“We’re driving down a volcano now. By the way if it erupts during the tour I have to make this an adventure tour and charge you extra,” my guide, Siggy, laughs cheerfully. I’m currently on a South Coast Tour with GeoIceland. While I typically love self-drive adventures, the fact I’m visiting Iceland in winter made me nervous to coast around solo, not knowing what the conditions would be like. So far, Siggy is making my South Coast Iceland adventure quite enjoyable, adding local knowledge as he talks about the different towns we pass through. The South Coast — along with the Golden Circle — are the two tours everyone needs to do when visiting Iceland. Yes, you’ll see loads of tourists. Yes, the bathroom lines will be long; however, whether you do these through a guided adventure or on your own, they introduce you to Iceland’s iconic natural landscapes.
A Scenic Treasure HuntIt takes about 90 minutes before we’re at the first stop on our Iceland travel itinerary: Skógafoss, a 60-meter high waterfall feeding the Skógá river full of natural beauty. And folklore. By the way, Iceland is home to A LOT of folklore, so be prepared for endless storytelling. “A Viking settler named Þrasi Þórólfsson hid a treasure chest behind the waterfall in year 900. A group of men tried retrieving the chest, but jerked too hard and the ring got pulled off, the chest falling deeper into the waterfall.” Siggy’s voice suddenly falls low. “The chest is still there, and you can find the ring on the church door at Skógar.” Pro tip: If you’re visiting with your own vehicle, make sure to take a side trip from here to check out the Solheimasandur Plane Crash, the wreckage from a mysterious Iceland plane crash that sits on a beautiful stretch of black sand beach and makes for epic photos.
Endless ViewsIt’s a bit too cold for me to go swimming for treasure, but it’s a perfect day for climbing to the top of a waterfall. It’s 527 steps to the main lookout, and every few I’m awarded a view of from a different angle. I make sure not to just stare at Skógafoss, as there’s also rolling hills, snow-capped peaks and small farm villages adding to the idyllic scene of South Coast Iceland. While I don’t see any rainbows, a quick Google search of the attraction makes it clear you often can. Climbing to the top I find a main landing; a metal grate that the stairs lead directly to. There are also dirt paths allowing you to walk to the edge from other sections of the trail. I try all of these, finding the top viewpoint on the metal grate to be the most rewarding. Additionally, I see tourists acting really dumb on the dirt cutouts. Tip: when you’re standing on a cliff ledge without a guardrail, turning your back to the drop-off for a selfie is not clever. At all. Watching some of these people made my palms sweat with anxiety. While Iceland has a lot of beautiful cliff ledges, waterfalls, glaciers and beaches to photograph — especially along the South Coast — it’s also rugged landscape. Please remember no amount of Instagram likes is worth falling off a mountain or being swallowed by the ocean (yes, this happens).
Glacier Hiking AdventuresWe have about 40 minutes to enjoy the scenery before getting back on the bus and heading to what is my personal favorite stop of the tour, Solheimajokull Glacier. Now, you have a choice here. You can stay with the group to see the other major South Coast attractions, or stay behind to hike the glacier. Hiking the glacier sounds really awesome, but as I’d had that sort of adventure before trekking over Perito Moreno in Patagonia, I decide to stay with the group. Well, sort of. We have an hour at the glacier, and I enjoy a short scenic solo hike to get up close to it. The trek is over black volcanic rock that hugs a mirror lake, offering reflective glacier views. I follow the lake and walk right up to the glacier, close enough to touch. I stop every few feet, my camera shutter clicking like crazy. As I approach its mighty form the air becomes clean and crisp, an enjoyable chill prickling my skin. Oh, and fun fact about the glacier: It connects to Myrdalsjökull, Iceland’s fourth largest glacier. Underneath Myrdalsjökull is Katla Volcano, named after an evil troll. The volcano is so active it’s erupted 20 times since Iceland was settled. In fact, very recently there has been some activity. Remember the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and how its ash clouds halted air travel for eight days and canceled over 100,000 flights all over Europe? Crazy. Once we’ve all gotten enough glacier time — and some coffees to warm up — it’s off to the coastal town of Vík for lunch. And volcanoes. Hey, this is Iceland. This is actually where you’ll find the above-mentioned volcano that disrupted European air travel in 2010. “If this erupts while you’re eating run to the bus,” instructs Siggy. “It’s supposed to erupt every 50 years and it’s due for another. It’s actually been rumbling lately.” This isn’t a joke, either. It amazes me these people live knowing a volcano could erupt and force them to leave their homes. I’m told they have an evacuation plan though. Icelanders are resilient people. Quick note: I don’t watch Game of Thrones (I know, I know; how?!), but we drive down the road from the show. Lunch is pretty greasy — I have a cheeseburger covered in a thick mayo sauce and fries. If you’re a healthy person you may want to bring your own food. Luckily there is a gas station stop in the beginning of the tour where you can get sandwiches and skyr, a protein-rich snack similar to Greek yogurt. What I do love about the lunch stop though is a great souvenir shop. I’m not the type who buys “I Love Iceland” keychains made in China, but I do love local products. I score moisture-wicking hiking socks as well as a pair of angora socks for $10 each, and locally-made chocolate for $3.50 per bar. Iceland is expensive, so I find these to be great prices. Iceland is known for wool, so get your souvenirs here if you’re buying them.
Reynisfjara (aka Death Beach)Next up is what Siggy touts as South Coast Iceland’s most visited attraction, Reynisfjara. This is the country’s iconic black sand beach. “Why is it black? Because volcanic ash goes into the sea, and then the sea brings it back to the beach, turning it black,” explains Siggy. He also explains how powerful the waves can be, with a number of deaths occurring from tourists turning their backs to the water for photos and being pulled in. This is because every seventh wave or so is much larger than the others, and can easily pull you in. Which is where another folklore story comes in. Most people who get pulled into the sea here don’t make it out, though one couple had a miracle. The previous night I’d taken a cultural immersion class at Reykjavík’s Tin Can Factory, where I was told the story. While standing above the sea a piece of cliff broke off, sending the couple into the strong waters. They survived, saying they felt the arms of elves helping them to land softly and saving their lives. Reynisfjara is also where you can see trolls turned to stone in the water, not making it back before sunlight. The lesson: nature is powerful. And whether you believe in trolls and elves or not, there are insights to take away from these stories. The beach’s black sand is soft and crunchy, full of shiny midnight-hued stones polished by the rough waves. A giant sloping hill leads down to the coastline, with an otherworldly cave to the side. Black birds swarm above, with gorgeous basalt columns looking like organ pipes stretching towards them. It’s a ruggedly gorgeous scene. Back on the bus the conversation turns back to trolls. “Have you heard the story of our 13 Santa Clauses?” smirks Siggy. In America, children are visited by a cheerful fat man and adorable reindeer who deliver presents, giving coal to naughty children; in Iceland they’re visited by Grýla the troll and her 13 carnivorous sons, who live up in the mountains and come down to kidnap kiddies and boil them a dinner stew. “There was also the Christmas Cat, who only ate on Christmas. As a child we all hoped we got a piece of clothing, since this giant black cat would come to town on Christmas Day and eat anyone who hadn’t received this as a gift.” How terrifying. Actually, so scary that in the 18th century the government banned parents from telling these stories to kids because Reykjavik’s streets became bare on Christmas Day. Everyone was terrified of being eaten by this troll family and their cat! “The story has gotten modern with time. Now the troll sons are known as Yule Lads and leave gifts in our shoes 13 days leading up to Christmas. And we only get a rotten potato if we’re bad, which is better than getting eaten.” I’d say!
Seljalandsfoss + More FolkloreAfter a healthy dose of folklore terror we move on to our second waterfall of the day, Seljalandsfoss. The natural attraction falls 65 meters over an old sea cliff, dropping into the Seljalandsá River. As this is Iceland, there’s folklore to pair. This river passes through Tröllagil, or Troll Woman’s Gorge, where it’s said a troll woman was trying to cross, but had to retreat upon hearing the bells of nearby church. What’s awesome here is you can actually walk up the sides of — as well as behind — this waterfall. The hitch: you’ll get quite wet, so I skip this in lieu of a scenic flat walk along a trail of small waterfalls. So peaceful, as the trail seems to be the less popular choice among visitors. The drive back to Reykjavik offers one final folklore stop: Drangurinn. This giant rock sits on the side of the road under Drangshlíd farm, atop a cave complex in the foothills of Eyjafjöll. It’s full of interesting elf folklore. In fact, it’s said a man disappeared into the rock to live with the elves, potentially even marrying one. I love all these elf stories, and actually think they make sense. What’s important to remember is elves aren’t tiny people with pointy hats, but look like humans. In fact, you have to get close to realize if someone is an elf. If you Google you’ll find a ton of stories making fun of the beliefs, but in reality it isn’t so different from believing in spirits or ghosts. I’m a big believer in other dimensions, so I don’t find these elf stories all that crazy. And, like the natural attractions of the South Coast, elves are part of Iceland’s beautiful culture.
Tour vs Driving South Coast Iceland?The big question for many people is whether to drive or do a tour. During my week basing in Reykjavik and touring Iceland, I did both. My first few days I rented a car with SADcars and loved driving around. That being said traveling solo in winter — plus being a New Yorker who drives about twice a year — I didn’t want to be stuck in my hotel being too scared to brave rain, hail and very high winds. If you’re comfortable driving and changing tires and want to take your time, driving can be great. If you don’t want to worry about traversing rugged terrain and want to explore with local guides who can tell you about what you’re seeing, a tour is a smart idea. You can also use a car comparison tool like Discover Cars to make sure you’re getting the best car rental deal in Iceland. Note: If you’re driving make sure you have a phone! I use KnowRoaming, a global SIM card that works in most countries. It’s only $7.99 per day for unlimited data. My favorite part is you’ll have data/phone service immediately upon landing. This was really important to me as I never wanted to be without a phone when driving in case of emergency.
Logistics:Stay: The ODDSSON Ho(s)tel. I absolutely loved this hostel and hotel, which caters to both budget backpackers and the budget travelers wanting privacy. On the fourth floor you’ll find a self-catering kitchen, free-to-use yoga room (with the occasional complimentary class), terrace lounge and outdoor hot tub. The first floor, on the other hand, has more of a hotel feel with a gorgeous restaurant, “yoga food” cafe, work areas with communal tables and plush couches, and free bike rentals. What’s awesome is both my dorm and my hotel room (I tried both) had gorgeous views of Faxaflói Bay and the Esja, Akrafjall and Skarðsheiði Mountains. Rates: ~$33-$50 USD for a 12-bedroom dorm and ~$225-$385 USD for the private hotel room. Use code “JESSIEONAJOURNEY” for 10% off your stay! Tour Price: 13,900 Icelandic Krona (~$122 USD). Essential Gear: For traveling Iceland in winter, I’d recommend:
Difficult Level: Easy! While there are options to get out and do some small hikes, these are not required.
- Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments. Pickpockets will never even know you’re carrying cash. Iceland is very safe, but I never travel without my safety gear.
- RoamRight Travel Insurance. Iceland is rugged, and you definitely want to be protected.
- BUFF multi-use scarf. This tiny garment protected my neck, face and head from wind and hail.
- Merino Wool Hiking Socks. Essential for staying warm and temperate (they wick away moisture!).
- Merino Wool Base Layers (both shirts and pants). Click here for women and click here for men.
- A waterproof coat. I brought an umbrella but it was so windy I couldn’t use it. Having a warm waterproof coat saved me.
- Waterproof hiking boots. I swear by my Timberland work boots.
- Waterproof housing for your camera. If you use an iPhone, ProShot is a great investment.
- Jiva Coffee Cubes. Iceland is EXPENSIVE. Pack some non-perishable snacks and portable coffee cubes to help save some money.
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