I Traveled Solo to Iceland, & So Should You
Exactly one year ago today, I peaked. That day, I sat atop Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls. Being there reinforced why travel is so important for our growth. In particular, solo travel leaves us alone with our thoughts. Although this prospect sounds terrifying, it allows our creative juices to flow and flourish. Whether leaving the country or our front porch, at some point we have to get out of our comfort zones. While I felt at peace on top of that waterfall, I went well out of my comfort zone to get there.
Due to its tourist economy and its proximity to, well, nowhere — Greenland is 174 miles away — Iceland is exceptionally expensive. When I looked for places to stay, every hotel, apartment, and AirBnB was at least $150 a night. With a tour around the island, I faced two additional burdens: higher cost and less autonomy. I enjoy being in control of what I can see and how much time I can spend in each place. Therefore, I made the logical decision to book a rental car for my two-day stay. Hotel? Nope. I decided to spend $75 a night to avoid expensive accommodations and increase my mobility. In travel, pick two: cost, comfort, experience. In this case, I picked cost and experience. Did I mention that it’s important to get out of your comfort zone?
My flight from Paris arrives at the airport in Keflavik, 45 minutes southwest of Reykjavik. I ride in a golf cart to the rental car facility, where I’m asked, among other offers, if I’m interested in sandstorm insurance. I add gravel insurance for off-roading, but I’ll take my chances on the sandstorm. As I rev the engines on my hot white Ford Fiesta, my first thought is, “What music is going to set the tone?” I pull out my iPod classic, and it’s dead. I open Spotify, and I have no service. The only albums I have saved are two with the world’s longest and shortest album names: The 1975’s ‘i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it’ and Steely Dan’s ‘Aja.’ This is worth mentioning because every time I listen to these albums now, all I see are green pastures, steep cliffs, and flowing streams.
Driving north along the southwest coast from Keflavik to Reykjavik, I’m struck by the lush, green farmland adorning the mountainside. When I reach the capital, my first stop is Hallgrimskirkja, the country’s largest church. I showed a friend a photo of the cathedral after my trip, and he said verbatim, “Woah! That’s some Game of Thrones shit!” If you don’t believe him, see for yourself.
Reykjavik is the country’s largest city, but it is easy to navigate and walk around. Along the water I walk by the gleaming Harpa, a dazzling concert hall defined by its beautiful, green-glass facade. Walking towards Austurvöllur, the main square, I make my first culinary pitstop: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Icelandic for “the best hot dog in town,” this legendary stand has become an attraction due to visits from several dignitaries, including Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain. Bæjarins’ hot dogs are made from sheep and lamb, topped with ketchup, mustard, remoulade and undercoated with crunchy onions and raw shallots. I order two, and it costs less than six bucks. This is a delicious bargain, considering that’s the price of a latte at Austurvöllur.
As I arrive at the main square, I am thrilled that an official viewing station for the 2016 UEFA Euro Cup is showing matches and highlights all day. For a country of just over 300,000 people, Iceland is diehard about its soccer team. I ask a local fan to look at my map, for sightseeing advice. Not only does he speak his second language better than many Americans do their first, he points out hidden gems along my route, as I struggle mightily to pronounce them.
Walking back to the Fiesta, I notice the temperature dips. In order to stay warm, I keep the car on for 20 minutes, letting the seat warmer do its magic. [Note: if you open the door for any reason, repeat step 1.] During the summer, the sun sets slightly around midnight and rises at 3 a.m. With only three hours of “civil twilight,” I thought to bring my beanie, which serves as a more-than-adequate eye mask.
Peeling back my hat, it is bright. It’s early — a rarity for me — and I’m ready to conquer the Golden Circle, a route across southwest Iceland that covers many of the region’s hotspots. When you wake up at the wheel, it is much easier to get the show on the road. Let’s do this!
My first destination is Thingvellir, a national park that served as Iceland’s parliamentary headquarters from 930 to 1796. Standing in this gorgeous plain, my first thought is: Make Government Outdoors Again.
Within Thingvallavatn, the country’s largest lake, is the rift formed at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. (One experience I wish I had done was snorkeling at this rift, known as Silfra. I’ve heard amazing things about it, so don’t miss out like I did!)
My next stop is Laugarvatn — a serenely quiet lake northeast of Thingvellir — which is famous for its geothermal baths. Rather than splurge on the hotel, I enjoy the skin-nourishing hot springs with a shower included. I can’t speak to the Blue Lagoon experience, but sitting next to a perfectly still lake is ideal.
Did you know the English word “geyser” comes from Icelandic? Neither did I, until I visited Strokkur, the most popular one in the country. The hot spring spouts every few minutes, and can reach nearly 100 feet in the air. I arrive as a towering blast of water and hot air shoots out of the ground:
As I drive further inland, I make it to Gullfoss, arguably Iceland’s most famous waterfall and most popular tourist landmark. It is unique in that one waterfall flows onto the other, falling 100 feet down to the river below. Although it is more crowded than other places I’ve been, there is a good reason why.
From Gullfoss I embark on a 70-mile drive to the southern coast to my next destination, Seljalandsfoss. About 90 minutes of paved and unpaved freeways later, I arrive:
Standing before such a spectacle is overwhelming. This waterfall is unlike the others because you can walk behind it. Trekking through the mud behind the fall, I see a few people walking towards the other side of the mountain. About a quarter of a mile from the fall, there’s a narrow, steep hike to reach the top of the plateau from which the water falls. Not letting my fear of heights conquer me, I climb as quickly as possible until I reach the top.
[Stop here before moving on, so you can live this moment with me.]
I take two deep breaths. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. I open my eyes:
I walk back towards the waterfall, where I expect to see the other climbers. To my surprise, I’m the only person standing at the stream, which flows so calmly despite leading to a majestic cascade of water. I sit quietly, soaking my surroundings and emotions in. At that moment, it’s hard not be grateful.
After a quick stop at Skogafoss, I start to feel exhausted and start the 2-hour trek back to Reykjavik. I experienced a lot in just 12 hours, and it hits me how much I have learned about myself during that time. Upon my return, I walk along the coast past the Sun Voyager sculpture. After striking up a 30-minute conversation in French with a Canadian couple, I stand alone before the structure and the sea. The sun rests as low as it ever does in summer.
I reflect on what I have discovered throughout the day. Beyond learning about this country, I unveiled parts of myself that I didn’t know were there. During this time to myself, I brainstormed three business ideas, two French pop songs, and that, as a future employer, I will subsidize employees’ solo travel for the benefit of the individual and the company.
That being said, I am lucky to have a wonderful girlfriend to accompany me around the world. However, I believe that seeing this part of the world by myself forced me to be my only friend and, in the process, made me think at a peak creative level. Traveling alone is a meditation that forces the best of us to relax, reassess, and redefine our goals. If you need such creative inspiration and have some savings built up, take that leap.
Alex Biniaz-Harris is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in Los Angeles. Originally from Washington, DC, Alex has visited 35 countries and continues his quest to explore every nook and cranny of this beautiful Earth. Please reach out with any questions, recommendations, or just to say hi on Instagram.