Iceland on a budget

Stunning waterfalls in IcelandIceland “The Land of Fire and Ice” is quickly becoming Europe’s worst kept travel secret!  After their devastating economic crash in 2008, Iceland put large amounts of funding into promoting Iceland as an outdoor adventure paradise. Incredible raw nature and awe-inspiring landscapes guaranteed that once the word was out it did not take much to get people talking.  A simple image search of Iceland will instantly have you champing at the bit to buy your plane ticket and visit this outstanding country.  That being said the prices have been steadily rising and it is now considered a pretty expensive place to visit. However a trip to Iceland can still be done relatively cheap if you stick to these few essential guidelines.

First and foremost

Oftentimes visitors opt for just visiting a few days, which is mostly free when flying local airlines going across the Atlantic. Give Iceland the justice it deserves and make it your main destination. We stayed for 12 days and it felt right, of course you can always stay longer but it felt like an appropriate length and it was enough time to see a lot of the sights.

Freedom is renting a car

Consider this a must! Public transportation is infrequent, very time-consuming and staying around Reykjavik you will limit yourself to the sights most frequented by tourists. Consider renting a car from SADCARS. Their cars certainly live up to their not so flattering name. All their cars are around 10 years old, which makes the price (around half of other rental companies) totally worth it!  IMG_0237Be aware that going off-road is very illegal and that F roads are for 4WD only. Most other gravel roads are fine as long as you take it slow. We took this old beast up some pretty formidable mountain passes and besides a flat in the middle of nowhere we survived.  There is no mileage limit, which is really nice if you plan to go around the ring road, a total of 828 miles without any detours. We ended up driving around 2000 miles total but that included seeing the remote Western Fjords, a final frontier that should not be missed.  Keep in mind that they do not accept debit cards in Iceland when you rent a car, only credit cards. Some places even require the pin code. If you are dead set on not renting a car plenty of people (including many single females) hitch hike, which is considered safe as Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Camping is Key

Wild camping in IcelandAlmost every town or city has campgrounds; most of which have hot water, a cooking area and often even hot showers and laundry facilities.  Pretty luxurious!  Campsites are roughly $10 per person per night.  If this is too much for your budget to handle it is legal to camp in the wild as long as you are not in a national park or on somebody’s private land.  Anywhere else goes and seeing that once you get out of the main cities Iceland is scarcely populated. It is very easy to find some pretty spectacular places to camp.  If you are not camping you can easily blow your budget on a few hotel rooms. Hotel rooms in Iceland are fairly expensive, somewhere around $200 for a shabby bungalow style room.  However we managed to get a screaming last minute deal through Expedia in the center of Reykjavik for the last night.

Pick your food battles

Eating out can quickly become quite expensive.  Lunch for two people in a decent restaurant can easily cost you $50 or more. However the quality of food in Iceland is generally really good and something you should not miss. Especially the locally raised lamb and the fresh fish will make your mouth water. There is no shortage of local fast-food joints, which are of course much cheaper if you are tight on cash. Subsidize eating out with cooking a lot of ”gourmet” meals on the camping stove, which can really save you a ton of money.  Make up for the camping food with the breathtaking surroundings. There is a local budget supermarket called Bonus in all larger towns, easily the best priced groceries in the country. Whatever you do don’t buy bottled water as Iceland has some of the cleanest and tastiest fresh water in the world. Stop by any stream and fill your bottle with ice-cold and refreshing water straight from the glaciers.

Tours Tours Tours = $$$

PuffinTours are a great way to have foreigners spend copious amounts of money while visiting Iceland. Pick a few and don’t go overboard. I found tours to be totally overpriced and borderline outrageous as far as price goes. Sometimes you just have to bypass certain things to stay on budget.

There is an endless array of exciting tours we would have loved to experience but had to skip. Instead we preferred to travel to the more remote spots and spend the day photographing birds and enjoying being out in nature instead of going on a tour.

Top Tip!

No matter how small the town is (and I mean small) they will most likely have a Sundlaug (it literally translates to swimming pool).  These pools cost about the same as a shower at a campground (around $3-5) and although they vary a little in price and quality they are absolutely amazing.  After driving all day it was a lifesaver jumping into the pool, and even more importantly the hot tub or sauna.  For us prude Americans you have to get used to gym style showers but no one really cares that you are naked.  Drop “trou” and you will get over being naked with the locals in no time.  One of the best parts for me was that all these “Sundlaugs” had hair dryers, which is outstanding because even in summer it’s pretty cold and for those of us with long hair this was an unexpected luxury.

I hope that these tips will come in handy on your next Icelandic adventure!

“FLASHBACK” – Remembering the mists

You can hear them, smell them and feel them, before you even visually encounter these majestic creatures. Our guides make continuous guttural noises to inform and reassure our hosts that we are approaching and that we mean no harm.

IMG_5066I am an animal enthusiast and base most of my travels around what wildlife I may see. I was well read on what to expect on this adventure, but nothing could have prepared me for the wildlife encounter that was about to come. Wildlife viewing, especially photography, is so unpredictable. You hope and pray that you will get that “once in a lifetime “ experience and so often it is not what was expected.

It’s been almost 6 years since I went to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. The experience was truly life changing. It’s difficult to put into words the overwhelming joy of seeing these creatures face to face. But when you look into those big brown powerful eyes I was completely moved.

IMG_5207Rwanda along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the only places on earth where mountain gorillas live. Nestled high in the mountains bordering these countries this area has been fraught with wars and turmoil for decades, creating an ever challenging environment for the last remaining mountain gorillas in their fight for survival.

My alarm when off far to early, having slept so little due to my anticipation I dragged myself out of bed. I could not help but marvel at the early morning mist that this area is so famous for. As our group clamored into the jeep that was to take us to the park entrance you could feel the excitement in the air. The trek took us through dense jungles that clung to the steep mountainside. As the guides hacked our way through the jungle thickets we knew this was not going to be an easy hike. Our guide had been informed that the trackers had spotted the gorillas and they were only a few hours hike away.   We were very lucky to be assigned to the Susa group the largest but most remote of the gorilla families (some 30 gorillas at the time). Panting and having a hard time catching my breath I desperately peered through the jungle and there in the clearing I caught my first glimpse of the gorillas. The morning light peered through the mist just perfectly and lit up the gorillas. They had just emerged from the jungle into a clearing; it was one of those days where everything seemed to be on our side.

_MG_9207As we sat silently hunched down in the formidable jungle it seemed like there where gorillas everywhere you looked. Juveniles wrestled around beating their chests to show how tough they were, which soon led to them summersaulting down the mountain in a tangle of hands and feet. Moms with newborn babies eating right next to us as the magnificent silverbacks continuously surveyed their surroundings. These creatures were so incredibly gentle and were clearly completely comfortable with having visitors. It was incredibly overwhelming to see so many human similarities in the gorillas and it’s hard to imagine that we are so closely related to these gentle giants. It felt like minutes and the 1-hour we had (the maximum allowed time to visit the gorillas) was over.

_MG_9203After the atrocious genocide in Rwanda- still so fresh in many people memories it’s difficult to know what to expect when traveling in this area. The people were some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered, and I felt completely safe at all times. At the base of the mountains where we stayed was a charming guesthouse on the edge of “Parc National des Volcans” where we would have easy access for our upcoming safari. Exploring the near by villages and meeting the inquisitive children it was easy to fell completely in love with Rwanda.

Gorillas are classified as critically endangered with only 880 left in the world. Since their discovery in 1902 the population has encountered years of war, poaching, habitat destruction and deceases contracted from humans. Rwanda being one of the most populated countries in the world is constantly battling competition for land. Continuous pressure for increasing farmland and deforestation from charcoal mining has taken its toll on “Parc National des Volcans”. You could see how apparent this was standing at the base of the mountains. The ever-encroaching farms and villages seemed to be creeping up the side of the slopes, leaving only the tops of the mountain for the wildlife.

IMG_5188Eco-tourism has recently played a huge role in the survival of the gorillas. Gorillas bring big business ($500 per person in 2009). With the constant efforts of the government and the parks they are trying to involve the local people and change the attitudes towards saving the gorillas. With the dedication of park rangers and community educational programs the gorilla population has increased 20% since the early 2000s.

I recently watched the Netflix’s documentary “Virunga” which inspired me to write this blog. Heroic individuals trying to save the gorillas and there environment fight huge barriers such as war, corruption and large European oil companies trying to exploit and destroy one of the last remaining habitats of the gorillas. Too often the media and day-to-day life focus on the negative stories, but for every horrific event there are thousands of people trying and succeeding to make a difference. These are the stories that inspire me.

It has been an adventure!

mapJust one month ago, struggling with visa delays, we had no idea if our entire project was in jeopardy. Today we have returned to Colorado, our minds saturated with amazing experiences from abroad. A month travelling around northern and central India has come to an end; and brought with it a lifetime of memories. What an adventure it has been!

Unknowing of what to was to come, we left the U.S. with open minds and a somewhat vague itinerary. Through the years we have always found that trusting our gut feelings, being impulsive, and letting the adventure lead the way normally works out in our favor. Arriving in India was mind-blowing; a seemingly endless array of vibrant colors, traffic from the worst of nightmares, the best and worst of smells, and swarms of people everywhere. Leaving the hustle of the big cities, we found the real treasures to be found in the countryside and off the beaten track.

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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

IMG_4526With only a few days of our trip left, it was hard to not feel greedy for more time. A feeling of sadness came over me that next week we would back to the “real world”. With our departure date drawing nearer, we decided to give those elusive cats one last chance. The unlucky break of our first few safaris in Bandhavgar must have been a fluke. We were headed for Ranthambore National Park!

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In the Footsteps of Indiana Jones…Well, Sort of…

IMG_4030My eyes are glued to the screen as Indiana Jones rides his elephant up towards Pankot Palace. I am bursting with excitement and dream of exotic adventures and Indian palaces in places far, far away. It’s 1984 and at just nine years old, watching “Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom” is one of many experiences that would shape my adult life to come. As my eyes struggle to stay open, I fall into a deep sleep full of Maharajas, princesses and evil cultists. When I grow up I want to be just like “Indy”.

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Bandits & crocodiles in the way beyond

IMG_3661We should have known that we were in for an adventure. “You go where? You go where?”, “Chambal Sanctuary”. “Why you go? no good no good”. After at least half of explaining the location of Chambal Sanctuary, we found a taxi driver somewhat confident that he knew where we wanted to go. The next morning the incessant beep of the alarm awoke us at 4:00 am. The taxi driver said it would take a couple of hours to reach Chambal.

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A White Palace in Peril

IMG_3241As the sun starts its descent on the horizon, the young boy scrambles to launch his kite a few more times before it becomes too dark. It’s his favorite toy, and every chance he gets he is on the roof testing his new creations. His parents are struggling and he built all of his own toys. He imagines what the life of the Maharaja must have felt like, and if the emperor’s children also built kites as he diverts his gaze towards the majestic white marble palace only a stone’s throw away.

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In the Presence of the Elusive Tiger

IMG_3107The silence is deafening. Every muscle in our bodies is tightened, trying not to make a sound. The unmistakable noise from the alarm call of the barking deer breaks the silence, and we become even more alert. You will most likely be warned of the tiger’s presence before you actually see it. The forest works together to warn all creatures and all creatures listen. I can feel my heart beating, the adrenaline pumping, there it was, the alarm call once more. The jungle is silent, holding its breath, you can feel the tiger is close, there is stillness and all the animals are waiting for the king of the jungle’s next move. He could be just feet away without you knowing. If we could only catch a glimpse.

We sat in the jeep hoping and praying that the alarm call of the deer and the monkeys would continue, but the forest turned silent. All the creatures in the jungle were happy, except for maybe the humans. Continue reading

Holy Filth!

Dirty, loud, chaotic, crowded – these are all stereotypes that you will encounter when you think of Indian cities. If you take the time to look around the old city, even while dodging the piles of excrement, Varanasi is quite the magical place.

IMG_2771We wandered around the tiny streets and alleyways and arrived at 8 o’clock in the city, the sweat was still dripping down our face. “Not much further Sir, not much further”, our Tuk Tuk driver kept promising. With every bend in the narrow streets, our senses were overwhelmed with the scent of spices, fruit, rosewater and street food, along with the unmistakable smell of urine.  Our eyes widened with every street stall merchant selling gold, saris, silk and more. The driver finally pulled over the noisy Tuk Tuk and pointed down the endless maze of alleys. “Just ten minute walk Sir”.  I guess we were on our own. After aimlessly wandering and getting hopelessly lost in the tiny alleys, we eventually arrived at our hotel, exhausted, dirty and dehydrated. We were at the mercy of Varanasi.

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Eco-Engineering!

IMG_1890As we exited the hustle and bustle of the mountain city of Shillong, we continued onward on the seemingly endless mountain road towards Jaintia hills. With every twist and turn, honk and jolt my stomach twisted in knots until finally I made my breakfast offerings to the mountain gods. After a fifteen minute break with some fresh mountain air and a PepPod to restore my energy, we were off again. As we whisked past every domestic animal known to man, our presence was barely noticed. One beep is usually enough to send a dog, cat, pig, goat and of course the whole cow sauntering off to the side of the road. Driving in India is not for the faint hearted, but it is a necessary evil that you better get used to. “Almost”, definitely does not count in India.

As we headed downward on this unforgiving mountain pass, it was as if we were driving into a sauna, with the Himalayas trapping the ever persisting heat from the flat plains of Bangladesh. This causes a buildup of moisture and makes this the wettest place on earth. We were in for some steamy weather!

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