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A Winter Drive on the Ring Road of Southern Iceland

After two years of the pandemic, I was finally itching to travel internationally again. My boyfriend Gareth and I spent a couple of months going back and forth on where we would travel to. We picked a few destinations, but travel regulations kept changing. Finally, we thought of Iceland as an option.

We chose Iceland because, with their high vaccination rate and clearly defined travel regulations, we thought they would be at low risk for closing their borders to tourists. The idea of renting a camper van and keeping to ourselves also sounded appealing because there would be a lower risk of us catching Covid. And flights were a good deal at the time and prices would be a bit lower in the winter. This could be our best chance at visiting an otherwise expensive country.

We drove around the entire island. This post is specifically about our journey along the Ring Road of Southern Iceland.

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Renting Our Camper Van in Keflavik

We went with Lava Car Rentals for our van because all of the other rental companies I found were charging $500+ for insurance and Lava Cars included the insurance in their prices. They picked us up at the airport and took us to their agency. After signing a few papers and handing over our credit card, we were on the road.

We stopped at a grocery store to buy a few things for meals for the next few days. I felt terribly jet-lagged and exhausted, so finding a campsite was at the top of our list. Gareth drove us out of the city to Mosfellsbaer to our first campsite. The owner said that not many places were open this time of year, and we could just stay for free. I felt that was a good omen!

I wanted to take a nap, but no matter what we did the heater would not turn on. Grateful that I brought my -20 degree sleeping bag, I snuggled in for a nap that lasted six hours. I awoke at 7 pm to a freezing van. It was much too cold to get out of our sleeping bags and cook, so we went into the campsite’s kitchen with our stove and dinner ingredients. I made some noodles and veggies for us and we looked over the guidebook. Gareth sent an email to the van agency asking about the heater, and we went back to bed.  

The next day, after a frigid night in the van, we headed back to our rental agency in Keflavik so they could fix it for us. We read a few tourist magazines and I downed several lattes that came out of a little machine. Finally, they said they couldn’t easily fix our heater and they would be upgrading us to a bigger van for free. 

Happy with that offer, we loaded our bags and were on our way once more. We made a stop in Reykjavik to go to the Saturday flea market because Gareth was very excited about finding a hand-knit Icelandic sweater. There was a very nice lady selling sweaters that she had knit herself. We both selected one, blue for Gareth and orange for me, and were then ready for our road trip. 

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to Reykjavik and there’s a lot of beautiful sights within a short distance. Driving into Thingvellir National Park, we stopped at the evening campsite at the tourist information center. I cooked us a nice dinner of veggies and Ramen noodles. 

The night arrived early, and I wandered outside with my headlamp to find the bathroom. The campgrounds were snowed in and icy, so I wore my YakTraks traction on my boots so I wouldn’t slip. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the bathroom. My headlamp died while I was out in a snowy field, so I peed on the ground and wandered in the dark back to the van. 

The next day, we drove along the Golden Circle to see the sights. Because of the snow, we couldn’t do the hikes that would be doable in warmer weather. We stopped to see the geysers and Gullfoss waterfall. There were a lot of tourists for the month of December. 

Gareth and I weren’t terribly enchanted with the Golden Circle. We figured it probably looks prettier in the summer, plus we don’t like being around a lot of other people. I suggested ending our afternoon at the Secret Lagoon hot spring. 

I consider myself a hot spring enthusiast and I’ve been to many in the USA, but the Secret Lagoon was especially impressive. They had nice changing rooms with lockers and hair dryers. It is the norm in Iceland to shower naked before entering a hot spring, so being nude in front of other patrons was new for me and slightly uncomfortable. 

Clean and wearing my swimsuit, I went out into the freezing air to get into the spring. The water was hot and steamy. There were only a dozen other people there, and the hot spring was huge so it felt like we were alone. We spent a couple of hours there and watched the sunset before continuing for the night. 

We drove down to the campground in Selfoss. For the first time, and one of the only times, there were other camper vans parked for the night. We went to a fast food restaurant for dinner, then settled in for the evening.

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Iceland’s South Coast

There were so many things that were recommended to see along the Ring Road of Southern Iceland. It was a rainy day, but we began our explorations for the day. First, we went to Seljalandsfoss, a famous waterfall in Iceland. It was cold and cloudy when we arrived, but we bundled up in waterproof pants and jackets and headed for the falls. There’s a trail that leads around to the back of the waterfall so people can stand behind the water. 

As we made our way along the trail, we were misted with water from the falls. Despite the cold day, I didn’t mind getting wet because it was such a unique experience. We followed the trail behind the fall into a cave-like area where the sounds of the water echoed against the walls. The path circled out the other side, and by the time we reached the main path my hair was drenched and my outer layer of clothes was all wet. I felt uplifted and excited for what was just to come on our Iceland road trip. 

We made a stop at Skogafoss waterfall which was equally huge. The falls were extra powerful from all the recent rainfall. We continued into the town of Vik because we had to keep our day moving with limited daylight. 

I was familiar with Vik from the Netflix show Katla. We visited Black Sand Beach, which is a filming location on the show. Jagged stones protruded from the ocean. I had read about how powerful the ocean is at this beach. Big waves can come out of nowhere and sometimes people get sucked in, never to return. For this reason, I was hesitant to go too close to the water. 

Afterward, we fried up some sausages in the van and contemplated our next move. There wasn’t anywhere nearby to camp out unless we wanted to backtrack to where we came from. The next option would be to continue an hour down the road to Skaftafell. We decided to continue. Skaftafell is a national park and home to the largest glacier in Europe. I selected a glacier tour for us for the following morning and cooked us a bit of dinner. 

Skaftafell Glacier Tour

We awoke at our morning campsite, which was thankfully right near where we were to meet for our glacier hike. After a breakfast of Icelandic yogurt and granola, we bunded up into our snow pants and warm layers and headed for the Icelandic Mountain Guides office. 

Our nice guide, who I think was named Mikel, gave us crampons and ice axes. He didn’t like the look of my boots so he gave me a different pair and an outer layer jacket so I wouldn’t have to bring my parka. 

More hikers arrived, and we prepared for the day’s adventure. We all loaded up into the mini-bus and began the drive to the glacier. Upon arrival, we hiked for a bit to reach the ice then were given instructed on how to put on our crampons and walk in them. 

We set out on the ice and headed for an ice cave. I was determined not to slip, and I tired quickly from kicking my crampons into the ice hard with every step. I may have been overdoing it a bit. 

No other groups were at the ice cave, so we had it all to ourselves. There was a small little tunnel where we could enter before it opened up more. We learned that every winter the guides find new ice caves because they melt in the summers. It was cool to explore, but not as amazing as the staged Instagram photos would have you believe. 

Our guide told us he thought the crevasse was way cooler than the cave, so we headed that way. We hiked up to the crevasse, which was a deep V with ice walls that went up for 100 feet. Usually, beginners wouldn’t be able to travel in the crevasses, but our guide said he and some friends had spent five weeks carving out a path and steps into the ice so that he could bring people up there. It was a steep hike and very cool to experience. 

At the top, our guide said to follow him directly because there was a dangerous drop off to the left of us and we would certainly die if we fell in. He brought us to a giant hole in the ice, which had a cave at the bottom. He set up a rope with ice screws and one by one let us each dangle over the hole for a better look.

The sky was getting cloudy and it looked like rain in the distance, so we booked it back down the glacier and to the mini-bus. Overall, it was a much more adventurous tour than I had expected it to be. 

Jokulsarlon Lagoon and Diamond Beach

After cooking a quick lunch back at the van, Gareth and I made the 45-minute drive to Jokulsarlon Lagoon and Diamond Beach. We were hoping to squeeze it in before the sunset for the day. We arrived at the lagoon with maybe 40 minutes of daylight left. 

There were chunks of glaciers floating out in the water. An information sign said that it can take 25 years for the glacier chunks to move through the lagoon and out to the ocean. We saw a few seals poking their heads out of the water. I’d hoped they would come closer, but they seemed shy. 

The walking path went along the edge of the lagoon and led us to Diamond Beach. It was a windy and cold walk, and the sun was just setting. Diamond Beach has much smaller chunks of glaciers washed up onshore. They shimmer in the light and you can walk around them along the beach. That evening, the clouds and the sunset were casting a purple hue across the beach. 

I’m not usually enthusiastic about classic tourist spots, but this one was fantastic. 

Once it was properly dark out, we went back to our van and drove to Hofn to find our campsite for the evening. The following day, we would be beginning our drive through the East Fjords.

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