Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Last day in Iceland

   Rookies no more, we have seen and done more than most travelers in Iceland, due to our ever changing plans. Our second night stay at the Solheimahjaleiga guesthouse was a night I'll always remember. First I had the best lamb soup in Skoga earlier. The lamb was so soft, and the broth and veggies cooked to perfection. Upon return, the sky cleared and I stepped outside before settling in for the night and instantly recognized the green hue in the sky. The northern lights were dancing above the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Jumping with excitement, I tried not to be too loud as to wake the whole farmhouse. Mark came outside and smiled. I was seeing the arora borealis for the first time in my life. This is one of the first active shows for the season in Iceland. They weren't very vibrant, but they danced for me.
   The next day on our drive back to Reykjavik, we stopped in Hveragerdi, the hot spring capitol of the world. This is a highly geothermal area with pillars of steam and mudpots spewing from the earths crust. In Iceland, "The climate is harsh. Plants die quickly unless they are lovingly cared for, in which case they die slowly" (1) . This area has learned to excel in horticulture, and is known for their greenhouses, which are constantly lighted.
   We drove to the end of town and parked next to a couple dozen vehicles, and started the hike up a valley to a hot river. The steam was thick at times and almost hard to breath when you walked through it. We found the river pools and a boardwalk along the banks. I choose upriver to soak, thinking it would be the cleanest,  but the water was almost too hot to stand. My skin turned a brighter shade of pink. We decided to move down river thinking we were too close to the source. It was better down stream, but I laid out on the boardwalk which was still warm in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately these little flies began to bite, and we head back down.
   Two guys struck up a conversation with us in perfect English, asking what there is to do in Iceland. They just met up, one from AZ and one from Phily, and only had a few days, and little to no money. I told them my opinion based upon what they wanted to see (glaciers), "Head East!". Mark whipped out the map and became their tour guide, telling them what to write down, and how to get there. Rookies no more are we, back in the saddle of leadership. This happened more as time went on, our experiences grew, and more newbies arrived. That night was spent in a studio apartment with the Aurora guesthouse. The organized part of our tour ended and the unknown part began.

   After mailing a few postcards and paying the parking tickets from day 1, we drove east again, first stopping in Grindavik. A Canadian couple we met in Fludir left us their camping card and fuel discount card "in the men's washroom, on the windowsill above the urinal closest to the window. Attached is also the map." Well, the map was gone the next day, but we got the cards!
   We stopped at the impossible-to-pronounce, Eyjafjallajökull volcano visitor center. This showcased the notorious 2010 erruption that caused canceled flights to Europe making headlines around the world. Intrigued by the south coast, we thought setting up tent in front of Skogafoss, below this volcano, would be a great start for a hike we found in Lonely Planet. Come to find out later that it's an optional start of the world famous Laugavergur trail. This is where we came alive. Camping and hiking is our element.
   It misted rain a bit that night and we took advantage of sleeping in. Seeing that the trail shoots straight up from the start, I dressed light, but kept my rain gear on. Over 370 steps to the top of the waterfall, and that was just the start. We climbed over a fence and saw another waterfall. With a third one in the distance Mark and I looked at each other in awe. These aren't your everyday trickle-of-a-stream falls. These are massive torrent waters raging down through steep moss covered canyons. We would hear a sound echo and peak over the cliff edge at yet another massive waterfall that rivals all the others. Pretty soon our hands would just raise up in the air, signaling yet another majestic scene. Soon thereafter it was "of course" another, just "more beautiful shit" as Mark would say, and soon I followed with that phrase too.
   It came to the point we would hear the raging sounds coming from the canyon and just keep walking. It was almost a joke at this point. I mean really, how much beauty can one section of trail have, and we aren't even on the main world renowned trail yet!
   "It's a national joke that if you are lost in an Icelandic Forest all you need do is stand up." (2) Any tree groves you see do stand out among the lava fields, and they are few and far in-between. The shrubbery is even scarce, and the vegetation fragile. Staying on the trail is important for sustainability. I encourage any hikers to walk on the main trail even if wet because the go-arounds are branching out like spiderwebs and soon tourism will trash this delicate landscape which will take years to regrow. Also practice leave-no-trace with bathroom breaks. This is so important and such an easy step. Two zip lock bags and one small roll of toilet paper is all it takes. Even if you're on the side of the road, don't leave your TP lay on the ground! It's not going to desinegrate as fast as you think it might! For as organized as Iceland is, and structured for tourists, and very well I add, there is a real lack of public bathrooms. Iceland is remote. It's unadulterated land, pure resources, farming, and highlands. There's no trash or abandoned eye-sores, just pure beauty. Not many countries that I've been to are this pristine.
   We made it up to the first hut where a German lady made hot water for us while we rested out of the weather. Before turning back down off the mountain, we played in the snowfields at the base of the volcano. Never did the temperature get colder, but the mist never stopped. The further we descended, the heavier the mist got. Iceland doesn't get thunderstorms or lightening, just a good dose of rain and wind. When we reached the tent, my thighs were shot from 17 miles (27 km) and 4,500 feet (1,371 m) in elevation gain. Icelandic lamb soup for dinner and quick to bed.

   The next morning we packed up the wet rain fly, trying to keep the main tent dry, and moved back to Hveragerdi. It was raining most the day and we found a campground in the middle of town. Before settling in, we bought a pass to the local swimming pool (only 1'200 isk for the two of us, $9 USD total!). The first pool was a nice hot 40*. I think we were the only tourists since the few people there spoke Icelandic. We checked out the steam room, and even that was towards the tipping end of unbearable. After maybe 3 minutes it was time to jump out and shower off. I laid in the shallow pool which was only about 38* and could have stayed in that forever, but the rain was a neusance.
   We quickly set up our tent in the rain next to a motorbike campsite. There was a handful of tents set up, but I was not excited for a third night of rain. The cost of lodging was high even if there was last minute availability. Many backpackers (all speaking different languages) were set up under the roof in the semi-outdoor kitchen, making their dinners on butain camp stoves. Some had pasta, but others were melting butter and sautéing veggies, rice, and patty cakes, which looked like veggie concoctions to me. There were about 100 gas canisters left over under the sink, and some pots and pans for shared use.
   In the morning we visited a geothermal kitchen and bought some apple bread for sampling. We also went back to the pool for a second round of steam baths. One guy said these were the best pools in the country. We had prebooked a heli-bike trip today and had to be at the airport at 2. Before arriving we got message that the helicopter was canceling the flight due to rain and winds. There was a rainbow driving to the airport but we knew it was just a small break in the weather so we still planned to go ahead with the bike portion.
   Ice Bike picked us up and we drove out to do a trail called The Edge, which would keep the wind at our backs. When we got to the trail head, he drove the pickup truck off the road, down a steep embankment that I would have thought would roll any vehicle that attempted its descent, but he pulled it off like it was nothing. The roads in Iceland are crowned. There's no shoulder, no bike lane, no space to even hitchhike.
   He unloaded the bikes, gave us a GPS with the trail, and said he'd meet us at a road crossing. The wind was blowing the rain sideways. The first peddle stroke my foot slipped off the flat peddles and instantly gouged my right shin. I tried again and felt clumsy on this new bike in the middle of a storm on this new trail that started with an uphill rock garden. Now these aren't your normal rocks. No, these were hardened lava fields formed thousands of years ago. An endo would ensure a trip to the ER in that heli ride they said we couldn't take. The funneled ruts were mud puddles that slid your tires down to the deepest trough. The wind kept blowing me off the trail sideways. I just kept thinking, how would they let anyone out on the trails like this? I couldn't even get my wet gloves off to take a picture and the nose trick wasn't working. After the third road crossing we met the truck and called it quits. My waterproof shoes were now holding the water in and mud coated me, head to toe. This would have been a good trail in the summertime, but the off-season had officially started.
   Knowing there was no way we were camping out like this, we started to look for a place to stay. Trying our luck at Aurora again, I was shot down. My kind smile was no match for this Icelandic lady. "The Icelanders do not feel themselves bound by the conventions of polite society." (3) What I consider rude, they consider the norm. Next we tried the hostel and found ourselves lucky. The Loft was my first hostel stay and a pleasant experience. First thing I did was jump into the shower with my clothes on, thouroughly spraying the mud out of my shoes and wringing out each article of clothing, washing the mud down the drain.
   Our first roommate, Mateo was a young solo traveler from New York city. With his constant work in start up businesses, he just wanted to get away by himself and relax in another town. He spent his time couch-surfing and touring the city with his host, spotting famous people at the local pool and partying at the queer bar, Kiki's. Our second roommate, Mariella, was coming back from Stockholm (and Budapest), to DC area as a free layover to see the city for one night. We stayed in and cooked dinner in the guest kitchen. Before falling asleep I researched a place to stay for our last night and ended up booking a nicer place close to the airport so we could relax. It was a lucky find that i was excited about. In the morning we said our goodbyes with handshakes and hugs.
   The last day of mountain biking was canceled and refunded due to weather. We leisurely drove around the Reykjanes peninsula, taking our time to really explore. We stood on the bridge of two continents laughing at the ridiculously tourist thing that is to do. We took pictures in the ship yard and toured the free maritime museum with different artist exhibits.
   Tonight we stay at the 1x6 guesthouse, a truely unique B&B with custom reclaimed wood designed rooms by a local artist, and a central room overlooking the ocean where Andi, from Switzerland, will make you any kind of coffee drink you want. Luckily the Icelandic way of life hasn't sunk in all the way, as its their first year operating as owners, and they are as polite as can be! Andi worked as a travel agent in the past and has given me places to stay for future trips to other countries on my list. The attention to detail here is superb and I highly recommend a stay if ever coming to Iceland. It's a lucky treat on our last night here, and I even splurged on a seafood dinner with desert at Kaffi Duus. Now to go to bed so I can enjoy some more coffee in the morning.

Good night, Iceland. 

*References from Xenophobe's guide to the Icelanders.
(1) page 26
(2) page 20
(3) page 34

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Landscapes of South Iceland

   It's easier to write about comical errors than indescribable landscapes. I'll just quote Lord Huron with, "What good is living a life you've been given if all you do is stand in one place."

   Today we drove from Solheimahjaleiga, past Vik, east on the main road 1, to the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokull. A quick side hike up Fjadrargljufur Canyon broke up the drive. This was the canyon I saw online that really enticed me to travel here. I wanted to see this mysterious land, but when we got there, it was the clearest blue sky since we arrived in Iceland. Our final stop east was the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. Enormous icebergs floated on the lake. We were lucky to see some flip over and break off. The surround sound effects were very special to hear. We followed the icebergs out to the coastline and walked on the black sand beaches that felt and looked like chia seeds. On the way back we took another hike up Skaftafell National Park, an oasis between the black desert and the glaciers. 
   Tonight we stay for a second time at the Solheimahjaleiga guesthouse on a farm below the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. This is the same volcano that erupted in 2010 that disturbed all air travel to Europe. There is still a burned center at the top of the snow cap. This truly is an amazing country. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

These are the layers of Iceland

   Iceland has been revealing itself to us in layers. Fog lifts after a misty rain and the base of the mountains are within sight. When the lower layer of clouds move on, obscure horizons are debated and we drive on. Steam rises from the ground and this energy is harvested around the country. Popular are the greenhouses situated to feed off this activity. Pictured above is part of the biggest hot springs in Iceland in terms of water production per second, Deildartunguhver.
   Waterfalls are prevelant. It seems like every farm has their own one rushing off the mountainside behind their red roofs, feeding their hayfields. The first major ones we drove to were Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Here the waters bleed through the countryside into the turqois river. Next stop was Thingvellir National Park, a geological wonder of the world. Here you could see the effects of the tectonic plates movements which have opened various cracks and fissures in the earth's crust.

   Iceland Tours has not steered us wrong yet. The places we have stayed at have been quaint guesthouses that we would not have been able to find on our own. Most have a hot pool outside, cozy linens and towels, and all the comforts of home. Breakfast is served on fine china as you look out over the coastline or mountain. Tourism is booming here and they sure know how to take care of us. In fact they know how to keep us buying too. You see it costs to use a bathroom if you're not a customer, so you buy a small drink to utilize your money spent using the facilities (which are all very clean) and have to stop at the next place to use the facilities again because you just had more coffee, and they reel you in like that. The airlines are in on it too. They only allow enough weight for essentials so you don't bring what you want. 
   Take for instance Mark. He did not bring a pair of pants. Yes he came to a country called Iceland, in September, planning to just wear shorts. I'm thinking they sell a lot of their wool sweaters with this scheme. We, however, have beat the system and brought food (only buying small dinners to get us by). We also brought TP and have not bought one souvenir yet. Sorry mom, just warning you now. As for the food, its really not all that expensive when you factor in that tipping is not customary. Comparing meals to the US, with tipping, its about the same. It's just when you have to do it for every meal or snack, every day, then that would add up. 
   While looking for our guest house on night three, we passed a sign with an old sepia picture of people in water, and instincts took over. We turned at the sign and followed the gravel road to the steam. Bright lights were shining out of these large greenhouses next door. We found a secret lagoon. Turns out it was the oldest natural hot spring pool in Iceland called Gamla Laugin. We showered and dipped in to the warm 39*C water, slowly walking around on the gravel bottom. Much time was spent in the pool, sitting on a rock, trying to soak up the healing energies. We sparked up a conversation with some Canadians from BC and talked about mountain biking and Skiing. We are hoping to get their camping card as they leave Thursday and that's our last night in a room. 
   Thoroughly refreshed, we find our farm for the night and pull in to a gravel drive with Icelandic horses watching us pass, heading into a sunset that disappeared behind a rocky mountain outcropping. The tractors were out doing their rounds. A lady showed us to our small room upstairs after a quick stop at the outdoor pool. If only we had more time to hang out at each place. 

   Today we visited the famous Geysir Area where the Strokkur hot spring ejects its water column high into the air every five minutes or so. It was addicting to keep waiting for the next eruption. Next was the golden waterfall nearby, Gullfoss. Surely one of the country's most beautiful. In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagara Falls in the US. The sheer volume is captivating. Both these locations had the most crowds we've seen, but you could still find your own spot for pictures. 
   My favorite waterfall of all, though, was one they call "small" but extremely picturesque. After reaching road 1 and driving east along the coast, we saw Seljalandsfoss. You could walk behind this waterfall and it made me feel like a kid again. Here's a few pictures from my phone. Camera and video to follow after the trip. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finding Iceland on day 2

This was it. Lifted 4x4 highland vehicles with oversized tires and snorkel kits everywhere. Wild horses and sheep line the drive up to Borgarfjordur. Waterfalls and craters, and giant basalt columns.
   We stopped in Arnarstapi and walked along the cliffs. Snaefell Glacier rose into the clouds as a light mist covered the mossy lava fields in-between. Overnight in the fishing village of Stykkisholmur with a soak in the hot tub.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rookies in Iceland - Day 1

   Staying true to form, we showed up to a new country being 'those' tourists.  It's never fun to admit this sort of thing. After arriving at 5:25 am we get out to the parking lot and pass the land cruisers, pass the wagons and unlock a tiny no name gocart with room for one bag. The drivers side door barely closed, rubbing on the frame like the hinge was about to fall off.
   So we drive out to the blue lagoon, past crazy lava rock formations lined with moss, closed. We drive into Reykjavik to see if we can check in early, no. We headed down to the old harbor to see if we could catch the 9am whale watching tours and finally we were in luck. Plus they had a cafe on board and I was so hungry. We tried to pay for parking but couldnt press the right keys on the prompt since we dont know Icelandic and it kicked our card out. Walking up, you think all the Closed signs posted at the other boat companies would have been a red flag. Mark joked "closed due to the great weather?" It was 50* and sunny. I heard the lady say there's rough seas today. "Some waves" she said. She also said its free parking on the weekends and that's why we couldn't figure it out.
   The boat starts to leave the harbor and our guide explains how there were gail force winds yesterday and hopefully the wind storm will calm down by the end of this three hour journey. Half way into it we were holding on for dear life. I swear at one point the ship rocked a good 45* as it rolled over the ever changing swells. One by one, people around me started falling down, running to the edge of the railing, hoping the wind didn't blow their breakfast back on to them. It wasn't good at the back of the boat. So as I stay focused on the horizon and joined the camera men on the bow hoping for a glimpse of the whales, which is about all we got. Right at the end we saw one tail, which is always cool but I was ready to get back. I made it 3 hours. The tour lasted 4. Let's just say I slept the last hour. We still hadn't ate.
   Pretty much everyone ran off the boat. We got back to the car, and a ticket sat tucked in the windshield wipers. It was in Icelandic. We still don't know how to pay it.
   After checking in to our bunk house, I crashed. Mark woke me with some tea and ginger he found in town and then I went back to bed.
   The end to our crazy day was good. I woke at 5pm to walk the streets and window shop. We are pleasantly surprised by Reykjavik. It has such unique architecture and a very different vibe, kind of resembling a nice ski town, with elves. We had really good pizza from a wood fired stove just next door. Early to bed is the plan and hoping for a better tomorrow. What's not to love. We're on an island!!!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Turning travel magazines into memories.

   I used to read Skiing magazine like it was this dream universe with all the top gear and deep steeps that only existed in those pages. I'd read Backpacker magazine and make unwritten lists of all the places I'd love to hike "one day". How many of you have done the same flipping through Conde Nast Traveler or Afar?
  Somewhere along the line, after college, and living out west for a few years, these travel and adventure magazines became a recap of places I've been, just someone else's story.
   I remember the best one was just a few weeks after getting back from Ecuador and turning to the back cover of Outside for their parting shot. It was a man filleting fish over a concrete slab and a couple pelicans waiting for scraps. It seemed like such a basic photo compared to others they've highlighted, but I just smiled. That photo took me back to warm salty air and sea lions climbing on old wooden fishing boats, lounging next to marine iguanas. Just down the road was a place I got ice cream every night, two scoops for $1. Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos Islands was a magical place. They could have highlighted the different species or surreal landscape, but the shot was of a man doing his job, gutting fish, with no background. It was perfect. It was real.

   Today I open up Backpacker to read on the beach, and I'm taken back to another magical moment in time. I've peddled a bike on that same gravel road leading to Cotopaxi. I remember those boulders. Just up the way we rode up behind wild horses that eventually ran with us until veering off the way to let us by. The next page captured the hike we took up to the Refugio where we would start our accent of the mountain.
   Somewhere along the way, I took a flying leap of faith, threw caution to the wind (which I believe was on top of a mountain in Colorado) and turned these magazines into memories. It feels good. If you're still reading National Geographic Adventure like its some dream universe, I promise, its not. I know there's a bunch of people out there that get that same great feeling when they open up a latest issue to something familiar. Am I right?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

   In a few weeks, we will be leaving our country's borders for a land like no other. A place so far out there that astronauts used it's rugged ground for training. A land where there are No Mosquitoes and No McDonald's. A country where people are listed by their First Name in the phone book and police don't even carry guns. Heading towards self sufficiency, almost all electricity and heat comes from their own Renewable sources. I can not wait to visit this magical land, and would love to share it with you. 
Take a trip with us to ICELAND!
   Here's a chance to Travel Vicariously with us every day! The goal is to raise $1,286 USD to cover our "budget accommodations" for just 6 nights (through Iceland Tours) which will allow me to live blog the trip on WiFi. Yes, Iceland is one of the most expensive countries to visit, but I really don't want to stay in a tent with their unforgiving weather, being along the arctic circle. 
   This was the least expensive 7 day tour, but the journey doesn't end there. We are going to stay another 6 nights! The best part is, they are not planned. We are going to meet the locals and get advice and venture out into the free land for our final days, hopefully hiking, and possibly mountain biking which looks epic there! There may be no WiFi on these days. Just think of the great stories that will come from this unplanned part of the trip!!!     
   Even better yet, for anyone that donates $25 or more, you will get a hand written postcard with a personal note no one else will see. It could be something unique that happened or a bit of Icelandic inspiration. Please leave your address in the note with Paypal

   I know many of my friends and family can not travel like we do, for various reasons, and like to live vicariously through our photos and stories. Donations are a way for me to know you want me to keep sharing these experiences. They also let me know you may want advice for future travels. 
   Whether you donate (PayPal link to the right) or not, my birthday wish (which is TODAY), would be for you to follow my blog by joining my site (to the right), OR following me on Instagram (camera link to the right). My passion is travel, and sharing it with you! 
   There may be many articles about the wonders of Iceland, but we will be going in the first week of the off-season. The rates go down, but places start to close up for the winter too. We won't see the midnight sun, and quite possibly the norther lights dancing across the night sky either. It's that in-between time that is the unknown and I hope to shed light, share stories, and give advice to anyone that may travel there in the future. Most of all, I hope you enjoy the journey with us, and look forward to sending a postcard and note from this magical land!  

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