I finally made it to Iceland at the end of September into October with one of my best friends Mackenzie, who had just completed a through hike of the Appalachian Trail only a few weeks prior. You can follow her adventure HERE. The first day we were there was easily one of the craziest days of my life.
I had been wanting to visit Iceland for a long time. It seemed like anytime I saw a photo online that looked like an alien planet it inevitably revealed it self to be Iceland. When we finally arrived I was not disappointed. From the way everything is built to handle the weather to literally every direction you turn out in the lava fields it felt like I was visiting a recently colonized alien planet.
Iceland was full of surprises, good and bad sometimes, and the first day was the mother of all first days in a foreign country. It was also my first time outside the U.S.! Right after we landed at 6 a.m. and collected our bag from the carousel I ran into friends from home who had flown in at the same exact time from a completely different airport. After the initial shock wore off we promised to meet up at some point in the trip. Which we did more than once.
We rented the smallest/cheapest camper van, across all of the online Icelandic camper rental sites, I could find. It was a remarkably comfortable, manual, diesel van that had more than enough room for the two of us to sleep separately with our belongings in the front seats. I did however develop a love hate relationship with the van that lasted the entire trip. More on that to come.
Pro Tip #1: Despite the issues we had that you’ll hear about soon, Iceland in a camper van is the way to go. They have different size options and they all have heaters. You never have to worry about making it to your destination because you can just stop and go to sleep anywhere reasonable. Any Icelander we talked to agreed the camper van is the best way to see the country.
The van became immediately useful once we made our first stop at the pick up for Thrihnukagigur and were able to take a nap in the back of the parking lot. Thrihnukagigur or “Into the Volcano” as its tour is called is billed as the only volcano in the world where you can descend into an intact ancient magma chamber. Unfortunately, after napping, we found out the tour was cancelled because of the weather but the people were super helpful at the desk to reschedule for the following day. After we visited the Bonus grocery store next door to get groceries for the next few days I noticed the front left tire was looking a little low. In my infinite wisdom I decided it would be fine for the time being (exhausted from the flight and naturally lazy) and I was right…for a short time.
Since the reservation at the Blue Lagoon wasn’t until 7 p.m. we made our way to the downtown area and shopped for a bit and had lunch at Café Loki. I struggled to find food that I liked at the start of the trip but that was mostly my fault. I had been training for a marathon and eating a very lean diet that I struggled to find in Iceland. I eventually gave up trying to stomach what I assumed were the healthy options and dug straight into the fried fish and soups which are amazing.
We had an Airbnb for the first night and dropped our stuff off there after touring downtown and the waterfront. I wanted an Airbnb for the first night despite already renting a camper van so that we would be able to stay in downtown Reykjavik and have a place to regroup after a long flight. I had also wanted to be able to talk with someone local to get their take on what we should do but the house was empty when we were there. It was a nice luxury but it wasn’t necessary. In the future I think I will just stick with the camper van for the entirety of a trip. Our Airbnb was actually the home, or one of the homes, of the pianist for Of Monsters and Men. Which we discovered after realizing his platinum records were all over the walls of the house.
The Blue Lagoon is actually kind of between the airport Keflavik, and Reykjavik. So if you have the opportunity to go straight there from the airport, take it. You will see a bunch of reviews online talking about how it’s just a tourist trap and to avoid it. I can’t deny that it is a tourist trap but even in the freezing wind and rain Mackenzie and I both agreed it was well worth the money spent. I came out feeling completely refreshed and ready for the rest of the week. That quickly changed.
Pro Tip #2: If you want to bring your phone in a waterproof case prepare for your finger to not be recognized on the screen. Lots of people had their phones out but if you absolutely must have a camera bring some sort of GoPro. If it isn’t waterproof leave it in your bag. Your hand will get cold real fast.
The wind and rain had really kicked up once we made it to the van in the parking lot and I realized the slowly leaking tire was now just about fully flat. I can lie and make up a story about how I easily changed the tire and sped off back to Reykjavik but the real story was more fun… once it was over.
I just want to preface this pathetic attempt at automotive maintenance with the fact that during this whole story I was being blasted with freezing wind and rain. Cold wet hands on cold wet metal = misery.
Pro tip #3: Bring as much water proof and water resistant clothing as possible. Leave cotton at home.
I managed to move the van at an angle in the Blue Lagoon parking lot so I had some light from the pole lights and I wasn’t directly in the wind. I got all of the tools out but then realized I had no idea how to get the tire down from underneath the rear of the van. After fighting with it for what felt like an hour (to be fair, it was probably 60 seconds), I gave up and packed everything back in the car and drove on the flat to the nearest town.
Pro Tip #4: Make sure the vehicle you rent has a WiFi hot spot or you pay for data. Having access to google maps made the trip what it was. I actually paid extra for GPS in the van and they gave us a WiFi hot spot instead so you can do that or call ahead to clarify what paying for a GPS means.
We hobbled into what was now the empty town of Grindavik, which you can see in the map above, after 10 p.m. and I finally found a tire pump. I also for the first time saw the enormous screw stuck snugly between the tread and listened as it taunted me by whistling while I refilled the tire. We stopped at an N1 gas station that was actually open and I set up to finally replace the tire. I swallowed my pride and went inside to ask one of the two girls working the register for help getting the tire down. One of them actually came out in the wind and rain to help. She was about to call her dad and I think that moment of “Oh God shes about to wake her probably enormous and manly Icelandic father to help this sad pathetic American” clicked something in my brain because I immediately located the bolt inside the van that lowers the tire outside the van. I realize as I am writing this I probably could have googled it. Kill me.
I also had to go inside to borrow a pair of scissors to cut the zip ties off of the hubcap which made me feel better about the whole situation because if I managed to get the tire down at the Blue Lagoon I wouldn’t have been able to get much farther. I finished up, went inside, bought a hot dog with Icelandic mustard (kind of sweet), and drove back to Reykjavik at midnight. I was soaking wet with the heat blasting feeling accomplished and ready to restart my Icelandic adventure the next day as soon as possible.