Iceland was our dream destination. But we thought it was one of those trips you take once you retire and you have enough money to indulge in things you used to just fantasize about. But then a seat sale came along and we started learning more options. We realized it was possible to turn this dream into a reality much sooner than we expected.
Our road trip around Iceland felt like we were driving around the world. In the span of 10 days, we experienced different seasons just by following the Ring Road. One day, we drove into autumn and then experienced winter a day after. That’s how Iceland is, ever-changing, unpredictable but spectacular. We left Iceland with a vow to return and we hope that with this guide, we could help you create your own life-changing adventure.
The Ring Road
There’s no better way to explore the Land of Fire and Ice than renting your own vehicle and going around the Ring Road. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive mode of transport. There are more affordable options such as joining a bus tour but we prefer setting our own pace. The Ring Road wraps around the island in a circular fashion and is often the recommended route for travelers who are getting to know Iceland for the first time.
According to Lonely Planet, if you were to drive the Ring Road without stopping, it will take you around 16 hours during the warmer months. A week-long trip would mean an average of 2 1/2 hours of driving per day. It may seem like a stretch but the route is scenic. And when you have your own car, you don’t have to go to every landmark. You can take your time, take detours on secondary roads, and allow yourself to get to know the place much deeper. (You can do the same when you’re in a bus, it’s just a matter of perspective really.)
Experts say you should choose at least 5 mini-bases to break up your journey. You can choose one stop in each of the regions in which the Ring Road passes through: west, north, east, southeast, and southwest. Having at least 8-10 days will help you cover enough ground. We’re all for surprises but it’s important to plan each day before you leave and then revise it each night depending on the weather conditions, the time you have left and the overall energy of your travel companions.
Our group was composed of 7 people, some friends we’ve traveled with before and others we just met. Having more companions meant being able to distribute costs to more people. If you decide to rent your own set of wheels, 5-7 people would be an ideal number.
Each person had a role to play. Our friend Vee was our main navigator. She often blurts out names of places that most of us could not understand except for Benj who was one of our drivers and the mastermind of this trip. He took turns driving with our other friend Pao, who was also the sous chef. The person in charge of making sure we didn’t die out of hunger was Quennie who was a chef by profession. Raniel was our sneaky photographer. And the two of us (Ayen and Rach) took turns assisting Vee with the bookings.
Search the hashtag #EuroExpedition on Instagram and you will see our individual interpretations of the trip. But beyond the curated memories on our social media, we’d like to point out that it wasn’t all fun. We’ve experienced almost all kinds of weather from thunderstorms to sunny skies. Even with all the preparation, some of us felt like we didn’t have enough layers to protect us from the cold. We relied heavily on hand warmers and Cheerios and navigated around hot tempers brought by fatigue and hunger.
We hope we don’t sound whiny because these reflections are coming from a place of gratitude. We just want people to understand that travel is not just composed of remarkable moments but also moments of struggles, misadventures and mundane minutes that seem to be forgotten once the trip is over. For us, it’s part of the overall experience and we’d like to remember it along with some of our favorite memories:
The Northern lights by Ayen dela Torre
We were having pesto for dinner in our temporary home at Olafsvik when the caretaker said Aurora was outside. And suddenly everyone started running. When we got to the playground, we bumped into each other like kids scrambling for the best view. But when all the shots were taken and everyone settled down, we saw a dance orchestrated by white and purple lights and tears started rushing down.
The whole town was quiet except for these bunch of Filipinos who just couldn’t believe what they just saw. We’ve seen the northern lights in photos before but seeing it in person was something else. Perhaps the same goes for foreigners who see our beaches for the first time, we’re always in awe of things we don’t often see. Peak sighting of the northern lights happen in the depths of winter. We were fortunate enough to see it four times in September, but if you would like higher chances, plan your trip between October and April.
Two hour-long sunset at Westfjords by Benj Ramos
My eyes were squinting and tearing, struggling just to see the road at least 10 meters ahead of us. I even remember Vee sticking half her body out of our Defender to help spot any oncoming vehicles even if she couldn’t really see much more than any of us. So many cusses were thrown at the sun. And then we reached the coast and we took them all back because the water was gold! and so was everything else! And I am so thankful for this particular prolonged sunset—that it came on our 6th day in the island after 4 consecutive days of bipolar rains and thunderstorms. Just at the right moment. Just at the right spot.
Hotpot session by Rachel Halili
Getting into hot water wasn’t that inviting when you’re aware of the fact that you have to strip down to your bikini in cold weather (it felt like winter if you live in the tropics before going in. But most of the locals said it was a must experience. Everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon but we just couldn’t fit it in our schedule, thankfully there were hot pots everywhere. We found this isolated geothermal pool by the sea. And the best thing about it is that it was absolutely free! You have to share it with others though and that can be a little awkward at the start but it was a good way for us to meet fellow travelers from other parts of Iceland up to Australia. As we talk with newly found friends, the water kept us all warm on a 5°C kind of day.
Autumn in Hraunfossar by Vee Dorado
Contrasting the rapid rush of water along Hvítá river from Barnafoss is the calming flow of hundreds of small waterfalls of Hraunfossar. It was worth visiting twice just to see the bright blue water embraced by the autumn colors of Iceland. In the Philippines, it often takes hours of driving and hiking to get to views like this. But this one was close to the main road. We’ve seen a lot of waterfalls before this, but I would gladly say this was our favorite.
Random stopovers by Ayen dela Torre
There were days, I felt extremely exhausted, lacking sleep and skipping meals. Every time I wake up, my whole body aches as if I just came from a climb. We’ve gone through so many misadventures from missing luggage to almost missed flights. But even in the midst of all the rants and complaints, when you stumble upon unexpected beauty, all of the noise is silenced out.
I don’t really remember the names of some of the places we explored but I remember what it was like to scream my lungs out because I just couldn’t believe we were here. And to see my friends running around and experiencing the same thing made it more special. Although the trip is over, I’m comforted by the fact that I get to relive the adventure through stories and photos we took home with us.
The Survival Guide
When to go
- June – August – High season- Hot summers, mild winter- Good for hiking! Bad for your wallet! (Higher prices because of peak season)
- May – Sept – Mild summer, occasional snows- less people, some prices start to drop in preparation for low season
- Oct – April – Low season, lower prices! – Peak time for northern lights!- Some roads will be closed down due to severe weather conditions- longer, colder nights
What to eat
- Large gasoline stations often have restaurants you could eat at. They offer meals such as meat soup, fish of the day or plates of lamb. But for Filipino standards, they’re really expensive! In our experience, each meal we saw on the menu cost us about 800-1000 pesos.
- It’s much cheaper to cook your own food. Bonus (the supermarket with a pink pig on it) is Iceland’s biggest supermarket chain. Opening hours in small towns are much shorter than the capital. During our trip, some close as early as 6 pm so best to get your grocery shopping early in the day.
- Most private cabins have their own kitchen. And hostels have communal kitchens. Just remember to clean as you go. Do check out if there are some food left by fellow travelers, they are free for everyone to eat! And anything you can boil is guaranteed clean!
Where to sleep
** Ask if there’s a sleeping bag option, it’s a cheaper way if you don’t mind sleeping without linens**
Try to get in touch with the Filipinos in Iceland (or if you’re not Filipino, get in touch with people who share your nationality), they are usually accommodating and at the very least can give you more local tips.
Photos by Paolo Cuarteron, Raniel Hernandez, Ayen dela Torre, Rachel Halili
Art by Rachel Halili
Lonely Planet for providing facts about Iceland