Tag Archives: budget

Driving around the Iceland Ring Road in December

Visiting Iceland in December and taking on the Ring Road has its challenges: four hours of daylight and increased chances of encountering deadly snow blizzards and forceful winds. 

However, the plus side of visiting during low-season is respite from the crowds, cheaper prices in accommodation and car rental. 

Here’s how we covered 1,400km in eight days:

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavík

Total distance: 49km

We flew easyJet via London and landed in Keflavík airport a few minutes after 10.30 on a foggy Sunday morning. We got the keys to our white VW Polo and headed off to our first destination: Reykjavík.

-

We drove straight into the oldest commercial streets in town, Laugavegur. Parking is free on Sundays.

The street is lined with typical Iceland shops selling typical Icelandic stuff (such as the iconic Icelandic Sweaters – Lopapeysa – made from Icelandic sheep’s wool and sold complete with a signed hand-written note from the maker), quaint cafés, street art and colourful houses.

Icelanders’ timber dwellings are equipped for their climate, coated in a curvy outer layer of corrugated steel. Houses are kept warm using geothermal energy, and all their resources are 100 per cent renewable.

unnamed-1.jpg

Walking around in the faint glow of a typical Icelandic morning in 8 degrees (heatwave by Icelandic winter standards), we observed women in their empty shops knitting away at the counter, a handful of Asian tourists posing in front of their selfie-sticks and young Icelandic couples calmly push their babies in buggies.

But most notable of all was how quiet the most vibrant street in the capital was. It felt almost as though silence was a presence that filled the streets of Reykjavík, such that one is almost obliged to break into a whisper when speaking.

Svarta Kaffið: Home-made bread-bowl of reindeer soup.

For lunch, we sat ourselves at the last vacant table of a family-owned café, Svarta Kaffið. There was no menu, but a choice of either vegetarian soup or reindeer home-made soup. We opted for the latter. It was the warmest welcome one could ever receive in a country, taking the shape of a cosy bread bowl of reindeer soup (1850 KR).

  • Sleep: Red Door Hostel (basic amenities, round the corner from Laugavegur)
  • Eat: Reindeer Soup from Svarta Kaffið (1850 KR) and try a hot dog (860 ISK) from Bæjarins beztu, Iceland’sand now possibly the world’smost famous hot dog stand.
  • Shop: Bónus (Iceland’s answer to LIDL)

Day 2: Reykjavík to Vík—City Walk & Golden Circle

Total Distance: 218km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

The next morning, we went on a City Walk with our Icelandic guide, Martin, and a sizeable group of tourists from all around the world.

Side note: The walking tour is free, but donations are encouraged. 

Our comprehensive walkabout gave insight into the Icelandic culture and background stories of important sites. Our tour was concluded at around 2pm, with this sunset.

- (1)

We then checked-out of our hostel, booked the last room in Vík and start our anti-clockwise journey round the Icelandic ring-road (or Route One), taking on the popular tourist route in the last hour of daylight.

Around the Golden Circle, we visited Þingvellir National Park (which lies in a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate), witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air and felt the cold spray of the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls before darkness fell at 4pm.

Side note: If you’re travelling in winter, plan days well and research times the sunrises and sets before heading out to explore. Unfortunately, most of the sites along the Ring Road couldn’t be appreciated due to the lack of daylight. 

  • Sleep: Puffin Hostel (Vík)
  • Do: Reykjavík City Walk – Professional local guides share curious facts about the city, its history and Icelandic culture. Requires booking via website.
  • Do: Golden Circle Tour – This is pretty doable for independent travellers renting their own car. Main attractions are all located on one paved road and highly accessible from Reykjavík.

Day 3: Vík to HöfnHikes, Glacier Lakes & Langoustine Soup

Distance: 272km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

We woke up in the creaky attic of The Puffin Hostel, a mere 10-minute walk from the Black Beach in Vík. It was already 10 in the morning, but the lack of light made it feel as though it were still 10 in the evening.

- (2)

After having a quick breakfast, covered ourselves in thermals and stuffed the rest of our belongings into our backpacks, we embarked on a mini-hike to explore the southern village of only 300 inhabitants.

Our exploration was short-lived. From the ravenous waves of the deserted Black Beach, we ended up trudging up a very steep hill in an icy drizzle that was so cold, it felt like needle darts against our cheeks. And when we almost reached a layer of thin clouds, we headed back to the warmth and shelter of our car.

02 - Vik Hike
On the remote footpath behind the Vík church.

Our eastward drive towards Höfn (literally: harbour), was probably the most spectacular part of the entire ring road  lined with majestic snowcapped mountains and a luminous icy-blue lake huddled between them.

03 - Ring Road

The light was very faint by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón lake. At 4.30pm, clouds hung low, allowing the light to diffuse magically, creating a piercing blue contrast with the grey.

Giant icebergs floated silently and at a glacial pace in the glass-like lake, as if in deep sleepI felt as though I had to tiptoe along the promenade to avoid waking them up.

- (3)

That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely meal at Pakkhusas recommended by the kind lady upon checkin-in at the Höfn Hostel.

Höfn is known as the Langoustine Capital of Iceland, and we had the privilege of sitting by the window overlooking the very boat that goes out in the morning to catch the ten-legged shellfish in our humarsupa.

The home-grown duck breast and lamb shanks that came later were so tender, you could cut them with a spoon.

Even spreading plain butter on bread was an event at the table. Smjör Butter is so fluffy, it tasted like clouds on freshly warm bread! 

  • Sleep: Höfn Hostel (Höfn)
  • Eat: Pukkhus (Höfn)
  • Shop: Nettó Supermarket (Höfn)
  • Do: Walk along the Black Beach (Vík) & Meditate in front of Jökulsárlón Lake (Ring Road)

Day 4: Höfn to Akureyri — The Mammoth Journey

Distance: 451km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
The most perilous part of the journey.

During our trip, we never had any hostels booked or fixed itinerary to follow. Stable internet connections and the flexibility of booking.com made it possible for us to plan according to circumstance.

There was nowhere to spend the night between the two major towns of Höfn and Akureyri, so we were obliged to embark on a mammoth journey that saw us cut across half the island.

Google Maps predicted it would take us 6 hours to reach north. So before hitting the road, we stopped at Nettó Supermarket to stock up on suppliesmost importantly, the velvety protein-rich Icelandic yoghurt, Skyrwhich we kept naturally refrigerated in a cardboard box at the back of our car.

Side note: Expensive food and drinks was a recurring theme in our Icelandic experience. An average sit-down meal for two (incl. an alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine) could easily tally up to €100. And to overcome the challenge, we compensated by cooking our own meals or stopping for an Icelandic hot dog (€6.50) at gas stations. Water is free in Iceland, and among the purest you’ll ever drink. We kept an empty bottle handy and often stopped to refill from fresh-water streams along the Ring Road. 

- (4)

This was by far, the most perilous part of our journey. We took on gravel roads (bear in mind, our vehicle was a modest VW Polo, and not a 4×4), gushing rain bursts and misty mountain roads covered in a carpet of thin ice.

At a point it was so dark and foggy, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we drove with our eyes closed. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Side note: In our attempt to reach our first pit-stop in Egilsstaðir, our sat-nav advised us to drive up the shorter inner-route via Oxi, but common sense prevailed, and we stuck to the Ring Road, which wasn’t any less adventurous but safer nonetheless. 

Night began to fall, outside temperatures started to drop, and the visibility became worse. I had to lower the volume of the radio which by then had become distracting, and could hear the car tyres crunching against the icy road paving, as it abruptly changed to gravel and slowly started to incline.

Our wipers were swishing to and fro, headlamps blaring. We were literally driving up a mountain, the fog becoming thicker and heavier as we ascended deeper into the clouds. At a point, the visibility was so dense we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us.

IMG_9037
En route: Driving to Akureyri via Egilsstaði, the most remote part of the Ring Road.

Fingers curled tightly round the wheel, our eyes both wide as we both tried to make out this surreal experience. All I could imagine was what would become of us if we missed a sharp turn and tumbled off the crumbling edges into nothing.

Icelandic roads are totally isolated, unlit and unbarred. Our fog lights couldn’t keep up. We rolled the windows down, leaned our heads out into the arctic air hearing echoes of our car’s engine as it roared into second gear, pushing us higher and higher in a constant zig-zag of blind-corners on the narrow road.

We eventually peaked at almost 500 metres before the gravel turned into tarmac again, securing the tyre’s grip. The path took us lower and lower and we started to see again.

Click here for the official Icelandic road safety guides.

  • Highway Emergency: 112
  • Road conditions: +354 563-1500
  • Search and Rescue: +354 570-5900

We had been driving for hours, bend after bend, and still the amount of kilometres on our sat-nav seemed to remain unchanged. Mobile service was still limited and never a soul in sight.

I had heard stories of how you could drive for hours in Iceland and never encounter any cars or people – but you have to experience it to actually understand what it means.

Even though sitting the entire time, driving is mentally draining, let alone in those chaotic conditions. It was almost 8pm by the time we started to see a faint flicker of golden lights, like candles, on the black horizon. And it was such a wild relief.

05 - Ring Road.png
Akureyri on the horizon: The last part of the 6 hour journey.

Day 5: AkureyriVisual diary

Distance covered: 0km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
Early morning in Iceland’s fishing centre.
Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
Midday in Akureyri.
4E014772-B356-431A-94C0-A81FF4B97B10.jpg
Street Art in Akureyri.
IMG_0925.JPG
Lamb Burger and sweet potato fries from Hamborgarafabrikkan.

  • Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
  • Eat: Lamb Burger at Hamborgarafabrikkan
  • Drink: For those who like to tipple, Iceland may not be your favourite destination. Beer prices average at €8 per pint. However, there is a way around it: Happy Hour. While in Akureyri, indulge in beer for half the price during Backpackers Hostel‘s famous Happy Hour. (Try: Brennivín—Iceland’s signature liqueur (€13) & Einstök—White Ale Beer (€8)).

Day 6: Akureyri to Fossatún—Northern Lights Sighting

Distance: 316km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

After approximately an hour sliding across pot-holed roads, crawling over intimidating single-lane bridge and an unscheduled meeting with the Icelandic horses, we checked into Fossatún at 03.00pm sharp on Friday.

It was literally in the middle of nowhere, just on the top of a waterfall. The grounds are run by a lovely couple who are acclaimed children’s authors, famous for their folk stories about trolls, which are inspired by the hiking trails around the grounds themselves.

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

As we were given the key to our sizeable pod, and charged an extra €11 each for a pillow and a duvet, owner Steiner Berg said it was highly probable we would encounter the northern lights that night.

Download your Aurora Forecast app here.

They usually come out on clear nights in winter (September to mid-April) and visible in places away from light pollution, peaking between 11.00pm to 2.00am. 

At 10.00pm, with the clouds swept away and the northern star shining brightly for the first time since we landed in Iceland, we set out for a little hike away from the camping grounds to experience the enchanting Icelandic nightlife.

Would we hear the northern lights approaching? Would we actually feel them sweep through the skies? It was an inconceivable notion for us, so we stood there as though we were little children waiting for Christmas.

Read: In pursuit of the Northern Lights

After almost an hour and a half standing there, looking up, toes completely frozen, we witnessed the first signs of the northern lights. 

Completely isolated from everything, the raw skies opened up to a pathway of shimmering emerald particles, dancing gracefully through the darkness. 

  • Sleep: Fossatún Camping Pods (linen pack not included)
  • Eat: The Settlement Centre Restaurant in one of the oldest houses of Borgarnes
  • Drink: Grýla beer (made from glacial waters, sold only here)

Day 7: Fossatún to Reykjavík 

Distance: 99km

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
The last hurdle!

The next morning, we headed west along the coast towards Reykjavík. For the first time we could see the sun setting over the horizon, staining the pale blue sky with pretty pink and orange tints, as though a celebration for completing our road trip.

D4B63909-A823-40C1-843F-20DEFD33961C.jpg

Conclusion: Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?

Visiting Iceland in winter isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, we were there during a ‘heat-wave’ so the temperatures and weather conditions were much better than expected.

However, it was a constant race to pack as much into our itinerary, given the limited amount of daylight we had. Plus, most of the country is hibernating: there’s no whale-watching, no puffins, no chances of camping outdoors and could be too cold or dark for long treks.

Having said that, winter in Iceland means freedom and the flexibility. You can book a room for the night a couple of hours before your visit, eat at restaurants without having to wait or making a reservation, and of course, the chance to encounter the northern lights in their full glory.

●●

Advertisements

Nicaragua: Escaping into the unknown

I had never heard of Nicaragua, let alone spell it or pin it on the map. It was the idea of escaping into the unknown that lured me there last March. Here I expose the Pacific Coast of the largest country in the American isthmus.

IMG_1621

I jet off Nicaragua without doing any research. I simply booked a return flight and left the rest up to fate. I wanted to go on a relaxing adventure, without any check-lists of what I could eat, see or do. That way, I could be a blank canvas, and paint my Nicaraguan experience according to mood and instinct.  

Travel Itinerary: Madrid > Panama City > Managua via Iberia Airlines.

I visited three cities during my ten-day trip: Granada, León, Masaya and Ometepe Island. If you’re a nature lover looking for an uncharted destination on a budget, Nicaragua’s the place for you. 

●●

Travelling to Nicaragua was like travelling through time. Chickens, oxen and donkeys accompany pedestrians through the bustling streets. Locals work tirelessly and end their day relaxing on colourful handmade hammocks. There’s a strong culture that works to live, rather than lives to work. 

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset
Walking in the bustling streets of Granada. 
In Nicaragua, it’s perfectly legal to transport your entire family at the back of the car. 

The country is still emerging from the civil unrest of the late 1970s and natural disasters that hit it, but tourism is flourishing. 

Most backpackers I met while trailing Central America said they much preferred Nicaragua to Costa Rica; both are geographically similar, but Nicaragua is less discovered, less developed and easier on the pocket.

Hike: Mombacho

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Sloth-ville.

Climbing up the layered Mombacho Volcano, our young guide, Jose, who grew up on a farm in the area, could navigate his way through the dwarf forest blind-folded. His English was grammatically perfect, punctuated with a Latino accent.

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset
Our enthusiastic guide, Jose. 

He was knowledgeable in geology, chemistry, botany, detailing the smells, sights, creatures and pretty views with a deep sense of pride. “This is my office,” he said as he introduced our tour, “and all the trees and animals are my colleagues.”

I never imagined I could encounter such biodiversity beyond the pages of my childhood encyclopaedia. We met huge and colourful butterflies, sloths and sociable capuchin monkeys.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
A camouflaged butterfly. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
An exotic plant nicknamed “monkey-tail”
BFCBDCC6-8305-4A39-BBB0-92495AFF4CE2 (1).JPG
View from the top of the Mombacho. </em>

Architecture + Nightlife: Granada

The majestic colonial city of Granada, sits between Mombacho and Lake Nicaragua. It is one of the oldest cities in Latin America boasting an ever-growing expat community, complete with its own Irish Pub.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
…leave as friends. Partying beneath the full-moon at Reilly’s Tavern, Granada. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Catedral La Merced: The view from the bell-tower.
Whimsical architecture. 

It’s architecture is distinct for its jarring coloured walls, which blend in beautifully with the tropical weather and bustling rhythm. Granada’s apricot-coloured cathedral, and possibly it’s most notable landmark, is prettiest at sunset.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
A panoramic view of Granada, with Lake Nicaragua on the horizon and Mombacho to the right. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Known colloquially as “La Iglesia Bonita”, the Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption is Granada’s most prominent landmark with a total area of 3,614.87 m².
  • Sleep:Hostel De Boca En Boca, walk-ins welcome. It’s located right in the city centre, next door to the Cathedral.
  • Eat:  Run by people who are deaf, Cafe de las Sonrisas offers a unique social experience by encouraging customers to converse in sign-language through the visual-aids providedWe went there for a fresh smoothie but also serves food.
  • Do: Climb up the La Merced Cathedral’s bell tower at sundown, so you can admire the city and Mombacho views awash with pink

Transport: The Chicken Bus

13E0F4FE-1225-4663-8956-34EEF1A8BFFC
It’s apparently called a ‘chicken bus’ because locals actually transport chickens on this bus. 

There are no trains, trams or metros connecting any of the cities or neighbouring countries. Busses are the main mode of transport here, and are extremely cheap, plus a goldmine for anthropological observation.

The number of seats available doesn’t determine how many passengers get on board, and bus stops exist only as a formality — the driver might slow down (never a complete halt), and in a perfectly synchronised manoeuvre, the conductor would either jolt you off or hurl you up, depending on where you wanted to go.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Our bus driver for Granada to León on Easter Sunday. 

Change is given out completely from memory. Upon payment, the conductor will neatly organise the money into a fan of notes between his five fingers, arranged based on where you are seated, and passes it on when he has the right amount, before the journey ends.

Nicaraguans won’t miss out on a business opportunity, and bus trips are often entertained by street-vendors who are strategically placed at traffic lights, where they would either sell you readily shaved and sliced mangos in transparent plastic bags through the bus window, or would intimately squeeze in to sell their beverage or snack. Who needs a Drive-Thru when the food can come to you?

Cuisine: Gallo Pinto

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Gallo pinto: rice, beans and scrambled egg. 

Nicaraguans pride themselves for their famous gallo pinto breakfast, a well-balanced mix of rice, beans and scrambled egg, usually served during breakfast. 

My most adventurous meal was some pork, yuca and veg on a leaf from a resto in Calle La Calzada, a famed touristic street lined with restaurants in the beating heart of Granada. Yuca was super filling and tasteless, in a good way, if that makes sense.

If you’re into beer, Nicaragua’s most popular cerveses are named after two women: Toña and Victoria. As you’ll realise from the images, I developed a stronger relationship with Toña she’s crisp, golden and quite the thirst quencher.

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
A selfie of my most adventurous meal.
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
My most memorable fried chicken was eaten at a bar, curiously named El Hong Kong, León. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Some chicken breast and beans, rice and salad. 

Overall, Nicaraguan cuisine left much to be desired. It could be my limited Spanish vocab which forced me down the fried-chicken-diet route I could not read the menu to save my life. But I’ve had every imaginable variety of chicken, rice and beans.

Adventure: Volcano Boarding

cerro-negro-volcano-boarding-nicaragua
Feeling badass: Surfing down an active volcano in Nicaragua. 

León lies at the collision point between two tectonic plates, boasting some of the highest volcanic activity on earth. And an hour off the city centre, lives the youngest active volcano in the region, the Cerro Negro (literally: black hill).

Adventurists would be glad to know that upon hiking up this 728m giant, one can surf down. Volcano Boarding has become a thriving business among tourist agencies, who supply wooden planks of wood, protective gloves, suits and glasses and ample water as part of a tour.

cerro-negro-nicaragua-volcano-boarding
On top of the Cerro Negro, León. 

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
The colourful volcanic dunes. 

Hiking up to witness this vastness all around me made me feel dwarfed, in a humbling way. My senses were in overdrive: intense heat, an overpowering smell of sulphur and beating winds. Climbing up carrying that flak of wood and the equipment on my back was tiring (mostly because of the heat), but doable. Terrain was very unstable due to the gravel, so good shoes and thick socks are both highly recommended.

Religious Culture: León

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
The Risen Christ Statue leaving the Church in León on Easter Sunday. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
An old lady watching the procession passing by her house. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Following Jesus. 

Nicaraguans are very religious and when speaking of “the church”, they automatically mean the Roman Catholic Church. Over half of the population is Roman Catholic and the remainder Protestant.

León is less touristic and feels much poorer than Granada. We were there on Easter Sunday and spent our afternoon marching round the entire city behind the statue of the Risen Christ, doubling as a free walking tour.

Take home with you: Hammock & Eccentric Art

IMG_2446
Hammocks in Masaya. 
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
If anyone knows the story behind these eccentric art pieces, please do get in touch.

I’m not usually into souvenir-buying but I couldn’t leave Nicaragua without a hammock. In Masaya, you’ll find plenty of woven hammocks and other handy crafts. You’ll probably also come across plenty of brightly painted artefacts, most notably, the ones featuring a woman doing her business. If anyone knows the story behind these eccentric art pieces, please do get in touch. I couldn’t find the answer on the Internet.

Conclusion

Not setting any goals meant I could travel at my own leisure, day by day. And I wasn’t disappointed. Being spontaneous was the best way to discover Nicaragua, making the experience truly mine. 

If you’re a frugal traveller looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation, act quick, because Nicaragua is fast becoming a magnet for nature-loving tourists and it’s charm lies in how unfrequented it still is.