Sunday, July 14, 2013

What To Expect on a Road Trip Around Iceland

My husband and I have been driving around Iceland for six days now, and are returning to Reykjavik tomorrow to drop off our rental vehicle.  We didn't get through the entire loop of the Ring Road (the main highway, Route 1), as many tourists decide to do.  After much discussion, we decided to head east from Reykjavik, take the road low and and slow and not worry about 'doing the loop'.  We wanted to stop and see whatever tickled our fancy, and not feel pressured to adhere to some maniacal timeline that forced us to 'just keep driving, just keep driving, just keep driving'.  And I'm so glad we did.

Ring Road waterfall, driving in Iceland, things to see in Iceland
Enjoying our journey on Route 1 in Iceland.

We drove from Reykjavik to Skogar, then from Skogar to Vik, then from Vik to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, and finally from Kirkjubaejarklaustur to Hofn.  Then we turned around again and went back west, hitting up all the stops we'd missed along the way (like Skaftafell National Park, which had been shrouded in mist, clouds, and heavy rain when we'd passed it on our way east).

During our journey, we learned many things about road-tripping it through Iceland.  Since we'd spent a lot of time online looking up tips and tricks, reading through forums, and grilling our Golden Circle bus driver about the ins and outs of driving through Iceland, we thought we'd compile a handy-dandy list of what to expect when driving in Iceland for all you potential Icelandic travelers.  Please enjoy, and if we've missed any helpful hints, please add them below in the comments section!

1. Rules of the Road
Our Golden Circle tour bus driver provided us with an overview of the rules of the road in Iceland.  You MUST have your headlights on 24/7 in Iceland - no matter what the weather is like, or how bright or sunny it may seem.  From our experience this week, we know that the weather in Iceland can change at the drop of a hat, and a previously sunlit field can turn grey and misty in seconds.  Always have your headlights on when driving.

Seljaviller Valley, things to do in Iceland, driving in Iceland
Our rental vehicle, a Ford Explorer, which treated us very well!

As well, speeding is taken quite seriously in Iceland.  Our tour bus driver noted that though Iceland is 'under-staffed' when it comes to police officers, one of their main jobs on the island is to catch and ticket speeders.  Stick to the speed limit, which is by the way, quite a bit slower than the roads of North America.  The average speed limit is either 90 or 70 km/h depending on the section of the Ring Road you are on.

Finally, despite what several websites claim, 'off-roading' in the North American sense is not allowed.  When I say 'North American' style off-roading, I mean our habit of making a road or trail where there was previously none, barreling over vegetation and through mud holes at random.  In Iceland, off-roading has a totally different meaning.  Due to the fragile nature of the island's vegetation, it is expressly forbidden to create your own trails.  Off-roading in Iceland means you stick to a trail and do not go off of it - even if the trail is faint, made of pebbles, or even just ruts. There is no 'make your own trail' allowance in Iceland, and punishment can be a heavy fine or even jail time.

2. Wildlife
The Ring Road is a surprisingly narrow road considering it is Iceland's main highway.  It is a single-lane highway with literally zero shoulders.  There are lots of curves and hills, and passing can get a bit tricky.  This is another reason to really stick to that speed limit.  To make matters even more complicated, the sheep in Iceland tend to ignore those pesky fences and congregate wherever they please, often right along the side of the road or even directly on it.  Make sure you as a driver are paying attention to the road (which is often hard since it is very tempting to just gawk out the window at the beauty of the nature surrounding you).  Joey and I teamed up and I kept my eyes peeled for sheep while he watched the oncoming traffic and narrow shoulders.  A couple of times we had to swing around some very unconcerned sheep who were loitering on Route 1.

Ring Road driving in Iceland, Icelandic sheep
Sheep on the road in Iceland.  Photo via.

There are also tons of gorgeous Icelandic horses along the sides of Route 1.  We had read about the beauty of these 'wild' Icelandic breeds, but were informed by our tour bus driver that there are no more wild horses on the island.  Each and every horse will be accounted for by a farmer or tourism corporation, although it is possible to visit the horses if you safely pull your car into a pull-out spot and wander down into the ditch to say hello.  Tourist operations allow you to rent a horse and go on a trail ride as well.  (We didn't do this.)

Iceland horse Ring Road, things to do in Iceland
Saying hello to a beautiful and friendly Icelandic horse.

3. Alien Landscapes
One of the highlights of renting your own vehicle and driving the Ring Road yourself, versus joining a tour and cruising along on a tour bus, is that you can stop whenever your heart desires to explore Iceland's amazing nature.  Joey and I began joking that if we'd missed pulling over to explore a beautiful waterfall, there'd be another one about 30 seconds down the road (and there usually was).  Often the waterfall areas had little picnic spots nearby, encouraging tired drivers to stop and enjoy the world around them.  I can't even begin to count how many waterfalls we took some time to investigate.

Ring Road Iceland, driving the Ring Road in Iceland, Ring Road waterfall
Yet another breath-taking waterfall along Iceland's Ring Road.

places to stop on Iceland's Ring Road, Ring Road picnic
A picnic area near an unknown waterfall, made out of natural rock.

Hot springs bubble and steam in ditches, and in most areas you can pull over, get out, and go for a hike to explore them (they are typically roped off and safe areas to hike clearly marked - I found everywhere in Iceland was really good about making things safe).  We stopped about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik near a geothermal power plant and discovered these amazing little hot pots, near the town of Hveragerdi.

Hveragerdi hot spring, Ring Road hot spring, things to do in Iceland
A hot spring bubbles and boils near Hveragerdi, alongside Iceland's Route 1.

Hveragardi hot spring, hot springs by Route 1 in Iceland, Ring Road hot springs
Joey and I enjoy the sulfuric steam of a natural hot spring just off the Ring Road.

Perhaps one of my more favorite aspects of the Icelandic landscape were the massive and expansive lava fields.  These were the most 'alien-esque' features of the island, in my opinion, because of the way the rocks have solidified, and the distinct and unusual vegetation that grows on them.  Thick, spongy moss grows on all of the rocks, covering them with a green hue (when moist - when dry, the moss turns grey).  This moss is very fragile, and random hikes through the lava fields is discouraged.  However, many vehicle pull-out points have trails that take you through the lava fields and allow you to examine the moss more closely without actually damaging it.

volcanic rocks Iceland, Iceland landscape, things to do in Iceland
The unusual yet eerily beautiful lava rocks in Iceland's lava fields.

Iceland vegetation, Iceland volcanic rocks, things to see in Iceland
Can you spot me hiding in the lava field?  Don't worry, I was on a path!

4. Camping Areas
When planning our trip back in March, I had some difficulties finding available hotel rooms.  Worried we wouldn't have anywhere to stay on our journey through the country, Joey and I decided to take a backpacking tent and some sleeping bags as back-up.  The 'back-up camping' idea slowly formed into the idea that we'd camp purposely around Iceland, saving money and getting to know the true nature of Iceland as we did so.  (Then we found out I was pregnant, and the camping idea went back to being a 'back-up' plan, but not after we'd gone out and purchased a lot of back-woods camping equipment.)  Regardless of our plans, we did end up camping for several nights through Iceland, under the roar of waterfalls and in the pouring rain.  We didn't end up with superb camping weather this last week.

camping Skogafoss waterfall, camping Skogarfoss waterfall, Iceland camping
Our first campsite outside of the Skogafoss waterfall.  Doesn't get much prettier than that!

What we didn't expect was that there is no 'camp anywhere' attitude in Iceland.  We'd read on several websites that it is totally cool to just plunk down camp wherever you please and get back to nature on your own terms.  Not so.  Camping is only allowed in designated camping sites, and if you do decide to camp on the side of the road where it is not clearly a campground, you run the risk of having the Icelandic police knocking at your tent door and asking you to leave.  We DID see a few campers just setting up shop on the sides of the road in vehicle pull-out areas, but I can't vouch if they were allowed to stay the whole night or not.

Better safe than sorry. The campgrounds are very cheap - they charge per person, and per tent.  Two people in one tent is about $20 CDN, give or take due to the exchange rate.  Much cheaper than a hotel room (hotel rooms run about $180 - $220 and hostels and guesthouses run at about $115 - $150 for two people in one room).  Our favorite campground was the one in Kirkjubaejarklauster, which had well-kept facilities including laundry, a camp kitchen with a stove and microwave, and lots of privacy.

camping in Kirkjubaejarklauster, where to camp in Iceland
Our campsite outside Kirkjubaejarklauster - with a much smaller waterfall.

In general, I highly recommend driving around Iceland yourself rather than signing on with a bus tour.  We did the Golden Circle bus tour, which was fun and highly informative (our tour bus driver knew her stuff, to say the least), but it was also rushed and easy to space out on what was going on around you.  When you drive, you have the control to stop and explore, to stay where you want, and to go at your own pace.

Any other Ring Road tips and tricks?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below! Enjoy the two videos posted here as well: one is about driving through Iceland, the other about the geothermal town of Hveragerdi. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Little did I know how much I'd enjoy (or how much I'd NEED) a swim in Iceland's beautiful Blue Lagoon.  It was a place I'd seen in pictures and read about multiple times, testimonies of its healing waters and relaxing  atmosphere reverberating in my head.  But I had no idea how necessary it would be.

Iceland Blue Lagoon, color of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
The entrance pools surrounding Iceland's Blue Lagoon.

First of all, getting to Iceland from Alberta, Canada is no small feat. We woke up in Calgary at 3:00 a.m., after only a few hours of sleep, and participated in the most minimal, basic 'getting-ready' routine possible.  We hit the airport before the ticket booths and customs office were even open, and sat sleepily on the cold, pleather chairs.  It was a game of 'hurry-up-and-wait'.

We flew out of Calgary at 6:20 a.m., hit up Seattle an hour and a bit later, then flew for another 5 hours to Boston.  We had a four hour layover, in which the smells of a terminal E seafood restaurant nearly rendered me prostate in front of a toilet (now pregnant, I find myself detesting seafood, which I formerly adored).  By 9 p.m. we were boarding the red-eye to Keflavik, and I was ready for some serious shut eye.

Except... and parents of young children, please read with caution lest this particular child was your child... there was THE WORST kid sitting behind me on the plane.  I give him the title "THE WORST" in all capitals because he was literally the worst child I've ever met on a plane.  He stabbed at the back of my seat when choosing a TV show, and yelled at his dad when he got frustrated with the TV and then punched the seat even harder (all Dad would do was distractedly go, "Shhh" while he continued to watch his own TV screen).  The child refused to sleep and his parents made no move to encourage him to do so.  That would have been fine and none of my business, except that the kid didn't get (nor did his parents remind him at any time) that everyone else on the plane wanted to sleep, like the tired pregnant lady in front of him.  He talked in his outdoor recess voice, whined loudly when he didn't get his way, and kicked the back of my seat when he got bored (this was on top of the seat punching and freaking out when his TV didn't do what he wanted it to do, possibly because he'd punched it).  I get that kids don't always do what you want them to do - I am a teacher, remember - but honestly, this was a little much.  And if this wasn't your kid, make it sure your child never, ever does this. Ever.

Needless to say, I got ZERO sleep during the entire red-eye flight.  When we landed in Keflavik, I was blurry-eyed, dizzy, sick to my stomach, and entirely exhausted.  Not to mention grumpy and re-assessing my own parenting plans.  I was in no mood for sight-seeing and tourism.  I just wanted to sleep.

However, we'd made plans in our trip itinerary to hit up the Blue Lagoon before moving on to Reykjavik.  We wouldn't really have another chance to visit the famous hot spring, so we stuck to our guns and purchased tickets. (And I'm so glad we did.)

Blue Lagoon, things to do in Iceland, Keflavik airport
The stunning color of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

Getting to the Blue Lagoon is amazingly simple - so simple that many travelers with more than a four-hour layover will take a quick side trip to the Lagoon before catching their connecting flight.  All you have to do is find the ticket kiosk, located by 10-11 store at the airport's exit, and purchase a ticket.  We bought a bus ticket to the Blue Lagoon, Blue Lagoon admission, and a ticket to Reykjavik for 19,600 krona, which was about $166 Canadian.  Considering the admission price of the Blue Lagoon is quite costly in itself, we thought this was a pretty good deal.  I was so tired, I didn't really care, to be perfectly honest.

The bus ride was a quick 20 minutes, and it felt like we were driving along the surface of the moon.  The Icelandic landscape is so different from Central Alberta that it felt surreal.  Finally we made it to the Blue Lagoon, which is considered a geothermal spa, although it is a man-made creation and heated from the nearby power plant of Svartsengi.  The power plant uses geothermal energy to heat its water, and then uses the Blue Lagoon as a cooling pool.

Iceland's Blue Lagoon, visiting the Blue Lagoon
The steaming power plant surrounded by Iceland's moon-esque landscape.

The waters have a strong sulfuric smell, and are very salty due to the silica content, but once you adapt to those two facts, it is really very enjoyable.  The day we went was a very cold, windy, and rainy day in Iceland, which made the waters seem even more balmy.  We floated around for a bit, happily soaking in the warmth, and then really got into the spirit of things by giving ourselves silica mud facials (the silica mud is free and located in boxes around the edge of the lagoon).

Blue Lagoon facial, Blue Lagoon silica mud, Iceland Blue Lagoon
Joey allowed me to give him a silica mud mask - he's such a good sport!

visiting the Blue Lagoon, Blue Lagoon in Iceland
Free silica mud for all - some buckets more runny than others.

Inside the facility, there is a restaurant, gift shop, and spa.  We visited none of those, since we'd bought the most basic package.  There are three to four varying packages, each increasing in price and amenities.  The basic package didn't even provide us with a towel, but we'd brought our own.  Luckily, the Blue Lagoon has giant lockers that you can rent for 3 Euros that fit large pieces of luggage.  If you don't have large baggage to worry about, then there are smaller lockers included in your entrance fee.  If you pay for a large locker, you still get to use your smaller locker, too.  Outside in the lagoon, there is a swim-up bar (where you pay for your drinks via a computer chip in your wrist band), and free steam baths and saunas for use.

things to do in Iceland, visiting the Blue Lagoon
Although it is not as 'natural' as I'd once thought, the Blue Lagoon is still amazing.

We stayed at the Blue Lagoon for approximately three and a half hours, and would have liked to stay longer, but we were a bit concerned about roasting little Peanut alive inside my belly.  I stayed out of the really hot areas (there are 'patches' of warmer and cooler water in the lagoon), got out and walked around to cool off (which happened instantly considering the nasty weather we had at the time), and Joey even balanced me in the water so that my stomach was sticking out and cooling off.  We're pretty sure Peanut had just as good a time as we did.  We did not take advantage of the in-water pregnancy massage, but it sure would have been nice!

Blue Lagoon face mask, Iceland Blue Lagoon, things to do in Iceland
Enjoying every moment of our time in the Blue Lagoon.

When we were all finished, it was easy-peasy to catch the bus into Reykjavik.  The drive into the city was about 40 minutes and our driver helpfully dropped us right off at our hotel.  I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend a stop-over at the Blue Lagoon - especially if you had a rough night on your plane!


Monday, July 1, 2013

Trekking Through Tulum: A Journey Into Mexico's History

Well, I have been slowly beginning to feel better as my hormones are levelling out, and I'm ready to get back on track with my blog! Thanks to my wonderful readers for having patience and sticking with me!

In this post, I want to take you back in time with me as I revisit the gorgeous, historical, and HOT grounds of the last Mexican Mayan coastal outpost of Tulum. These ruins are set against the beautiful backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, right on the edge of a steep cliff that drops off into stunning aquamarine waters.

Tulum Mexico, things to do in Akumal, things to see in Mexico
Beautiful ruins of Tulum, Mexico in the Akumal region.

I was very excited to visit Tulum when my husband and I voyaged to Mexico in May of this year for his brother's wedding.  I'd booked a morning trip out to Tulum in conjunction with an afternoon stay at the Xel-Ha water adventure park through Expedia when I'd booked our flight. The tour company was called Experiencias Xcaret, which upon arrival to the tour center, seemed like a huge company!  They were certainly a well-oiled machine, and we had zero complaints.  (I often book extra side trips through Expedia, as they tend to pair with really reputable organizations, and I've never had an issue with any of them.)

Tulum Akumal, Tulum Mexico, things to do in Akumal
It was a HOT day in Tulum that day - but still awesome!

We were picked up by our tour bus in the morning at around 8:00 a.m. and only had to stop at two other resorts to pick up additional passengers.  Then we were shuttled to the major tour operations center and switched buses - this time, our vehicle was destined for Tulum.  We arrived in Tulum with two and a half hours to explore.  This might not seem like much time to see everything, but the sun was beating down at such a hot temperature that we were certainly ready to leave by the time our tour operator began to round us up!

hollow tree Tulum, Mayan sacred tree, Tulum sacred tree
Joey knocks on the sacred Mayan tree, which is totally hollow.

One of the most interesting and humorous parts of visiting Tulum is getting from the little commercial village below to the ruins at the top of the cliff.  You have to take a 'bus', the guide called it, which is really a wagon filled with benches attached to a tractor.  They then haul you up the side of the hill like so many corralled cattle.  Quaint!  Also, watch for the many 'vendors' who wander the streets of the little village, thrusting iguanas or monkeys onto your arm.  If your friend snaps a photo of you holding the creature, you owe the man some money, and it's not cheap!

Tulum ruins, Tulum Mexico, Tulum Akumal
The thick wall that surrounds the Mayan coastal town of Tulum.

The first 45 - 50 minutes we spent with our Tulum tour guide.  He was extremely knowledgeable and very funny. Sadly, I don't remember a lot of the facts he shared with us.  I was busy gawking and staring at all the amazing ruins, taking photographs, and trying to stay cool. Only a small portion of my brain was paying attention to the guide.  Plus, we had a large tour group and I tend to stay in the back of such groups, since I like to take pictures and meander through the ruins at my own pace.  Then I run back up to the group at the last second so I don't get lost.

things to do in Akumal, things to do in Mexico, Mayan ruins
A nice panoramic view of Tulum, Mexico.

The guide left us in the shade of some trees, and we were set free to poke about the ruins at our leisure.  The ruins themselves were off limits and all roped-off, but you could get pretty close to them to inspect carvings and other details.  We shuffled about for a bit, but Joey was literally melting in the sun and wanted ever-so-badly to go down to the Tulum beach and frolic in the water.  I agreed (but not after insisting he pose with me for just a few more pictures!)

Tulum ruins, Tulum Akumal, Tulum Mexico, things to do in Mexico
Check out that attractive couple posing outside some Tulum ruins!

Honestly, the beach turned out to be one of my favorite parts of Tulum.  The waters were a spectacular, Mediterranean-Greek color of aquamarine, the beach's sand pure white, and the cliff rocks dark black, creating a very dramatic effect overall.  It was busy with people, but not many of them were actually swimming.  We stripped down to our bathing suits right away, and hopped in the water for some relief from the heat.  Right on the edge of a distant cliff, you could still see the ruins of Tulum looming over the ocean.  It was amazing!

swimming in Tulum, Tulum ruins beach, things to do in Akumal
The picturesque and refreshing Tulum beach.

I could have stayed at that beach all day, but sadly, we only had about 25 minutes before we had to climb back up the massive set of stairs (be careful on the stairs - they are wide, uneven, and plentiful!) to the tour bus. We found our way to the 'trolley', made our way back down the hill, and got to the bus with about five minutes to spare.  Our next stop was Xel-Ha, but I'll save that for my next post!

Tulum ruins, Tulum beach, Akumal, Mexico, Mayan ruins
View of the Tulum ruins from the waters below.
Join us as we explore the ruins of Tulum and the amazing beach! Please "Like" the video and feel free to leave a comment or share the video link! :)