at were full. We also found out that you need to book the Blue Lagoon for a timeslot in advance or risk getting there, waiting in line and not being able to enter because it’s at capacity. We had been planning to go to the Blue Lagoon the following day for our last morning in Iceland, but it was completely booked out the entire next day. To me the Blue Lagoon seems so iconic when you think of Iceland so I was really disappointed that due to my poor researching I was going to miss out. So we went online and booked the only available time slot left while we were in the country – midnight that night.
We drove the forty minutes from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon and got there in time to swim in the water (it was dark so we were unable to see the distinctive blue color) and did a free mud mask. We had been up since about 8am that morning, walked 3km to Hot River and then drove 300km around the Golden Circle stopping frequently so we were absolutely exhausted the whole time.
I have to be honest I think the Blue Lagoon is a complete waste of money. Firstly the Blue Lagoon is not a natural formation – it is fed by run off from a nearby geothermal plant. It also costs nearly $80AUD, which seems exorbitant. I had a better time at the Hot River earlier that day which was free. That being said though it was really relaxing.
We camped for the night in Grindavík
Day 5 – Goodbye Iceland
We spent the morning exploring around Keflavík enjoying what little time we had left in such a magical place.
Somewhere near Keflavík
We also wandered into a cave and saw this strange creature. It is fully automated and even makes sounds. Would have been the stuff of nightmares for me as a child.
We then boarded a plane at the very crowded Keflavík airport and our adventure had come to an end.
Iceland really is a truly special place. I had seen so many photos of Iceland online in the lead up to the trip I wasn’t sure if it was going to live up to those spectacular images. It turned out to be even better – everywhere I looked I saw unique, breathtaking nature that my camera just couldn’t quite do justice to.
I would recommend spending longer than 5 days there if you can, if I had the time I would have liked 10-14 days so I could have driven around the whole ring road and done more hiking. We were lucky in August that we had sunrise at about 5am and sunset at nearly 10:30pm so we could fit a lot into the few short days we did have there. The only downside of all this daylight is that it meant the chances of seeing Northern lights are very, very low.
I would recommend travelling Iceland in a camper van, it made everywhere so accessible and at night it was nice to pull up in a campsite and be able to sleep protected from the elements.
The secret of what a great destination Iceland is to visit, is well and truly out. I read that Iceland, an island of just over 350,000 inhabitants, is expecting 3 million visitors in the next year, up from 2 million the year before that. It is definitely crowded in some places and there seemed to be renovations going on all over the place to cope with this influx of visitors. That being said, the further out of Reykjavik you get the less crowded it seems to be.
Overall, I cannot recommend Iceland enough. It is one of the best places I have ever been, and I already want to go back.
Sheep in Iceland jumping for joy
Read more: Roadtrip through the land of Ice & Fire
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