Black Beach to Ring Road: Lessons from 10 Days in Iceland

In The Wild

Black Beach to Ring Road: Lessons from 10 Days in Iceland

Maddy Afshar is an industrial designer and outdoor enthusiast from Colorado. She lives with her partner in crime Maddy Peavy along with their beloved bull terrier, Rocky. Together they travel the world in search of rocks to climb, trails to ride, and delicious food eat. 

It all started when I was at a local coffee shop scrolling through thousands of photos of Iceland on Pinterest, gleaning inspiration for my next adventure. In disbelief of the sheer beauty, I found myself on Iceland Air’s page.

Round Trip tickets to Iceland Starting At $400.

How could I not go?

I quickly called my wonderful partner, Maddy P (we have the same name). Our conversation was short:

“Maddy, do you want to go to Iceland?”

Her response? “YES.”

Just like that, it was set in stone. Without thinking twice, I quickly clicked the purchase button. My stomached flipped. In the weeks leading up to our travel I had doubts, regrets and anxiety. I had my excuses why it was not a good idea. I would lose my job. I didn’t have money. I hadn’t planned anything other than renting a manual camper van that I knew Maddy would struggle driving. I hadn’t been out of the country in years. My phone was in constant state of repair. And I knew little to nothing about Iceland other than the fact that moss grows on everything (I’m a moss lover). But there we were, with two tickets and an unknown 10 day adventure in front of us.

The days leading up to our travel were hectic. Maddy was busy working 12 hour days, which lead to double the packing and double the stress. I realized I am a weird thinker/packer; a hybrid of commando survivalist and mountain modernist.

A sense of urgency came over me as I started to lay out dozens of socks, underwear, jackets and gloves on the bed. My trusty Mountain Pack was simply too small for all of our things. Luckily, my friends at Topo Designs lent me the new and improved Travel Bag which brought a sense of calm. Due to size constraints I was forced to leave behind my roll of duct tape (#15 on my survival guide book of “must have items”), but my undies had a snug pouch for themselves separate from my jars of peanut butter (#8 on the list).

Maddy hangin' out in Iceland!

It is hard to travel Iceland in ten days. I could spend a lifetime there and still feel like I missed out on thrilling adventures and breathtaking photos of endless landscapes.

That being said, plan your days wisely (coming from someone who didn’t plan much at all). If you are finding yourself on this barren island for the touristy sightseeing experiences, stay south. The Golden Circle (a highway that loops around the southern most part of the island) hits the top touristy favorites. You’ll get to experience famous waterfalls, soak in the blue lagoon, and hike in the most well-known national park, Pingvellir. If you have a van or are willing to travel on busses, spend your time exploring the Ring Road. This particular highway meanders along the outskirts of the island and will take you to the most magical places.

Taking in the scenery.

It turns out that a lot of people were doing the same things we were. Maddy and I rented a Kuku camper van that is well equipped with the necessary items for camping. It even had a roll of duct tape in the glove box. Invest in the camping card! It gives you access to a bunch of different campgrounds at a discount. Plan guided tours the day before. Kayaking, glacier hikes, and whale watching are all amazing opportunities that are worth the money. Take your time. There’s a lot to see, but its not enjoyable if you’re rushing from spot to spot.

I can’t tell you all the dos and don’ts of Iceland, but I can give you a great word of advice from our Scottish friend Jamie: “If you get lost in the forests in Iceland, don’t panic, just stand up.”

Maddy and Maddy with their new friends!

Iceland at a Glance:

  • If you are a nature lover, doing it one or two days is insane. You need time. Time to camp, time to wander, to look up at the night sky, to play in the thermal waters that meander everywhere, or roll in the moss (well, that's me.) Anyone can give you their checklist of must-sees, but more importantly there is the list of must-be’s.
  • EVERYTHING is prohibitively expensive! We brought freeze-dried food, ramen and peanut butter with us to supplement our need to buy groceries (you can bring up to 6 lbs of food into the country). Even so, we found ourselves like lemmings searching for cheap snacks at the Bonus grocery store. The Blue Lagoon is $85 a person. My jacket with visa card in pocket went missing there.  I left a nice note requesting it back and lo and behold, it returned with card untouched. Life lesson: always defer to best case scenario in your head.
  • Black sand is as annoying as white sand in your pants.
  • When Sven the stoic tour guide says, “Don't go too close to the waves on the Black Beach,” LISTEN. The Black Beach is epic mystical. Giant black basalt columns rise up from menacing, two-story crashing white waves (think Game of Thrones). I was hypnotized, got too close taking pictures, and was hit from behind by one of these waves… I was literally pulled into the ocean fully winter clothed. I tried to hold up my phone (In days of yore, one would have tried to save oneself and not the phone). A young man ran into the icy ocean to give me a hand up (sacrificing his dryness). A Nordic Baywatch scene was unfolding. I was not scared, just embarrassed… truth be told, it was exhilarating (but I don’t advise it). We still had a half a day left of touring Glaciers (being dry is a plus). To my luck though, I packed extra clothes in my bag. Life Lessons: respect the local wisdom and there are heroes willing to give you their hand everywhere in the world.
  • Being in the design/color biz, I am trained to notice color combinations, and Iceland's starkness and lushness was refreshing. Black houses and rock, white trim, bright aluminum roofs (trees are sparse). Shades of green moss, sexy greenish turquoise, frothy white foam thermal water and angry lava red. I would never put these colors together but they all were amazing.
  • Share your bath. There are dozens of off the map and on the map hot springs. Some are smaller than others and there are always people in them. Every person there has an a story to tell. Introduce yourself! Talk to people. Learn about other cultures. People come from around the world to share a warm soak.
  • Give bikepackers more space! After befriending Jill (from Canada) and Jamie (from Scotland), both friendly bike packers sharing a soak with us in a random hot spring, we learned that 3 feet actually feels like 3 inches. The roads in Iceland are narrow, and you share this space with bikes, sheep, cars, semi trucks, and more sheep. Give them space and slow down when passing. We invited both Jamie and Jill to say with us on our last day at our bnb. They were cold and wet, a feeling they never shook. Offering our extra room and spare couch cushions was a godsend.
  • Don’t worry! Chances are everything you forgot to pack you can purchase there -- although packing was significantly easier with my new bag.

Fact or Faux: Iceland Edition

  • It had no prehistoric period. Iceland basically formed itself and is a floating lava rock entirely covered with moss. Volcanoes are still erupting and are really cool and really dangerous. Fact.
  • A majority of Icelanders believe in elves. Fact.
  • Sheep rule the island. Fact.
  • Iceland is home to one of the world’s oldest democracies; established in the year 936. Fact.
  • The Icelandic police don’t carry guns. Crime in Iceland is very low and violent crime is practically nonexistent. Fact.
  • The Icelandic language remains unchanged from ancient Norse. That means 1,000-year-old texts are still easily read. JA. (Fact.)
  • The native food of Iceland is lamb. Faux! The native food of Iceland is a hotdog.
Maddy shows off Icelandic cuisine.

Maddy's Travel Essentials