Updated: 03/16/20 | March 16th, 2020
As we stared up at the sky, patches of neon and dark green changed to light pink and back to green. They came out of nowhere, hung like curtains on invisible hangers, and danced a duet to an unheard symphony. They would appear, vanish, and reappear all over the sky.
My companions, Lulu and Germaine (two friends from France spending the week driving around Iceland), and I stared, bewildered, as the northern lights danced above us.
It was the first time we had seen them, and even though it was bitterly cold and we were too lightly dressed, we stayed out, shivering — for hours — watching nature’s brilliant ballet.
Every night before this, we would run outside and then retreat back in defeat, realizing it was too cloudy to see the lights.
But, on this night, the sky was clear, the stars shone around us, and nature finally let us see its mythic show.
I had high expectations for my visit to Iceland. I’d seen movies and pictures in magazines of land with jagged mountain peaks, volcanoes with desolate lava fields, rolling hills with grazing sheep, and glaciers that stretched for miles. I imagined a utopian country where friendly locals in tune with nature roamed a majestic landscape.
Despite the eagerness to visit Iceland these images caused, I put off visiting over the years. Something always came up.
This year, I resolved to finally visit.
And, as the plane descended into Reykjavik, I wondered, “Could the fairytale image in my mind live up to itself?”
It could, in fact, exceed it.
And it happened right away.
From the moment I landed, I was welcomed and helped by kind strangers.
There was Bragi, a Couchsurfer tour guide who drove me around the Golden Circle.
And Paulina, the college student who let me sleep on her couch, took me to an Icelandic play and her family’s farm, revealed a secret “locals-only” swimming hole, and went far out of her way to drop me in the eastern city of Vik to make catching a bus easier.
And there was Paulina’s friend, Alga, who also opened up her couch to me at the end of the trip.
And Maria and Marta, who proved that Reykjavik’s nightlife is far crazier than anything New York can offer.
Then there was the Couchsurfing host in Akureyri who cooked dinner for me and his other guests, and the blog reader (who turned out to be a high-level government official) and her husband who introduced me to traditional lobster soup (delicious!).
Every step of the way I encountered helpful and excited Icelanders who sought to show off the best of their country. They loved nature, held die-hard beliefs in elves and fairytales (over 50% of Icelanders believe in elves), and appreciated a good pint.
After saying goodbye to my new friends in Reykjavik, I drove around the Ring Road (Iceland’s main highway) with Lulu and Germaine after hitching a ride with them in Vik. Forests morphed into fjords and fjords evolved into moonscape-like lava fields.
Over the next 10 days, my love for Iceland became an obsession, as I was constantly treated to bewildering landscapes and helpful locals. For such a small island, Iceland has a diverse range of landscapes and micro-ecosystems.
And, as we traveled, hiked, and eagerly waited for the northern lights, I couldn’t help but notice the silence of the land around me. With hardly anyone or any animals around, the land seemed so still.
And it was the silence that affected me the most.
Coming from NYC, I don’t know a world without noise. My day begins and ends with cars honking their horns outside my bedroom window.
In Iceland, noise hardly exists. And, in that silence, I learned to appreciate life a little more.
On one beautifully clear day in the north, a local guide took me to explore Game of Thrones film locations. Since there was no one else on the tour, the guide took me off-road. We got out of the car and climbed a rocky hill.
Below us, the ground opened up into a series of deep fissures. Around us was there was nothing but an empty plateau.
Iceland expanded in all directions around us, with volcanoes and mountains in the distance.
There was no sign of civilization.
I sat down. The guide sat down. We were silent. All we could hear was the sound of the wind whipping around our heads. When that died down, nothing but an eerie yet peaceful silence remained.
Everything was still.
My guide and I didn’t look at each other. I suspect he was as content as I was. Throughout the day, I got the sense that he had a deep love of nature and was probably happy just sitting there.
Afterward, I sat relaxing in the hot springs near Myvatn, and before I knew it my two-hour visit was up. I got ready to leave, thinking that time had gone by too quickly.
As we drove home that day, my guide pointed out rocks shaped like a boat. “That’s a troll boat,” he said. “Years ago, the lake was being overfished by a troll so the locals stayed out extra late, causing the troll to forget what the hour was. Suddenly, as the sun rose, the troll raced back to her cave so she wouldn’t turn to stone. Along the way, she dropped her boat. Somewhere out there, there is the troll, but we haven’t found her yet.”
“Do you really think trolls and elves exist?” I asked.
“I think these stories teach us to respect nature. Iceland is a harsh environment, and it’s easy to spoil the land or get into danger. These stories teach us about balance. But, then again, I can’t prove these creatures don’t exist, you know? This land is special,” he replied.
I don’t think trolls or elves exist but he was right about one thing: there is something special about this place.
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Book Your Trip to Iceland: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines, because they search websites and airlines around the globe, so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use these all the time. My favorite places to stay in Iceland are:
- Hlemmur Square (Reykjavik) – A posh hotel with a great bar and traditional Icelandic communal dinners several times a week
- Kex Hostel (Reykjavik) – Has a café and bar with an awesome happy hour, a comfy lounge, and a heated patio
- Akureyri Backpackers (Akureyri) – A laid-back hostel with hot showers, a cool bar, and helpful staff!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it, as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Looking for more information on visiting Iceland?
Check out my in-depth destination guide to Iceland with more tips on what to see and do, costs, ways to save, and much, much more!