Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

Glacier, glacier hike, ice climbing, sunita bendale, iceland, fire and ice, ice caves

Rain, Rain, Go Away

After a four hour delay and a bonus stop in New York, I finally made it to Iceland! If you are just joining in, Iceland was my first stop on a 10+ month trip around the world; you can read about my trials and tribulations, and preparation for the trip here.

The four hour flight delay was due to severe weather in Iceland. Prior to leaving the United States, I checked the weather forecast to see what I could expect: 80-100% chance of rain and snow predicted for every single day of my trip. Bummer!

When we landed, the forecast was spot on. Gray clouds, heavy rain, and unbelievable wind. It was so windy, in fact, that the staff was unable to safely connect the pedestrian bridge to the plane. We ended up sitting inside the plane on the tarmac for another 1.5 hours. They gave us some refreshments as we waited, including a “Corny” coconut bar. I mean coconut may not be my absolute favorite, but it’s not the worst either. But “Corny…?!” Sheesh, that’s a bit harsh! 😂

Plans, Foiled

The first stop on my itinerary was Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon. By the time I actually got off of the plane and picked up my rental car, it looked like I might just be able to make it in time for my 1:00pm appointment. The weather was still terrible and I contemplated canceling my reservation altogether. However, I pushed it back to 6:00pm and crossed my fingers, hoping for the best. I am typically a very “go with the flow” kind of person; I was going to make the most of it, rain or shine.

In the meantime, I popped into a local store to buy some groceries (eating out in Iceland – or anywhere in general – is ridiculously expensive). I almost always buy groceries to save a little extra cash, which I can then put toward fun activities.

I decided to pass the time at the Geldingadalur Volcano, which became wildly popular over the past year due to its recent eruption and active spewing of fiery lava. Unfortunately, by the time of my visit, the volcano has since stopped erupting. The scope of its magnitude and the stark contrast between black lava and white snow is still impressive, nonetheless. Fire and ice, and everything nice.

Pocketful of Sunshine

I made my way to the nearby Blue Lagoon. After a few long flights and a steep and snowy trek to the volcano, I was ready for a little relaxation. It was still a little early for my appointment, and I watched as the weather changed from rainy and windy, to snowy, back to rainy, then a pause in the rain that gave me hope, and then rainy again. Gray clouds as far as the eye could see. It was an emotional rollercoaster. If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait ten minutes.

Magically, about one hour before my reservation, the rain and wind stopped for the evening. The clouds separated, revealing a blue sky and framing an impossibly beautiful sunset. I couldn’t have asked for better weather and ambiance. The contrast between the warm water and the still, chilly air evoked a level of relaxation that can’t really be described, but rather must be felt.

The Blue Lagoon is a collection of geothermal saltwater, and its minerals boast antibacterial and healing properties for the skin. I am not really a nail polish and beauty masks kind of girl. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against any of that sort of pampering and maintenance – it’s just not part of my normal routine. However, I purchased a premium ticket to the Blue Lagoon, and the experience included three different face masks and a complimentary drink. Did I try all three masks…? You bet I did! First up was a black lava mask, which is meant to exfoliate the skin. This was followed by a white silica mask for purification, and finally a green algae mask which has anti-aging properties. As I bathed in the water with mask on face and drink in hand, I reveled in the experience and couldn’t help but smile as a deep wave of appreciation passed through me. Appreciation for life. For freedom. For beauty. And for the amazing weather. This was an epic start to my trip, and the experiences would only got better from here on out.

Little House on the Prairie

After a deeply satisfying experience at the Blue Lagoon, I made my way to the airbnb to settle in for the night. I specifically booked a place in a little town called Móeiðarhvoll, between Hella and Hvolsvöllur. It was a perfect little cabin in the middle of nowhere. No artificial lights, cut off from civilization, and an ideal location to view the Aurora Borealis. Perfect. This was exactly the type of isolated retreat I would need after long days of exploring ahead of me.

Trekking Across Glaciers

The next morning started bright and early as I headed over to Sólheimajökull for one of my most anticipated activities: ice climbing! I had never been ice climbing before, and I was looking forward to the experience. The drive to Sólheimajökull was picturesque, but nothing could prepare me for the stunning snowy vistas I would soon encounter. Even in the parking lot, the scene was like something straight out of a Game of Thrones episode (much of Game of Thrones, in fact, was filmed in Iceland). Gray clouds, but no rain or snow – I’ll take it! I met up with my guide, Trim, and he got me all set up for our trek across the glacier.

As we made our way through the snowy terrain, the scenery grew more picturesque every step of the way, and the weather better by the minute. A stark contrast to the weather in recent days, Trim asked who brought the amazing weather. Without missing a beat, I raised my hand and exclaimed, “Sunny, from California!” 😂

The deep crevices formed within the stunning bluish-green glacier ice was like nothing I had ever seen. Absolutely breathtaking! After about 45 minutes, we finally rested for a moment high up on a mountain top. The wall of choice for ice climbing was currently in use, so Trim suggested that we start with the hiking portion of the tour first.

…wait, what?! I thought we just did the hiking portion…?

If those 45 minutes trudging through the snow wasn’t the hike, then what would the actual hike consist of? In any case, I was ready, able and willing, and excited to immerse myself in profound beauty every step of the way.

Ice Climbing

After another half hour of trekking, we came upon a glacier wall that would be ideal for climbing. This was it. It was happening! Upon seeing it on National Geographic as a child, I thought it was so exotic, and dreamed of how cool it would be to actually go ice climbing one day. Here I was, this was the day! Summoning whatever Viking strength I could muster, I drove the ice pick into the solid ice and began my ascent. For the rock climbers out there, ice climbing is actually a lot easier than rock climbing. There is no need to search for hand holds or tiny projections to rest your feet. You create all of the anchor points simply by digging into the ice wherever you like. Before I knew it, I scaled two glacier walls and I couldn’t have been more proud.

The weather could not have been more perfect. It was unseasonably warm and clear for Iceland, and we were grateful. Our ice climbing crew consisted of myself and a group of seven friends that were visiting from Mexico. We each got a turn climbing both glacier walls, and just as we were wrapping it up, it begun to hail.

Hail. Out of nowhere!

So wild! As we began our trek back, it hailed for about 5 minutes before returning to perfectly clear skies. There was another bout of random hail as the tour ended. It seems the weather changes continuously and unpredictably in Iceland. It was in this moment that I felt justified wearing my ridiculous parade of layers.

After a long day of glacier trekking, I made my way back to my isolated little cabin and jumped in the hot tub. I relaxed for the evening as I prepared myself for the many adventures yet to come.

Move It Or Lose It, Lady!

The next morning, my plan was to explore Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, which was about a two hour drive east, and then hit several waterfalls and points of interest on the way back to my airbnb. That didn’t exactly go as planned. I woke up to freshly fallen snow, with a light sprinkling of snow continuously falling. No problem. I grew up on the east coast and have driven through snow before. I also had a rental SUV that was made to handle inclement weather, so it wasn’t an issue.

As I got on the road, that light sprinkling of snow quickly turned into a full on blizzard. Barely able to see, and with the roads covered in tightly packed snow, I proceeded with due caution. The snow then turned into rain, and I was now driving on a thick sheet of solid ice. Okay, not ideal, but as long as I drive slowly I shouldn’t skid out..

Icelandic roads are incredibly well designed and easy to navigate. The only problem with Southern Iceland is that Ring Road (the road that circles the country) is only one lane in each direction. So there I was, driving like a grandma, while locals kept coming up behind me as they ripped through that icy road.

“Go around me, please.”

The Icelandic locals were very comfortable driving over the speed limit in these types of road conditions. As for myself, I wasn’t trying to die a silly death in a foreign country. The locals were very nice about it. Not once did anyone honk or tailgate me, they just went around me.

Weather The Storm

I pushed through and weathered the storm. As I continued to get closer to my destination, I watched as the sky transformed rather abruptly. After about one and a half hours of driving in dicey conditions, I was rewarded with nothing but clear blue skies for the rest of the drive. If you are ever in a situation that makes you feel a little scared or uncomfortable, carry on with caution. Get through it. Never give up. Once you jump that hurdle, you will eventually be greeted with blue skies up ahead.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

After a long and stressful drive, I finally made it to my destination and the weather could not have been more perfect. I was starting to see a theme here – crazy inclement weather that cleared up the moment I stepped outside to explore. Hey, I’ll take it! The weather held for the rest of the day and I was able to explore Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon in all of its beauty.

Not Doing That Again

When something throws a wrench in your plans, sometimes you just have to switch it up and go with the flow. I was pretty confident that the drive back to my airbnb would still be as snowy and icy as the drive in at that section of the road. The weather would likely prevent me from hitting all the points of interest I had planned, and I had an early morning tour booked the next day that was another 1.5 hours west of my current location. That meant I would have to drive through all of that again the next day. At 4:00am, to boot.

That wasn’t going to work. I did a quick search and found a little campsite in the area. Perfect. I happily booked it. No added expense is too much of a tradeoff for your safety and sanity. I didn’t need much, I just needed a place to sleep for the night. It was a tiny little red cabin and actually ended up being so much nicer than I could have imagined. Score! The problem was I literally had nothing with me — device chargers, soap, makeup, hairbrush — all of it still in my airbnb. I was going to be looking a little rough for my tour the next day, but I could live with that. I only had the clothes on my back… all eight layers of them!

Morning Glory

Nope, not that kind of “morning glory” – get your mind out of the gutter! 😂

After a restful night’s sleep, I opened my eyes and awoke to an intense sunrise brewing right outside my window. What a gorgeous scene to wake up to! I hit the road bright and early, and as I continued my drive toward Skaftafell, the sunrise continued to impress. There is nothing quite like waking up before the sun and catching the first light as it illuminates the mountains. Pair that with a deep red sunrise, and it makes for an impossibly beautiful scene. My 1.5 hour drive turned into 2 hours as I found myself constantly pulling off of the road to soak in the full essence of all this beauty around me.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

The glaciers are rapidly melting, so exploring the ice caves within them was a high priority on my list of things to see and do. The meeting point for the ice cave tour was at the nearby Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. That, in and of itself, is a beautiful sight to see. Hundreds of huge icebergs that have broken off of the adjacent Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier are scattered along the still blue waters of the lagoon. It is truly a unique sight to behold.

Cruising In Style

After appreciating the beauty of the Glacier Lagoon, I made my way to find the tour company that I booked. Once I checked in, I was escorted to the vehicle that would take our group to the ice caves. Much to my surprise, it was basically a monster truck! Massive ballon tires on an incredibly aggressive frame, perfect for navigating the bumpy terrain. This truck was so badass and was right up my alley. I asked the tour operator if I could drive, but he quickly shot me down. Hey, at least I tried! 🤷‍♀️

Vatnajökull Glacier

Whew, these Icelandic names are something else! Would you believe that “jökull,” which means “glacier,” is actually pronounced as “yeh-gutsch?!” Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either! It was in that moment that I pretty much gave up on being able to correctly pronounce any of the Icelandic words by spelling it out.

The ice caves of Vatnajökull Glacier were a high priority on my list of things to see in Iceland. Every year the caves completely melt in the Spring and locals hunt for new caves that have formed during the following winter. Therefore, every year the experience inside the caves is something completely different. I went into the tour trying not to set my expectations too high. A few negative reviews mentioned that the caves were nothing like the stunning blue ice photos you see in the advertisements.

I’m so happy to report that it was definitely not the case. As soon as we set foot in the cave, it was pure magic. Crystal clear greenish-blue ice lined the inside of the massive glacier. As we continued into deeper and darker sections of the cave, the color changed to an intense deep dark blue color. Seriously no need for filters – what you see in the photos and videos is exactly what you get. What makes the ice blue? The correct answer is the absence of air. When the ice crystals are formed, snow that continues to build on top of the glacier gradually compresses the air bubbles out of the structure, resulting in icy blue perfection.

Solo Female Travelers

On the tour were two other solo female travelers – Josette, who was visiting all the way from China, and Jenna, who made her way to Iceland from Canada. One of my favorite parts of traveling solo is all of the fun and interesting people you meet along the way. People are less likely to approach a couple or a group of friends than they are a solo traveler. For this reason, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet and remain friends with so many random people all around the world. I especially love running into other solo female travelers. You can either wait around for everything in your life to align perfectly, or you can take the initiative and set out to see what you want to see, when you want to see it. These ladies had a strong spirit for adventure and a strong can do attitude; needless to say, the three of us quickly became friends.

Shine Bright Like A Diamond

The tour guide dropped us off at our original location and the three of us parted ways. Before heading back to my airbnb, the last item on my agenda for the day was Diamond Beach. Conveniently, it was located just across the road from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Diamond Beach is incredibly unique, as large chunks of ice that have broken off of the adjacent Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier wash up along the shore on their way out to the Atlantic Ocean. The result is a black sand beach that is dotted with hundreds of beautiful “diamonds.” When I tell you these icebergs are massive, I mean they are MASSIVE. Generally taller than the average human being, and a beautiful frosty blue, white, or crystal clear in color. Why the differences in color? I’m going to answer an age old question here, are you ready for it…?

Size matters.

I’m talking about the icebergs, of course! The larger icebergs are typically a lot older and more dense. They have had many years to compress all of their air bubbles, and when this dense ice breaks, it usually breaks off in large chunks. Younger pieces of ice contain more air, are white or clear in color, and break off more readily in smaller pieces. So there you have it, size matters.

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

Iceland is dotted with several beautiful waterfalls that are scattered all throughout the country. The next morning, I made it my mission to explore as many waterfalls as I could. I had previously missed out on the opportunity due to stormy weather during my drives, so now I was intent on making it happen. As per the theme of my trip, the weather held long enough for me to hike to four of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland: Skógafoss, Kvernufoss, Seljalanadsfoss, and Gljúfrabúi.

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Just as I finished up exploring my last waterfall for the day, the weather began to turn. Heavy snow followed by heavy rain. I made it back to my airbnb and hoped and prayed for the weather to clear up. Although I had a room for the night, I also booked the cheapest dorm at the Midgard Base Camp hostel. Why? Because they have an EPIC rooftop hot tub and sauna. Days prior, I checked the Aurora Borealis forecast to see which day might have the most northern lights activity during my time in Iceland. The KP index was 5, so today was the day. I crossed my fingers, hoping the clouds would separate and the lights would come out of hiding. They didn’t disappoint:

My One Complaint

What an amazing and beautiful way to end my stay in Iceland. I still had one more day, and planned on exploring Reykjavík, the capital city. It ended up being a wash, as the weather on my last day was rainy with poor visibility. That’s okay though – it only gives me an incentive to come back during the summer. There are a few waterfalls I could not fit into my short stay so, Iceland, I’ll be back!

Amidst all this natural beauty and amazing experiences, I only have one complaint about Iceland. Anyone that knows me, knows I love chocolate. I’m an addict. It’s a problem. I need a little hit of chocolate to keep me going every day! So, naturally, I set out to satisfy my sweet tooth every chance I could get.

Umm. Iceland. Why do you love licorice so much?!

I got a very rude awakening biting into these chocolate bars. They looked so tempting, but they were definitely not to my taste. They were either licorice flavored, or a really strange excessively salty chocolate. No thank you.

On To The Next

I made it to the airport and checked in for my flight to Finland. The woman at the counter had me check my carry-on bag. Although the size is small enough, Iceland Air only allows carry-ons up to 10kg, and my bag is 15kg. :: womp womp :: Reluctantly, I handed my bag over to her. I have a very tight connection between Copenhagen and Helsinki, with Rovaniemi as my final stop. While I am quite certain that I can run to the next gate and make that connection, I’m not exactly convinced my bag will make it onto that flight.

Fingers crossed. Send positive thoughts, please. 🤞

To be continued…

solofemaleexplorer

Hello! My name is Sunita Bendale and I have been an avid solo traveler for the past twelve years. I grew up with the values of a traditional Indian family, and lived a very sheltered life. After becoming a registered nurse, I made the very difficult decision to challenge my cultural and familial norms, and moved clear across the country to sunny California.

Best . Decision . Of . My . Life!

I didn't know anyone within a several thousand mile radius; my friends and family were back home in New Jersey, but I was not going to let that minor inconvenience deter me. My adventure had just begun, was absolutely thrilling, and I welcomed the challenge to create a new life for myself.

With an innate passion for dance, I quickly found myself immersed in the Los Angeles Argentine Tango dance scene. I was a young woman with big dreams and stars in my eyes. One day, on a whim, I decided that I wanted to see the world and dance in Paris. It was a spontaneous last-minute trip, booked only for four days, but I was determined to see and experience as much as I could. I spent those days running up the steps of the Eiffel Tower, taking in the views during the day and night, wandering through the Louvre, staring straight into the eyes of the Mona Lisa, stuffing my face with the most exquisite macarons and every delicious pastry you could imagine, making friends with the taxi cab driver that drove me all over the city, catching the 1am last sparkle of the Eiffel Tower, and dancing the nights away. I didn't sleep. I wanted to soak it all in. The experience was immensely liberating, and jump-started my obsession with travel.

Since that glorious trip, I have made it my life's goal to dance all over the world. It is wildly invigorating walking onto a dance floor in a foreign place, not knowing a single soul or speaking the language, yet being able to dance flawlessly with any random person in the room. To be able to detect the slightest, most subtle shift in weight and move perfectly in unison without so much as breathing a single word - it's enthralling.

Every successive trip since then has fueled my addiction. For the past several years, I have been working as a Nurse Anesthetist, which has been fulfilling in so many different ways. Not only do I absolutely love my career, it also affords me the financial independence and flexibility in scheduling to pick up at a moment's notice and travel the world. 

Many people find the thought of traveling alone a daunting experience, especially as a solo female. However, I am here to share my experiences and safety tips, and assure you that it is not only possible, but can be very cathartic. My goal is to empower women (and all travelers) by providing them with tools and resources that will bolster the confidence to travel solo.
I'm just a girl dancing through life, and enjoying every step along the way.

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