Sarah So and Patrick Chiang | Iceland DIY Trip

Where is Iceland

Iceland is just south of the arctic circle between the American and European continent.

Glaciers and Pure Water

As its name implies, the island has ice, lots of it. Most of the interior is covered with snow and ice. Since it is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it gets a lot of moisture from the Gulf Stream. The cold arctic air cools down the moisture and causes a lot of snow and rain. The biggest icecap in Europe is here. The ice and snow formed the glaciers on this island. The water melted from the glaciers flows over from the highland to the coastal areas and forms many waterfalls. Gullfoss, meaning Golden Falls, is one of the biggest waterfall here. The locals will endlessly remind you of their natural resources of pure clean water. 

Geothermal Activity and Geysir

The island lies between the American and European tectonic plate which drifts apart slowly every year since the beginning of Earth. Below the island the earth's crust is thin. Remember the volcanic eruption in 2010 when it caused air traffic stoppage across Europe due to volcanic ash? Geothermal activity is strong here. They have geothermal power plants. 90% of the homes in its capital, Reykjavik, is heated by geothermal heated water. A popular site is a small geyser called Strokkur. This geyser erupts every 10 minutes or so. The water ejected from the ground can reach 50 to 100 ft high. I was standing about 20 ft from it and can see the blue bubble of boiling water balloon out just before it erupts. Happily I captured it in picture and video which you can see here. 


Thingvellir is a national park where Iceland's first parliament is. There is actually no building or structure. The chiefs back in the days came to this place to meet and hence formed the early parliament. What's special about this place is that it is close to the fissure of the continental plates. The crack forms a valley flanked by a line of ridge almost like a wall. There are lava caves here that you can join a tour to snorkel or even dive into the fissure of the continental plates surrounded by lava rocks. The temperature below is always 2 degree Celsius. Here and in many other places you can see lava fields that is black. Due to the harsh cold and windy climate here, there are not many trees. Pre-conservation days most trees were logged for firewood and for building homes. Most rocks are covered in moss. Imagine a black wrinkled landscape with green patches and white snow capped mountains in the background. 

The Golden Circle

This is the name given to popular tours that go to the three places I mention above, Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir. 

South Shore and Volcano

We joined a super jeep tour to see the volcano that erupted two years ago. The jeep drove down along the South Coast and then turned off road towards the site of the volcano which is also the tongue of the glacier Eyjafjallajokull. The eruption was under this glacier, melted a lot of ice, caused a flooding and blew out the lake where the glacier used to flow into. At the tip of the tongue of the glacier I can see an ice cave. The tour guide does not allow us to go near it because it is dangerous. Falling rocks and ice can roll down any time. Up close we can hear the crackling of the ice melting and breaking. I touched the glacier which is icy blue and has a lot of air bubbles trapped inside. The tour guide showed us one place where we can look under the ice and it is very blue like a frozen wave. 

Black Sand Beach

Along the South Coast the jeep tour took us to a place where he drove out to a black sand beach. The sand comes from the lava. They are broken down naturally from the volcanic rocks. I saw whole fish bones along the water. The fish bone is about 2 feet long. Likely they are left by the sea birds. Looking back the snow covered highland stretches far and wide over the black sand beach.  

More Waterfalls

Along the way we stopped at three waterfalls. One of which you can walk to the back of it if you want to. But the temperature in March is still very cold and the water spray from the waterfall makes the area very wet and frozen so it is extremely slippery. We attempt to approach it but gave up half way because it is so cold and wet and slippery. 


Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. It is a modern city. The downtown tourist area is very small, just a few streets that forms a triangle. There is a church up on a hill. Our hotel is about 10 min bus ride from downtown next to the domestic airport. Across from the hotel up on a hill is Perlan, "the Pearl". Perlan is a glass dome building which houses a revolving restaurant inside. The bottom of which are six huge water tanks that stores geothermal heated water. Another interesting architecture is the opera house or cultural art center. It has a glass exterior that looks like honeycomb.  Outside the city center there are more modern building offices, shopping malls and residential homes. Typical buildings are in clean square-ish, simplistic style. 


The northern capital of Iceland. Very beautiful. It is located at the end of a very long fjord surrounded by snow cap mountain ranges. It also has an Opera House but this one is round. I had wanted to go see Lake Myvatn but there was a snow storm so the trip was cancelled. The only interesting part was in a van driving through white out conditions before we turned around. I was hoping to see a frozen lake. Well, next time then.


Icelandic language is close to Norwegian and is very difficult. Everyone here speaks and understands English which make it really easy for tourists. 


Fish, meat (lamb) soup are the local diet there. I have not tried the more exotic horse meat or reindeer meat burger. They do have Subways, but not McDonalds or Burger King. The weather here is severe, windy, cold, rainy, snowy. Agriculture is difficult. Most vegetables are grown in greenhouses heated by geothermal water. Some greenhouses are open for tours. Their vegetable is hard to come by so salad here is expensive. 

Traveling Tips

Icelandair offers vacation packages which include air and hotel. Booking the optional day tours is really easy. I booked them at the tour desk at the hotel lobby the day before no later than 8pm. That is when the tour desk closes. Check for weather first at the guest computer in the lobby so you don't have to deal to getting refund for weather cancellations. For Norther Light tours if the operator runs the tour that night and you don't get to see any northern lights, they give you a voucher to try again for free. The buses pick up passengers from various hotels and gather at the bus terminal. Then they depart to hunt for northern lights. On a typical night, there can be 3-5 buses at a time. Could be more if there is a back log. 


The local Currency is Icelandic Krona. Exchange at the airport is really convenient and easy.