We woke up when we were good and ready at like 6:00 am. We’d agreed upon an 8:00 am breakfast last night, so we had tons of time. After a quick dip in the pool, we showed up early and found the table set with coffee and tea. There was a pitcher of hot water and a small carafe of coffee. We poured the coffee into our cups, but it was nearly solid black. We took a sip and it was tepid. We were all underwhelmed, until Mandy said, “Hey why don’t we pour in the hot water? That’s how Café Americano is made.” D’oh!! After we topped up with hot water and added some cream it was a-m-a-z-i-n-g coffee. They brought out bread, marmalade, and butter, then jugo de papaya, then banana pancakes. All of it was fantastic.
After breakfast, we relaxed a while. But eventually, we met up with Yerson in the courtyard. He’s part of the host family, and he’d agreed to lead us on a short hike from the property. The four host dogs also joined us on our hike. Blanca, Dixie, Yogi, and Buddy (pronounced Boo-dee - we spent a long time trying to figure out how to spell Boo-dee and then realized it was probably supposed to be Buddy.) We left on a trail right next to the pool, and climbed steadily upwards. We saw coffee plants, spicy tomato trees, coca plants, mandarins, limes, and all sorts of vegetables whose names we’ve forgotten. Yerson pointed out to us all sorts of fauna. We hiked along a stream for about 45 minutes to a lovely waterfall. We took some pictures at the top of hike and then made our way back down. By the time we got to the bottom we were all a little sweaty, so we hopped in the pool again to cool off. Shaun and Jenny have a Youtube channel called People Walking Places, and well, since we’re people and we were walking in a place, they made a video of it! It’s not been finished at the time of posting this, but you can check out their channel here for cool videos and, eventually, a video of this exact hike!
After we dried off and changed, we met up with Yerson again. This time, we set off downhill instead. He lead us down the dirt road to the river. We followed along the river for a half mile or so to a little cable car/trolley/zipline thing. Yerson took Mandy across the river first, and then returned to pick up Jenny. Before he set off, he fired off a bunch of instructions in fast Spanish. Shaun and I got the gist of it, kind of. Once they were safely on the opposite side of the river, we hauled the trolley back and hopped in. Shaun and I zipped across the river and Yerson returned to the other side to head back home after giving us directions to continue to the town center. We began the steep ascent up into Santa Teresa proper. At the top of the stairs, we were basically in someone’s backyard. We went around the block and were in the center of town. We wandered around aimlessly a bit until we found a spot we liked to get lunch. Restaurant Las Tres Regiones. We ordered a round of adult beverages and lunch. We all tried Shaun’s pisco sour and loved it, so eventually we each ordered one for ourselves. Pisco is a type of liquor that’s native to Peru. Pisco sour is a mix of pisco, whipped egg white, limes, sugar, and nutmeg. It’s basically like a margarita without any tequila flavor, and more lime flavor. It’s super sour. The limes here are really good.
After lunch, we made our way back to the Hacienda. We got to ride the cable car again! Once at the hacienda we all hopped in the pool to cool off. After we dried off and relaxed for a bit, we went out for another hike with Yerson. This time we climbed up to a little neighborhood above the Hacienda. It’s neat to hike around here because every time you come around a ledge or shoulder of a mountain, you find stuff that you have no idea was there. From the Hacienda, there’s no indication that there’s a whole neighborhood up there, but it’s not far at all. It was a pretty good hike, fairly short. We came back down the opposite side of the hill and around via the dirt road.
Back at the Hacienda, we had some coffees by the pool and relaxed a bit before dinner. Dinner was set for 7:00 pm and we all decided to have lomo saltado. Lomo saltado is a traditional Peruvian dish that’s essentially a beef stir fry with onions and peppers, served with french fries and rice. The sauce is very light, and based on soy sauce. In short – it’s wicked good. We had no idea they love french fries so much in Peru, but we’ve had them with nearly every dish. And they cook them really well here. They’re thick cut, like steak fries. We also got a round of pisco sours with dinner. They were much stronger and more sour here than at the restaurant in town. During dinner, there were several insects flying around the dining area. Yerson had pointed out one of them to us on one of our earlier hikes. He described the insect as similar to a mosquito but bigger, and used his hand to form a claw in demonstration. These insects were now flying around the dining area and were terrifying. We referred to them as pterodactyl mosquitoes. Yerson informed us that they don’t bite, but we didn’t want to find out. It was raining out after dinner, so we decided to get out of the insect room. We all opted to hang out in our room and try to watch some Netflix. The Wi-Fi signal was not quite strong enough, so we decided to watch Dante’s Peak that I had previously downloaded from Netflix as Rob had never seen it. Jenny and I fell asleep early on, so Shaun and Rob watched through to the end and then we all dispersed for some shut-eye.
We had set our alarms for 5:00 am. I woke up at 4:57 am in time to shut it off before it went off, which was nice. Jenny was just sitting there in the dark, like a creep. We all showered, packed up the few items we’d taken out, and checked out of the room. We called a taxi which arrived before we even got to the sidewalk, and took a ride back to the airport. All told, we were only in the hostel long enough to get less than a full night’s sleep. It was nice enough and the beds were comfortable, but we didn’t even get to see the whole place, or meet anyone else, which is the real advantage of a hostel. We love to meet other travelers.
We had been told from multiple sources to arrive early to the airport, because it’s poorly managed and security takes a while. We arrived about 6:00 am for an 8:35 am flight. There was a fair bit of walking before we got to the security checkpoint, but besides that, we breezed right through. We found where our gate would be and then found a place to eat. We decided to eat at Tanta. I got a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich with fries, and a coffee. It was pretty good. Mandy got an open-faced sandwich with avocado, tomato, and egg. It was better than mine, which I learned when I ate the half she couldn’t. Seems like the trend is I pick the worst menu option of the group.
After breakfast, we made our way to the gate, and began boarding shortly thereafter. We were seated in rows 1 and 2 on the driver’s side of the craft. The weather in Cusco varies quite a lot, and the airport is hard to land at. The weather report used by the pilots is published hourly on the hour. The 8:00 am report was rain, and the pilots wanted to wait for the 9:00 am report before leaving the jetway. At 8:45 am, there were two planes in a holding pattern at Cusco, waiting for an opportunity to land. We finally pushed back at 9:30 am to taxi to the runway, only about an hour late. The flight was unfortunately not very scenic, because there was so much cloud cover. We caught glimpses of mountains here and there throughout the hour long flight into Cusco.
We landed and could immediately tell that it had just finished raining. The ground was still wet, but the sky was clearing up. It felt humid. We got off the plane very quickly as we were in the front rows, and we made our way outside. We found our driver, Joel, right away, and hopped into his little Hyundai hatchback. We’d already made the arrangements, so he knew where we were headed. He explained it was about a five and a half hour ride to our destination. We set out from Cusco airport around 11:30am.
We cruised a while until we were out of the city, trying to make small talk through the language barrier with Joel. His broken English and my awful Spanish combined to make it work. Joel took us on a giant hill-climb up out of the city of Cusco, the views constantly getting better with elevation and a clearing sky. He stopped once we were away from traffic at a public restroom and we were able to stretch our legs a bit before continuing on. We drove on for a while, ever upwards. Eventually, somewhere along the road, we crested the highest point we’ve ever been. We all had our eyes fixed on the windows, in absolute awe at the size of the mountains all around us. Most of them disappeared into the clouds, but the visible portions were larger than anything we’d ever seen before. It’s just impossible to show in a picture how big the Andes are. We drove so high up that we all began to feel at least a little bit like garbage. Maybe it was motion sickness from all the switchbacks. Once we’d had enough, as if on cue, the road began to slope downwards and we started the long descent into Ollantaytambo.
So many zigs and zags. It has to be thousands of turns. We passed by so many dogs! We were all falling in love with each one, for a moment, as we passed. And there were chickens, too. And alpacas, sheep, pigs, cows. So many animals just out there, hanging out. Ollantaytambo was comprised of crowded, narrow streets. We got excited to come back to spend some time here, but today was not the day for that. We were just passing through. Out the other side of the town, we cruised along the valley floor a bit before beginning another mountain pass. I think this one was even higher than the last. The sky was clearing up a bit more, too, so Joel stopped several times for us to grab some pictures. The views were amazing, although not surprising at around 14,000 feet up. We couldn’t get over how BIG the mountains are. And how adorable all the puppies are.
Eventually, Joel stopped for a lunch break at Yobana Restaurante, a random shack on the side of the highway. It was hardly more than a lean-to. The owner asked if we wanted a menu, I think, and I said yes. She showed us to a table outside and we all sat. We had her bring over another chair so Joel could join us for lunch, too. He was really thankful, as if he didn't expect to eat with us? Imagine all that driving on an empty stomach!? Before we saw a menu, we were given a bowl of soup each. It had chicken and rice and potatoes and cabbage and beans and it was just delicious. It really hit the spot and we were all contented after finishing the soup. Then, the next time that we saw the owner, she was carrying out more plates of food! This course was an egg-battered fried chicken with rice and fried yucca. It was incredibly good, and none of us could help but to devour all of it, even though we thought we were full. Finally, when we realized we should be sure to ask for the check before she brings out any more food, she brought us all a round of muña tea! It was really good, like a blend of honey and mint. It’s actually a high-altitude tea only grown in the Andes. We were finally able to get the total and pay. We were only charged 40 soles for the 5 meals, which is approximately US$13. So cheap! For the sake of curiosity, we got a small bottle of Inca Kola for the road, to share. It tastes like if there was a bubblegum flavor of Coca-Cola. I liked it but Mandy did not.
Back on the road, we made a whole bunch more zigs and zags. Eventually, we began to see snow. Luckily, it wasn’t quite as low as the road, although it wasn’t much higher in elevation. We were basically inside the clouds, so the road disappeared around each curve into whiteness. We knew it was a very steep, long drop off the side of the road, but we couldn’t see anything. Not sure if that made it better or worse. We made a few stops along the way when there were breaks in the clouds to get some pictures of the incredible views, as well as bathroom breaks and to stretch our legs. Eventually, we got back down to the valley floor, a little bit queasy from all the twists and turns. A little bit tired from sitting in vehicles all day. We continued on into Santa Maria. We passed through the town proper, and took a left. This was actually the first turn we made since we left Cusco about 5 hours earlier. The road turned to dirt and got pretty rough. Joel’s Hyundai was getting a workout! We continued on into the darkness. The sun dipped behind the mountains around 6:00 pm and the light quickly disappeared. The road was only one and a half cars wide, so when we had to pass oncoming traffic, it was pretty sketchy. We were on the uphill side of the road, luckily, so we weren’t in danger of falling down the cliff. Eventually, finally, we arrived at Eco Hacienda Roman. It’s technically still in Santa Maria, but it’s about a 45 minute drive from the center of town.
We all piled out of the car at about 6:30 pm and met the whole host family. They showed us to our rooms and asked what we wanted for dinner and what time we’d like to eat. We agreed to chicken at 7:30 pm. After two full days of travelling, we were all excited to get settled in. Joel had said earlier that he was driving back home to Cusco, but he must have changed his mind. He decided to spend the night and leave early in the morning. After we got settled in, we met the Sweeneys in the dining room area. We were presented with a plate of grilled chicken, mixed pickled vegetables, rice, and french fries. The chicken was outstanding, the pickled veggies were better once we realized they were supposed to be cold. At first we expected them to be warm. The fries here are really good! Mandy actually admitted that Peru potatoes are better than Maine potatoes which is unprecedented. We didn't last very long after dinner. The night sky was stunningly clear, so we took the opportunity to grab a few pictures before heading off to bed. The weather here varies so much, we had to jump at the chance in case there are no more clear nights.
We woke up around 5:00 am (okay I got up at 5:20 am) and started getting ready to head to the airport. We requested an Uber shortly before 6:00 am. Trevor soon arrived and we set off. He stated that he had been driving slowly because there was a lot of debris in the roads from the night before. To be fair, there were a lot of large branches down on the backroads. However, we quickly learned that he drove slow even when the roads were clear. Like 30-in-a-50 slow. We made it to the airport around 7:30 am. Close to an hour and a half later. There was some typical morning commute traffic that had slowed us down as well.
Regardless, we had checked in for our flights online so we went straight to security with our mobile boarding passes. There was absolutely no line and we made it through security in about 2 minutes. We think that might be a record for us. The gate for our flight was E8 and was conveniently right at the end of the security line. We grabbed a seat and dropped our bags.
Rob went to use the restroom and when he returned I got an alert that our flight had been delayed 1 hour and 24 minutes from 9:21am to 10:45 am departure to Panama City. This likely means that we will miss our connection in Panama City to Lima. We inquired about options for the next leg of the trip at the gate and the attendant explained that her supervisor would be in shortly to explain to everyone how this will be handled. Soon enough, a man appeared at the desk and started to make an announcement. He explained that the flight was delayed due to an ill crew member and the need to have time to bring in someone else to make the flight possible. He explained that there is a team in Panama City that helps with missed connections and they will not rearrange flight schedules until the flight takes off from Boston. Depending on how the flight path is we could arrive a little early and potentially make the connection. In other words, we’ll take off late but they’re going to mash the motor to try and get to Panama as ASAP as possible, and maybe we’ll catch our original flight.
The delay also meant that the Sweeneys actually had a fighting chance to make the flight! We texted them about the delay and the fact that there was no line at security. We got a reply at 8:18 am that they were on their way to the airport from the expedited passport center. They got new passports in 45 minutes! They made a questionably legal commute to Logan International Airport. Luckily, our friend Ryan lives near the airport, and he kindly took an Uber to the airport to pickup their car to save them the time and cost of parking. It had been a whirlwind 24 hours but they made it to the airport in time for the flight! They even had time to spare so that they could grab some food. So far things were working out for us.
We boarded the flight and got our seats. Shaun and Jenny were in 6A and 6B and Rob and I were in 6E and 6F. The flight was fairly smooth overall. I watched couple of movies, Maleficent and Isn’t It Romantic. Rob watched Cirque du Soleil. We were served breakfast on board, even though it was around lunchtime at this point. We both opted for the waffles which also came with a fruit cup, yogurt, and a dinner roll.
Towards the end of our flight, our estimated time of arrival was 3:10 pm local time in Panama City. Our connecting flight to Lima was scheduled to leave at 3:45 pm. Perhaps we could make it! We pulled up our mobile boarding passes to have them ready to go. I had been using the Copa app on my phone. When I pulled up my boarding pass it displayed a pass for an evening flight that was scheduled to leave around 6:30 pm and would arrive in Lima at 10:30 pm. So at this point we figured they just assumed we wouldn’t make it and put us on the next flight. We decided to try anyway. The gate was set to close at 3:36 pm. Time to hustle.
We got off the plane as quickly as possible and soon learned we were in terminal 2. We needed to be at Gate 111 in terminal 1. We silently agreed to sprint to the gate. We all began running and the boys quickly passed us to go on ahead. You know those moving sidewalks that they have at the airports? They had a bunch of those. But, inconveniently, none of them were working. I quickly tired of running. I don’t love cardio and it’s even more difficult while wearing jeans and carrying all of your belongings. Luckily, the guys made it to the gate and it was still open. Jenny and I made it with a few minutes to spare. With a quick glance at our passports, we were allowed to board. Once on the plane we discovered that our seats were occupied. Likely, they had been given away when we had been scheduled for the next flight. After several minutes we were instructed by the crew to occupy new seats. Rob and I wound up in 33B and 33E. Both middle seats in the last row of the plane. Lovely. At least we were on the flight. It is supposed to be 3 hours and 10 minutes air time. We departed a little later than expected. Perhaps that was due to our late arrival. Sorry fellow fliers!
The flight was sweaty and cramped, but uneventful. They served us dinner of beef hot pocket and a carrot salad. It was disappointing, but whatever. The pirouline cookies were delicious though. Once in Lima, we stood on the plane for so long waiting to get off. The back row is the worst spot to be. When we finally got out, we made our way to the ground transportation area. We paid for a taxi to our accommodations for the night, a few miles away from the airport at Tupac Hostel. We were done travelling for the day, but not done travelling.
We checked into the hostel and bought a beer. Cusquena. It was okay. Shaun, Mandy and I split it. It did not last long. After we dropped our bags in our room, we went back down to the street in search of food. We popped into a few restaurants, trying to find something we all agreed on. We finally found a good option at Diego’s, or something like that. But when we tried to order, he was basically like “All we have left is chicken, sorry”. But we wanted pork chops, too. So, we left. We ended up coming across a little plaza of street food vendors, and ordered a couple plates that we had no idea about, by just pointing at a menu. I was given a plate of spaghetti with a chicken drumstick and fried bananas. Shaun was given nothing, until we reiterated the order. Then he received a dish of rice, goat, fried potatoes and fried bananas. I was jealous. While mine was good, his looked fantastic. We were also given a lemon and anise tea, or something? I’m not really sure, but it was pretty good. After we finished all the food and were done watching the street dogs play, we paid and left. The total for two large plates full of food was S/12 or approximately US$4. A steal! We made our way back to the hostel and went to bed pretty much immediately. It was about 10:15pm
We started packing our things a few days before the trip. I had purchased a can of permethrin spray to pretreat some of our hiking clothes as recommended by the travel clinic. I sprayed two sets of outfits for both Rob and myself on Monday after work. We let these dry overnight and completed the rest of the packing on Monday. We did pretty well fitting all of our things into a carry-on backpack each! Loki was doing his best to help me pack but he was actually just making it more difficult. On Wednesday I felt great about having all of my things packed so I decided to unpack when I got home from work, remove a few items, and repack again. I felt like I had probably packed too many clothes and would also want to wear the sweatshirt I had packed away. This freed up a little bit of space and I was actually able to put my stuff sack full of clothes into a smaller daypack and then add this to my backpack. The daypack will be handy to have for exploring during the day, especially for visiting Machu Picchu as we will want to stay hydrated.
Wednesday morning I got a text from Mandy: “The Sweeneys can’t go to Peru”. We were supposed to be travelling with some friends, but their passports were due to expire in 4 months, and Peru requires them to be valid 6 months after you leave the country. Surprise! After a LOT of back and forth over the course of a really busy workday, they ultimately decided to get expedited passports first thing Thursday morning. A 7:30 appointment an hour and a half away from a 9:21am flight. Maybe, but it’ll be tight!!
For our part, we were all set. We spent Wednesday night going over last minute items and relaxing on the couch. On our evening walk with Loki we stopped in at our friends’ house at the end of the street and left Loki there for safekeeping in our absence. It’s like his second home and he loves his vacations there because he gets to sleepover at his friends’ house. Thanks Weagles!
We woke up again without a ton of spare time. This time, our deadline was checkout. We showered and packed all our gear. We had the remaining crackers and cheese and pepperoni to break our fast, and then we went down to street level. We searched for a spot that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to spend a couple of hours with all our luggage, we didn’t want to lug it around any more than necessary. We found Rost on the docks and stole a corner where we were out of the way. We ordered a pair of coffees and a croissant and we did some reading. We wrote some more of our travels. It’s definitely easier to do when it’s fresh in our minds. After a time, we ordered a couple sandwiches as well. We weren’t sure what food would be available in the airport, so we took advantage of the opportunity.
Eventually our time came to pack up and catch our van. We only had to walk a couple of blocks to the bus stop. We rode to the other side of the city where we transferred from the van to a bus. The bus took us directly to Keflavik airport with no stops. Before the trip, we had considered going to Blue Lagoon on the way in, on the way out, or both. Having gone on the way into Iceland, which was awesome, we would recommend doing it this way. While there are showers at the lagoon, we still felt a bit salty after we left, until we got another shower. We felt like it wouldn’t be comfortable on a plane, so we opted to skip it on the way home. We got all the way to the airport before we ran into any issues. We’re not doing shoes today, which is always a nice surprise. I hadn’t noticed, but I got the SSSS mark on my boarding pass. It stands for like super secret special surprise, or something. It means when you run your carry-on through the X-ray machine, they make you stand on a pedestal for all the world to see while they swipe your hands with a tissue. Then they look at your stuff. Then you’re free to go find out what the next super special secret surprise will be. As you try to scan your boarding pass to go through a turnstile, you get an error message, and a person in uniform directs you to the other line. A woman looks at your passport and boarding pass for like the 5th time. You go behind a partition and take off your shoes (so much for leaving shoes on today), and spread all your carry-on out on a table. They look through your bags. They rub your hands with tissue again, and then you’re free to go. Meanwhile my boarding pass scanned fine and I made it through the turnstile. When Rob couldn’t make it I tried to linger and wait for him but I quickly got told that I needed to keep walking and go down stairs. I wasn’t sure where Rob would end up so I lingered in a central area prior to the departure gates. We eventually linked back up once Rob made it through (about fifteen minutes later). We found our way to the gate and waited. As we were called to board, I showed my boarding pass again, and was told to wait while they updated something in a computer system. Then I was free to go. We finally got to board the plane and were surprised to find that there were so many empty seats. Almost half! We took off without a hitch, and made our way west. Home. I watched Ocean’s Eight on the flight, while Rob caught us up on most of the blogging. Shaun and Jenny so kindly picked us up at the airport to transport us home and reunite us with Douglass.
We woke up shortly before we felt like it. We had enough time, but not an excess, to get showered and make the remaining eggs and bacon for breakfast before we had to return our rental car. We drove out to the point on Seltajarnarnes peninsula park, just to check out the views based on a tip we’d received. Since this spot was surrounded by open water on 3 sides, the winds were incredible. We didn’t stay long. We couldn’t afford much time there anyways. We fueled up and got to the rental car spot with 20 minutes to spare. After, we set out on foot back towards “our side” of the harbor.
We stepped into a tiny burger joint on the way for a coffee, but I didn’t get the memo, so I ordered a burger. What, I was hungry! Mandy got a tea. We spent some time getting the blog caught up, and some pictures transferred between devices. This is a lot of work to post in nearly “real time”. We’re actually about a couple days ahead for this trip. After lunch, we weren’t sure what to do. It was museum day for the lights festival in Reykjavik, which means most or all of the museums in the city are open with free admission and special exhibits at night. We had some time to kill before any of the festivities were to begin.
We picked a direction to walk, and continued until something caught our eye. When nothing did, we decided to find a local brewery. We navigated to one a few blocks away. When we arrived, we learned that it wasn’t a brewery, it was just a bar serving local craft beers, nor was it open. The bartender let us use the warm space to find our next stop. We headed to Bryggjan Brugghus (“Bree-kahn brew-huus”), on the waterfront. We sampled most of their offerings, and everything we tried was quite good. We chatted with a bunch of obvious-Americans, including the bartender, who was from very close to home in Rhode Island. Eventually, we’d worked up an appetite, so we went to Bazilika Pizza-Cafe-Restaurant. We decided to get a dinner plate and a sandwich, which they got mixed up in the kitchen, but we enjoyed all the same. I got chicken and Mandy got falafel. After dinner we went back to the first bar we started at since we knew they were now open and enjoyed a beer each.
Museums were starting to open up for (for free!) around 7pm, so we headed to the Volcano House first and watched two documentaries. The first one was actual footage from the volcanic eruption in 1973. The second was specifically recorded for the Volcano House and contained footage from the 2010 eruption that caused air traffic to be stopped all over Europe. Our second stop was a photography museum. Here was a photography exhibit that was really good. Afterwards, we went to the art museum, which had multiple installations on display. Some were good, some were just weird and uninteresting. The colors exhibit had all sorts of works from multiple artists, and was probably our favorite. It was neat to see all the different interpretations of colors, and where the line is exactly, between what is and what is not a painting.
Next, we returned to the library, as a special exhibit was set to begin shortly. Svavar Knutur was scheduled to perform live with just his guitar (and ukulele) and his voice. I walked down the aisle at our wedding to one of his songs. We didn’t really know anything that he was saying or singing, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Most people spoke English to us for the whole trip, so we hadn’t had a good opportunity to hear Icelandic spoken very much. Just a few words here and there. It’s a very interesting language to listen to! It’s not as harsh as I expected. After his performance, we were both in need of taking off our boots and sitting down for a while. We returned to our Airbnb, and relaxed for a little bit before falling asleep.
I woke up today around 0850. Today we depart Hrífunes for our next stop. I woke Rob up and told him that he had to get out of bed if he wanted breakfast. We don't sleep this late when we are home. I think we still haven't adapted to the time here yet, which might be a blessing if we continue this way as it will make the transition easier when we return home. Reluctantly, Rob complied and climbed out of bed. Breakfast is only served until 10. We ate and discussed our plans for the day.
Originally, we planned to return the rental car by noon. But we had changed this plan with the rental car company yesterday because of several factors. First, the original return time was noon in Reykjavik, which is a 3 hour drive from Hrífunes. We already blew that option by the time we woke up. Second, since the weather was not cooperative on the drive in we were not able to check out the sights along the way. By postponing the dropoff time, we could make the drive leisurely and stop wherever we like. Third, our next Airbnb check-in time was at 2pm. That would mean walking around with luggage for two hours minimum after we returned the rental. Finally, the aurora forecast was quite good for tonight and there would be minimal cloud cover. Keeping the car one more day would give us the opportunity to drive to dark skies outside of the city and hopefully catch the lights again. So our plan was to leisurely make our way back to Reykjavik and explore along the way since we had no real deadlines.
To get to Reykjavik, we had to head west, back the way we came. So we went east. We hadn't traveled this stretch of road yet, nor explored the surrounding area at all, so we were curious. We could finally see rather far, and we learned that we had actually been in a quite mountainous area for the last couple days. Surprise! We'd had no idea from looking into the grey abyss.
We went the long way back to the "ring road" over the foothills and through farmlands, and only then turned west. We tried our best to stay on the road while we gawked at the amazing scenery. In clear weather, the region is stunning. We made our first stop at Skógafoss, a very popular waterfall. We took some pictures at the bottom to savor the natural beauty. Then we hiked. At the top, several people were smoking cigarettes, and the viewing platform was packed with people, so we just kept hiking away. 100 feet after the platform, we were essentially by ourselves. We followed the trail along the riverbank, discovering more and more waterfalls. The hike was very windy, but it was great to expend some energy after having been mostly cooped up inside for the last couple of days.
When the wind began to wear us down some, we decided to turn back. We weren't sure how much further the trail went, and we didn't have any gear with us. We didn't want to overdo it and run into any problems. The hike down was much easier as the wind was at our backs, pushing us along. We made great time getting down, and we hopped back in the car and continued west.
We didn't go very far before we stopped on a random side road. We were hungry and thirsty. Mandy cut up cheese slices with a coffee stirrer and prepped some crackers and pepperoni while I filled our water bottle with fresh mountain stream water, right next to where we were parked. It was so cold and clear and refreshing! We ate and drank, and enjoyed the awesome scenery. Then we moved along. Our next stop was at Seljalandsfoss, another waterfall. Normally, there is a path that leads behind this waterfall, but today it was completely icebound and therefore closed. The sun had ducked behind a shoulder of the mountain, and so we were mostly in shadow. We felt cold fairly quickly, and so we got back into the car after we'd gone as far as we could up the falls.
We cruised for a while after Seljalandsfoss without stopping. There were amazing views all around us, but we reasoned that if we stopped to photograph every one, we'd have to live permanently on the island. After a time, the flats met some foothills and we started cruising uphill in clear, sunny weather. Minutes later, we were crossing a mountain pass, subject to intense winds, and doing our best to navigate through heavy snow drifts. It was remarkable how rapidly the conditions changed. Then, as rapidly as the conditions deteriorated, they cleared as we wound down the western side of the slope. The area was more populated here as we made our way into the city.
We found our airbnb after only a couple wrong turns. Once the car was parked, we checked ourselves into the apartment and unloaded our things. We prepped some cold-brew coffee in a French press we found in the tiny kitchenette. Then we set out on foot to find a beer and wound up at Micro Bar. We were the only patrons until one other pair showed up, so we chatted with the bartender for a while. We learned there’s some sort of collaboration going on between Maine and Iceland breweries, and so he knew a lot of our local-to-home beers and breweries. We enjoyed some really good Icelandic beers and worked up an appetite. We thought about going to the restaurant upstairs for food, but felt like we were underdressed, so we braved the winds and cold in search of dinner.
There were many restaurants very close by. We eventually decided on Hressó. It looked how we felt, except warmer. We opened the door to a large party of men yelling and cheering each other on. We were definitely not underdressed. We grabbed a table and ordered the special pizza which was hot chicken wing pizza – we were hoping that actually meant buffalo chicken pizza. We got another round of beers as well. The pizza came and was really good; better than we expected! It was buffalo chicken, not whole chicken wings on pizza. I was still a bit hungry so I ordered the special “meatsoup”. It was really tasty; I think the meat was lamb? It was a very similar taste to chicken noodle soup, minus the noodles. After we ate, we paid and left.
We went back home to change up our gear a little bit. We donned warmer clothes, and packed thick gloves and headlamps. We also packed the photography equipment. We loaded into the car and headed eastish and a bit north. You could almost say we headed northeast. We’d kept an eye on solar and terrestrial weather for the whole trip, and tonight was forecast to be one of the best of the trip. We navigated towards Þingvellir National Park, but stopped along the way. Since it’s a national park, there’s hardly any artificial light nearby, so the night sky gets super dark. We were on the outskirts of Reykjavik when we first saw the aurora. We stopped at what we thought would be an interesting spot to photograph the lights, but there was just too much ambient light. We pressed on, further from the city. We stopped at another random spot on the side of the road, across from a moderately large mountain and in a fairly dark spot. The lights were neatly framing the mountain from this vantage point, and it photographed surprisingly well. We struggled against the intense winds to keep the camera absolutely still and avoid blurry photos during the long 30 second exposures. But it was worth it!
We pressed on still further into the darkness. We tried stopping at a few pull-offs on the highway but were forced to continue when they were completely full of cars! Eventually, we found one with only one giant bus parked in it. We joined the bus passengers in taking more pictures, until we were frozen and the lights were beginning to fade. Unfortunately, while we were busy working, another car pulled in behind us, and the bus passengers were still milling about the parking area. So we sat in the warm interior of our rental until someone was ready to leave; we were the meat in this vehicular sandwich. The car behind us was finally ready to leave, and made a valiant effort, but was thwarted by the snowdrift at the entrance to the highway. We couldn’t pull forward because the tour bus was in the way, and the whole parking area was flooded with people standing around taking photos. Eventually, the bus driver directed us so we could safely complete a 357-point turn without running over any cameras, and we passed by the car that had been behind us and got out onto the highway once more.
We drove to the entrance to Þingvellir. We found a spot in the corner of two large snowbanks, and parked to block wind on the third side. Even with only one direction exposed, the winds cut right through as if they did not care. We got a few pictures we were not enthusiastic about, and noted that the aurora was still fading, and only showing very dully at this point. We waited a while in the car with the heat on hoping they’d return. Eventually, as it was approaching midnight, we decided to call it a night as we were getting a bit tired and we had a decent drive remaining to get back to our bed for the night. We stopped once or twice on the ride home, but ultimately we didn’t find any fantastic locations, and the aurora didn’t come back with any real strength. We arrived back at our place and pretty much crashed once we got there after parking the car.
Yesterday we received the unfortunate news that our trip to hike up Skaftafell glacier and into ice caves under the glacier had been cancelled due to weather. Skaftafell is about an hour and a half further east of Hrífunes, which is the main reason we decided to stay so far out in the middle of nowhere. Skaftafell is also close to Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. We were able to book a different tour into a different glacial ice cave. This one would depart from Vík, which is only 40 minutes away and should be an easier drive given the worst of the weather had passed.
So, after we had a tasty breakfast at the guesthouse, we headed back the way we came. The weather was similar to yesterday, although the wind had died down a bit. The visibility was still the same; white everywhere we looked. Once in Vík, we found our designated meeting spot, and eventually found our tour guide, and hopped into a very custom E350 van. The van had enormous 46" tires, a huge lift kit, and an on-the-fly tire-pressure adjustment system. As we set out on the highway, the van had about 25psi in the tires. As soon as we turned off, onto the snow fields, the driver hit a button and the pressure dropped to about 8psi. The tour guide explained that this allows the tires to flatten out and spread the weight of the vehicle over a larger area, reducing the apparent pressure on the top of the snow. In short, we drove on the snow rather than through the snow. He told us that in Iceland, it is illegal to drive off the roads, but if the land is covered with snow and you are not leaving any tracks on the ground, then it is legal. Driving over the snow assures that they are compliant, although it sounds like a bit of a grey area that just doesn't get enforced as long as you're not destroying the land.
We arrived in the "parking lot" (just a particular spot where they'd dropped a GPS pin in the middle of the white nothingness) after about a half hour of off-roading and a minor stream crossing. The van handled the route very well, even with about 15 people on board. We were given helmets and microspikes, and set out along a trail. Early on, we made the mistake of trying to pass someone who was taking a picture. Since the trail was only about a foot wide, any missteps caused us to posthole in soft snow up to our knees. Thereafter, we stayed on the trail, and waited, watching the leader get smaller and smaller in the distance. (Several people in front of us had to stop and take a picture every few steps.)
Eventually, we arrived to the entrance to the cave. Here we had to do a delicate dance to let others exit the cave without stepping too far of the trail to sink in, before we could enter. Once inside, it was really beautiful. It's hard to describe, so we took pictures. Inside the cave there are clear layers of ice and what appears to be dirt. The guide told us that the layers are actually ice and ash. Whenever a volcano erupts in the area a layer of ash settles on the glacier and eventually the snow that gets packed on top forms another layer of ice. They estimated, based on the number of layers, that the cave that we were in represented about 400-800 years of glacier in the making.
The ice cave that we visited was in Kötlujökull (Katla Glacier) which is an outflow glacier that is part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdals Glacier). This particular glacier sits on top of Katla volcano which is one of Iceland's largest and most active volcanoes. It erupts on average every 80-100 years, according to our guide. The last eruption took place in 1918. When the volcano erupts it has to melt through the 800m thick layer of ice to release the pressure. This creates a temporary river larger than the Amazon. In the 1918 eruption, the resulting flood carried debris and deposited it, extending the south coast shoreline by 5 km. The amount of power released is incredible.
After we'd checked out the whole cave, we trekked back across the frozen desert to the van, and made the ride back to Vík. We hopped in the car, and drove over to Smiðjan Brugghús, a brewery. We ordered a burger and a beer each. All of it was wicked good. We debated on what to do next. It was still pretty windy out so we decided to take a drive and explore the small town. We eventually made our way onto the black sand beach in time for sunset, and caught our first sight of the sun in a few days. The timing was perfect, so Rob made his way onto the sand and began snapping pictures. The waves were still huge. I climbed down the bank and joined him on the beach. Suddenly a wave came out of nowhere and rushed up along the beach. We both started moving to higher ground. Rob made it in time, but unfortunately I wound up with seawater and black sand all through my boots. We later learned that the Icelanders call these "sneak waves" and that they are quite common along this beach. Surprisingly the water was not as cold as I anticipated. Or my boots and wool socks just did an excellent job of keeping my feet warm.
After the sun fell behind the cliff, the cold began to grab hold of Mandy's feet, so we headed back to the car. Thinking ahead, about what to do for dinner, since we wouldn't be eating at the guesthouse and there was nothing else near Hrífunes, we got some snacks at the grocery store that we could eat later on. We went back to Smiðjan Brugghús for one more round, and picked up a bottle of wine for after dinner. Then, we went home.
The ride back was pretty uneventful, and the weather was noticeably improving over the course of the day, which was welcome. We spent most of the evening relaxing, sifting through pictures and writing here for you all. We supped on cheese and crackers and shared a bottle of wine. Once it was well dark, we tried to get some pictures of the night sky, but unfortunately it was still too cloudy. If it had been more clear, it should have been fantastic, as there was a completely unobstructed view, and very few artificial light sources for miles around. Oh well! We caught up on some reading before eventually winding down and heading to bed.
We woke up at 7am, thanks to an alarm clock. We wanted to make sure we would be awake early enough to hit the road before the storm. Neither of us really slept much to be honest. The wind was really loud all night. We showered quickly and made breakfast which was left over sweet potato and broccoli with eggs. We packed our things and loaded them into the car. Luckily, the host had asked us to leave the keys in the cabin and the door unlocked during checkout. This was great in case we decided the weather was too bad because we knew that we could turn around and head back and we'd be able to get back in.
We set out on the ice-covered roads that we were growing used to. Our route would take us south, and then east. We figured with a wind coming from the east that the southbound leg of the drive would be the trickiest part. The wind was fairly strong, but once we left Flúðir, the main roads were pavement. Actual pavement! This drive would be a piece of cake. I told Rob that our new host said the worst roads would be around Seljalandsfoss waterfall, or about halfway through our journey. We made the drive south without any issues, and once we hit the "Ring Road" which is the main road around the island, we turned east.
From there, we were dealing with a strong headwind, which was much more manageable than the crosswinds when we were driving south. We pressed on. At the rate we were going, we would be at our destination well before noon, which is when the highway was set to close. The winds were noticeably increasing. Our weather app indicated that it was only 32 mph constant, but the gusts were predicted to reach 90mph. As we saw the sign for Seljalandsfoss waterfall, we relaxed a bit, since the worst of the driving was now behind us. East of Seljalandsfoss waterfall are several mountains. They continue all the way to the next major town of Vik. As the road began to wind it's way under the mountains after Seljalandsfoss, we realized that the driving was much worse here. I reread the message from our host. "The worst conditions will be under the mountains after Seljalandsfoss waterfall towards town of Vik." Ah. I think she meant the whole section of road between the two which made a lot more sense. I checked http://www.road.is which is a guide to road conditions all over Iceland. The segment of road to be closed was from Hvolsvöllur to Vik. We had already driven through Hvolsvöllur, 22km ago. Now we only had 60km to go winding just below and through the mountains to Vik.
We finally came up over the mountain pass and wound down the hill into Vik. We stopped for fuel and a coffee, and to stretch our legs for a bit. The weather was really intense. We had to use extra caution (and usually both hands!) when opening and closing car doors. Walking into the wind was significantly more effort. The rain/snow mixture that was coming down sideways hurt. Vik is right on the coast, and if we could have seen that far through the haze, we would have seen gigantic waves crashing on the breaker.
When we fueled up with diesel, we figured out something that had been bugging us since we picked up the car. Since day 1 with the car, there had been a smell. Almost like paint, but not quite. Smelled just like diesel, which wasn't exactly surprising, since it had a tank full of it all the time. We couldn't figure out why we could smell it. Do all diesel cars smell? Well, when the tank filled up, the pump did not shut itself off quick enough, for whatever reason, and it dumped a bunch of fuel on the quarter panel. We noticed afterwards that many of that generation Dacia Duster (of which there are tons here) have clear signs of diesel spilled down the sides, so perhaps it's a design flaw in the vehicle?
We continued east for another 45 minutes that seemed like an eternity of driving on the surface of another planet. For as far as we could see in every direction, was just white. Except directly ahead and directly behind, which were a solid black line where the road was. There were very few other cars, and the landscape was exceptionally flat. The landscape lended exceptionally well to snow drifts, which added an additional layer of driving excitement; sometimes you could see the road! We eventually arrived in Hrífunes, which is a town, we think, but there's like 3 inns that comprise the entire place, and nothing else around. Not even any houses. Normally, we'd get settled in and explore around outside. Because of the severe weather and approaching dark, we opted to stay in and relax.
We had signed up to have dinner at the guesthouse where we were staying. Dinner is at 7:30pm, and is homecooked by the innkeeps. We had pork roast, beef stew, red cabbage slaw, white cabbage curry, salad, white rice, fresh breads, and cauliflower soup. All of it was absolutely delicious. Dinner was sort of a buffet, and all the guests who opted to have dinner shared 2 large dinner tables. This was a great opportunity to meet other fellow travelers, and share itineraries and tips for places to check out. We ended up at the table with another couple for a few hours chatting until we all finally decided to head to bed.
We woke up after about 10 or 11 hours of sleep. It had been a long day; nearly 40 hours awake! We made some breakfast, showered, and dressed. After that, we loaded up our gear for the day and set out. We navigated to Gullfoss, which was about a half hour away. The road surfaces were entirely ice, so that added an adventurous element to the excursion. We stopped at a few places for some photos along the route, but realized it was perhaps a bit too early for good lighting. Once we arrived at Gullfoss, I realized that I forgot to wear anything besides my t-shirt and coat. A third layer was needed.
We wandered in and around the canyon for a while until the cold was really beginning to bite, then we went into the gift shop/cafeteria to thaw out and get a cup of coffee each. We used this time to plan what we were going to do next, as we hadn't yet figured that out. Once we'd determined a game plan, we made our way to the next stop.
The next stop happened to be Farmer's Bistro, back in Flúðir, where we were staying. Farmer's Bistro is a local farm that showcases their produce in their own restaurant. Nearly everything they serve is grown and harvested on site. I guess it is owing to the season that there was not a lot of variety; everything was mushrooms and bread. They told us that they are the only mushroom farm in Iceland. There was mushroom soup, three types of breads, and a bunch of different butters and spreads. The soup was amazing, and the garlic bread was our favorite. We ate until we were full, then we stopped at our house for a minute to put on another layer of clothes.
Dressed appropriately, we navigated next towards Þingvellir ("thing-va-leer") National Park. The park is situated on the boundary between two separating tectonic plates. This movement causes deep and narrow fissures to form, some wide enough to walk between. There is also a large lake in the park, and lots of geothermal activity. We wandered around enjoying the scenery in various parts of the park. Unfortunately, it seemed a lot of the hiking trails were closed because it's winter, so we didn't get to do much hiking. This is probably a blessing, though, because of the very limited daylight (sunrise isn't until nearly 10am!). We were making our way back to the car around 5pm as we were starting to lose daylight and the temperature drops pretty quickly!
We navigated back in the general direction of our house, pleased to find that there were bits of pavement exposed. We could even see the road paint in a few small spots! Back in Flúðir, we went to Secret Lagoon. This spot is similar to Blue Lagoon, though much smaller, much less popular, much cheaper, and much closer to home! (also it is not blue.) Relaxing in the natural geothermal hot water pool was a great way to thaw out from wandering about in the cold and wind all day. We met some fellow travellers in the pool and shared stories from all around the world. Once we were all wrinkly from the water, we got out and made the rest of the way home.
At least, we tried to get home. Along the way, there was a car off the side of the road. This wasn't the first we'd seen, and we felt guilty each time for being unable to offer any assistance. Back home, we have plenty of recovery gear and a proper vehicle to facilitate extraction. Our little Dacia Duster would be useless, even if we had the necessary equipment. As we approached the stuck vehice, we realized it wasn't actually stuck. "They have a tripod," Mandy said. "Well, that's wei- OH! The lights are out!" We stopped as soon as it was safe to do so, and started taking pictures.
The light show was amazing. We took pictures until they left, and then we finally got home to make dinner. I fiddled with the hot tub, per the host's instructions, to try to get it to fill with water. Unfortunately, I had no luck; previous guests may have caused some damage, somehow, we're not really sure. Oh well! Mandy cooked sweet potato, broccoli, and chicken thighs all of which were wicked tasty. After we cleaned up, we took a peek outside to see if the lights had come back. They had! We climbed up the hill behind our tiny cottage to get to a good vantage point and took some more pictures until they went away again.
After the encore, we climbed back down and went inside to find an e-mail from our rental car company. They sent a weather alert for the following day that several major roads would be closed due to extreme winds with gusts up to 90mph. They recommended postponing travel along the south coast of Iceland. That's where we were planning to go! Our Airbnb host for the next night had also messaged us to inform us of the severe weather alerts. She recommended getting to the south coast as early as possible (the storm was supposed to be the worst between 3pm and 10pm with road closures expected at noon). We debated our options. Our current host in Flúðir had offered us a free night due to the hot tub being non-functional. We could take them up on the offer but that would mean losing out on a night in Hrífunes ("ri-voo-ness") and likely missing our tour we had booked for a glacier hike and ice cave tour for Wednesday morning. We decided to try to get some sleep as soon as possible, as it was nearing midnight, and get up early to trial the roads for our 2 and a half hour trip to Hrífunes.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.