One of the things I read about Iceland before arriving was how expensive it is. And you know what? It can be expensive. But so can every other country. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while travelling the world is that there is always a cheaper way to travel a country and the way of doing it might not always be obvious. So I’m here to tell you just how it is possible to travel Iceland on a budget.
The first major expense when visiting Iceland if you want to get out of Reykjavik is transport. I have seen some websites recommend catching the bus around the island as a cheap alternative to tours. But the problem with catching a bus is that you are stuck when you arrive at each of the towns you plan to visit. And the bus doesn’t stop at the wonderful waterfalls or ice covered landscapes along the way. Catching the bus around Iceland is an awful idea, because you will have to pay for tours once you reach each town if you want to see the natural beauty of the place.The cheapest way to get around Iceland is to find a cheap rental car. I managed to get my near new rental car for €20/$22/£16/AUD$30 per day. Even petrol wasn’t that expensive because the fuel efficiency of the car was incredible — about 4.8L/100km (more than 50mpg). If you’re travelling as a couple that is just $11 per day plus a bit of petrol. I only spent 16,660ISK ($131/€117/£92/AU$174) on diesel for the entire 1400km trip. This was at the extreme end of how much you would spend on petrol per day because I drove further than most people would. That’s $9 on petrol per day per person.
Transport cost per day – $20
You can really burn through cash on accommodation in Iceland depending on where you stay. Firstly, if you camp in random spots around the island, there is no accommodation cost whatsoever. Things means bringing your own tent and sleeping bags and pitching at rest areas and other spots along the side of the road. Easy to do, but not everyone’s cup of tea, especially in winter. But entirely doable! $0Let’s just say you’re like me and you prefer to have a roof over your head, you’re going to have to find hostels. And there are lots all around the island, even in small towns. Because of this, you are going to need to plan your itinerary based on where these hostels are, because outside of these areas, accommodation can be quite pricey, comparatively.The cost of a standard hostel, depending on how early you book and the time of the year will set you back $20/€18/£14/AUD$26 for a dorm bed. You can often get a private room for 2 for slightly more than this.
Accommodation cost per day – $20 (or free if you camp)
Food in Iceland can be expensive, but you have to be selective about what you want and where you buy it. Some places charge about $5 for a large pre-made sandwich and some places $3.50. Some places can sell you a whole loaf of bread for $2… So if you want to make your own sandwiches, you can really save a lot of money. Just make sure you choose the cheaper ingredients for your sandwich as some items are horrendously expensive and others not so bad. You can easily get away with under $4 per meal if you’re buying your own groceries and making sandwiches, eating pasta and doing the cheap eating thing. That’s $10 per day for food, but some people not used to travelling on a budget may want to put aside a little more than this.
Food cost per day – $10
The great thing about activities in Iceland is that most of them are free. All the waterfalls, geothermal areas and natural beauty are free and you don’t need to spend a cent. $0.
Of course, you could always shell out $50 for the Blue Lagoon, but it’s not necessary in my view. Try some of the more local thermal pools, some of which are free.Be aware that all paid tours and activities are horrendously expensive. If you really want to do these, just be prepared to shell out a lot of money.
Total Cost of Travelling in Iceland
Car Hire – $11
Petrol – $9
Hostel – $20 or Camping – free
Food – $10
Total – $50 (or $30 if camping)
As you can see, it really is possible to travel to Iceland on a tight budget if you’re willing to sacrifice some creature comforts such as private rooms and pre-packaged or restaurant meals. The most surprising thing in my view is that hiring a car is such an economical option — more so than catching the bus. Check out the deals from Holiday Autos to see if you can get a car for $20 per day like I did.
Choose the right season
Choosing which season to go to Iceland in is so important to your budget. As with everywhere in the world, summer is the busy season as the whole of Europe is on holiday. Just be aware that in summer all the cheap places are booked out well in advance and you will be left with expensive options only — in other words, you’ll need to camp to make the trip cheap.
In Winter, it’s a different story. Not only do you get to see the Northern Lights, you also get much cheaper accommodation and rental car prices.
One last tip. Make sure you pick up your rental car from the airport even if you plan to stay in Reykjavik for a night or two because you will save a fortune on the bus ticket to and from the airport which is akin to highway robbery.
The Golden Circle refers to the loop road that many tour buses and day trippers take on daytrips out of Reykjavik. Along this road are a variety of different things to see and it makes an easy day trip if you’re based in Reykjavik. Self-driving the Golden Circle in your own rental car (I rented mine through Holiday Autos) is definitely the way to go as it’s far cheaper and you can stop wherever and whenever you want and for as long as you want. The Golden Circle can be wrapped up before lunch and you can even continue along the south coast to some other places of interest and even make it all the way to Vik by nightfall if the weather is good.
How long is the Golden Circle?
If you do the entire Golden circle and return to Reykjavik that afternoon, it’s about 230km (143 miles) and takes about 6 or 7 hours at a leisurely pace. If you continue on to Vik, it is a long day as there are a few more waterfalls to see along the way before reaching Vik. The distance is 280km and you won’t arrive in Vik until about 5pm. This is what I did and it was a perfect distance for me and not too rushed.
Almost everyone stops here as their first stop on the Golden Circle and I highly recommend getting here early so that you get a moment of peace and quiet before the tour buses arrive. The tour buses started arriving at about 9:10am and the park officially opens at 9am. Try and get here by 8:30am — you’ll still be able to go to the lookout and if you’re there at the right time of year, you’ll even get to see the sunrise with only a few other people.
Þingvellir is the site of the first Icelandic parliament some 1000 years ago. It’s also where two tectonic plates are splitting apart from one another creating large rifts in the earth. But for me, these two things were minor attractions. I actually really loved this place because the views at that time of the morning are stunning and it’s nice to go for a walk along the nearby river on your own in the cool crisp air while most of the tour buses are buzzing in and out of there really quickly.
Some 60km (37miles) on from Þingvellir are the geysers of Strokkur and Geysir. Geysir is where the English word ‘Geyser’ came from, but this geyser hasn’t been active since around 2000 when a nearby earthquake shut it down. Strokkur is a smaller geyser and erupts roughly ever 5 minutes. It’s pretty impressive to see that puddle of hot, bright blue water occasionally bubble up and erupt into a massive jet of water 25m (75ft) tall. Most people stick around for about 4 eruptions and then continue on to Gullfoss.
Stop 3 – Gullfoss – 109km (68miles) from Reykjavik
This waterfall truly is an impressive site and would be worth visiting on its own. A wild, raging river with a massive volume of water thunders into a ravine creating the mighty Gulfoss. In winter you get a lovely frozen landscape, but I’ve also seen photos of Gullfoss in summer and it looks completely different, but no less stunning. It’s only 10 minutes down the road from Strokkur and you could come here first and visit Strokkur on the way back if that suited you better.
Stop 4 – Kerið – 165km (103miles) from Reykjavik
Kerið is the remnants of a collapsed volcano which now houses an impressive lake. It’s a b-grade attraction and is probably one you can skip if you don’t have time. It’s actually on the road to Selfoss which is convenient if you’re looping back to Reykjavik. But if you’re continuing on towards Vik, you might want to take route 30 from Gullfoss rather than Route 35 as it will shave off about 30km, but also skip Kerið completely. That said, if you’ve got lots of time in Iceland or are just travelling really slowly, Selfoss does make a good overnight spot.
I stayed about 20km before Vik in a lovely modern farmstay called Guesthouse Vellir. The breakfast in the morning was fantastic and the price of the room for 2 people was €79/$88/£62/AUD$117. Check the current price on booking.com.
The Golden Circle is a must-do activity when in Iceland despite it being the most heavily touristed. That said, with your own wheels you don’t have to worry too much about the crowds as you can set your own agenda. We got a fantastic Hertz rental car for about €20/$22/£16/AUD$30 — but we booked it through an agent who was able to get us the car for about half the normal price available on the Hertz website. Check current rental car prices on Holiday Autos.
Deciding which car rental company to go with is a difficult decision to make. The main factors are: location of pickup/dropoff, how many free miles are included and daily rental price.
Location of Pickup/Dropoff
I originally planned to pick up my rental car from Reykjavik city rather than the airport (which is 50km/30 miles away) because I thought it was silly to have a rental car sitting on the side of the road parked in the middle of Reykjavik for 2 nights not being used. But there are two reasons why I ended up picking up and dropping my car off at the airport. The first reason was that the daily rental price I got was much better at the airport. The second reason was that the cost of the bus to and from the airport is so expensive and in my case worth the equivalent of 2.5 days care rental. I saved money by renting the car from the airport even though I didn’t use it for 2 nights. Tip: Factor in the price of the bus to and from Reykjavik in your rental equation. Check the Flybus website here.
How Many Free Miles are Included in the Rental?
Rental cars in Iceland often come with a limited number of kilometres you can drive in them before you start getting charged penalties. The penalties are so stiff that if you plan to drive any signifcant distances such as circumnavigating the island, you absolutely cannot rent a car that doesn’t have unlimited miles. Make sure you check this aspect of your car rental.
Daily Rental Price
I searched on a lot of rental car company sites for a good deal on car rental and I thought I got one for about €300 for 7 days of hire. But then I came across a car rental agency called Holiday Autos.
I’d never heard of them before, but their prices were incredible. They were basically able to aggregate all the special deals from all the different rental companies in Iceland to the point where they offered me a car with Hertz for 7 days for €166!! ($186/£130/AU$246) And on top of that, it had unlimited miles. Luckily for me, the car I booked was out of stock, so they upgraded me at the airport for free. In the end I got a medium sized 5 door hatchback with winter tyres, seat warmers, diesel engine and in perfect condition for just over €20 ($22/£16/AU$30) per day. What’s more, the fuel efficiency was out of this world with it averaging 4.8L/100km. I only spent 16,660ISK ($131/€117/£92/AU$174) on diesel for the entire 1400km trip.
And how much does gas/petrol cost in Iceland? 186ISK/L ($5.60/gal) for petrol (regular gas) and 169ISK ($5.08/gal) for diesel.
Anyway, the rental agency is Holiday Autos and they are very responsive to any enquiries you have and even let you cancel your rental agreement in many cases. I originally booked an even cheaper car, but changed my mind when I realised that it didn’t have unlimited miles. Please let me know if you book with this mob as well. I would really like to hear if you also have a good experience so I can share with my readers. Check Prices on Holiday Autos.
Damage to Your Rental Car
I have heard some horror stories about rental car damage in Iceland and some people even claim there are scams operating in the country, but I didn’t experience that. One “scam” is that after there have been high winds, the rental car company will inspect the paint on the car when you bring it back and claim that it has been damaged by sand. In fact, the companies even have a specific sand damage insurance cover so you don’t get trapped. My advice would be to just keep the car away from the ocean when the wind is blowing hard. I was lucky to be inland when there were strong winds and noticed no issues with my paintwork.
Other damage which is said to be common is chipped windscreens. I can imagine this happening on some of the more distant dirt roads you come across in Iceland for sure. Cars go fast along these dirt roads… and these dirt roads are often major thoroughfares, so you don’t even have to be going off the beaten track to experience them. Just drive slowly and hope other cars do too.
The speed limit in Iceland is 90km/h on sealed roads and 80km/h on dirt roads. No one sticks to these limits and I had people passing me at 150 a lot. They drive fast. Still, I did see the police pull over one driver for speeding and there are a number of speed cameras around the island, mainly in the west and northwest. I can’t remember seeing any in the south, but maybe that’s because I was going too fast! Nevertheless, drive to the conditions and you’ll be fine.
Renting a car in Iceland is easily the best decision I made for my trip to Iceland. It gave me the freedom and flexibility you absolutely need in a country so big as weather impacted as Iceland. Good luck with your Iceland Roadtrip!
The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, are something that many people want to see at least once in their lifetime. Today, you’re going to learn about the best way to see the Northern Lights when visiting Iceland!
Although there is much discussion online about when exactly to see the northern lights, it all comes down to having enough darkness in the sky for the lights to actually be visible. This means that anything is summer is out because there is almost 24 hours of sun in Iceland in June/July.
So to increase your chances, you really want to be heading there between November and February when you have the most dark skies, although September/October and March/April are also worth it because the weather is often better than in deep winter.
Choosing a Spot to View the Northern Lights From
Once you’re in Iceland, you need to decide where to view them from. The first recommendation is to get out of Reykjavik as the city lights will lighten the sky and make the aurora less intense. This means you will need your own transport such as a hire car from Holiday Autos or take a tour.
Secondly, you need to have clear skies. This website –http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – is the official weather website for Iceland and it includes a page on aurora. You must look at this site. The most important aspect to seeing the aurora is to have no cloud cover — if there are no clouds, the aurora will appear, it’s as simple as that. The second most important aspect of this site is the KP or intensity level. Anything of 2 or more will look awesome. If you get 4 or 5, it’ll be mind-blowing.
So once you know where the clear skies will be, start driving to a place which is both out of Reykjavik and has clear skies. You may have to drive all night if the clouds are opening up on the other side of the country! Remember, the lights usually start around 10:30pm and last for a few hours. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
Photographing the Northern Lights
Seeing the aurora with the naked eye is an almost spiritual experience. But most people want to capture it with their camera as well. Here is the gear you will need:
Wide lense (20mm equivalent with a low F number – I used 12mm (18mm equiv) F2) so you can capture the vastness of the aurora.
dSLR or mirrorless camera because you need to use manual controls and good low light performance.
Next, the settings. The settings on your camera really depend on how bright the aurora is and whether it is in intense lines or more spread out across the sky, so you will need to experiment a little bit. But this worked for me.
ISO 1600, 13 sec, F2.
I also tried longer exposures, but for me the sky ended up being a little washed out from there being too much residual light from the aurora. I found shorter exposures showed off the intensity of the bright spots of the aurora while keeping the sky relatively dark.
Chance of Seeing the Aurora in a Short Trip to Iceland
If you are simply stopping over in Iceland for a couple of nights on the way to Europe or the USA, you have to be really lucky to see the Aurora mainly because of weather. I was in Iceland for 7 nights and there were only 2 nights when it wasn’t cloudy. Even then, I have heard of some people heading just to Reykjavik for a week and not getting a break in the weather. So you really do need to be mobile and you need as much time as possible to get the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis.
So there you have it, my guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland. I’d be happy to answer questions you might have!
After recently completing a roadtrip around Iceland’s ring road in winter, I just had to share how I did it and what my itinerary looked like.
Before setting off on this adventure with Susan, I was scared. Real scared. Mainly about how winter conditions in Iceland affect the roads, your ability to travel around and what you can see and do. In the end, I needed have been worried because it is definitely possible to travel around Iceland in a rental car in winter. I hired a small two wheel drive Toyota and it was fine. I used Holiday Autos who were cheap and awesome.
Weather and Road Conditions on Iceland’s Ring Road
The first thing you do after picking up your rental car (I will write an article specifically about renting a car in Iceland later) is to check weather and road conditions are there are a few fantastic website which help you to do this.
The first and most important website is one which shows you road conditions throughout the island – http://www.road.is
Road conditions change quickly in Iceland and a sudden snowstorm can really put a dent in your plans. I was particularly worried about seeing lots of roads coloured blue on this website. The website labels these roads as “slippery”. Needless to say, I found even blue roads quite drivable despite the road being entirely covered in ice for over 100km at a stretch. For some reason, it just didn’t feel slippery and I was doing speeds of between 60 & 80 km/h while locals were doing in excess of 100km/h. Take a look at the conditions:
This green. Clear and open road with absolutely no obstacles. Go as fast as you like.
This is yellow. A bit of snow on the side of the road an very occasionally a patch of ice on the road, but off the driving line.
This is blue. Usually the road is fully covered in ice, but it’s not too slippery. Just check by jamming your brakes on at low speed to see what happens. If no skidding, you’re right to go!
The next website to visit often is http://vegasja.vegagerdin.is/eng/ – this awesome website shows two really important things. How many cars have passed that section of road in the past 10 minutes and since midnight and gives you live cameras from around the island’s road network. Some of the roads, particularly between Egilsstaðir and Myvatn are iced over for long periods of time and the camera view from here looks like antarctica. Wait till you get there — it feels exactly the same! But not scary, honest.
The last source of info I recommend is the Iceland weather Bureau’s app – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ve-ur/id673177417 – I found this app to be really excellent at predicting things like wind speed and general weather conditions. Wind speed is really important to ensure a safe trip around the island as anything about about 15m/s is quite strong.
Now, cars in Iceland must be fitted with winter tyres in winter, so your rental car will be too. These winter tires look like normal tyres, but have metal studs in them which really help grip ice. I rarely slid except when in a couple of icy car parks.
How many days do I need to drive Iceland’s Ring Road?
It depends, but I think in ideal weather you could rush around it in 5 days and still have a good time (including the Golden Circle). But a more realistic timeframe is 6 days like we did. If the weather is bad, 6 days won’t be enough, so just pray for good weather like we had!
Petrol stations are scattered around the island and you won’t have any problems finding one. The price of petrol was around €1.20 per litre. I spent 16,660 ISK (€120) for my entire trip around the island. The car used less than 5L/100km.
Groceries stores are in every town, big and small. The problem is that prices vary greatly between towns. I found Reykjavik to be the cheapest place to stock up on groceries.
Accommodation in Iceland is expensive and many people choose to stay in youth hostels. We only stayed in one of these and it was the worst place we stayed in, but still OK for a night. The farm stays are the best places to stay, although some are really expensive. A hot tip is to only book your accommodation on the day you plan to arrive at it because weather conditions aren’t always favourable. Of course, the opposite is true in Summer when accommodation is at a premium and you might miss out if you don’t book ahead.
We really loved our hotel in Reykjavik. We could park in the next street over for free, you could see that big crazy church (Hallgrímskirkja) from our window and the hotel itself was just perfect. The name of the hotel is Loki 101 Guesthouse and we booked on Booking.com for $130 for 2 nights. Check current prices on Booking.com.
The northern lights are in the sky every night. It’s just that most nights in winter are cloudy so you don’t see them. Check the website — http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ — for the latest cloud cover forecast and stay awake after 10:30pm to see them!
Day 1 – Golden Circle
We set off to visit the sites on the Golden Circle early in the morning before the sun rose (I will write a more detailed post about this later). It’s Iceland’s most popular route and most people do this on tour buses. So in order to beat the tour buses, set off early to get to Thingvelir at opening time – 0900. From there, head to the geysers and Gullfoss, an amazingly powerful waterfall.
We were going great for time, so we decided to try and head to Vik for the night. On the way we checked out Urridafoss, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss — all which were worth the visit.
We stayed at a farm stay called Guesthouse Vellir — really fantastic rooms, clean and massive shared bathrooms and an all-you-can-eat breakfast which included waffles, cold meats, cheese, cereal, juice, tea and coffee. So good. Price: €79. Check the current price on Agoda.
Day 2 – Vik to Djúpivogur
Guesthouse Vellir was a great place to start the day’s exploration as it is really close to Dyrholaey lookout and the rock arch. Unfortunately, the road up to the lighthouse and viewing platform at Dyrholaey lookout was closed due to snow, so we were only able to go to a nearby lookout just up the road. But that lookout alone was worth it. Simply magnificent.
Black Sand Beach
Next stop was the basalt rocks and black sand beach just before Vik. You really see the power of the ocean when you visit this beach and one unfortunate soul lost their life just a week before we were there.
From Vik, we made a beeline for Jökulsárlón and to be honest, there’s not much between Vik and Jökulsárlón except for a few rivers and photo ops.
Jökulsárlón itself is an interesting place to see icebergs, seals and icebergs stuck on the beach. There honestly isn’t that much to see or do here, so you don’t have spend too much time hanging around. Free toilets at the cafe in the carpark.
From Jökulsárlón, most people turn around and head back to Reykjavik which means the roads clear up a lot as you travel east. Hofn is a popular stopping point after Jökulsárlón, but the weather was so good that we decided to keep going to Djúpivogur and I’m glad we did because that night we saw the northern lights.
In Djúpivogur we stayed in a fantastic private cabin for the price of a hostel — they upgraded us for free. Not only that, the lady at the front desk was so so lovely. Price: €63. Check current price on Booking.com.
Day 3 -Djúpivogur to Mývatn
Day 3 was another stunning day with hardly a cloud in the sky. Given that Egilsstaðir was so close, we decided to try and make it all the way to Mývatn which we did with ease as the road was much faster to drive on than I had expected despite being one massive ice sheet.
The drive from Djúpivogur heads through a massive tunnel at one point and then over another mountain covered in snow as you descend into Egilsstaðir. I was shitting myself at this point and the locals must have thought I was an old grandpa driving so slow. Anyway, the views were amazing.
The Mountain Road
We stopped in Egilsstaðir for petrol (a pretty big town) and kept driving towards Mývatn. It’s here that the road in winter is often poor because of cold temperatures and high altitude. It was -8ºC as we went over the mountains, but it’s often a lot colder than that. The road condition was pretty good despite being covered in ice for about 100km. All the fresh snow had been ploughed away and the ice was packed hard, but still rough enough to get grip on. I did between 60 & 80km/h, but I was overtaken by big trucks and a fast sports car. People were doing way over 100km/h at times. It wasn’t slippery, but I was cautious anyway.
Hverir Geothermal Area
Just before Mývatn is the Hverir geothermal area. For me, it wasn’t a big deal as I’ve seen lots of this sort of stuff in New Zealand and Indonesia already, but those who haven’t seen this sort of stuff before, it’s definitely going to be interested. Steam vents expelling hot gas, hot mud pools… you know… volcanic stuff. One point to note was that the access road was covered in snow and it was deep. We still got through though as did other 2WD cars.
That night we slept at Vogahraun Guesthouse which also has a pizza joint. Pizzas are expensive, but delicious. A really complete breakfast was included. Price: €90.Check current price on Agoda.
Day 4 – Mývatn to Blonduos
Mývatn Nature Baths
We came to Mývatn because I really wanted to try the hot springs here and I am so glad we made it. We arrived at opening time, 12 midday, paid our 3,500 ISK (€25), had our mandatory naked shower and hopped in the pool. We were first in! Let’s just say that it was absolutely freezing outside and perfectly warm in side the pool. So cold outside in fact that the temperature gauge read -6ºC. After an hour or so of splashing around here, we set our sights on Akureyri via Godafoss.
There’s not a whole lot to see and do in Akureyri itself and some people even make a detour before getting here up to Husavik to do whale watching. We took a look at the church here as it’s supposed to be the little sister of Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. Umm… A bit of a disappointment to be honest. Don’t be afraid to skip it.
We ended up in Blonduos where we got a massive 2 bedroom cabin with hot tub. It was -8ºC outside at this stage, so even though I set the hot tub temperature to 42ºC, it was only luke warm by the time it had filled up. -8ºC combined with wind and wet, naked skin is a disaster. My hair was already frozen and I ran straight from the hot tub into a hot shower in the cabin — a truly Icelandic experience. To cap it all off, the northern lights fired up again. Price: 10,000 ISK (€70). Check current price on Agoda.
Day 5 – Blonduos to Borgarnes
Because we were making such good time on our roadtrip, we decided to take a few detours today. The first was to head out along the peninsula to Hvitserkur. The road was a dirt road, but you wouldn’t know it because it was covered in ice. Temperature outside was -11ºC.
The next detour was the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We had intended to go right to the end of the peninsula, but it was just taking too long and we didn’t have enough time. So we got to the small town of Stykkishólmur, took a few photos and cut across the peninsula. That meant we missed out on some good sightseeing opportunities further down the peninsula, but you can’t do it all.
We arrived at the Borgarnes Hostel with enough time to head to the supermarket and cook some dinner. The hostel itself was just OK, but it was cheap. Price: €47. Check current price on Agoda.
Day 6 – Borgarnes to Airport
We had planned on this day to visit the Blue Lagoon, but we didn’t realise you had to book in advance. Not only that, the price is €40 which I think is a bit much. Not sure whether it was a good idea to skip it or not, but in the end we had no choice. We didn’t book. So we instead headed back to Reykjavik to get something to eat, to have another couple of coffees at the awesome Reykjavik Roasters and see Perlan.
At this stage it was time to take the hire car back to the airport and wait for our flight out of Iceland. All my fears about circumnavigating Iceland in winter were unfounded. Of course, the great weather really made our trip much fast and much safer. No one knows what the weather is going to be like when you visit, so you have to play every day by ear.
Don’t book your accommodation until the day you are planning to arrive. You just might not make it.
It’s been a dream of Susan’s to go to Europe for ages and it’s also been a dream of mine to walk the Camino de Santiago across Spain, so in late July we caught a Saudia Arabia Airlines flight to Paris to start a 4 and a half month journey that would include a 780km walk, a camel ride, several cable car rides and hundreds of kilometres of hitchhiking. It was an incredible journey.
On this trip I used my dSLR even less frequently than ever before and my iPhone became my everyday camera. I think learning how to edit photos a bit better on the phone has really tipped the scales for me as the process with a dSLR is so clunky. For me, the benefits of using a big old beast of a camera are diminishing by the day.
So here is 4 and a half months of travel in photos.
There’s a lot to love about Paris – hundreds of galleries, monuments and museums plus incredible cakes! I love cakes!
We went to Cologne because we found a car share heading that way from Amsterdam where we had become trapped due to the gay pride festival. Luckily for us we caught a fantastic sunset across the river.
Budapest was great for many reasons, but this dessert was one of them funnily enough.
With cheap lodgings, good cheap food, plenty of things to see and do and a more gritty feel than much of Europe, Budapest became a favourite stop on the trip.
Venice was both disappointing and exciting. Strange really. It’s a wonderful old city filled with maze-like alleys, historical buildings and those famous canals. The problem with Venice is that it is a full on tourist town. You pay a lot of money for absolutely rubbish food, after about 10am you have to fight your way through the alleys with all the other tourists and you end up feeling like a walking cash machine. I’m glad I went, but never again unless I win the lotto.
Cinque Terre is another one of those famous Italian towns which can be chockablock full in summer and empty in winter. Unfortunately for us we went there in Summer and it was full — totally. It was great, however, to walk up the mountains and look back down on the coast. Most tourists prefer to swim at the beach rather walk which made life away from the ocean quite nice.
After a whirwind month through Europe, it was time to walk from the French side of the Pyrnees all the way across to Santiago in Spain, 780km away. This was definitely a trip of a lifetime and a totally different travel experience. Something I’d like to do again.
One of the great things about the Camino is that there is nothing else to do. You just walk. It was nice not to have any pressures (such as the transport pressures we’d had in Europe during the first month).
Much of the infrastructure on the camino such as roads and bridges has been around for centuries as this route has been popular for over a millennium.
You get a sense of entitlement on the Camino so I stole a few bunches of wine grapes while in the famous Rioja wine-growing area – they were surprisingly delish!
Sunflowers were everywhere and people liked to make funny faces and signs in the faces of the sunflowers — something to keep things interesting as you walk. (and walk)
The last 5 days of the Camino has a reputation for being extremely busy and usually rainy. We got both and it was a battle to keep positive as we trudged through this forest.
Getting to Porto in Portugal was a relief as it changed up the routine a bit. Luckily for us Porto is a fabulous city.
There’s something about the ocean when it gets angry — I love it.
Chefchaouen is a wonderful town in Morocco and it was a great start to our time in the country. Sadly, it all went down hill from there because we were harassed by so many hostile men. For that reason alone, I recommend people just go somewhere else where the people are friendlier. Why bother with hassle when there are over 200 countries to visit?
Todra Gorge was a bright spot in Morocco. We hardly encountered another person in our time there and that made for a less stressful experience.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it seems that most people go on tours from the big cities to the desert towns fringing the Sahara. We got to the end of the line as far as roads go under our own steam and it was a truly rewarding experience. In the end we got our guesthouse owner to take us out into the desert for a night on some camels. Definitely worth the hassle of riding buses at awkward times over long distances — stunning scenery, great food and the real Morocco.
We chose not to visit the places that had the biggest sand dunes for fear of running into loads of other people. In the end we got medium sized dunes to ourselves – incredible!
After Morocco it was time to head back to Spain and then onto Greece. I feared Santorini would be yet another tourist trap as most of Europe had been, but we got lucky. The high season had ended by the time we got to Santorini, it was cool, accommodation was cheap and tourist numbers were down. It was genuinely enjoyable to stroll the streets of the island.
Santorini sunsets are famous and the one we saw was up there with the best I’ve seen. It really was that red.
We headed to Turkey after Greece and it was a complete surprise. These birds followed our ferry as it carried our bus across a large body of water enroute to Selcuk.
Ephesus is one of those cities named in the Bible and it is remarkably in tact for such an old place. A Turkish highlight for sure.
I was a little disappointed with Pamukkale — it was certainly something different, but we stayed a guesthouse with a shitty owner and the pools weren’t as natural as I had expected. On top of that the number of independent travellers vs tour bus travellers was about 100 to 1. It was overwhelming and unpleasant. Still, it was worth a visit.
I was a bit suspicious of Cappadocia. Places that people rave about so much don’t usually suit me (can you see the theme here?). But Cappadocia was a truly special place despite being a typical tourist destiantion. Plenty of places to get decent food at reasonable prices, decent acccommodation, nice people and… Stunning scenery. And it’s all about the scenery really. People lived here a while back in the caves that dot the landscape and they’re all open for you to explore.
Mount Nemrut was another Turkish delight. (good joke). It’s World Heritage listed, but there was no one else there. Not even a ticket person. A guy did turn up later to take money, but he seemed like one of those dodgy guys that hangs around tourist sites collecting money “on behalf of the Government”. Nemrut is definitely worth a visit. It didn’t even snow despite being over 2000m above sea level and at the end of November.
Another empty place. Why? Where are all the backpackers? Too busy on the Thai islands I suppose.
Georgia impressed from the very first encounter with a Georgian person – a border guard. Vardzia was one of our first sites in the country.
Davit Gareji is not too far from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It was an easy day trip and definitely worth visiting — it was absolutely sensational.
There were 3 other foreigners on the bus to Kazbegi on the day we went meaning we practically had the entire town to ourselves as far as tourists go. It’s up in the mountains near the restive border with Russia — it gets bitterly cold in winter. This small town was one of the highlights of the entire trip due to incredibly warm hospitality from our homestay owner and…
…the stunning scenery all around the area. You can even walk past this church towards Mount Kazbek and see a glacier (apparently — you need to be fitter than me).
After Georgia it was time to visit Armenia, another one of those countries that you know nothing about. That’s what made going there so fun, I think. You just went with no expectations. What we got was fantastic hospitality.
So hospitable were the people that every time we stood on the side of the road wondering how to flag down a bus, someone would stop and pick us up — and that’s how I got this military hat.
Still, when hitchhiking a bus would sometimes come past and we’d jump on that. These bus are so old school, but so fun.
I took this photo after being dropped off by a guy after hitchhiking. We had to walk the next 2km into town and it was so bleak. But I felt alive!
The strangest thing… I thought Hungary and Czech Republic would feel like ex-soviet states, but they didn’t. Not a bit. Armenia did. Totally. 100%. Ex-soviet. Mad! Love it!
After zipping through the Caucasus, it was time to head back to Turkey and linger in Istanbul for a few days. It is wonderful.
The best thing about Istanbul was getting your bearings and then just walking around the place. You don’t have a lot of choice anyway as the public transport system isn’t integrated and can be confusing.
To cap off the 4 and a half month journey, we hit up Jordan. After seeing all the glowing blog posts from people who went there for free as part of the #VisitJordan campaign, I wanted to see it for myself. I really enjoyed the low-key nature of Amman, but Petra was tourist hell. Expensive hotels, expensive eateries and… an $80 entrance fee to the site. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a place like that and it certainly tarnished my experience there. If I had gotten it for free, I’d be raving about Petra. Just like everyone else. For a budget traveller, Petra is just not worth it. Go somewhere cheaper instead.
So that’s 4 and a half months of ups and downs, praise and criticism. I’m really starting to understand what I like and what I don’t like and I think it’s time to start travelling accordingly. Slow travel. No tourists. Short stints in cities unless they’re marvellous. Genuinely nice people. I’m just not interested in the rest.
Wow. Portugal. What a pleasant surprise. You always hear about Portugal and think about it as just that tiny sliver of a country hanging off the edge of Spain and it’s always difficult to associate it with anything significant. What is Portuguese food? What is Portuguese culture? What is there to do in Portugal? Well, I can now safely report that I learned a bit about Portugal after finishing the 780 km Camino walk across Spain. Most of it I should have known before!
I entered Portugal from the north and ended up in Porto where I rented a superb AirBnB at a bargain price of around $50. Upon arriving at the main bus terminal, it was time to figure out the subway ticketing system and this was where I encountered Portuguese friendliness for the first time. A young lady noticed Susan and I were looking around with blank faces trying to figure out which ticket to buy to which station. The young lady hesitated slightly and asked if we needed help. Of course we did! She basically told us which station to get off at, which ticket to buy and which platform we needed. It seemed a little odd at the time as people aren’t usually so eager to help in most cities, but I came to understand that this sort of friendliness was par for the course in Portugal.
Every time I got out the big paper map our AirBnB host gave us, someone would inevitably stop and assist with directions. The same would go when we entered a cafe or restaurant — everyone was extremely friendly.
Of course, there are also a bunch of cool things to see in Portugal. In Porto it’s mainly architectural with a great seaside whereas in Lisbon it includes other stuff like the Belem area, food and historical stuff. Actually, they’re very similar in that regard. Food, architecture, history… Favourites of mine?
Pasteis de Nata
These things are what we know as Portuguese Tarts… But it’d be silly to call them that when you’re in Portugal — they’d be just called tarts right? Anyway, very nice in most places I tried. My favourite wasn’t actually at the most famous place, Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, but I think that’s just a personal thing. Most people rave about those at Pasteis de Belem and they are very good. Best thing to do? Try find your own personal favourite by eating multiple pieces per day!
Seaside in Porto
The Porto seaside is quite similar to most seasides around the world, but on the day I visited it was particularly moody. This made it great for a walk along the breakwater out to the lighthouse — big waves, lots of fishermen and plenty of people getting drenched by rogue waves. Made my day. A short tram ride on an old tram from the centre of town.
The pork roll at Casa Guedes in Porto is a bit of a secret really. It’s not on the tourist circuit thankfully, so we were the only foreigners having a snack at the time. The pork is melt in your mouth, the cheese is already gooey and the whole thing is about a million calories. As we all know, the more calories, the better it tastes. This pork roll was probably the best I’ve ever had.
I don’t know a lot about the history of Portuguese tiles, but they do a pretty good job of them. I took heaps of photos of the tiles over the course of my time in Portugal as I just couldn’t get enough of them. The best thing is that they’re not afraid to decorate the outside of whole buildings with them. Anywhere else it would look crappy and old fashioned — in Portugal it’s pretty cool.
And that sums up Portgual as a whole really. Old fashioned, but cool. I enjoyed the people, the food and the general atmosphere in Portugal more than Spain and more than almost any other European country. Yes, it’s a big call! But Portugal just clicked with me. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the low prices. Maybe it was the people. Whatever it was, Portugal is OK by me.
So I completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela almost two months ago now and I’m only just starting to process it — mainly because of all the travel I’ve been doing since then and now. It was an incredible travelling experience — the sort of experience I think many travellers simply miss out on.
The Camino de Santiago is a walk to the Spanish city of Santiago and it’s been a dream of mine for some years now. You can start walking from wherever you want really, but the most popular places are either 100km away in the town of Sarria or 780km away across the Pyrenees in the town of St Jean Pied-de-Port in France! I chose the one from France and completed the walk in a lazy 33 days.
People often ask how it’s possible to simply walk from one end of a country to another without some sort of support crew and the answer is quite straightforward really. You wake up, put on your shoes and walk until you’ve had enough. That’s it. There are always cheap hostels to stay in, there is a walking track of sorts and you simply walk. Every single day.
The spirit of the walk is part pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago part losing yourself for a month part “what am I doing here” — but every person does it for their own reason, in their own time and for themselves. And that’s what’s so cool about it. Despite meeting up with plenty of other walkers, you’re still responsible from getting yourself from A to B every day and as such you really are walking your own journey.
Day one of the walk for me was up over the Pyrenees and into Spain. It was a fabulous introduction into what lay ahead — fantastic scenery, wonderful people, brutal adventure. To be honest, the first day wasn’t as hard as expected, but it was difficult to imagine being able to keep that sort of intensity up for a whole month. The very next day the difficulty of the journey became real when I injured my knee. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary — no funny twist, no weird bend. It just stopped working properly and became very sore. And I had to hobble and shuffle about 10km until I got to my accommodation. Not fun.
As the days wore on, that injury healed and other ones surfaced and never went away — blisters. Almost everyone I met on the Camino got blisters. It’s just part of the journey and finding a way to nurse them is the key to continuing your journey.
A typical day on the Camino for me involved waking up at 0630, throwing my clothes on and simply walking outside to look for the nearest bar serving breakfast. Many others arose at 0530 and hit the road to beat the heat, beat the crowds, find some solitude.
After a quick breakfast, it was time to get some KM under the belt and after a couple of hours it’d be time to stop for a second breakfast and some coffee. Walk a bit more, get tired, stop for lunch. By this stage the end of the day is usually in sight with only another 10km to walk. I’d usually aim to get to a hostel by about 3pm, but in the earlier stages when walking in excess of 25km, this sometimes turned into 4 or 5pm!
Much of the Camino is along dirt tracks in rural areas. To find which way to go, there are yellow way markers everywhere. Towns are usually spaced a few kilometres apart giving the journey quite a rural feel and the odd town brings welcomed respite.
One of the things which really surprised me about the walk was the friendships I made along the way. You very quickly recognise the same faces every day and those same people tend to bond over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not even like you need to make an effort to make friends. You automatically become friends due to your shared experiences — pain, exhilaration, frustration. It’s fantastic!
So why should you do the Camino de Santiago? Because it’ll be the single most challenging walk you’ve ever done. You’ll get out of your comfort zone and battle all sorts of problems. It may well be the catalyst for change in your life!
And besides, there is nothing better than watching the sun rise every day for a month, watching scenery gradually change as you head west and noticing the sun rising later and later.
For me, it’s one of the great travel experiences out there. Not many people can say they walked 780km across a country. Now I can and I’m damn proud of it!
So we’ve been intending to head to Europe for quite a while now and have just never really either had the time or inclination to pursue a Schengen visa for Susan which is via a horrendous application process. Well, the good news is that we submitted the application and it got approved!
We applied for a 3 month multiple re-entry visa which for Indonesians is a rare beast to obtain. Usually they grant a visa between fixed dates and it’s rarely re-entry. And during the application process you usually have to prove that you have accommodation booked, have a letter from your employer confirming you have a job, have onward flights and all that guff. We fulfilled some of those requirements, but by and large we just couldn’t fulfill most of the visa requirements. Susan doesn’t have a job. It’s not practical for us to book 3 months worth of accommodation. We don’t know anyone that can sponsor us. In the end, we thought we would just submit the application and see what happens. Well, as it turns out the agency who accepts applications on behalf of the Spanish Embassy didn’t believe we were submitting a valid application and we spent 3 hours arguing with them to accept it. After what seemed like forever, we managed to bust through what is typical bureaucracy and get the application submitted.
Four days later and the visa had been approved without an interview which we are led to believe is often required. So here we are — sitting in the boarding lounge in Singapore waiting for a flight to Riyadh and then on to Paris!
The plan is a bit of a fast one without spending a lot of time in any one place except for Spain and Turkey. The main reason for this is that Susan has never been to Europe and I’ve only been once so we want see a few different countries. It’ll be a quick itinerary without being too burdensome. We plan to visit France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece with a side trip to Morocco which falls outside of the 3 months. On top of that, we plan a month in Turkey, a week in Bulgaria and a week in Jordan making for a total of 4 and a half months! Pumped!
Even though we have three months in Europe, much of that time will be spent in Spain. Probably about half of it. Why? Because we plan to walk 750km from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and then right across to the other side of the country to the town of Santiago de Compostela. It’s an old pilgrimage route which is now popular as a walking trail for crazy souls like us. We hope to average 25km of walking per day over about 5 weeks making for a total of about 750km. Of course we’ll try and have a few rest days, but irrespective, it is going to be a tough tough journey. Adding to that is the fact that we are unfit. Depressingly so.
So we’ve started walking. In the past few weeks we’ve walked about 120km. To be honest, we’re really feeling the pain, but I guess it’s good that we’re moving our bodies from sloth-like to slow loris-like. Soon we’ll be in tarsier territory.
What am I looking forward to most from this trip? The food. Mainly the food in Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. I have no idea about Jordanian food, but I’m sure it’ll be nice too. I’m also looking forward to just hitting the road again. We’ve had a bit of a break since our last big trip to Laos and it’s now time for us to get moving. I haven’t been this excited about a trip for some time — perhaps even off the beaten track southeast Asia is easy now. Oh well, let’s see how it pans out… cannot wait!