Iceland: a stopover on a budget – Itinerary and plan

So you might just have read the dry budget tips and practical info on Iceland, here comes the adventure part! Exploring that island with active volcanoes, steaming hot springs and bubbling geysers was a true fairy tale. We were enchanted by the Northern Lights, giant glaciers, waterfalls and ice lagoons. We normally wing it but this very first super-planned trip was a great success and fantastic experience.

Because we sadly didn’t have the time to drive the entire Ring Road around Iceland, we cut the list of sights on the South coast in half. We did some on the way over, and the rest on the way back. Allowing some time to look around, account for famous sudden weather changes and other possible delays. So here is our itinerary, the story of our adventure and all tips we have for discovering this country of natural contrast.

Day 1: Arrival and first peek

We arrived to Iceland on Keflavik International Airport, on an early November afternoon around 14:00. We were then picked up by a shuttle of the car rental company. They sorted us out with a little Hyundai and a discount card for one of the big gas-stations. We spent the first night in Hjardarbol guesthouse, about 90km East. If you like cities, Reykjavik is probably cool to spend a night (or do it on the way back). We wanted to get straight into the nature and loved the last hour of daylight. Bought groceries on the way and stopped the car every 10 minutes to look at our surroundings. Our first impressions of the Ring Road were beautiful and we spent our first evening in a hot tub!

Day 2: The Golden Circle

No matter if you stayed in the city or somewhere outside, make sure it’s not too far away! On our first day of exploring the land of fire and ice, we drove around the golden circle. This popular tourist route of Iceland covers about 300km and loops from Reykjavik into the Southern uplands and back. Getting up in time to leave around sunrise and making the most of our day (look up accurate times online). We got groceries early so we wouldn’t have to think about it later on.

First real stop is Kerid, a crater lake surrounded by volcanic rock. The volcano didn’t blow up like with most craters, but caved in from beaneath. To make this blue lake in red rock even more colorful, green moss covers one side of the slope.
Next up a historical site in a national park, a combination that marks Iceland like no other. The drive there, by the side of Thingvallavatn lake, makes big promises for the rest of the day. Thingvellir was the site of the general assemble of parliament as early as the 10th century. The valley here is formed by the edges of the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates slowly drifting apart (fun fact: about 15mm/year).

On the way out of the national park we visited a human-made waterfall. The Oxara river was rerouted in the 9th century by that longest running parliament in the world to fall 20meters down this beautiful ravine. Oxararfoss waterfall is easy to find and accessible from the parking lot by a short walk over a boardwalk ending at a wooden platform. Typical Icelandic tourism infrastructure to protect nature and make the rough outdoors look a bit like a theme-park.

The geothermal field and hot spring area in Haukadalur giving name to the word geyser. Geyser is situated at the northern edge of the southern lowlands and is home to boiling mud pits and (obviously) an eruption of boiling water every couple of minutes. Geyser is one of the main attractions on the popular sightseeing tours and thus always busy. Standing there surrounded by the smell of sulfur, looking at nature boiling and spouting water, is truly magical though. People filming, cheering and clapping for Mother Earth really made our day.

Another must-see to end off this spectacular first day. Gullfoss is where water plunges 30m in two steps over a dramatic crevasse in the river valley. This iconic place offers a jaw dropping view of the forces and beauty of untouched nature. The frozen mist clings to trees and rocks, forming magical frozen shapes.

Sleep somewhere around Hella or Hvolsvollur. We ate, had a cup of tea and went straight to bed. Crazy tired after such a long, fascinating and gorgeous day.

Day 3: Let’s go chasing waterfalls and airplanes

Following the Iceland’s route #1 further down the Southern Region in another long day of discoveries. First stop, a true picturebook waterfall of 60m height with a footpath behind it. Seljalandsfoss is a unique place to visit, and we might not have it for much longer. Because of the enormous boom in tourism the path was closed off for a while last year as the fragile site has been prone to rockslides lately. Enjoyed the hell out of it and hope more people will stay to be able to do so in the future.

Skogafoss waterfall is about a 2hr drive from there. Through a landscape that changes in every turn, from black cliffs to bright green moss, fields with stocky blonde horses and sheep fighting the cold wind. These falls offer scenic views from both below and above. Taking the stairway up to see where the water falls off the edge of the old coast-line. The river underneath flowing away towards the ocean through black sand.

In 1973 a United States Navy plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the beach at Solheimasandur. Luckily, all people involved survived and usable pieces were salvaged. It takes about an hour on foot to get there from the un-signposted parking lot. The path is wide and the surrounding black sand stretches out as far as you can see. We found ourselves amidst a little snowstorm on the way over so it was quiet and magical, but cold and wet. After considering to turn around and head back, we finally spotted the plane wreck behind a dune. The remains make for a surreal view, with the white plane against the black background.

Another magical stop right off Iceland’s ring road! Fjadrargljufur is a canyon formed at the end of the last Ice Age, carved out by the Fjadra river. Somehow this place doesn’t get the tourist attention it deserves, so we were basically by ourselves. From the parking lot starts a little trail along the top of the cliffs that allows for fantastic views from different angles.

Sleep in or around Kirkjubaejarklaustur. We stayed at Horgsland cottages, not necessarily a cheap place but we got a good deal on Booking.com. As the sun went down and it started to snow, we spent an hour in the hot tub feeling very rich!

Day 4: Ice ice baby

Skaftafell is a beautiful mountainous region in the South of Iceland’s Vatnajokull National Park. We first hiked to Svartifoss waterfall, tumbling over black basalt columns. Although the walk is mostly another example of Iceland tourism infrastructure (read: board-walk style), the waterfall is beautiful and definitely worth the time. But our favorite was another stroll around, starting from the same visitors center and leading out to Skaftafellsjokull. This glacial tongue is one of the many outlets of Vatnajokull, the largest continental glacier of Europe and 3rd biggest ice-cap of the world (the poles being the first two). We have spent a fair bit of time on and around Austrian glaciers, but to see this immense beast up close was an unforgettable experience. Do you know the chill you feel from the freezer isle of the supermarket? Imagine what being close to such a gigantic piece of ice feels like!

The coolest (pun intended) part of our entire stay on Iceland was without a single doubt the Jokulsarlon ice lagoon. It’s still, blue waters are dotted with icebergs that float around with the tide. These glassy and luminous blue pieces of ice broke off from the Breidamerkurjokkul glacier and are slowly making their way out into the Atlantic. I would love to say more but don’t know enough superlative adjectives to properly describe this incredibly jaw-dropping place! And to top off our excitement, we saw some seals playing around between the crashing and creaking blocks of frozen water.

As if the landscapes scattered around the Southern-coast of Iceland that we have seen so far on this trip haven’t been out of this world enough. Stokksnes is another lunar landscape unlike anything you’ve seen before. One of the first settlements of the island were found in this area, and it’s easy to see why. The steep cliffs, black sand and lonely grass make for a great place to experience the isolated, quiet charm. This is as far around as we go, so tomorrow we slowly start heading back West.

Sleep in or near Hofn and get fish&chips at Hafnarbudin restaurant.

Day 5: Mesmerizing basalt and the aurora borealis

In the morning, we went by Jokulsarlon again, just to see it in different light. Still as mesmerizing as the day before, but quieter and with a bit of blue sky.

In case you didn’t make it up to the Svartifoss waterfall the other day or if you just really like hexagonal basalt columns, stop at Dverghamrar. This protected natural monument is special in that it is topped with cube-jointed basalt and shaped like a horseshoe. The name appropriately translates into ‘dwarf cliffs’, based on a local fairytale that tells of both dwarfs and elves living here.

One of the ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world, Reynisfjara has beautiful black sand, roaring waves and famously photogenic sea stacks. On top of that, legend has it that the stacks are made by giants. Literary around the corner (the corner being a hill) from Vik, the stunning panoramas, foaming water and towering cliffs kept us entertained for hours.

Sleep in Vick, there are plenty of good and affordable places to choose from! Because we are lucky #$&*-ers, we were blessed by the final bit of Icelandic magic missing from our list so far: the Northern Lights. There are a couple of good apps for Aurora Forecast, keeping you up to date on cloud cover and moon cycles. We checked for dark (no light pollution, so leave the city) and clear skies every night but it just didn’t seem to be in our cards.

Honestly, we had kind of given up and were even at peace with it because our entire trip was so fantastic. But then Ludek checked the app after dinner and we drove out to go hunting. At first, it was hard to really see much, apart from a vague green mist in the sky. As it started to get more intense, showing us clear flame-like dancing, I personally almost cried from sheer awe and happiness. What an amazing way to celebrate our stay on this fantastic island!

Day 6: Back and away

Driving the same way back seemed like a boring thing to do, but it is just so insanely pretty around here that it didn’t turn out that way at all. Just before bringing back the car, we had a last stop to make though. The Blue Lagoon is the most visited attraction of the island, and some people choose to stop only at this spa on a layover. The geothermal water originates 2000m below the surface, is milky blue because of the minerals and lies in a lava field.

Although soaking in hot water seems to be an important part of Icelandic culture, the whole fancy spa-resort situation doesn’t really interest us and wouldn’t fit into our budget either. But since it was on our route and we are curious people, we stopped there anyway. Park the car and just walk the path around the facilities to get an idea of the steaming blueish pools. The restaurant and gift shop are very nice too!

And then we find ourselves having to leave this amazing island behind us again. Mother Nature truly gave out a show for us this week, leaving us speechless and in a standing ovation. For anybody still in doubt: GO!! We promise you won’t regret it (but for the sake of all that is said be its name, bring enough warm clothes!)

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