A word on renting a car in the Azores. It’s necessary because public transportation is infrequent and won’t get you to the most remote, most stellar places without embezzling hours from your exploration time. If you’re in an AirBnb, your host will likely have a friend who is willing to “lend” you his car for $25/day, and in this case, there’s no need to book in advance.
If you survive the cliffs, hills, and careening drivers, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste your time on the sporadic and time consuming bus system. Read on for some Azorean driving lessons learned.
Hills + cliffs + stick shift = death trap
I rented in Sao Miguel and Graciosa, and took a taxi in Terceira because I was only there for a few hours. Graciosa is small enough that you can traverse the island, including it’s interior, in a few hours. There’s a smooth network of highways across Sao Miguel, but the beauty lies on the backroads, through green hilly hedged fields bursting with hydrangeas, cows living it up in farmers’ fields. In stark contrast, the streets in the city centers are alarmingly narrow, leaving you to hold your breath while you hope you don’t smash either sideview mirror into another car or someone’s house. Careening is the best way to describe the style of driving here; it’s like locals avoid slowing down so they don’t have to downshift for any reason, even a good one, like making a left turn. Not only that, but the ubiquitous San Franciscan-like hills are nerve-wracking to an American used to automatic drive.
The most treacherous of these experiences occurred when I pulled down a lane to get a view of the waterfront, only to realize it was an insanely steep dead-end followed by a cliff leading down into the Atlantic Ocean. A bystander encouraged me to simply reverse back up the lane, but I couldn’t lift my foot from the brake to the gas quickly enough without the car sliding forward, edging closer and closer toward the cliff. A man leisurely smoking a cigarette stared at me blankly. In two minutes time, his entertainment had transformed from a serene sea view to witnessing a woman provoke a death trap. Hesitating to get involved, he eventually took a position behind the car, motioning for me to turn the wheel this way and that while shouting directions in Portuguese. So here I was, doing a 19 point turn in a street that couldn’t have been more than 7 feet wide, sweating profusely from the fear that I might end up trapped in a car under the sea like James Bond, except this was no Lotus Esprit. I cannot believe I, and the car, escaped unscathed.
The quirks of driving in the Azores:
Signs, signs, nowhere are the signs
On both islands the signage confirming you’re on the right track is sparse, and in every case I had to drive much farther than I was comfortable without reassurance that I was headed in the right direction. Rely on your phone’s GPS. Or ask an Azorean farmer for directions.
Blind turns, lane merges and roundabouts
Slow down! And rely on these see-around-the-corner mirrors.
Not nearly as stressful as alternate side parking in Brooklyn, but, people park in the traffic lane, so swerving or slamming on the brake for oncoming traffic is the norm, as already narrow streets become one way.
When you park, hug the wall, and pull in your mirror so it doesn’t become a casualty for the cause.
Cows in truck beds, cows blocking the roads (be careful!), cows in the fields making some delicious Sao Jorge cheese. They’re amusing.
They’re gorgeous and plentiful. I’m thankful for the independence a car provides, so I can ogle these vistas for as long as I like before moving on.
And finally, I was pulled over by a police officer who told me I had made an illegal left. I apologized, but he sighed as loud as a donkey and dramatically rolled his eyes. Whether he was more frustrated by my mistake or my English, I wasn’t sure. Thankfully, that was the extent of our interaction, and he waved me on. Phew.
I’m used to traveling in developing countries, where lodging is anywhere from $7 for a thatch roof, sand floor hut on Tofu beach in Mozambique, to a $50/night in a luxurious Moroccan riad (mini-mansion) in Marrakech. I’m also a bit more bougie than I was in my 20’s, and the idea of sleeping in a hostel beside 15 snoring, sweaty strangers is not my idea of fun anymore.
Same for transportation: I avoid car-sick inducing bus rides when possible, and prefer the freedom of driving on my own time table, as my whimsy takes me, or my bladder orders me. It feels good to be at the point in my life where I can afford that additional independence, and I’m cognizant that it may not last. Still, hotels in Iceland aren’t cheap, so a camper car served dual purposes, covering transportation and accommodation, à la a mattress in the back of the camper. Best of all, renting a camper car took me deeper into the island than the beautiful, but conventional tourist route, the Golden Circle.
Still…Sleeping in a camper car in Iceland for 9 days turned out to be rougher than I expected. Here’s 10 tips and tricks to create your own Icelandic adventure.
When I compared prices in early November, here’s what I found for 9 nights:
Happy Campers: E1,169 ($1310.50)
Kuku Campers: E941 ($1,054)
Go Camper: $806
I went with Go Campers because they were the cheapest, some amenities were included (like a sleeping bag, but not a chair), and their pick-up location is in Reykjavik, rather than the airport (which worked for me because I spent two days in the city first.)
Other differences: Kuku Campers have distinct paint jobs, and prices are comparable to Go Campers, but you have to rent bedding and a sleeping bag. Happy Campers are the most expensive, but they come with the most amenities, like a sink and a heating system. My Go Camper didn’t have an independent heating system, so heat was only available while the engine was running, meaning I froze my ass off at night. Imagine that, I was icy in Iceland. So decide if this is a luxury or necessity for you; obviously it’s a trade off in price.
Gas cost me about $300 for the whole trip.
2. Get a GPS
At 50 Euros for a rental, it seemed highly priced, but this is not the thing to scrimp on. Yes, the Ring Road is literally a circle around the county, but side trips and night driving necessitates a GPS, especially if you’re traveling solo. And double check the spelling: Reykjavik and Reykjahlid are in two separate regions of Iceland, and it would suck to drive an hour before you realize you’re headed the wrong way (not that I would know…).
3. To 4X4 or Nah?
I did not rent a 4X4, and didn’t need to in early November. The only time I regretted this was when I realized I couldn’t make the trip on the gravel road, F88, through rivers and over volcanic rock to the Askja volcano. Apparently you can take a group tour from the north, if your heart is set on it. The season and road type (gravel “F” roads vs. paved roads like the Ring Road/Route 1) dictate whether you’ll need a 4X4 or nah. For the most part, my studded tires did the trick.
And for God’s sake, learn to drive stick shift/manual! I thank my college boyfriend for teaching me this indispensable skill I’ve put to use in at least 8 countries. Sometimes automatics are available, but they’re always more expensive, and never as fun to drive.
Tolls, not trolls.
There are 10 magnificent feats of infrastructure in Iceland: tunnels built through volcanic rock and under the Atlantic Ocean. The Hvalfjörður tunnel is 4 miles long, and descends 500 feet under the Atlantic, cutting driving time around the fjord from 1 hour to 7 minutes. The toll is $8, and you can pay with a credit card! (Smart and convenient technology that we do not put to use in the US.)
5. Road Conditions and Weather
Check the weather and road conditions everyday! The most predictable thing about your Icelandic road trip is that the weather will be unpredictable, and it WILL affect your travel plans. Weather conditions, including temperature, winds, and precipitation here. Road conditions here.
The Emergency number is 112.
As a solo-traveler, I regularly check in with friends and family to let them know my whereabouts and how I’m feeling emotionally and physically. Beyond just the emergency phone number, Iceland has an 112 app that made me feel calmer about going off on a hike in a foreign country alone. It allows you to check in, sending your coordinates to their server in case a search and rescue team needs to come a-lookin. Before I would embark on a hike, or even sometimes at night, I would send my coordinates to 112, and I felt better knowing I had left some breadcrumbs a la Hansel and Gretel. I found Iceland to be the safest country I’ve traveled to in terms of human interaction, but also risky in terms of exposure to the weather. The 112 app also has an emergency button that will send your location and call 112 immediately.
Go grocery shopping before you leave Reykjavik. Bonus is good and cheap, and there’s a bubblegum pink pig on the logo.
Buy sausage, flat bread (flatkokur), bananas, apples, cherry tomatoes, yogurt (Skyr is AMAZING), cheese, Wheetabix, and mustard. Enjoy.
Don’t worry, the food will keep in the storage bins at the back of your cold ass camper, and Go Campers provides plates, cutlery, and a convenient cutting board.
One night I got fancy and treated myself to a hot meal and a cold beer in Fludir. It was the best meal I had the whole trip. (Read more on Fludir here). Also, there is plenty of ice cream and hot dogs at every gas station.
7. Find a Campsite
When you’ve been washing your face/pits/poomp with wet wipes, campsites are like the Ritz. Get to one. There are sinks to brush your teeth, showers with hot water, and flushing toilets! Woooohoooo! For the most part I didn’t plan which campsite I’d stay in each night. I just used my map and followed the teepee map marker, or a road sign when I saw one. There were nights I wasn’t successful in my quest and ended up sleeping on the side of the road. It’s a last ditch effort, and makes for some awkward toilet situations. (Do you want that story?! I can give you that story!)
I developed a bedtime routine: brush my teeth, wipe my face, lots of moisturizer, pee. Close the curtains. Put on flannel pajamas, sweatpants, hoodie, hat, scarf, stuff sleeping bag #1 into sleeping bag #2, get in both. Shove winter coat into sleeping bag as extra blanket. Hang headlamp from curtain. Read a book with gloves on so hands don’t freeze. Shiver. Hear troll noises outside. Don’t go outside to investigate like the naive person in a horror movie. Turn off headlamp. Wiggle like a worm in sleeping bag to look out the curtain for the troll. No troll. Go to sleep.
If you’re two medium size people, the camper would be tight, especially with your luggage, though you can move some of it to the front seat for the night. And if you’re tall–over 6 feet–I hope you sleep in fetal position.
Check out my video tour of the sleeping space, and one major flaw of my camper car here.
Minimalism and organization, a travel motto to live by. I had a basic layered uniform every day: warm shirt, hoodie, winter running tights or sweatpants, my winter coat, thick Lift23 ski socks and my waterproof boots. I repeated outfits because I didn’t get super dirty or sweaty everyday (one point for the cold!). Packing light allowed me to pay attention to the natural beauty all around me, rather than agonizing over the day’s outfit, or misplacing something.
I was anxious to move on to the Eastern fjords, so I drove the two hour trip from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir after the 5:15pm sunset. I may have missed some stunning features of Icelandic geology as I passed the hills, valleys and peaks in the darkness, but my restlessness was rewarded: glimmers of green danced and disappeared, lighting up the craggy volcanic rock in front of me. I peered over the steering wheel, doubting my perception until the evidence became so bright that I squealed aloud. Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, like shape-shifting spirits, pulling and pushing against invisible forces, dancing and waving, disappearing, reappearing, eerie green, sumptuous pinks and purples, arching across the entire sky. I’m Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I’m Dorothy, on a journey to explore a mystical world that communicates to me through electrons.
Folk tales explaining the Aurora range from sinister predictions to communing ancestors to playful heavenly animals. Apparently it’s “just” electrons, but as far as I see it, the scientific explanation is no less mystical–both versions make us wonder at the magnificence of what is.
I arrived at Egilsstaðir giddy from the light show, pulled into the N1 gas station and ate a salty, but deliciously warm burger and fries at Soluskalinn, the fast(ish) food joint inside and used their free wifi to contact home.
The campsite was just down the street with only one other camper van in the lot. I quickly fell asleep in the cold, peaceful, dark camper. The next morning I showered in the campsite’s facilities, even washed and dried my hair, though I mashed it right back into my hat.
As I was finishing up, I chatted with a young Danish woman eating breakfast. She was travelling alone and aiming to drive around the entire island in 4 days. It’s possible to drive the entire Ring Road in just under 20 hours, though not a goal I feel any desire to complete. I wonder if she succeeded.
Intrigued by descriptions lauding residents’ creativity, I veered off the Ring Road onto Route 93 to Seyðisfjörður, a fishing town nestled at the base of one of the Eastern fjords, accessible by only one road, or a ferry. Talk about isolation. The switchback road rose up a mountain and gave me a gorgeous view across valleys and more mountains before it opened onto a flat, straight road surrounded by oily looking swampland and narrow fjords. Eventually, I saw Seyðisfjörður below me, and a harrowing descent on acute switchback roads.
Ogling the dramatic vista, I almost missed the waterfall in my review mirror. Not so spectacular, but gloriously unexpected. It wasn’t mentioned in any guide books I read, and I cherish surprises, especially from Mother Earth. This journey, the unexpected beauty and transitions around every corner, were just as fulfilling as the destination.
Most every shop was closed in Seyðisfjörður because it was a Sunday. Tea cups lined windowsills and families in golashes and yellow raincoats pushed prams through the brisk streets. It really was that quaint.
A Camper Van and No Plan: The Scenic Route
From Seyðisfjörður I drove back to Egilsstaðir and took Route 92 toward Reyðarfjörður, then Route 96, through the 5km-long mountain tunnel to Fáskrúðsfjörður. This detour from the Ring Road allowed me to drive the elongated tongue of each fjord, providing eye candy galore. No stop lights. Not a single passing car for an hour. Only a shepherd with his flock, the site of a hairy turf house, devilishly sharp mountains and a unicorn siting persuaded me to stop.
Finally, sunlight on the fjord
Sheep crossing at Budir
At Breiðdalsvík, a 2km long tunnel joins Route 96 back to the Ring Road. Around the bend of the next fjord were some of my favorite views. A small turf house, fit for an elf, sat at the tip of the swampy inlet at Berufjörður. Made entirely from nature itself, this type of construction has been around for at least a thousand years. (An in-depth article with great visuals here.)
To top off my Eastern Fjord roadtrip, PIRATE STORIES! Further south along the Ring Road, the village of Djúpivogur. It was raided in 1627 by North African pirates, who plundered the farms and took villagers as slaves. I’m curious how Icelanders think and feel about this today.
As I passed Djúpivogur, I thought I saw a glacier rising from the Atlantic. Turns out it’s a fairly isolated island named Papey whose first settlers were Irish monks, and is now a haven for puffin. You can hop on a tour boat to set foot on the rich green and black volcanic islet, and to get a closer look at the silly creatures. As for me, I kept driving.
Up next: Jökulsárlón, a jewel-toned glacier lagoon