My Iceland Stopover In Real Life
I had an image of the island in my mind. I’d heard about the remote natural wonders which friends explored via camper van. I pictured wilderness, expansive and pristine, dotted with waterfalls and framed by glacial peaks. As our plane began its descent through a thick blanket of clouds, sprawls of houses began to appear underneath. This I hadn’t pictured. Roads connect them, power plants stand out in the spaces in between. The spaces in between.
I knew a stopover would be limiting. This wasn’t the one-week #vanlife tour of my dreams. I’d treat it as a preview or a scouting trip for future roaming… I didn’t realize how much my time in the small cities would impact me. Iceland limited– by budget and by time- took a second to make sense to me.
First, my plan:
Stop one: 9am arrival at KEF airport, 2 hours to get through immigration and to hostel via bus (11am eta), shop for groceries at BONUS supermarket and make lunch in an hour… bus into the city (30 mins) for 1pm walking tour followed by a couple of hours at a hot springs then food and live music at Hlemmur Square Hostel (music Wednesday nights) or KEX downtown, head back after dinner to get a good nights rest before the 5:30 AM Fly Bus ($33 book ahead) to the airport the following morning.
Bus 55 to Fjörður in Hafnarfjörður (one hour journey, this is the transfer point to get into Reykjavik) runs every hour except at the time you’ll get through security. 90-minute wait and an $8 USD coffee so strong you can hardly stomach it but don’t panic you can pay onboard with a credit card approx. cost $15 USD… missed the walking tour/starving… walked to the grocery store to buy lunch supplies: pasta with red sauce and tuna (cheap protein) – took two hours to figure out the “Straeto” bus app ($4 rides, connect to the spotty WiFi onboard and stall the bus driver while you download a timed ticket complete with selfie).
Sight of the day: the famous Church.
It’s cool but took literally five minutes. With time left and a craving for fresh air, I decide to walk to the Nauthólsvík geothermal beach. The last bus stop drops me next to another industrial-looking part of town where there’s a path along the water so I follow it for about one mile to find the “beach” which is an old military compound turned kiddie pool with what does look like an interesting hot tub ring in the center but I lose my desire for swimming (mostly due to the overflow of children). After a lot of walking it feels like time to head back to Vibrant hostel by following the highway until I find bus 1.
[Back through Iceland] / Round two:
Stop two: Late night arrival. Sleep! Wake up early and get on a bus to the base of volcano “mount Esja” hike for a couple of hours then bus to Reykjavik, eat fish and chips for lunch, pick up left bags at the hostel and public bus back to the airport.
The Flybus and midnight walk to Vibrant Hostel weren’t bad. It actually was dark but I stayed at the same place last time which made it easy to find my way. Sharing breakfast with strangers after oversleeping was comforting. Too late to hike (the bus there takes two hours and only leaves occasionally) …quick new local plan:
Hellisgerði elf park then a second breaky at a cool café before the local art museum opens at 11. Shorter walk than expected, no elf spottings or clear trail markings/not recommended.
Brikk cafe is lovely- I had a cinnamon roll and the lunch options look good (bread with deli spreads, soups, pastries, and coffee all for under $15. Stopped by the Hafnarfjördur History Museum en route which was semi-interesting (all about fishing) but the Hafnarborg Museum changes things.
Local photographers lend a different perspective. Suddenly I see the beauty which has been confusing yet surrounding. An artist is able to capture the reflection of an industrial factory in a mud puddle with such vivid detail that it becomes aesthetically pleasing. I’ve been looking at the place all wrong. I leave a changed traveler, suddenly appreciating all of the random bits of beauty persisting amongst humanity. The boulders sitting between houses and random piles of gravel fascinate me.
Walking through the outskirts of town amongst metal-clad houses and black basalt boulders, warehouses full of broken things and sparse bus stops here and there confuses me.
The landscape is cratered, carved and covered. Moss so fresh, so lush, that it appears blurry contrasts telltale signs of humanity: roads lined with lampposts, scrap metal, storage facilities… the culture is decidedly Scandinavian. People from an ocean away planted themselves here somewhat recently. Once unsettled, humans + technology have defied the weather and the dark and the isolation to benefit from a lucrative fishery and now tourists flock in to discover the rugged natural beauty. I couldn’t help but feel jerked emotionally by the stark impact that humanity makes against this remarkable landscape. It’s a landscape that fights back aggressively. Boulders surround family homes and most structures show immense signs of weathering. The technologies we develop are impressive and provide a quality of life which has come to feel secure to me, but the collision of man into raw Earth is so explicit on this island and I got to thinking…
Growing up in America then moving to Spain has been revealing things to me. When Traveling to ancient cities like Ronda in Andalucia and viewing a bridge built to appear as if it extends from the cliffside or up high in Pyrenees villages walking stone paths which have been followed by monks and holiday-makers for centuries… there’s a way of building in the thousands of small communities which dot the Iberian countryside using materials and shapes which reflect those specific landscapes. The assimilation, whether intentional or practical, of the people to the land on which they construct, is not lost on me. Then I walk up a hill just outside of my home city and see rows of concrete lining the valley below. This harsh contrast is suddenly jarring; the realization that I’m part of a nation which came into a landscape and forced itself on the beautiful and perfect land/air/water/beings…disheartening
I’d return to Iceland again. But I’d spend more time (four full days minimum) and rent a car, travel with a buddy, steer clear of the city.
If you do elect an Iceland stopover either treat it as a rest stop en route and lower scenic expectations/lean into hostel life OR stay a while and get out of the city. See what lies just beyond society.
These experiences still need to sink in as I learn to understand and navigate my changing perspectives.