NO&YO Ambassador Sammy came through and delivered the long awaited last part of his Iceland Bucket List trilogy: Iceland Bucket list part III. If his adventures described in his encounters in this post along with his talented friend and photographer Rick don’t make you want to visit Iceland, well then your heart is either frozen solid or you don’t have a heart.
Rick and I pulled into the town of Vík before sundown and set up our tents on the campground just off route 1. We stopped in for a bite at a placed called Vikirskáli and enjoyed the awesome lamb stew. With our bellies full we returned to our tents. It was a chilly night and the waves crashing on the beach could be heard in the distance. I remember it being so cozy in my sleeping bag I swear I must’ve fell asleep with a smile on my face. In the middle of the night, however, nature called, urgently. I unzipped my sleeping bag, then my tent and as the cold air hit my face I went from half asleep to wide awake in an instant. As I stood in the dark I leaned my head back and as the night sky came into my field of view, there they were again, aurora borealis. It was the second time seeing the northern lights in my life and on this trip, so it was still very exciting for me. After rushing my bladder with a “c’mon, let’s go” I woke Rick, I wasn’t sure if he’d be happy about it but I went ahead with waking him anyway. The show was over pretty quickly and the stars stayed in place for the remainder of the night.
The next morning we packed our things and made our way to the black sand beach, Vík’s main attraction is Reynisdrangur, rock formations that rise out of the ocean and are postcard worthy picturesque. The air was cool fresh and the sky crystal clear, with every exhale I breathed out New York smog and did my lungs good every time I inhaled. With the black beach experience complete we grabbed a light breakfast at the N1 (Iceland’s version of a 711) discussing what we could fit in for the rest of the trip, for the day we had: Geothermal pool, horseback riding and then head back to Reykavik dropping off the car rental and ending up at Kex Hostel.
We headed west on route 1 passed Skogar and exited at 242, Seljavellir. Home to a pool built in 1923 and fed by a natural hot spring it is nestled by a river inside a valley. It’s a short hike as you follow the river which leads you to Seljavallalaug (the name of the pool), which is currently featured briefly in a credit card television commercial. Skogafoss also appears in that same commercial but that was coming up for Rick and I on a hike we had planned. After some laughs and horsing around in the pool we hiked back to the car and set out to do some horseback riding. We had driven passed and also stopped by to pet so many of the beautiful Icelandic horses along the route, I was looking forward to finally getting on one. After a stop in Hvolsvöllur for some pizza and burgers we made our way west passed Hella on route 1 and exiting at 284. With the help of the Lonely Planet guide book we found Herridarhóll (P. 131 in the Lonely Planet Iceland guide book), a horse ranch run by a German woman and her Icelandic husband. We received a warm welcome although we arrived a bit on the late side, and without any reservation, and were able to ride. It was Rick and I plus a German girl who was working at the ranch and acting as our guide. There I was riding a breed of horse that if removed from the island nation, is no longer considered a pure Icelandic horse and isn’t allowed back into the country. Riding horses in Iceland: Check!
We hopped back in the rental car with the goal of getting back to Reykjavik and returning the car on time. That didn’t happen. We stopped by a do it yourself car wash en route and arrived at the car rental office at night, well after closing. No big deal, we dropped the keys in a drop box and parked the car in a designated area for rental returns. We checked into Kex hostel again (man, the best damn hostel I kid you not) and sat down for food and beers, map spread out with live music coming from the stage. We went over our trip thus far and planned for our last leg, Fimmvörduháls, a two-day hike which we’d begin in Thorsmörk and end at Skogafoss, Skogafoss being our reward. The weather report called for good weather and we were amped about ending the trip with some good hiking.
Early the next morning we made our way to the BSI bus terminal not far from the hostel. We purchased two one-way tickets (15,000 króna – about $115.00 total) to Thorsmörk and waited for the bus, coffee in hand. Over the speaker system came an announcement that the bus was ready to board. Outside was a fleet of buses, but the one I was boarding was this bad ass, white, 4 wheel drive, diesel engine monster. A huge flat nosed beast with the Mercedes emblem between the headlights and tires that assured you that this was a vehicle designed to take you into very interesting territory. Standing next to the bus and welcoming us was Hermann, the mountain bus driver (with Reykavik Excursions). Inside the bus, Hermann made his way toward the back asking each passenger where on the route were they planning to exit. We told him our destination was Thorsmörk. He began telling us how special that area was and asked if we are doing the hike to Skógar. He became eager to share with us his love for the region, but had to cut it short because he had a bus to drive and a schedule to keep. Along the route were stops at different waterfalls and towns with hop on and offs, even picking up four female German tourist who became stranded in tough terrain with a small rental car. The bus’ final stop was Thorsmörk; from here it’s a 6 km hike to Básar, where the Landmannalauger (aka Laugavegurinn) hike ends and the Fimmvörduháls hike to Skógar begins. Outside the bus Hermann told Rick and I that he’d be happy to get us to Básar though it wasn’t part of his route. Hermann returned to the driver’s seat and we were his only two passengers. Hermann started telling us about how great a time we’d have on the upcoming hike and that we would see Iceland’s true beauty during the trek. We were getting stoked as Hermann went on telling us that after this hike it wouldn’t be long until we returned to Iceland, all while driving through streams, rivers and terrain with loose rock and gravel. We passed through a valley surrounded by mountains and hills covered in beautiful shades of green and snow. When we got to Básar, we expressed our gratitude to Hermann with hand shakes and promises to send him the pictures taken along the route.
Rick and I got comfortable at Básar, paying a small fee for a spot to set up camp. After the tents were up we made our way to the common area near the information office. At a bench were two Frenchmen casually enjoying a meal. Minutes later, Rick and I joined Bilal and Charles, we spread out the map talking about routes. They shared rum they had picked up at the airport, I shared Bosnian-style beef jerky from Euromarket in Astoria, Queens. As it grew darker we retreated to our camp, where there was a picnic table between our tents. We each grabbed our sleeping bags, laying them down on each side of the picnic table looking directly into the sky which was clear and riddled with stars. I personally have never seen so many, so clearly and so close. It seemed every minute one was shooting or falling. We traded stories, just like we had done throughout the trip and on the trails….and there they were again, the northern lights.
The next morning we started the day heating up water for our freeze dried breakfast. We agreed that we had plenty of time and that we should just really enjoy this last hike, that was the attitude and mindset we had as we left Básar. The trail is clearly marked and it doesn’t take long for the ascent to start. A good portion of the first half of the trail is ascending. Hermann wasn’t kidding when he told us of the beauty, this place was as special as he made it out to be. I wasn’t only stopping to catch my breath, I was stopping to look around and soak in the scenery. I didn’t want to pass any of it with my head down. After a period of climbing you get a little break as the terrain levels off. On the left is a wide valley and on the right a steep drop off with a river flowing toward Básar. The trail gets a bit tough when it leads up the side of a mountain to an advantage point but after this steep ascent the trail levels off again as you cross I long stretch of rocky terrain with a eight to ten inch clear path. After the rocky stretch the terrain became icy and hiking sticks came in handy, especially on the steep climb up. We made it to a large marker and took a break for water and pictures, we were at a pretty high altitude and the scenery was epic. Continuing on, we crossed snow covered fields that had a dusting of volcanic ash. The trail then leads over volcanic rock, from an eruption that happened in 2010, and passes new mountains formed by that same eruption (The Eyjafjallajökull eruption). We started to descend and came across signs for the Fimmvörduháls hut, which we weren’t planning on spending a night at. Rick and I thought we’d continue hiking until we found a nice spot to set up camp preferably near a waterfall. We passed the Fimmvörduháls hut and came across Bilal and Charles again near another hut, one designated as an emergency hut. ” Hey it’s open” shouted Charles. I looked at Rick and made the case for spending a night there. It was a cool looking “A”- frame hut with a small “A” – frame out house, I thought it’d be another great experience spending the night there and Rick luckily agreed.
We dropped our bags inside and relaxed out in front on a picnic table on the porch. It was sunny and we utilized the sunshine by draping our wet gear and tents over the sides of the porch. Inside the hut was a working stove but a heater that didn’t function. Two more hikers joined us, a duo from Germany that had been on a long hike. One of the two spoke English very well, his name was Erik. It wasn’t long until more hikers showed up, a couple from Germany, a couple from Slovenia I believe it was, plus some others. Rick and I were the only Americans. The hut had two levels, some people had their sleeping bags already set up on the second level, the first level had chairs, tables and a kitchen. Bilal and I went out to fill a pot with snow and ice for boiling. Everyone inside the hut was preparing meals for dinner. A deck of old cards provided the entertainment as Rick introduced a game taught to him by his grandmother. Sister Nancy’s infamous reggae tune “Bam Bam” played from my iPhone as conversation filled the room. Erik provided me with info on places to eat in Reykavik, he also told me he couldn’t wait to get to a Domino’s Pizza, because ” in Germany they do not have Domino’s.” After a few card games the night ended, most of the hikers were set up for sleep upstairs with a few set up downstairs.
The next morning we were back on the trail. Not long after our start we walked into dense fog. We could hear water, but couldn’t see it. We were slightly worried we wouldn’t have good conditions for picture taking. The first day’s weather was perfect and we were treated to very picturesque scenery, but after reading the Lonely Planet, it’s the second day of this hike that truly delivers. We came across two people hiking up toward the hut and they assured us the fog clears up, when it did clear we were treated to beautiful waterfalls, one after another. We were in awe of how beautiful this place was, Rick and I went back and forth expressing our amazement. It seemed like it would never end.
As we made our way down south toward Skógar we came across more people, not in hiking gear or back packs so we knew it wasn’t much further to Skógafoss (Page 138 if you’ve got a Lonely Planet guide book). Rick and I slowed down our pace even more, this was the last bit of the hike and we were early to catch a local bus scheduled to head back to Reykavik. When we finally made it to Skógafoss there were plenty of tourist scattered around for photo ops and we got in on it as well. I can get into how beautiful it is, and it was, but you really need to just be there to understand and appreciate this place, this entire country.
We returned to Reyjkevik and again checked into Kex hostel (best freagin’ hostel) to learn that the next day a bunch of bands would be playing there for a charity event. Staying at the hostel gave us access to the show and it would be the perfect way to end the next day. We planned to hang around Reyjkevik for the last two days including meeting up with Bilal and Charles for Icelandic beer. So the next day started as planned with a day in Reyjkavik and shopping (mostly for friends & family back home) along the popular street Laugavegur in the central part of town. We returned to the hostel for a kick ass live show featuring incredible Icelandic talent, one of which being FM Belfast, who wrapped up the show with an unforgettable set. The show was over, but the night was just kicking off.
We met up with the Frenchmen at Whiskey Bar on Laugavegur for beers. We invited two German ladies (which spoke damn good English) over to our table to share stories with. The night continued with stops at pretty much each bar as we made our way down the street. The next morning Rick left for Madison, Wisconsin and my last day was to be spent snorkeling in frigid crystal clear water in the Silfra fissure. I had made a reservation with a tour at the front desk of the hostel. This was the only guided tour I planned to do and it would be on my last day. I booked with Arctic Adventures which picked me up from the hostel and took me right to Pingvellir National Park. There I met Tina (with her awesome Argentine accent) and Richard (brilliant British accent) which were the guides for the trip. Providing the necessary gear and clear instructions, it wasn’t long before we started our 45-minute swim. In the water with us was Richard as we made our way along with the current. The water was so clear and clean, we were given a green light to feel free to sip the water if we’d like. The water was so cold that your face becomes numb after the first minute. Floating in such clear water gives you a sense of flying. You won’t see fish, but the experience is in swimming the crisp clear water inside a fissure created by the tearing apart of two tectonic plates (the fissure separates North America and Europe). Of course the 45 minutes went by in a blur and my walk back to the van included deep thought of returning.
Back at the hostel with a couple hours to kill I made my way toward the center of town to wrap up the trip with some shopping. As I walked passed the entrance of the Domino’s Pizza I thought it’d be hilarious if the Germans from the emergency hut were inside. Sure as shit, there
they were. We exchanged some laughs and made sure we had each other’s contact info before I left. In the last hours of my stay I only thought of returning. Iceland is a magical place that I wish I had visited sooner. It had been on my list of places to visit for some time and it’ll be scratched onto my “places to return to” list now. If you have never been to Iceland and have an interest I will say this: if you are the adventurous type, the type of person who lives for trails and camping then it’s a no brainer, go. If you’re not that type of person, go to Miami.
A little shout out to Dina at Kex hostel, thee best hostel ever. If you’re planning a visit this place is your best bet while in Reykjavik and includes breakfast. And say hi to Dina! She’s the little Italian lady with the New York accent.