Iceland is an outlier.
Historically so remote from most of the world (now it's a four hour direct flight from New York), it's been able to develop a history and culture drastically distinct from the mainland, yet somehow as European as possible.
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On my last day in Iceland, I realized that I had to start this article completely over from the beginning. It’s a complicated place, and my initial assumptions weren’t enough to intelligently write about it.
Idiosyncrasies abound throughout every single one of the 1,332 kilometers that makes up the M1 (colloquialized as the Ring Road, or Hringvegur. The summit of every hill…every single hill that you see as you drive along the Ring Road…is topped by steinvarða, cairns of stone people have stacked over the past thousand years. The landscape is ridiculously varied and beautiful. Lava fields that stretch on for kilometers. Endless rolling green plains that look like the Microsoft Windows XP screensaver. Flat black sand beaches. Long stretches of Alp-like mountains with snowy peaks. Alien yellow-green landscapes of sulfury smoke spewing from beneath the surface of swamps. Fjords of ice. Rugged highlands that look as if they were lifted up out of Scotland. Glaciers. Spruce forests. Nordic cities. Ponies. Sheep. Potato fields.
My Itinerary Backpacking Iceland
I flew into Reykjavík around 4:30am. This is almost full daylight, of course, in the summer, which is disconcerting. I took FlyBus into town (Keflavik International Airport is around 45 minutes from Reykjavík itself…when the Americans abandoned the air force base they built during the second world war, Iceland decided to make the best of it and convert it into a civilian airport). Commonly people don’t realize the airport is so far away from Reykjavík. Shuttles or busses all cost around $20 for the drive, or you can pick your rental car up near the airport.
It’s odd being up during broad daylight in a town with the streets completely dead. Of course most cities are pretty asleep around 5:30am, but that makes sense because it’s also usually dark. I’ve come to realize that I really like extreme latitude destinations like Iceland or New Zealand. There’s something about the angle of the sun during different seasons that make a place look better: almost like it’s extended sunrise and sunset hours.
I stayed at KEX Hostel, a converted biscuit factory on the northern shore of Reykjavík. It was quite nice and walkable to all the places downtown you’d probably want to go.
As the world’s northernmost capital city, Reykjavík is quite the impressive town. The suburbs, like most towns, are nothing out of the ordinary, but the downtown area itself is one of the most vibrant towns I’ve ever seen…considering the population of 130,000. It’s also one of the richest towns in the world, so you’ll have to pay dearly for your pleasures. A beer costs around $12. A hostel bed, around $45. Hotel rooms average $200, and even your standard sit-down meal will run around $30-40 per person. Let’s just say I didn’t drink much, and ate a lot of hot dogs.
Driving is quite normal for a European country: organized, aggressive, and efficient.
I made better time than I expected on the northern route up the Ring Road, drove into Akureyri at around 3pm, and every single hostel room in the city was booked. A little desperate, I checked all my various avenues for room rentals. The cheapest option was $322. I slept in my car that night. That’s okay, though: I woke up at actual dawn, earlier than I’d ever have woken up in a room, and was out taking photos and video by 4:00am.
I spent a few days based in Akureyri. I still can’t properly pronounce the name, and I’ve been trying for a week now. Sounds a little like ak’krrray’rrreh. I saw Goðafoss (a large waterfall in the middle of the northern plains, Myvátn (a sulfurous, swampy area of geyser-like steam activity) and the various areas around the north. I was able to connect with quite a few interesting people in Akureyri: a German BMW engineer who travels the world during all his vacations; a fresh Irish university grad who popped over to Iceland for a week; a Mexican electrical engineer who was also driving the Ring Road; a Spanish teacher who’d come to Iceland in pursuit of a woman and, after being rejected, was making the best of his three-week vacation.
After a few days in Akureyri I headed further east, taking a German hitchhiker along (for both the company and the karma). She was at the tail end of her pre-career gap year, having spent 11 months hitchhiking around the world. This was her final destination before heading back to mainland Europe.
Driving through Egilsstaðir, we took the shorter, yet more hazardous, unpaved pass through the highlands. It was the best decision I made during the whole trip: 32 kilometers of unpaved, hairpin, potholed, unmarked blind curves. I was driving a little 3-cylinder VW Polo, and I’m surprised it was able to climb some of the ascents.
We made it to Djúpivogur, a fishing village with a population of around 450. I can’t pronounce its name, either. Something like d’yoopee-fohgr. I’ve given up on Icelandic. The German pitched a tent just outside of town by some rocks, and I enjoyed the warmth of a guesthouse. I woke up at the crack of dawn (that’s a debatable word at a latitude this high) and headed south.
I drove pretty fast on this segment…really stopping only once, for a couple hours, at Jökulsárlón, the ice lagoon. At this spot on the southern coast, a massive glacier meets the ocean at a lagoon, where pieces break off and float around. It’s a bizarre place, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I dropped off my car in Reykjavík and checked into Galaxy Hostel, the second capsule hotel in Europe. It just opened last year. What’s a capsule hotel? It’s a Hong Kong thing. You rent a capsule to sleep in. It’s like a hostel dorm bunk, except enclosed. It was pretty comfortable, even if I felt a little bit like a sardine.
Surprises and Misconceptions About Iceland
There were some surprising things I found out about Iceland.
- Iceland is green. Almost as green as Ireland. Especially in the north: ironically, the further north you go, the more moderate the temperature and the more likely to find a grassy green field or spruce forest. Down on the southern coast is where you’ll find the glaciers and Jökulsárlón, the ice lagoon.
- Iceland is seeing massive increases in tourism since the 2012 volcanic eruption. There is actually a concern that if tourism continues to grow, there will be “homeless tourists”: there will be more visitors than beds to hold them. And most tourists seem to be German (that’s anecdotal: I need a stat to back that up).
- Icelandic people are tough nuts to crack. They are even more distant than the stereotypical Scandinavian. Quite polite and interesting, but difficult to make casual conversation with. I got the sense that they were a little exhausted with tourists. Whereas I became friends with literally dozens of other tourists (Germans, mostly) I was only able to break the ice for a good conversation with a handful of Icelandic citizens.
- Iceland is even more expensive than you’ve been told, especially in the high season. An island with a population of 330,000, it sees over four million visitors a year, and the law of supply and demand will kill your wallet.
- Icelandic English speakers have a more neutral American accent, not an Oxford English accent. There’s some curious linguistic reasons behind this. First, both Icelandic and English are shockingly similar in vocabulary due to our shared mother language, Old Norse. And the stereotypical British accent was only developed around the turn of the 18th century (previously the accent of English speakers was much closer to how Americans speak it today). Icelandic is close enough to Old Norse that modern readers can read the old mythological sagas written 1100 years ago with relative ease.
Before I travel somewhere, I have a list of words I learn in the local language. It doesn’t even begin to be exhaustive…it’s pretty much just hi, bye, thanks, sorry, and the numbers from 1 to 10. Approaching people with a local word at least lets them know you want to respect their language, even if you’re butchering the pronunciation.
But the Icelanders saw right through my ruse. I have a sort of informal scale to judge how much I fit into the local culture. In some places, like Africa or Asia, I’m assumed to be foreign and thus always spoken to in English. In others, like Germany or New Zealand, they usually assume I’m one of them. But Icelanders knew I was different. They knew I was lesser. They either said hello or guten tag.
Perhaps it’s because I’m not a 6’7″ blonde Nordic god.
Iceland in a Nutshell
I flew into Iceland during a cold, rainy morning, and that surprisingly cast a negative spin on my first few days. Then the weather cleared up, and I could actually see the nature and walk around town without getting soaked. And then it became amazing. I don’t really want to leave just yet.
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