Suspended in a timeless loop of sunshine, surreal turquoise skies, clouds painted in smooth strokes from mountain top to glacier, neon greens lining the river in a way that speaks of faeries, my mind struggles to accept that this is reality.
I decided it was time to visit Iceland on a whim. I woke up from a dream that I was exploring the land and having the time of my life just about a week before my arrival . As a solo traveler in Iceland with flexible time, I knew the only way I wanted to visit such a special country was through the eyes of a local. Through a few days of perusal on my couch surfing app, I came across someone that sounded like the perfect host. Thor accepted my request for 3 days in Iceland. What I didn’t know was that I would soon embark on one of my newest favorite adventures.
When Thor responded to my request, he mentioned going on a possible off-roading trip for a few days through the Southern Highlands. He asked if I’d be interested, to which I responded enthusiastically. I arrived at his apartment in Reykjavik on Monday afternoon and the journey began. We packed a few things into his 4×4 and took off towards the mountains. I failed to contain my excitement as we drove and I asked a million questions about his life here, the history of Iceland and most importantly for a list of all the stupid things tourists do when visiting. He patiently responded to my growing list of questions with amazing insight. Thor has been an endless source of answers, listening to my questions and requests and answering with a sincerity and humor that made me instantly like him. Below are just a few highlights of our discussion:
*Is Thor your real name?
-Yes! (Laughs) I get that a lot.
*What annoys Icelandic people most about tourists coming to Iceland? What are ignorant things that people do here?
-People don’t respect the land and are more concerned with saving money. Often times tourists will park their cars and campers on the moss where they shouldn’t and leave marks that will last for a long time. Another problem is tourists pooping on the side of the road (referring to people with campers dumping their waste wherever they please). I feel like they should just hand out doggy bags at customs when people arrive in Iceland, with a guide on where to relieve themselves!
*What do the colors of the flag mean?
-Red symbolizes the active volcanoes of the island, white represents the ice and snow and blue represents the sea surrounding the island.
*Is it true that there’s an app that will tell Icelandic people if they’re related to each other to avoid incest?
-Yes, but we don’t really use it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
*Is Icelandic similar to any other language?
-Not really. Some Scandinavian languages have a few parallels, but not very similar. Icelandic is one of the oldest languages in the world.
*When was Iceland first settled?
-The first settlers arrived around 870 AD.
Day 1: Monday
I arrived at Keflavik Airport (KEF) at 8 am from a 5 hour United Airlines flight from NYC. As is my standard operating procedure, I found the nearest coffee shop outside of TSA, ordered a large black tea and connected to the WiFi. I wasn’t planning to meet Thor until later in the afternoon. I soon boarded a bus to the BSI station in Reykjavík, about a 45 minute drive, and stored my 65L backpack in one of the lockers at the station. I spent hours taking in the serene views, occasionally stopping to sit on a bench overlooking the North Atlantic and Esja mountain.
At one point I stumbled upon an interesting art concept called The Recycled House: home to the film director of the legendary feature ‘the raven flies’. A house made out of everything you could possibly imagine from old ship parts to satellite dishes, surrounded by other Nordic Viking fixtures. The eccentric film director Hrafn (meaning raven) Gunnlaugsson began constructing the house with his passion and fascination of objects. Channeling his creativity to finding new uses for old materials, his house is a symbol of evolution in the way the world is constantly changing, each piece lovingly placed with a story behind it.
When it came time to meet Thor, I returned to the station to grab my bag and boarded another bus to a new part of the city. We sipped coffee and chatted about life in Iceland for a while, eventually making moves to leave the city for the Southern Highlands. We didn’t really make set plans, just started to drive in a general direction. I immediately found Thor to be as spontaneous and laid back as myself.placeholder://
Our off-roading adventure quickly went from a planned 2-3 days to an undecided never ending journey. The late afternoon/early evening drive quickly taught me that the sun never really sets on Iceland in the summer. The sun would technically set somewhere around 11 pm and then begin rising again around 2 am without the sky ever getting completely black. Instead, we were graced with a perfectly pastel blue and purple evening that encouraged some serous night time excursions. We would sometimes drive for hours on end sharing stories and travel experiences and other times sit in comfortable silence appreciating the beauty of untouched nature.
The further we drove, the more beautiful the scenery became. Icelandic history and the pure raw beauty entranced me immediately. Iceland’s colors are so vibrant they seem to be neon. The culmination of blues, purples and pinks that make up the sky throughout the day are seemingly devoid of pollution. I continually put sunglasses on in the blinding sunshine just to rip them off again, exclaiming how unreal the colors of the land appeared. An excited smile became a permanent fixture upon my face.
My head frequently hung out the window to take in the glowing pink and purple views reflecting off the glaciers. Finally stopping at 2 am, we set up a tent in a serene field of electric green, a gentle river and a few whispering waterfalls as our backdrop.
Day 2: Tuesday
Despite the chilly temperatures throughout the night, I awoke around noon with exhilaration. Thor was already eating breakfast so I joined him and then stretched out with a little yoga in the spongey grass. I was amazed to learn that the water in the streams is so clean that I was able to refill my water bottle without a filter. A quick clean up of the tent and we were ready to drive again
Sometimes we hiked, other times we’d hop out at an impressive overlook to fully appreciate the view. At one point we hiked an hour and a half to a hot pool in the mountains with the most gorgeous view I’ve ever seen. We were the only people there by the time we climbed in. By the time we reached the car, 6 hours had passed and we hadn’t had any idea. A sense of timelessness for the entire 4 days became the theme of the trip. Neither of us was in a hurry to get anywhere and we’re both spontaneous enough to take it all a moment at a time. Thor would occasionally look at me at the fork in the road and say “left or right?” I’d claim not to care, he’d force me to pick, and then he’d typically pick the opposite direction. The laughter that ensued would usually remind me of a story of something and just like that we’d move on to the next topic.
When it came time to figure out our sleeping arrangements we decided on an empty hut, a small wooden two floor structure used by backpackers along the trail. Unfinished on the inside and partially built into the side of the mountain, the bottom half was once filled with livestock. Their body heat would keep the people on the upper floor warm. Our view through the doorway overlooked the top of a beautiful waterfall, shimmering beneath the purple evening sky.
Day 3: Wednesday
Our journey turned back towards civilization in transit to the next place and we found ourselves on Iceland’s one and only major ring road amongst the many tourists visiting the island. At one of the far southern points of the road, in a place called Laufskálavarða, we stopped to refill the air in the tires that we’d partially deflated for our rocky drive. There was a field full of stacked rocks (stone cairns) in varying formations. For centuries this was done by farmers heading to the mountains to gather their sheep with the belief that it would bring them good luck and fortune on their journey. Stone piles such as these were also erected throughout Iceland as a sort of gps system for travelers in olden days. The tourism culture today has brought many people who think it’s fun to create their own stone cairn for a cute photo. This is heavily frowned upon, as it is not only damaging the natural landscapes but taking away from the raw beauty of the country.
After stopping in a small town for gasoline and food resupply we continued our off-roading trek through new scenery. This time the land was mostly flat with many rivers, lengthy green grass and finally a long stretch of perfectly smooth black volcanic sand. In the distance I could see an isolated mountain that seemed different from the others we’d seen so far. Thor explained to me that this mountain is actually a cape and was the first part of Iceland to be settled by the Norwegian explorer Ingólfur. In those times, this cape was originally on an island. Now it’s reachable in a 4×4, but the amount of streams you must cross and drive through to reach it can be challenging. It’s easy to get your vehicle stuck if you’re inexperienced. If you’re visiting Iceland, the farmer that lives on the land nearby does have tours available.
I held my breath through every moving body of water we crossed as Thor expertly navigated us safely through. When we reached the smooth ripples of black sand it felt like another planet. We passed no one as we drove only to the sounds of the wind and our Spotify playlist. At the bottom of the mountain we threw on some extra layers to fight the wind and grabbed some trekking poles for the climb. Thor promised me that we would be able to see puffins once we reached the top near the cliffs edge.
Large brown birds that reminded me of oversized seagulls awaited us at the top. He warned me that these birds had a mean streak of attacking people. While they tended to leave large groups alone, they became very territorial around solo travelers and small groups. Sure enough we had to pass through a few fields to reach the puffins and with each new field came angry birds, talons out and circling us as they swooped in screeching to attack. We ducked and dodged and I couldn’t stop laughing as we warded them off with the trekking poles. I nearly had my head clipped multiple times. Thor only shook his head bemused at my humor. We continued along the occasionally sheep-lined path victorious at conquering the battlefield. The sweet and innocent looking puffins at the end made it all worth it. I couldn’t get enough of the innocent looking birds that waddled along the cliff’s edge like penguins. A beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and glaciers separated from us by a sea of seamless black sand provided the perfect surreal backdrop.
By the time we descended the mountain it was somewhere around 10:00 in the evening and the sky was illuminated in the glorious pastel purples and pinks that have become my favorite colors. We walked along the black sand beach, enjoying the glacier views as the reflections changed with the moods of the sky.
We drove towards the sunset illuminating the glacier as we retraced our steps, back towards some semblance of civilization. On the ring road again we continued driving southeast.placeholder://
Suddenly we crossed a bridge and the most amazing site was before me. We had arrived at Jökulsárlón, one of the most popular glacier filled lakes in Iceland. It was around midnight at this point and the deep purple sky cast an eerie glow over the floating pieces of ice. During the day this is a hot spot for tourists, but at this time of the evening we were completely alone. Sitting along the waters edge, my amazement swelled as I heard a loud crack and watched as a piece of ice broke apart from one of the larger floating ice sculpture, causing the original mass of ice to rotate upside down. A playful seal swam by at one point, the only ripples to be made apart from the ice separating. The cracking sounds made me jump every time, especially when I couldn’t see where they were coming from. It was both enchanting and terrifying to observe.
Across the bridge parallel to the glacier lake we found ourselves on Iceland’s diamond beach. The black sand beach was populated with ice sculptures of varying sizes. I had never seen anything like it. The twilight skies made the ice appear to be glowing against the volcanic sands. I moved in a trance down the beach determining what animal each chunk of ice made me think of.
It wasn’t until 4 am that we finally found a place in the middle of nowhere to park the car and in our exhausted state ended up sleeping right inside. No tent or hut for the evening. I fell into a deep dreamless sleep right through the entire morning of the following day.
Day 4: Thursday
We moved slowly when we awoke in the afternoon. Surrounding the car was another picturesque mountain view. No people in sight. I drank it in while I caught up on my journaling. After a stop in town for Thor to revive himself with coffee, ice cream for me, we continued on exploring.
Around 8 pm we stopped at a collection of hot tubs in the middle of the mountains. For 3 hours we soaked in the warm water, drinking in the views. It was a welcome relief after not having showered properly for a few days. Feeling rejuvenated we took off for the next adventure, a challenging off-roading trip that Thor had not yet attempted himself.
We came up to another beautiful glacier filled lake around midnight. Thor smiled mischievously at me and asked if I wanted to go sailing. Of course the answer was yes! We spent the next hour pulling things out of the car and inflating a canoe he had. I was freezing but buzzing with adrenaline.
We finally set sail in the icy waters under the purple-blue sky in the cozy canoe. The water was perfectly calm, the chunks of ice gorgeously reflecting in the water, making me feel as if I were floating amongst sharp icy clouds. Thor was careful to keep us somewhat close to the bank as we quietly floated on the serene waters. The surrounding mountain tops and glaciers encircling us were shrouded in misty gray clouds. I truly felt as if I were dreaming. We spoke little and mostly in whispers when we did. I could’ve drifted for hours. The only other life form to be seen was an Arctic fox shuffling along the bank. By the time we returned to the shore, the sky had begun to turn the shades of sunrise again.
Piling everything back into the car, the canoe tied to the roof, we headed down an even more adventurous road. The winding turns, steep cliff drops, small rocky waterfalls we had to drive through and overall precarious slant of the primitive rocky path had me questioning if it was even safe. Thor simply chuckled and continued singing “on the road again!” whenever I asked, dissolving me into fits of laughter.
The gorgeous rolling greens lining the mountain and low lying clouds reminded me of Ireland. We failed to find a suitable place to camp due to the uneven terrain and finally ended up car camping once again with another glorious waterfall view nearby. We finally slept at 5 am to the rhythm of the rain gently pattering around us.
Day 5: Friday
Our streak of good weather finally ended and with that we decided to turn west once again towards Reykjavík. Eventually Thor brought me to the coziest rustic wooden cottage I could ever have imagined. A writer’s paradise tucked into thick green foliage in what must only be frequented by mythological creatures. I tucked my feet under me on the sofa in a room encased with windows and settled in next to the fire burning in the wood stove nearby. A soft orange glow permeating the room from wicker lamps and candlelight created a timeless ethereal effect.
Day 6: Saturday
Today has been spent reflecting on my time here in Iceland. I had only really planned to spend a few days here, but now there seems to be no end in sight. I’m incredibly thankful for the friend I’ve found in Thor and for his willingness to embark on this adventure with me. I’ve found Iceland to be even more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. I’ve learned so much from my brief time here. Even though it’s been just 5 days, the endless natural lighting has left it feeling like one long endless day and a lifetime of adventure. I can see how anyone who comes here could feel as if they might never leave. Iceland’s charm is captivating and addictive.
My biggest piece of advice here would be to try and see through the eyes of the locals and educate yourself on what it means to respect such sacred beauty beforehand. Couch surfing may not be for everyone, and many of the people here get so many requests that it’s impossible to find the time to host. That being said, I’ve found the locals to be friendly to people that are polite and respectful and generally eager to learn. Be open minded and listen more than you speak. I hope that everyone can have the life changing experiences of seeing Iceland from the perspective that allows you to truly appreciate being alive the way I have. Special thanks to Thor for opening my eyes to so much knowledge and beauty. Iceland will be seeing me again in the future!
*Many of the photos seen here are compliments of Thor Thrainsson. If you would like Thor to be your tour guide in Iceland you can guarantee that through this site: https://www.showaround.com/locals/9598666 I highly recommend it!