Unmanned petrol kiosk in a remote part of Iceland

"What is your favourite country?” our Belgian host asked curiously.

“Definitely Iceland!” we exclaimed gaily as we reminisced about the amazing one month we spent in Iceland.

A travel bucket list destination for many, Iceland, as a place is a singularity. It is not uncommon to hear from fellow travellers that Iceland feels like a different planet. Defined by its dramatic landscapes, it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with about 350,000 inhabitants located in the north Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and North America.

Population of Iceland - lower than that of an average city in the world today

New Adventures Beckon

After 24 hours or so of flight and transit time, my partner and I finally descended into the Land of Fire and Ice, which marks the beginning of our adventures – one we hope will lift us out of our daily 9 to 5 grind.

The volunteer gig we found was unparalleled; pet and house sitting for a month in downtown Reykjavik – it’s as good as striking the lottery! We had the advantage of living as locals (though feeling like locals is a grand illusion we tell ourselves), a cultural experience that is far richer and more authentic. We had plenty of time to explore non-touristy spots, circumnavigating the sightseers and wide-eyed tourists in downtown Reykjavik. 

Like most Nordic countries, people are very private which makes it difficult to befriend the natives. However, with two dogs (a Newfoundland and Labrador) on the leash every time we stepped out, it was hardly surprising that we were often mistaken for locals, which was a fantastic opportunity to break the ice and meet fascinating locals. While travel is cathartic, volunteering allows us to be part of the local community, the highlight of which is amazing cultural immersion through interaction with locals – from visiting the veterinarian to getting acquainted with our host’ landlord.

Pet sitting our furry friends

Fascinating Iceland 

Iceland is currently one of the world’s hottest travel destinations and the recent tourism boom is putting its infrastructure under strain – it has seven times more tourists than locals! Unfortunately, most visitors underestimate the country’s danger, from extreme terrain to dramatically changing weather which has led to a spate of accidents. Occasionally, we ran into ignorant tourists toying with death by straying off the path of designated areas or inexperienced drivers navigating dangerous roads (the illusion that Icelandic roads are safe because theirs could be the only car on the road or stopping the car at random places when they spot something interesting!). 

Why There Is No Place Like Iceland

Nature – Contrary to what most people think, Iceland isn’t entirely covered in ice. The record goes to its neighbour Greenland where over 80% of the country is covered in ice. A tiny country of sharp contrasts, the amazing landscaping of Iceland is a marvel of God’s creation and totally out of the world, which explains why astronauts including Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon used Iceland as a training ground because it was the most moonlike place on Earth. From its national parks, geysers, natural geothermal springs to volcanoes, the wild untouched beauty of this volcanic island is unlike anything you have seen before.

Outdoor lovers paradise

The Golden Circle – No trip to Iceland is complete without going on a Golden Circle excursion, the holy grail of all trips which is Iceland’s most popular route. Typically a day trip that features three stunning locations – Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall, all of which can be visited within one day due its proximity to Reykjavik. There is no shortage of tour packages but we think it’s best to drive so you can experience the awe-inspiring ever-changing Icelandic landscapes.

Pingvellir National Park

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) – If luck plays a role in northern light sightings, then we were damn lucky because firstly, we caught this incredible phenomenon on our flight to Iceland and secondly, we witnessed it from our bedroom window a few days after arriving. If you’re staying in downtown Reykjavik and would like a chance to catch the northern lights without the extravagant cost of renting a car or booking a tour, the best spot is by the Grótta lighthouse on the Seljartnarnes peninsula in the north westernmost point of Reykjavik. A popular recreation area known for its rich birdlife, Grótta is a great place to enjoy the outdoors – so much so we made this our regular spot for dog walking. The darker the sky, minimal light pollution, with little to no cloud cover and a stroke of luck (plus lots of patience to wait in the cold), you may get to experience the northern lights in all its glory. The Þingvellir National Park is also a great destination to catch the northern lights.  Click HERE for aurora forecast.

Northern Lights at Seljartnarnes

Photography – Icelandic nature can be harsh and inhospitable but that doesn’t stop it from being the dream destination for photographers of all levels. It is perfect for landscape and nature photographers who are after surreal, jaw-dropping and majestic beauty that is unique to Iceland. Everywhere we went was an opportunity to capture the spectacular beauty that is Iceland, including Mt. Esja, Reykjavik’s favourite mountain which we woke up to daily. There are no shortage of photography tours and workshops so if you have time and money to spare, sign up for a photographic adventure.

Reykjanes Peninsula

Reykjavik – The world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland, where more than half the population live. It is an open-minded city with a relatively young population, quirky and exudes a cool and artsy vibe that rivals its other Nordic neighbours. Beyond the shopping street Laugavegur, the impressive church Hallgrímskirkja and the Harpa Concert and Conference Centre, which is one of Reykjavik’s most distinguished landmarks, there are hidden gems in this city waiting to be discovered. Stay tuned for my next blog post on some of the city's non-touristy spots. 

Reykjavik city