Renting a car in Iceland is not for the fainthearted and the internet is filled with horror stories about driving conditions and rental scams. It doesn’t come cheap either and that, sometimes, forces people to go for compact cars to save money but that’s when they end up in trouble! You can’t expect a compact car to act as an off road drive, right? And honestly, I have seen people pushing their rented cars beyond their limits which can come at a cost if you are not fully insured! Also, due to the nature of the weather in Iceland some unexpected damage can be inflicted on the cars! So, it is crucial to choose the appropriate car and coverage package.
It seemed that renting a 4×4 is optimum during the harsh days of winter specially for those who plan on going off road! It wasn’t optimum though from a financial perspective. At the same time, the rates were different from one car rental to another and choosing a reliable company needed some looking into. I was conflicted between what’s safe and what’s affordable and after some searching and asking around I ended up settling for something in between! An economy car, which is usually a Hyundai i30 or equivalent, with Budget Car Rental which was cheaper than most and came in recommended by the hostel I stayed at in Reykjavik.
To choose a car, you will need to take a few things into consideration other than just the size or category, something like the AC for example. I found out that having a car that’s equipped with an AC comes at an extra cost! I didn’t care much about it as long as the car included heating! Not having to ever think about the engineering of it, I wondered if a car AC and its heating system are connected!! The people at Budget must have thought I was stupid for asking such a question! But hay, where I come from it is not an option to have a car without an AC. It is not that I would be asked whether I want an AC or not if I’m buy a car!
I ended up going for a car with no AC, no GPS but with an in car wi-fi instead (it came in very handy), and a full coverage that included theft, front windscreen protection, and protection against sand and ash! I paid quite a hefty amount on that VW Golf I was given that day! But I always prefer to pay the extra money upfront for a full coverage and put my mind at ease instead of worrying about how much I will be charged if the car gets damaged somehow!
I was so excited about picking up the car that morning and starting on my road trip that I kept on checking whether I had my passport with me or not only to find out that I have completely forgetting my international driving license at the hostel!! I actually had to go back to the hostel to bring it and the driver from the car rental was kind enough to offer me another round trip! He even said such an incident happens quite often! How nice is that, huh 😀 Did I mention that I was picked up by the car rental company to go get my car? Complimentary? I was actually quite happy with the service I received from Budget despite some very discomforting reviews that I have read online!!
It was all set; I had the keys to my fully covered grey Golf in my hands and it was time for me to hit the road. On that day I was going on one of the most popular day trips that depart from Reykjavik, a self-guided tour to the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a touristic route that starts from Reykjavik into the southern uplands of Iceland covering about 230+ km. It consists of 3 main stops which are the Þingvellir National Park, the geothermal area of Haukadalur, and the Gullfoss Waterfall. The Þingvellir, or Thingvellir, National Park was established in 1930 as the first national park in Iceland and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The park retains a special place in the Icelandic culture due to the numerous important events that took place on its plains. Þingvellir, which roughly means “fields of parliament”, is where The National Parliament of Iceland, Alþingi, was formed in 930 AD. The sessions continued to be held there until 1798 AD when the parliament moved to Reykjavik. It was also in that place when the people of Iceland decided to abandon Paganism and the Norse Gods to adopt Christianity as the main religion in Iceland in the year 1000 AD.
In addition to its historical and cultural importance, the Þingvellir National Park is also home to Silfra, a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Silfra fissure was formed in 1789 when a tectonic drift took place between the Eurasian and North American plates. The submerged ravine is filled with underground water that travels through the porous lava fields of the area. The water originates from the Langjökull glacier, which is located 60 km to the north, the long filtration process that the water goes through is the main reason why the water in Silfra is noticeably clear and also drinkable. The water maintains a constant temperature that ranges between 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. The visibility can extend to over 100 m making it so easy to see the canyon walls and bottom. What’s also amazing about Silfra is the vivid azure colors that are reflected on its rock formation making it an extremely popular location for divers and snorkelers.
At that time, I wasn’t the experienced diver I’m today and I would have been terribly nervous diving in Silfra. Nonetheless, I sent an inquiry and was told that the rules have been updated and that without dry suit experience or dry suit certificate I wouldn’t be allowed to dive. Since I had neither at the time, I decided to snorkel instead and had myself booked with Arctic Adventures at 11:00 am. It cost me ISK 18,990 which is roughly around € 120 to snorkel for 45 minutes in Silfra.
And so, after I picked up the rented car, I drove myself to the meeting point within the national park. It was my first encounter driving in Iceland and I was extra careful on the road, too careful that I might have pissed off the people driving behind me 😀 It was cloudy and grey that morning and while driving, the landscape suddenly turned white and I found myself surrounded by snow covered hills. The white colored landscape seemed to disappear as I came closer to the meeting point within the premises of the national park. It was my first time to see snow and it got me excited, but I wasn’t as excited about it as I was about what was going to take place shortly, snorkeling in Silfra.
I met with the team at the meeting point and shortly after, they took me and the other participants to the prep zone. The prep zone was nothing more than a parking lot where we were to get dressed and prepped before heading to the water! A little warning here, there were no changing rooms, just a small toilet that couldn’t have been used as a changing room! I noticed how some people felt uncomfortable about having to get changed publicly. I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t have a space of my own to get changed but luckily, I was somehow prepared! In one of the posts I read on travel blogs about snorkeling in Silfra, wearing a layer of thermals for extra warmth came in highly recommended. Eventually, that layer acted as the “privacy” I needed to get myself ready!
We were dressed up in layers and the first layer was a very thick fleece overall underneath which you can wear whatever you want but no jeans nor heavy sweatshirts, hence the thermals 😉 Next, came the dry suit! A dry suit is designed to seal the water and prevent it from entering the suit and getting in contact with your skin. Such insulation and exclusion of water provides the wearer with warmth when diving in cold waters. The suit uses a layer of air as insulation, that layer usually affects a diver’s buoyancy hence the need for experience in diving in one to dive in Silfra. It was my first time in such a suit and let me give you a piece of advice over here, make sure to use the toilet before you put it on because unlike wet-suits, you can’t really “relieve” yourself in a dry suit if you get what I mean 😀
We were all doing the layering process at the same time and I couldn’t help but notice the minimal interaction the team members had with me! It didn’t feel nice, but I tried to prevent it from ruining my mood. As I was waiting for the next stage, one of the team members approached me and talked with me. He sensed that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting the head piece in front of everyone so he gave it to me so I can find a concealed spot to put it on without anyone watching. The head piece is usually made of thick neoprene covering both the head and neck and I would have needed to take off my scarf to put it on. He asked me to put it on and check with him afterwards so he would seal it properly around my neck to prevent water from going inside the suit through the collar. I didn’t know what was coming next, but he did and given my attire and what it implied, he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable in front of everyone else. I was really overwhelmed by his action. The fact that he anticipated someone else’s needs and acted accordingly really touched me! He even defended me in front of one of his colleagues who got annoyed that I wasn’t following the order at which everyone was following. He literally told him “she is covered, I can’t ask her to put it on in front of everyone”!
We finished gearing up and I was put with a group of 4 Americans and a Greek dive master who, upon knowing I was Egyptian, couldn’t believe I wasn’t diving in the warmer Sharm Al Sheikh instead 😀 For some reason I was given an over-sized suit and neoprene boots and for another unknown reason I didn’t bother to object!! I looked like a bear with everything I was wearing, and I couldn’t walk properly in those 42 sized boots I had on!! Having said that, it was all forgotten once I entered the water! The water temperature was 4 degrees Celsius that day, it was crisp and clear, and I was able to see the bottom and the extraordinary rock formations of the ravine easily. The azure colors and how gracefully they reflected on the rocky bottom took my breath away! The taste of the water that kept getting into my snorkel was the freshest I have ever tasted! I literally drank my way for those 45 minutes 😀 It was a mind-blowing experience and I loved every minute of it!
After we were done, I peeled off all the layers I had on me and when I returned to my original size, I said my thanks and took off to continue exploring the national park. Upon relocating the car to a different parking lot, I grabbed my camera and followed the boardwalk that shows the visitors around the area. In Iceland there is a very popular saying about the weather that goes like this: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. That saying turned out to be true because the weather in Iceland is continuously fluctuating and the gloomy morning I started with that day gave way to a pleasant and sunny afternoon. Mind you, it was still freezing though 😀
I walked around taking in the gorgeous views I was surrounded with. The landscape was so beautiful unlike anything I have seen before. The blue of the lake and skies, the brown and green of the land, and the whiteness of the snow collaborated in painting the most beautiful painting nature can offer. WOW!!
After my time in the national park came to an end, I moved to the next spot on my itinerary for the day; Strokkur Geyser. On the way though, I made a little detour to Efstidalur for a couple of scoops of ice cream! Efstidalur is a family farm that’s located in the heart of the Golden Circle. It belongs to dairy farmers who have been living on the property since 1750 and is now run by the family’s 7th generation. They have a variety of products on offer, but they are quite famous for their organic, home-made ice cream that’s made from the milk of their own cows! It was so fresh and made for an excellent break before I continued further. The farm is an excellent spot for families driving the Golden Circle as it offers children some entertainment.
Strokkur Geyser is part of the Haukadalur geothermal valley which is also known for its mud pools and fumaroles. It is considered to be one of the biggest geysers in the area erupting every 6 to 10 minutes and can sometimes erupt up to 40 meters in height. The anticipation of the next eruption and how high it would be was actually quite entertaining. I hanged around for some time until I rushed myself to the 3rd and last spot on my Golden Circle itinerary, Gullfoss Waterfall. I was there before the sun called it a day, but the light was almost gone already. Nonetheless, I was quite taken by that powerful waterfall and its beauty.
The waterfall got its name Gullfoss, which means “Golden Falls”, due to the golden hue that shines over its glacier water on a sunny day. The water of the Hvítá river travels all the way from the Langjökull glacier until it drops down on the two-tiered waterfall. Gullfoss is 32 meters tall with the longest drop being 21 meters in height! It is the largest volume falls in Europe and was pronounced as a nature reserve in 1979.
The presence of such a powerful waterfall made me realize how weak we, humans, are next to the mighty strength of mother nature! It took my breath away ❤
It is crucial to stay within the marked trail as any fall into the gorge is quite fatal. I have actually seen some people crossing the trail marks to take a closer picture with the waterfall!! Also, flying drones is prohibited within the premises of the waterfall.
I admired at the waterfall until there was almost no light to light up the evening sky. It was time for me to start driving back to Reykjavik but, dinner first and for that I had just the place. Within the Golden Circle lies an authentic Ethiopian restaurant, Minilik, and I decided to give it a shot. My first encounter, ever, with the Ethiopian cuisine was in the heart of Iceland. Go figure! I added the location to my previously set google map and followed the directions. It was pitch black with no streetlights and I was the only car driving down that road! It was a short drive anyway and I actually enjoyed the quietness that surrounded me.
I reached the restaurant and managed to occupy the last available table they had. I studied the menu and decided on ordering some lamb meat with fresh ginger, garlic, and turmeric. I was as hungry as a bear and as I patiently waited for the food to arrive, I noticed there was no cutlery on the table! It was the same for the other tables but no one seemed to be bothered about it! It wasn’t until the table next to me got their order when I realized that Ethiopian food is eaten using the hand. That was my first but wasn’t my last 😀 The food finally came and OMG, it was finger-licking good! I ate up EVERYTHING!!
As I was paying the bill before leaving, I thanked the guy at the counter for the delicious food. At the sound of my words, the cook left the kitchen and came to have a word with me. She was from Ethiopia and was quite surprised to know I’m Egyptian. She probably thought I came along way, but I guess it was her who went on that long way before me. She was pleased that I liked the food, I wished her and the nice guy from the counter a good night and headed back to my car. I had quite a drive back to the hostel in Reykjavik, but that drive was special because the sky had a northern light greenish hue!! It was cloudy and witnessing the aurora borealis dancing their famous dance wasn’t possible that night, but nonetheless, it felt magical.
I finally made it back to the hostel, tired and sleepy but satisfied and happy about my day and how it wrapped up. I showered, packed, and went to my bunk bed to have some needed good night sleep. In the following morning it was goodbye Reykjavik and hello south coast 😊