Part 3 of 3
You’ve probably been seeing Iceland pop up on your news feed a lot lately – it seems like everyone and their mother is packing their bags and heading over to this beautiful, idyllic, most picturesque of countries (myself included). Iceland had never really crossed my mind as a place to go on its own, but when my boyfriend and I found a SUPER cheap Icelandair flight to Amsterdam offering a 1-3 day stopover in Reykjavik at absolutely no extra charge, we jumped on it. Since this was my boyfriend’s first big trip outside of the US, and I had never been to Iceland, we figured, “Why the hell not?” Let’s see what’s in Iceland.
Up to a few weeks prior to our trip, neither of us knew anything about Iceland. I had never even heard of the Golden Circle, let alone know if I wanted to take a tour of it. Since we were only there for two days, I just wanted to know what were some of the essential things that one should – and realistically, could – see in a short amount of time.
So if you find yourself in the same boat – having booked a 2-day stopover in Iceland on your way to or from some other destination, and are not sure what to do with your time – then this guide is for you! This is the second part of a 3-Part Series on what to do and how to prepare for a 2-Day Stopover in Iceland. Click here to read Part 1 and here for Part 2!
Day 2: South Coast Tour
So you’ve survived the red eye, spent a day exploring Reykjavik on foot, and even braved the Northern Lights Tour? Great. Now, it’s time to really sink your teeth into what Iceland is known for – its incredible natural landscape – and embark on a full-day tour of the South Coast with GeoIceland.
Again, having no preconceptions about Iceland to go off of, we did a ton of research prior to the trip to see what we might find the most interesting given that we could realistically only take one tour. Having narrowed it down to the Golden Circle (most popular) and the South Coast (most “unique”) regions, we ultimately ended up deciding to take the South Coast Tour.
Well, to reduce it down to the pen-on-paper list I quite literally wrote down to show Kyle before booking a tour, Golden Circle = geysers, craters, and waterfalls; South Coast = glacier, black sand beaches, possible puffin sightings, waterfalls. We were both pretty intrigued by the idea of seeing a glacier up close and the potential to see puffins nesting on the beach, so we ultimately opted for that one. I also read a couple of blogs (one by my favorite paleo food blogger) that all agreed that the South Coast tour, while slightly less popular, was more “beautiful.” Totally subjective and I feel like anything in Iceland would be beautiful, but nevertheless, that was our decision making process.
We ended up going with GeoIceland tours because our hotel recommended them when I called them a few weeks prior to our trip and I am SO happy that we did! Our guide – an Iceland native – was incredibly knowledgeable and interesting, explaining not only the geography of the country, but also giving us cultural insight into the people and customs of the country (i.e. our guide “Wally” was mostly responsible for furnishing me with the information about size, population density, etc. in my first post about Iceland).
I also really liked the small group size of our tour – we were on a large minibus with about 15 people. This drastically reduced the time between stops (and our group was “exceptionally timely”), meaning our tour guide was able to squeeze in several extra sites that weren’t advertised on the tour.
This is a tour best explained through pictures, but first, a few logistics:
- Wear WARM clothes
- Make sure you have a poncho and waterproof shoes with a good grip, especially if you want to go on some of the more adventurous walks
- Be forewarned that unlike in the US, Iceland sort of…assumes that people are going to have common sense and not get too close to the edge of a cliff, the precipice of a waterfall, walk on an unstable glacier, etc. Guard rails and chained off areas are merely precautionary and you shouldn’t expect one to prevent you from plunging to an unpleasant death
- Pack a water bottle for the road and maybe bring a few snacks so you don’t take out of your 401(k) to purchase some coffee
- Make sure you bring a camera bag or protective case with you if you are bringing your professional camera and plan to shoot any of the waterfalls, etc. They will get wet!
- Everyone wants the cute pictures, but I can guarantee you it is a waste of time to do anything with your appearance other than a ponytail and your comfiest/warmest clothes…comfort/safety over fashion, or as they say in the Great British Baking Show, substance over style
This was our first stop on the trip, and one that was totally unplanned. Our guide made the impromptu decision to stop and said we had just enough time to squeeze it in if we were quick, and our group happily obliged. I am so glad we did as this was one of my favorite sites – so beautiful and impressive, with the lush greens contrasting so eye-catchingly with the bright blues and grays of the water.
In Icelandic, “foss” means waterfall, and this particular waterfall is located near the Skoga River, hence the nomenclature. You can walk practically right up to Skógafoss, so that the sounds of the water pounding down in buckets is deafening and awe-inspiring. You can also climb up the (many) stairs to see it from the top, but our guide said that the views are much more impressive from the bottom, so we saved ourselves the hassle and admired it from below.
Vik is a small fishing village on the South Coast of Iceland near the black sand beaches.
There’s not much to do or to see in Vik – it’s mainly a residential area and a pit stop for food before continuing to Reynisfjara. Along the way, we stopped to take some pictures of the incredible landscape, including remote hamlets or hotels stowed away in the looming mountains…
…and the natural hot springs emitting steam from the cracks in the very ground we were walking on.
We had our lunch break in Vik at a local rest stop area – I spent over $20 on the equivalent of a gas-station chicken salad – so definitely don’t come here for the food!
Reynisfjara is Iceland’s beautiful – and deadly – black sand beach. It is here that the puffins nest and lay their eggs – though they only do so in the summer months (apparently the last of the puffins had left the week before we got there, alas!). You can also find the striking basalt stacks that rise out of the sea, and make up the jagged cave that provides a stunning photographic backdrop.
For all of its beauty, why is Reynisfjara known for being so dangerous? Reynisfjara is dangerous because it is home to a very particular type of wave known as a “sneaker wave,” or a wave that comes up suddenly and swiftly and drags you out to sea. In “sneaker waves” or “rogue waves,” the sand underneath the wave often turns into a sort of quick sand that sucks you down and under, while the unusually strong undertow pulls you out. Often times, a massive amounts of water without much rise – usually caused by a groundswell – will come forward and rapidly flood an area. Without a warning and with very little hope for survival, family and friends often rush to save the person (usually a tourist) who has been dragged out…often at their own demise. Local Icelandic blogger Regina Hrönn has an interesting post about the dangers of Reynisfjara here.
Long story short – if you look down and the sand by your feet is wet – you’re too close! And never turn your back on the ocean. You can watch a video of a sneaker wave here:
After admiring (albeit tentatively) the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, we made our way up to a beautiful, mountainous outcropping overlooking the North Atlantic.
The views were spectacular and some of Kyle’s favorites from the trip.
And I mean…who wouldn’t be completely awestruck by such rugged, natural beauty? (Fun fact – Iceland is an extremely popular location for shooting films/TV shows like Game of Thrones!).
From Reynisfjara, we turned back to make our way once more towards Reykjavik, but with a couple more stops along the way. The first one was about 10 minutes north of Vik to see the magnificent ice cap, Mýrdalsjökull, that engulfs part of the massive volcano of Katla.
Katla is not to be confused with Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that grounded European flights in 2010! Katla is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, having erupted an average of once every 50 years since the year 930 AD. To get up close and personal to Mýrdalsjökull, you can book a glacier walk with a professional guide if you wish to skip the black sand beach and reconvene with the group later on.
Like much of Iceland, glaciers are also extremely dangerous, as they are unstable and large chunks of ice meters long can break off at any second. The glacier itself is receding at great lengths yearly – nearly the length of a football field each year as the glacier continues to melt. In fact, the parking lot that was originally built at the “entrance” to the glacier is now a good 30-minute walk to it due to such erosion. It was still an incredibly impressive sight to see and one of the main reasons we chose the South Coast tour.
After Mýrdalsjökull, our guide drove us to our third waterfall for the day, Seljalandsfoss.
This waterfall was incredibly beautiful, and a particularly unique experience because you could actually walk behind the waterfall and see it from that perspective.
It was a bit of a precarious walk and certainly not for the feint of heart, but definitely worth it for the incredible view!
The last stop we made was another “bonus stop” courtesy of Wally right before we began our 2 hour bus ride back to Reykjavik. “You guys are quick and this is a real treat – not for the feint of heart, of course.” The phrase “not for the feint of heart” could probably be the national anthem of Iceland, and Gljúfrabúi was no exception. A waterfall hidden behind a narrow rocky opening through which a channel of icy cold water ran, to see Gljúfrabúi we had to gingerly tiptoe through the crack opening up into a large cave with a pool of water, were the waterfall ended. Because the opening was so narrow, you had to take turns with people coming out of the cave – each person hugging the rocky edge of the wall to leap frog from unstable rock to unstable rock in order to avoid falling into the water. Given my level of coordination, it’s honestly a miracle that I made it out alive!
Needless to say, we returned back to the Storm Hotel utterly fatigued, hungry, and ready for another round of Fish & Chips + gelato after a nearly 12-hour day. It was absolutely worth the marathon 48 hours, though if I had unlimited vacation days, I would’ve stayed for a walk (and packed my own food – Top Ramen, here I come). As a person primarily interested in art/culture/museums/food, I’ve never visited a country solely to explore its impressive landscape and outdoor activities. That is my limitation on travel, per se, and stepping out of my “European city comfort zone” is something I aim to do as I plan my travels in the future. I’ve never been so awe-inspired and dumbstruck at the sheer beauty of a place quite like Iceland, and can’t recommend a 2-Day Stopover highly enough! Until next time, thanks for the memories, Iceland.
Have you ever been to Iceland? Did you ever plan a trip to a country you knew very little about? Where is one place you’ve traveled to that is outside of your “comfort zone”?