Summer Trip to Iceland: The Golden Circle

After our two days in Reykjavík, we headed out on the main purpose of the trip: renting a campervan and driving the Ring Road around the country.

Our Go Campers Campervan

When we visited southern Africa, we decided that the best way to see and experience the area was to rent a 4×4 truck for a self-drive safari. We had read of many people doing the same thing in Iceland: renting a campervan to allow them to explore the beautiful countryside at their own pace.

After a lot of research and comparison, we decided to rent through Go Campers. We chose their smallest model, the Go SMART 2-person Camper. This vehicle would be both our transportation and accommodation for the next ten days!

Included in the Go Campers rental was pickup from the main bus station in Reykjavík, which was in walking distance from our accommodations. We were happy to see that our Dacia Dokker van was quite new, with only 5730 km (3560 miles) on the odometer and not much wear.

We paid a little extra to rent a cooler, table and chairs to add to the included kitchen and camping gear. We had brought our own sleeping bags so we didn’t have to rent those, but pillows, light blankets and a mattress were included.

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Making dinner the first night using the small pullout shelf. You can also see the chairs and cooler, as well as the storage boxes in the back of the van

The Golden Circle

After acquainting ourselves with our campervan, we headed to the most popular area of the country for visitors: the Golden Circle. This is not a geographic designation but rather just a way to describe the grouping of popular tourist sites near Reykjavik which are located roughly along a circle of highways.

Reykjadalur

Our first stop wasn’t actually one of the main Golden Circle sights but was in the same area. We drove through the town of Hveragerði to the trailhead for the hike to Reykjadalur, the “steaming valley”. We had thought this would not be too popular of a spot since not too much had been written about it, but the crowded parking lot was our first lesson that nothing in Iceland in the summer is unknown.

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The hike was a little tougher than we were expecting, about 3 km with 200 m elevation gain. We also were introduced to the gnats that would pester us throughout the trip (luckily not biting). The scenery was nice but not stunning – until we got to the final part with the large mud pots and steam vents. It felt like we were walking into another world as we walking through the sulfurous steam.

The final destination was a river that we could bathe in – hot water from the springs runs down into the cold water resulting in a very pleasant temperature. We searched for a spot that was not too hot and stayed in for a while, soaking away. We dried ourselves off using the small towels we had brought and then headed back down.

Overall we spent about 3.5 hours. There was a WC at the coffeeshop at the trailhead. We thought there was supposed to be one by the bathing area but could not find it.

Kerið

We spent about 30 minutes walking around the rim of this volcanic crater and then down to the lake in the middle of it. Unfortunately, it had gotten overcast, so the reds of the rock and blues of the lake did not contrast quite as nicely as we had hoped. This was also one of the few natural attractions that we visited in Iceland that charged admission.

Þingvellir National Park

Our first visit to one of the big 3 on the Golden Circle was the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This park is both of geographic and historic interest: it is located in the rift valley between the North American and European continental plates, and it was the site of the Alþingi, a yearly meeting of Icelandic clan chiefs which started in 930 AD (considered the world’s first Parliament). The site was used as a meeting place for Parliament up until 1800.

We walked around the park and saw the main attractions: Lögberg, the “law rock”, where the Lögsögumaður (Lawspeaker) would recite the laws each year (and where the decision was made to switch the national religion to Christianity in 1000 AD); the remains of búðir, meaning “booths”, the structures where the Alþingi attendees and their retinues would stay during the meetings; Þingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s first churches; and Öxaráfoss waterfall.

Snorkeling in Silfra at Þingvellir

There are so many amazing outdoor adventures to do in Iceland, but we knew we couldn’t afford to do them all. Instead, we went with something we thought sounded pretty unique: snorkeling in glacial water in between the tectonic plates!

A company called Dive Iceland runs snorkeling and diving tours in the Silfra fissure which leads into the Þingvallavatn lake. This fissure is fed by glacial water, so the water is crystal clear… but ice cold! You may be wondering how we could snorkel in such water. Dive Iceland provides full dry suits for all of the guests to be able to stay in the near freezing water.

Since it was the summer, we were able to book a tour that left at 9 PM, and there was still a lot of light. We met up with our guide Tonya, the on shore assistant Elanora, and four other guests. We had worn a bunch of thermal layers as instructed, and they provided an additional thermal onesie. Getting squeezed into the dry suits was an adventure in itself, requiring assistance from one of the guides. Having tight neck and wrist seals was the most important part.

Diving into the cold water was a little scary, but the dry suits did a pretty good job. The gloves are “wet” gloves, so your hands did get cold after a while. And your mouth is exposed directly to the water as well. It was a bit weird to be snorkeling in fresh water after so many times in seawater.

The water was very clear, and almost blue tinted. Our snorkel tour took us through the rift in the direction that the spring water was moving, so we didn’t actual have to spend much energy kicking, as the current would move you along.

The first part of the fissure was narrow and deep, with big boulders at the bottom. Following this were a few shallow parts that we had to navigate over. We started to see interesting green kelp that looked like Silly String. The last large part is nicknamed “The Cathedral.”

We finished up by getting out of the current into a shallow lagoon. Here we could stay in as long as we wanted. Our hands had gotten pretty cold, so we didn’t linger. We did make sure and drink directly from the water – since it is straight from a glacier it is safe to drink.

Back at the meeting place, we squeezed back out of the dry suits and had some nice hot chocolate. Even then it took us a while to warm back up. We definitely enjoyed this unique experience!

Camping at Þingvellir

We didn’t finish snorkeling until late, so it was nice that there was a campground right there at Þingvellir. Earlier in the day we had paid to stay here, which was kind of a funny story. We had been assuming that there were assigned spots and were concerned to make sure to get one, but as it turns out all of the campgrounds in Iceland are basically just open fields. Once you pay for a night, you can just choose any spot in the field you feel like. We tried to pick one pretty close to the ablutions block, which had toilets, showers and utility sinks.

Setting up the campervan for sleeping was a pretty simple process. We simply moved our luggage up into the front seats and spread out our sleeping bags on the mattress in the back. We slept with our heads near the front seats and our feet near the back, with just enough room to be able to lie flat.

Geysir

The next morning we headed to one of the other big attractions on the Golden Circle, the geysers at Geysir (Geysir is where the English word geyser came from). There are multiple hot water spouts and bubbling mud pools in this area crowded with tourists. The eponymous spout Geysir erupts very infrequently currently. However, the geyser Strokkur is very reliable, erupting about every 4 minutes when we were there. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the area and watching the explosions of water. There is a large tourist center with food and restrooms here as well.

Gullfoss

The last major stop on the Golden Circle is the massive waterfall Gullfoss. It is actually composed of two tiers of massive drops. We first walked down on the lower part to get a close-up view, making sure to put on rain jackets to stay dry from all of the spray. We then headed to a nice viewpoint above the falls. We spent about an hour in total exploring here. There are bathrooms in the parking lot, but you have to pay (credit cards accepted, as everywhere else in Iceland).

Back to the Ring Road

Following Gullfoss, we headed back down on a few different highways to rejoin the Ring Road. We didn’t stop for any more attractions, other than to say hi to some Icelandic ponies.

Once back on the Ring Road, we headed east to explore the waterfalls and coastal formations of Southern Iceland.

Lounging on the Beach at Ko Lanta, Thailand

“Mountains or beach?” That’s a question many people ask each other when making small talk. Generally, we choose mountains (as you may have guessed given that we live in Colorado – Della can provide a whole rant if you want), and we haven’t made a big effort thus far on the trip to spend a lot of beach time. Still, we figured it would be a shame to miss out on the world-class Thailand beaches, so we built a few days into the end off our time in Thailand to do so.

Picking a Beach

There are a huge number of beaches in Thailand, and we only wanted to see one. This meant sifting through a vast maze of information, from the recommendations of friends and family to guidebooks and online resources. So many data points just served to confuse us. And, just when we thought we’d made a decision, we’d discover something that turned us off. Wow, this island looks amazing… but it sounds pretty hard to get to quickly. Or This beach would be really easy to get to… but it doesn’t sound like there is much to do once you get there. And so on.

In the end, the island that best fit our criteria was Ko Lanta. It seemed fairly easy to get to for a quick trip from Bangkok, it looked scenic and had plenty of stuff going on, and we could pre-book affordable accommodation. It was nice to get that decision made and get to the beach.

Getting There

It wasn’t quite as easy as we had hoped, but we made it there in one piece.

Where We Stayed

Based on the recommendation of some of our travel friends, we booked a bungalow at The Hut on Khlong Nin beach. (Even once we had decided on the island, we still had to pick the beach on the island to stay on.) Our bungalow was nice and spacious, with a covered front porch and a large bed. We did have an attached bathroom with a Western toilet and cold-water shower… but no sink, which we found inconvenient. The only cooling apparatus was a fan; no A/C, which would have been nice on the hot, muggy days, although we managed to cool off enough at night to sleep. The staff was very laid-back – almost a little too much so at times, but maybe we just don’t have the correct attitude for a beach ;-).  The location was not on the beach itself but just across the road, so not too bad. The price (about $15 a night) was pretty reasonable compared to other bungalows we priced out as well.

What We Did

We were looking forward to some relaxing times and we definitely were able to achieve that. Both the first and second days we didn’t emerge from our bungalow until it was time for lunch. The first day we just stayed on the beach after lunch and read and took turns swimming in the warm waters of the Andaman.

The second day we intended to rent a motorbike to see some of the other sights on the island… but when we admitted to the staff at The Hut where we were going to rent from that it was our first time, they refused to rent to us. Too discouraged to try another place, we spent another afternoon lounging on Khlong Nin beach.

In the evening we headed over to check out what we had seen advertised as a free beach exercise session followed by a yoga class. We were a little skeptical, but it turned out to be exactly that! A South African named Yakut first led us through a variety of exercises he seemed to make up on the spot, many involving the use of a large volcanic rock we picked up nearby. After a refreshing swim to cool off, the yoga session started. The yoga instruction itself was a little hit-or-miss, but the opportunity to do a sun salutation towards the setting sun was pretty incredible. We also enjoyed listening to Yakut espouse some of his personal philosophies.

The third day we decided to be a little more active and book a snorkel tour to the Four Islands area. We debated which company to go with, and ended up choosing “Lanta Nature Tour” since it was the cheapest. We were taken on a small “longtail” boat along with five others, including someone from Boulder, Colorado and a German who had gone to the University of Colorado for a year of study abroad – talk about a small world! We stopped at two small islands and hopped out for about 20 minutes of snorkeling. We didn’t see anything amazing, and the coral seemed a little worse for the wear, but the water was crystal clear, and we enjoyed swimming among schools of a smaller type of fish that had no fear.

The third stop was at the Emerald Cave, where we hopped out and swam into a natural opening underneath the limestone karst. Just past the entrance we got to see where the cave got its name from, and the water beneath us glowed in an emerald-esque color as it was lit from the sun outside. After we swam about 100 meters, we emerged into an interior oasis of a small beach open to the sky. It was quite pretty, although the effect was marred a bit by the vast crowds of loud tour groups talking excitedly.

We couldn't take any pictures of the cave since we had to swim into it, but we did get to enjoy a Pepsi afterwards

We couldn’t take any pictures of the cave since we had to swim into it, but we did get to enjoy a Pepsi afterwards

After we swam back out the cave, we headed to our final stop: lunch on the beach at Ko Ngai. This was our favorite stop; the view from our table of the longtail boats bobbing in the bright blue water above a white sand beach with limestone karsts in the distance was exactly what we had hoped to see on the beach in Thailand. We had about an hour to eat lunch and then relax in the water before we took the long ride back to Ko Lanta.

Where We Ate

Khlong Nin has a nice selection of restaurants along the beach, and we visited quite a few of them. Since it was our last few days in Thailand, we tried to eat our fill of curries and fried noodles. Della was especially insistent on choosing places that offered her favorite dish, pad see ewe.

Many of the beachfront restaurants offered happy hour deals on beer, which was great since the beach faces west. We took advantage and made sure to find a good seat to watch the sun fade below the horizon.

Final Thoughts

We are glad that we made our way to the beach, and Ko Lanta was very scenic. Khlong Nin was the right beach for us to choose (we saw some of the party beaches on the way out and were glad we didn’t choose them). It’s hard to say if we chose the right island or not. The frustrations of getting there and the relatively high prices once we arrived soured things a bit, but we might have had similar issues at many of the other islands. So, our trip to the Thailand beaches didn’t change our affiliation as “mountain people,” but it did provide for a scenic and relaxing way to say goodbye to Thailand.

Snorkeling in Caye Caulker

One of the things that Belize is known for is being a premiere destination for diving. We don’t dive, but we do like to snorkel, so we figured we had to try it out while we were in Caye Caulker. Spoiler alert: it was awesome!

Our traveling partners from the Caracol journey had been to Caye Caulker a week earlier and had recommended a variety of places to us. For snorkeling, they gave a big recommendation for Blackhawk sailing tours. We decided it looked good to us as well, mainly because it seemed like a smaller, more personal experience than going with one of the big companies.

We set up the snorkel trip a couple of days in advance with captain Steve. We were also able to get our friends from Hopkins to come along, and they also invited along four people from their hostel. No one else had signed up for the day so we would have the boat to ourselves.

The day of the tour it had rained early, so we worried that the tour might be cancelled, but Steve said we could still go out.Steve fitted us with snorkels and fins and we went out to the boat, named the Seahawk.

Our crew for the day was Captain Steve and his helper / snorkel guide Charlie. The boat had a sail, but the conditions dictated that to get out to our snorkel destinations we had to use the motor instead.

Stop 1: Manatee Viewing

The Caye Caulker area is known for having a small number of manatees in some areas of the reef. It is hit-or-miss on whether they will be there on any given day, but Steve had heard that they were there on this day so our first stop was to where one was supposedly hanging out. When we got there, Charlie hurried us into the water because he could see the big tour on its way. We rushed out to the spot and saw the manatee! This was especially exciting for Della because she had written a big report on manatees in grade school. We weren’t supposed to get too close, so we kept our distance. But then the manatee swam towards us! We had to back up quickly. We then left the area and got back on the boat.

Stop 2: Shark Ray Alley

We then travelled along the reef to our next stop, called Shark Ray Alley. This was a place that local fisherman had used to clean their daily catch, and as a result nurse sharks and rays had known to congregate there. They get so excited when they hear a boat coming that they swim right up to it. Charlie just had us jump right in with them, which was a little scary! Luckily, they are not aggressive towards humans. We spent some time swimming among the sharks, some big rays, and a lot of fish.

Stop 3: Conch Shell Graveyard

The next stop was only a short distance away. Here there were a ton of empty conch shells that fisherman had discarded. The highlight of this stop was getting to swim with a giant sea turtle! After this stop, we had a provided lunch on our way to the next stop.

Stop 4: Hol Chan Marine Reserve

The final stop was in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a part of the reef where the wildlife is protected. Our snorkeling stop was near the “Cut,” a channel that goes through the reef. The wildlife is especially vibrant here. You do have to be a little careful because there is a strong current coming through the cut, so we stuck together with Charlie. We saw a lot of different fish and even some more turtles. Some of the fish would even get close enough to touch!

After we were done snorkeling, Captain Steve and Charlie put up the sail and we sailed all the way back to Caye Caulker. They also put on some reggae music and passed around some rum punch. It was a very relaxing end to the day.

The only negative of the trip for us was that the cloudier conditions early in the day resulted in us not putting on much sunscreen. Bad idea! Eric wore a shirt so his main issue was the backs of his legs, but Della had a bad back burn herself.

Looking back on the trip,  we thought was perhaps the best snorkeling trip we had done. It certainly was the widest variety of marine life that we have ever seen snorkeling. Plus, the water was a pleasant temperature, the currents weren’t too bad, and the boat ride itself was not too long or bumpy. Highly recommended!