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Surviving Iceland in the Winter

by Natalie Schweizer about a year ago in budget travel

Unplanned, unprepared, but totally worth it.

I awoke to a dark sky. I craned my neck to see out the window next to my bunk only to find the sun was still tucked behind the snowcapped mountains. I rubbed my swollen eyes in awe. Where I am? I thought. But then I remembered where I had landed just that morning at 5:00AM… Iceland. I was in Reykjavik, Iceland.

One impulsive decision to buy a ticket to Iceland with my best friend had lead us to this hostel only one week later. Some might argue that this is not the kindest landscape to travel to with one small backpack and no plan, and I’d have to agree with them. Though the terrain was brutal at times, it was also exquisite. The first day we were blanketed by an endless snow, as if giants were in the sky rubbing the clouds between their fingers. The air was crisp and cold, burning our cheeks and turning them pink. We found refuge in nearby shops; my hands felt like they were being pricked with needles as they warmed themselves around coffee cups.

We trudged through the snow for the few hours of daylight we were given and found ourselves surrounded by locals in a public pool that night. We lined up to pay for our entry and I was forced to part ways with my companion when he was sent to the boys’ locker room and I was sent to brave the girls’ alone. I felt my inner homeschooled child awaken as I found myself surrounded by an endless supply of naked women. As I looked around and tried not to stare at all of the different shaped boobs that were floating around me, I realized that in a matter of moments I too would be one of these naked women. I befriended another traveler from Portugal who extended a helping hand and an explanation that she was also a modest mouse. She remained by my side for the night. We exchanged stories of past journeys as well as our dreams for places to explore in the future. Iceland locals mingled with the rest of us who all identified as restless wanderers looking for a breath of fresh air. Fresh, Icelandic air.

For someone without a plan, I found myself at many of Iceland’s wonders, one of which was Gulfoss’ rushing waterfalls that cut the earth in half. When I peeked over the edge I thought if I’d slipped I would slide to the earth’s core. And then there was The Geyser. It swelled like when someone pushes their chewing gum with their tongue, moments before blowing a bubble. Then the water was sucked back down seconds before it burst toward the heavens. The smell of sulfur filled our noses as we watched the water splash to the ground.

When on a budget, you cut corners and our budget in Iceland meant cutting A LOT of corners. One two-wheel drive car later we found ourselves stuck in a terrible snow storm. Ignoring the warnings of locals, we decided to brave the night drive along the coast toward Vik. We flipped on our high beams attempting to cut through the darkness only to find snow drifts the size of our car rushing like rapids across the road.

The wind rattled our car back and forth during the night and whistled through the cracks in the door- the snow's song. It was like trying to see through murky water and when we realized we were alone in our excursion, we decided we’d better pull off and find a home for the night.

Once the storm had cleared we were able to see Iceland in its glory once more. Of course, we had to pull over occasionally to get a closer look at all the natural waterfalls and volcanic rock. We even stopped to pet some “friendly” horses we saw, only to have one latch his teeth onto my arm as if I were hiding a carrot up my sleeve. What should have been a three-hour journey took us a day and a half and by the time we arrived in Vik, our allusive friend, the sun, had already said “goodnight.” However, this did not stop us from running to the black sand beach we had waited to see all day. We watched the dark waves crash against the sand and decided it’d be nice to walk along the beach. The unpredictable waves wanted the beach to themselves and the tide came rushing in. With wet boots and forced smiles we finally made camp in our hostel. After a day and half of granola bars and pita bread (the snacks of champions) we feasted on microwavable rice with salsa we had found from a grocery store. It was the best meal I’d ever eaten.

The next morning the smell of waffles snaked its way into our room and I awoke to the growling of my stomach. Did someone say, “complimentary breakfast?” We stuffed our bellies and packed our bags with one goal in mind for the day: Diamond Beach. Iceland showed us its hospitality once more when the young woman who worked the desk made a list for us of all the stops we wouldn’t want to miss along the route. We successfully dug our car out of the snow (which felt like a daily operation) and hit the road.

There are few moments in time when I ask myself if I should consider the consequences of my actions before embarking on an excursion. One of these moments was standing at the base of a mountain, curiously gazing at a small cave at the very top. What was in that cave? How deep did it go into the mountain? How far was I willing to go to find out? We exchanged a few tough nods and started the vertical climb to the top.

With little traction on our shoes, I found myself taking short panicked breaths. The cold air was filling my lungs, making them feel swollen and sore but it was so thin I couldn’t get enough of it. I had nothing but curiosity on my side and I’d be damned if I didn’t make it to the top. We crawled the last few feet, the wind pushing harder as we climbed higher. At last, we took shelter from the wind in the mouth of the cave. But that was it… a small dome cut into the side of the mountain, only big enough to stand in. Worth it? I looked out and saw the snow-covered landscape stretching endlessly before me. The sun was still rising in the sky, its light reflecting off the nearby coastal waters. Worth it.

Next stop: ice glaciers. Now, let’s get one thing straight here, ice glaciers are usually the type of thing one would buy a tour package to visit. This tour package includes all sorts of amenities such as hiking poles, shoes with spikes on the soles, and occasionally snow suits. The majority of people might say it is not safe to merely walk to the ice glaciers with no plan or knowledge of the terrain. We were not in that majority. We were on a budget, after all.

An hour later we found ourselves at the end of the path, but still miles from the glaciers. Scratching our chins, we attempted to decipher the Icelandic warning sign in front of us. From what we could gather it seemed to say that the ice was thin and if we fell through it we had approximately ten minutes to make it back to warmth before hypothermia started setting in. We shrugged and continued toward the glaciers.

Twenty more ungodly minutes and we were able to touch the glaciers with our swollen, red hands. The smooth ice felt like sweating glass under our palms as we slid them over the jagged edges. The setting sun shone through the glacier, illuminating every shade of blue that was hiding in its depths. A beautiful moment that nothing could interrupt…

Except the cracking of ice under our feet. In a flash, my travel partner was gone with the final words “I’ll come back for you!” ringing in my ears. I internally rolled my eyes and ran to catch up to him. The journey back was much quicker and consisted of us ice skating on our shoes, propelled by the force of the wind. What took over an hour to achieve was a mere half an hour journey back and we had lost our sunlight in that time. Could we find Diamond Beach in the dark? We crossed our frozen fingers and pressed on.

For those of you who haven’t done any research on Iceland (I was in this category), Diamond Beach is what travel agents would call a “must see.” Large glaciers wash up on the shore, breaking apart and decorating the black sand. This creates what looks like diamonds (hence the name). Some of these glaciers were so large you could sit on them, while others were the size of my palm. We spent a long time attempting to photograph the glaciers in the dark, trying endless settings on our cameras, and we came out with a couple decent photos. But this was a site our cameras couldn’t capture- so we put them aside and enjoyed the moment.

Tomorrow we will take it easy. It’s our last day in Iceland, let’s just find a hot spring somewhere and soak our sore muscles. This was the discussion we had, had when we reached our hostel that night. However, with the rising sun a new plan was always bound to be put to action. As we packed our things and changed into our dirty clothes (does anyone know where to find an Icelandic laundry mat?) we knew we had one more adventure to take before we tapped out: sledding.

One heavy step at a time we climbed the side of the mountain, pushing against the wind with our sleds ahead of us like shields. I’m an East Tennessee girl, which means that what snow we see barely covers the ground. That being said, I could count the number of times I’d been sledding on one hand. The hills were unblemished by footprints and looked like an endless mountain of whip cream. Mmmm whip cream. With one swift push, we were racing down the mountain- and I was winning. Completely out of control in the best way.

The –not so- Secret Lagoon was cluttered with high class tourists, drinks in hand and floats wedged beneath their armpits. Everyone looked well rested and relaxed, occasionally doggy paddling to the opposite side of the lagoon– and then there was us. We hadn’t had the chance to shower that morning so this was the closest we could get. I slipped into my suit and ignored the looks of concern I received due to the large bruise that had developed on my hip from falling the day before. We swirled around in that giant bath tub for hours until the sun began to set.

I know, I know- we’ve reached the end of the line and I haven’t even mentioned the Northern Lights. That’s because I was saving the best for last. With bellies full of lobster soup, we ignorantly asked our waiter, “Where can we find the Northern Lights?” to which he replied ever so politely- “outside.” Cool.

We raced to the edge of town and parked in the middle of the road. The Aurora swirled above us, the green and purple lights dancing as if they were living creatures, playing with each other. Turning, we watched as all the colors reached toward a single point which resembled the center swirl of a Little Debbie’s Swiss Roll. It was as if we were standing in the nucleus and they were all stretching directly above our heads. We didn’t reach for our cameras; the thought didn’t even come to mind. And just as quickly as they came, they swam away.

I returned home looking a little rougher than when I left. I was unbathed and dressed in dirty clothes. We never seemed to be able to eat enough while we were in Iceland and when we landed in the U.S. my only thought was “Taco Bell.” Although this trip would have been much simpler with a larger budget, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. So- do I suggest visiting this land of fire and ice? Absolutely.

budget travel
Natalie Schweizer
Natalie Schweizer
Read next: Camping > Hotels
Natalie Schweizer
See all posts by Natalie Schweizer

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