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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Drive around Iceland's Golden Circle

Alisha McDarris



The "Golden Circle" is so dubbed because it is a route with some of the most popular attractions for visitors near Reykjavik. Fortunately, since most of these are natural attractions, they don't cost anything (or don't cost much)! There are plenty of companies that offer Golden Circle tours, but they are expensive at around $99 per person for a day trip. That's a lot of money. Plus, we generally don't like tours as they don't allow a lot of flexibility or time at each attraction. Also the buses are filled with tourists (not always a bad thing, but stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason). So if you want to break away from the pack and have your own adventure, then rent a car for the day -- or get together with some fellow travelers who did and have spare seats -- and start driving the Golden Circle yourself.




First step: Find transportation


The cheapest rental company we found was SadCars at about $70 for two days (no insurance included), but we found some pretty hairy reviews, so we went with the second cheapest, Budget, which was $108 for two days. Their rental office was only a ten minute walk from our AirBnB, too, so that was convenient. And since we knew a day or two in advance that we were going to do this, we posted an event on Couchsurfing.com and offered to let two other travelers come along if they helped pay for fuel. And just like that we had a full car and no fuel costs for the day (which came to about $35).

On the flip side, you could do what our new French friends, Alexis and Andrea, did and use Couchsurfing.com to find a ride. You might be able to hook up with someone with a car and an open backseat and get a full day of adventure for less than $35 or so.


The Stops






þingvellir National Park


We started out from Reykyavik at 9:00 with a bag full of food and a few extra layers and headed to þingvellir national park. It was overcast and a little drizzly, but we just put up our hoods and marched onward. The park is the site of Iceland's first parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries and sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagjá fault. On the site are also the Þingvellir Church (very picturesque) and old stone shelters. We spent about 45-60 minutes walking the trails, taking photos, marveling at the waterfall and getting to know each other. It was lovely. It's free to enter the park, but there's a 500 kr (approximately $5 USD) parking fee. It's honor system as there are no window tickets or space numbers, but considering U.S. state parks are more like $25 for entry, $5 seemed like a steal. Plus it helps keep up the park. It's also 200 kr ($2) to use the bathroom, but there are port-a-potties at the bottom of the trail that are free.




Geysir


It's no Old Faithful, but this one does go off more frequently. Like every couple of minutes. Sometimes it's bigger than others. (So many "that's what she said" setups, I know!) And actually, it's not even Geysir that erupts anymore, it's Strokkur. And surrounding it are various other bubbling pools that will burn your skin off if you touch them. So refrain. It was a cold day, so after we watched hot water shoot into the air a few times, we went across the road to Glimr Cafe to use the free bathrooms and get some expensive coffee. It was 550 kr ($5.50) for a latte, but they didn't charge extra for soy milk. Between that and the latte art, I was pretty stoked for a good espresso, but alas, it was more like espresso-flavored soy milk than a latte. So it goes. There were vegan soup options at Supa, also in that building, but it was 1500 kr ($15) a bowl.




Gullfoss


Iceland's most photographed waterfall was next. And it. Was. Serious. I've been to Niagara Falls, and it's huge, bigger in breadth than Gullfoss, but what it lacks in width it makes up for in power. It's a three tier fall, though only two are readily apparent, and it kicks up some serious spray. We got a little soggy when we walked the boardwalk to the top. Free and impressive. Can't beat that.



Icelandic Horses


This was less of an official stop than Josh looking out the window and yelling, "horses!" but it was a stop none the less. There were a handful of Icelandic horses in a pen near the road with a parking lot and a box of "horse candy" you could buy for 200 kr ($2). We petted the smallish, fluffy, long haired horses, snapped a few photos, and left when a minibus of tourists arrived and all wanted horse selfies.






Skálholt Cathedral


"Cathredral" is a bit of a misnomer, here, as it's really just a small country church that looks pretty much the same as every other small country church. However, there were some nice views of the countryside surrounding it and a cool underground tunnel to nowhere beneath the church. It was also where an important bishop lived ages ago.






Kerið


This is a volcanic crater lake on the way back to Reykjavik. You can walk along the top ridge or on a path along the rim of the lake. It's pretty cool, actually, even with the 400 kr ($4) per person entrance fee. It's a small manned booth that accepts your money, so a less honest individual could probably sneak right by, but it's a natural wonder and with all the tourists coming to visit all of a sudden, it takes money to maintain the paths and safety ropes, so I don't mind paying.






Reykjadalur Hot Springs


Now this is a hike. We were a bit tight a day or two after this one. It's about 3.5 km (a little over 2 miles), but it sure feels like more as nearly all of it is up. The hike takes about an hour (one way) to complete and on the way you'll get an eyeful of mountains, waterfalls, roaming sheep, rivers, and steam rising up through fissures in the ground. It's beautiful. And the payoff at the end is a hot spring you can soak in. Bring a swimsuit and a towel the size of your modesty because there are no changing rooms and people all over are getting creative with ways to change without exposing themselves. Then find a comfortable spot and step in! We relaxed in the hot water for about an hour before reluctantly climbing back out into the cold air and hastily drying off, holding up towels for each other, and changing back into dry clothes. Totally worth it. Also there's a tiny little cafe at the entrance that has milk alternatives and one type of raw vegan cake (expensive cake, though, at 950 kr or $9.50).


Moral of the story


Skip the tour bus and drive yourself. You'll see more, do more, experience more, and besides, those host springs aren't on tour bus itineraries! Enjoy!

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha has been a writer and photographer forever. OK, maybe not forever, but at least for more of her 20-something years than she hasn’t been those things... [Read More]

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