Becoming Nomadic

Sometimes I think everything is beautiful. Then I come to a place like this, trees glowing orange over cobalt hills, a beauty so blinding I veil my eyes with clichés – and my worldview shatters.

I had a dream, once, of moving to a cottage in the mountains, but I had settled for city life. I told myself I wanted closeness: to cafés, museums, friends. More importantly, Ben liked the city. (Never mind that he shared my dream of mountains, my inner conflict – it was easier to think that he didn’t.)

Besides, everything was beautiful, people as lovely as nature; I wasn’t really giving anything up. I meant it when I said it – patches of pavement, paintings of corpses, busy city squares have all floored me with unexpected glory – but “everything is beautiful” had also been the spell I chanted to protect myself from my own dreams.

It was only when I arrived at the dream, the home with trails leading out the front door, that I let myself feel my yearning. It did make sense to want this, not just weekend drives to the distant mountains, excursions to the highest peaks on the sunniest days, but the daily walk, the grass decked out with pearls after the rain, the leaves turning day by day, the birds I know almost by name.

I walk, climb on. This place, in its silence and solitude, lets me hear my own thoughts. I think about what we give up: happiness, adventure, community; success, safety, solitude.

Ben and I became nomadic just as the days were getting too short and too cold for gathering outside. (We’re in New Hampshire now, but who know’s what’s next? Not knowing is part of the thrill.) The pandemic has removed some of the tradeoffs; the dream of community is slumbering, adventure and solitude can take its place. But afterwards? Once, I would have moved to mountainous seclusion in the blink of an eye, but I have grown to love people, almost despite myself.

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Walking through birdsong, I remember the first time I visited New York. Screech! Rush! Honk! No end to agitation; agitation to no end. So that’s what people meant by “energy”? The one place I could never live, I thought. I visited once, twice, thrice, and started to understand, the way you understand a second language, the attraction of cities: the beauty of crowds, faces, people, everyone with a different story, everyone a miracle.

When I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I had those glorious strangers, plus friends I’d known for years. What do I give up when I choose solitude? There is a tension in me: even these hills of gold are empty without the hearth, the heart.

Another vista emerges, horizontal strips in complementary colors: grey-blue and russet grasses, orange trees, blue hills, long thin clouds. Vertical birches frame the view and complete the picture, forming a box, a home for my vision.

I inhale; the air smells like being alive. I see my inner tensions as complementary colors, sources of vibrance.

I grew up between places. Our house in Poland was an anchor, a base, a home – but travel was always my second home. I want to have it all. I dream of a cottage in the mountains; I dream of never settling down; I dream of city friends.

I dream of a single place that is travel and home, community and solitude, mountains and city. Maybe this is what our ancestors had, hunting and gathering through the forests in a band of friends. I had this in high school, for a moment, when my scout troop backpacked through mountains of stillness, sang full-throated at the bonfire at night. I carry a nomad inside me, who doesn’t understand this world of screens and only wants to walk, and walk, and sing.

The mountains are calling and I must go. I heard what John Muir heard, but I stopped my ears. “I must go” – what sort of a reason is that? When you live in society, you do what you can explain.

Our mountain is a ski slope. Near the peak, a narrow, vertiginous ladder goes up to the chairlift. I look up. Folly to climb and folly not to climb.

I choose a place halfway up the ladder, just where delight meets fear, climb there, no further, then descend. My dreams butt heads with dreams; the tensions are what defines me.

What scares me more than a life of inner conflict is a life without it.

The Shell Island of Fadiouth

The first thing I see on the Senegalese island of Fadiouth are the wading pigs. The first thing I remember seeing. Only the camera has recorded the woman who wades beside the swine.

“God willing, you’ll return here for your wedding,” our guide, Jean-Paul, tells Ben and me as we cross the bridge leading to the island. Ben’s dad looks on without comment.

In my memory, Jean-Paul is wearing a Senegalese outfit quilted from thin, multicolored stripes of patterned fabric. In reality, he sports a polo shirt above his quilted pants, and a woolly red hat and headphones above that. The large cross around his neck proclaims that he’s as Catholic as his namesake pope; he appears keen to share a religion with us. He already shares it with 90% of the inhabitants of Fadiouth – an island of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim nation.

Christianity explains Fadiouth’s substitution of pigs for Senegal’s omnipresent goats. Clams explain the pigs’ partial submersion: the animals are digging for food. The local pork, Jean-Paul reveals, is naturally salty.

In fact, clams explain the entre island, built over centuries from discarded shells. For a moment, I’m skeptical: where did the first clam-eater stand before there was an island? All I can see of the ground is scalloped whiteness, yes, but what if this is only the outer layer – the shell, if you will – above a pile of ordinary dirt?

Then, I remember the tide. My skepticism washes away; we walk on. The detritus of history crunches underfoot.

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At first glance, the corrugated-metal church is the least interesting building on the island. I change my mind when I enter: birds perch on the rafters, singing angelically. I imagine my childhood priest regarding these feathered desecrators with horror; then, I visualize St Francis rubbing his hands with glee.

As we stop by the holy water, Jean-Paul asks if we’re Christian. We all shake our heads; I’m not feel like bringing up my Catholic heritage. “Can I give you a blessing?” he asks. We nod and are besprinkled; his prayer goes on forever. I want to get going, learn things I don’t already know.

“God willing, you’ll come back here for your wedding,” Jean-Paul. repeats as he takes our picture at the front of the church. “God willing,” Ben’s dad nods, deadpan.

And then: “Today was a big day for you: the day of your baptism.”

I imagine my godlessness flowing out of me and into the body of the pig, still submerged in its unholy waters.

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On the cemetery island (connected to Fadiouth by a bridge), crosses, shells, and baobabs combine into austere perfection against a glistening, watery backdrop. I wouldn’t mind resting here myself. In one area, little plaques substitute for crosses; Jean-Paul proudly explains that Muslims lie beside Christians in this cemetery.

At the exit, he lifts up what appears to be a little pouch which had been hanging on the gate. His circumcision charm, he explains. “I am a Christian; I am from the Serere tribe. I keep both customs, but they don’t mix. I leave the tribal here; what is non-Christian stays off Fadiouth.”

I don’t see any other charms in the cemetery, and for a moment, I’m skeptical again. What if Jean-Paul is performing his Serere traditions the way his ancestors performed Christianity: to appease the white foreigners?

No, Jean-Paul, I believe you. I know so little about you, but I do know this: your polo shirt and your rainbow pants, your charm and your cross – all are yours.

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If you enjoyed this story, you might like Three Boys and a Suitcase (a small meditation on walks through Dakar), or Between Scam and Symbol: Gorée Island’s House of Slaves (which partly explains my skepticism towards tour guides.) And if you’d like to receive future essays in your inbox, sign up for my mailing list below.

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Between Scam and Symbol

Gorée Island’s “House of Slaves”

View from the “House of Slaves.”

Delightful little pastel homes, with bougainvilleas tucked into every corner, the sea sparkling at the ends of narrow, dappled streets. Inside one such delightful home, painted a cheerful pink: narrow, grey-walled cells, heavy with the memory of pain. Above the door of each separate cell, a label made of shreds of the word “family:” men to the right, women — left, children — in the middle. And in a tiny cubicle, shreds of “human being:” “recalcitrant prisoners.”

This is the story I would have liked to tell you about Senegal’s Gorée Island. I would have strolled, then paced, around this tiny (less than half a square kilometer) patch of land, shifting my gaze from the lovely, pastel surface of colonialism to its dark and bloody underbelly, both in full view here. I would have considered, on the one hand, the handful of Europeans in their flowery houses and, on the other, the millions of enslaved Africans said to have passed through this island. I would have felt uncomfortable and horrified and moved; you would have appreciated my intricate descriptions of subtle emotional shifts.

Two uncooperative factors stand in the way of that story: my emotions — and historical facts.

My feelings are more receptive to the joy bouncing off a patch of bougainvilleas than to the faint must of suffering which hangs around an empty cell — especially if that cell is labelled only in a foreign language. As to the facts: the number of slaves shipped out of Gorée Island is the subject of historical controversy and may have been as “low” as 300 per year. A tour guide at the so-called House of Slaves, with those cells labelled “recalcitrant prisoners,” might tell you that a total of a million enslaved people had waited to be shipped across the Atlantic from here. Historians’ estimate hovers around… zero.

Instead, then, let me tell you a story of politics, gullibility, and tourism. A story of the power — and failings — of human emotions. A story too complex to be captured in the single compelling image of a pastel-colored home.

The Door of No Return

As we entered the House of Slaves, I held in my mind the pieces of information I’d gathered about this place during the previous night’s cursory glance at the internet.

  • It was a holding place for slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic.
  • There was some controversy about the exact numbers of people held captive here.
  • With a 4.5 star rating, Trip Advisor ranks it as the #1 thing to see in Dakar.
  • Most of the commenters on Trip Advisor were profoundly moved by the place, which brought the horrors of slavery to all-too-vivid life for them.

I wasn’t one of those people. My feelings failed me, and I found the House of Slaves… beautiful. And empty. The labelled cells were indistinguishable from countless dungeons I’d seen in British medieval castles. I understood that this was a terrible place, of course — but I couldn’t understand the visitors who were moved to tears by their visit.

If we’d done a bit more research, Ben and I would have known that the doorway towards the sea — a tiny blue rectangle flanked on the side by two imposing flights of stairs, through which we gleefully scrambled out onto the wall below — was called the “Door of No Return” and was supposed to be the gate through which slaves were made to embark on their tragic westward journeys. Instead, after climbing out the little door, Ben smiled approvingly at the breeze’s expert hair-tousling, while I leaned back a little over the sea to catch the sunlight on my face.

I’d read a couple blog posts about people’s experiences in Gorée, and everyone said they “made friends”… Everywhere you go here — starting with the ferry terminal — you’re pounced on by would-be tourguides.

I’m afraid we’re not friend-making types.

If we had been, we would have probably paid a guide to fill the cells with affecting stories for us. Instead, we tried deciphering the French signs in the single-room exhibition for a while, then headed back to the sunlit bougainvilleas.

The Door of No Return.

Siding with the “Slavery Deniers”

Gorée Island is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. On the UNESCO website, we can read that “from the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast.” The BBC and The New York Times have both claimed that millions of slaves had been held here. Celebrities like Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and multiple US presidents, as well as (according to Wikipedia) 200 000 visitors every year, have visited not only Gorée Island but also its House of Slaves. Judging by Trip Advisor reviews, most, like me, come to the island under the impression that Gorée really did play a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the House of Slaves really did house slaves waiting to be exported.

Other sources paint a completely different picture. The Telegraph quotes historian Ralph Austen:

There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade.

Philip Curtin’s statistical analysis of documentation of trans-Atlantic voyages suggests that no more than 300 slaves departed from Goree each year. Similar numbers appear to be backed up by the Du Bois Institute’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (as reported and further backed up here).

When this data was publicized in a 1996 article in the French press, Senegalese historians were outraged. Here’s historian Mbaye Gueye:

It is true that the slave trade has never been among the preoccupations of European historians, but this was nothing less than an attempt to falsify the past. There are evidently still people who simply wish to absolve themselves of this past.

Mbaye Gueye claimed to have more than ad hominem attacks up his sleeve — he apparently found “original archives from the French port of Nantes that showed that between 1763 and 1775 alone one port had traded more than 103,000 slaves from Goree” (the quote is from the same NYT article.)

This is the one (initially) solid-looking piece of evidence I’ve been able to find for the Gorée-as-slave-trade-center theory — but even this crumbles under scrutiny. In a footnote in this article, we read that the numbers in the Nantes records were for trades brought in from all of West Africa. Gorée isn’t mentioned in them at all.¹

As far I’ve been able to verify, then, Gorée was hardly the slave-trading center that UNESCO makes it out to be. As to the so-called Slave House, it was:

  • in the area of the island populated by rich free people (and, sometimes, their domestic slaves),
  • facing out to a treacherous part of the coast that ships probably wouldn’t have departed from,
  • built after the zenith of the slave trade.

Not every horrific slave story is a true story.

The True Story

If the House of Slaves wasn’t a holding pen for America-bound slaves, what was it? The house, built around 1776, belonged to the Pépins, a family of rich merchants of mixed Afro-European descent.

The most famous member of the family, Anne Pépin, was the mistress of Senegal’s French governor Stanislas de Boufflers, who according to Wikipedia “attempted to mitigate the horrors of the slave trade.” Anne Pépin was one of the so-called “Signares:” African and Afro-European women who had formed relationship with powerful white male invaders, and who often worked as merchants and owned land and slaves.²

What should we think of the Signares? Were they feminist icons, black women who managed to wield considerable power in an era where that would have hardly seemed possible? Or femmes fatales who used their sex appeal to their advantage and didn’t shy away from the slave trade, buying and selling their own kinsmen? Were they the victims of the lust and power of male European invaders, who eloped with them only to leave them behind and sail off to Europe, often back to the wives they had left behind? Were they just making the best of an awful situation, using their influence to ensure better treatment of their partners’ domestic slaves — or were they heedless of the suffering they contributed to, driven by the pursuit of wealth and power?

The answer may well be: all of the above. The human soul is a complex place — but that doesn’t bring in tourists. Can you blame the people of Senegal for not broadcasting the story of these mixed-race slave-owning badass island ladies? Can you blame them for, instead, feeding visitors the thrillingly familiar story of easily condemnable attrocities hidden in the dungeons of a pastel town? After all, the House of Slaves is Senegal’s top tourist destination, and its historically inaccurate story has forty years of bestseller status speaking in its favor.

Anne Pépin and her family didn’t keep slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic — those were held in a fortress on the other side of the island — but they probably did own so-called indigenous slaves: people kept on the island by force for domestic labor. (It was most likely indigenous slaves who built the Slave House and many other Gorée buildings.) This is another part of the Gorée story that isn’t often told: by the eighteenth century, over half of the island’s population consisted of indigenous slaves. The mistreatment these people endured was just slight enough for us to have erased it from our collective memory.

The “cells” of the House of Slaves, then, were probably the lodgings of indigenous slaves, whose lot, though certainly not enviable, didn’t feature the shackles now exhibited here.

And the Door of No Return? We don’t know for sure, but it may have been… a garbage dump for throwing waste into the sea. (Take this with a grain of salt; the reference is from the UK’s The Daily Mail, which isn’t exactly famous for stellar journalism…)

Where the Myth Came From… and Where It’s Headed

The whole story about the horrors of the House of Slaves seems to have originated with a single person: curator Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye. For forty years, right up to his death at 86, he led daily tours of the house, telling his gory and compelling tale to transfixed audiences.

During those forty years, the House of Slaves and its Door of No Return acquired a cult status. Members of the African diaspora would come here to come to terms with what their ancestors had lived through. (Those who come from the United States are especially unlikely to be retracing their ancestors’ footsteps; the slaves who did pass through Gorée were overwhelming shipped to Europe and South America.)

Since Ndiaye’s death, no one has been proclaiming the myth of Gorée quite so forcefully. More and more visitors are aware of the controversy surrounding the House of Slaves; it’s right there in the Wikipedia article. The Bradt Guide to Senegal cites both the Phil Curtin numbers and the alleged Nantes document, diplomatically concluding “The true numbers may never be known.” In other words: “we don’t want to anger anyone.”

A sign outside the door to the House of Slaves stamped “UNESCO” informs you that the site is “under renovation” to bring it up to 21st century museum standards. There’s no explanation of this mysterious phrase, no grand retraction of the House of Slave’s claim to fame — but the museum is slowly ceasing to be a memorial to the invented horrors of the building it’s housed in and turning into a monument to the very real horrors of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Rebranding the museum: this mural no longer graces the walls of the House of Slaves. (Source.)

Slowly but surely, Gorée is turning into a symbol. I wish UNESCO openly acknowledged that they’d made a mistake, rather than quietly filing away old signs — but at least the end destination is a noble one. I don’t want people to stop coming here. This tiny, remarkably preserved island is uniquely placed to play the role of an anchor for the imagination.

Ndiaye didn’t really invent the story of the House of Slaves; he simply relocated a true story to this tiny island. The shackles exhibited here weren’t used in this house — but they were certainly used during the horrific forced journey across the Atlantic so many had to endure. Gorée wasn’t the main location of the slave trade — there were many places like it, each with its trickle of atrocities.

In fact, there is a true “door of no return” west of the Atlantic: South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island, the site of a checkpoint and quarantine house for 40% of the slaves shipped into British North America. Today, Sullivan’s Island is a wealthy beach resort town, with some of the highest real estate prices in the area.

There is a House of Slaves in Gorée for exactly the same reasons for which there isn’t one in Sullivan’s Island: political convenience and monetary gains.

You visit Sullivan’s Island to sunbathe — or to bask in the glory of the American victory which took place there in 1776. You visit Gorée to feel bad — about what you already know.

The next time I walk by a pastel home, I’ll remember to search for its bloody underbelly. It might be small, and complicated, and scarred in the strangest of patterns, but it will be there. After all, if this tiny island can’t hold its millions of slaves, they’ll have to spread out over the rest of the world.

I wish I had been less gullible, but I don’t regret visiting the beautiful, complicated island of Gorée.

[1] Here’s the whole footnote.

Following the I997 conference, articles in the N. Y Times and the newsletter of the U.S. West African Research Center in Dakar (WARA) indicated that Prof. Mbaye Gueye of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar had found archival materials in Nantes that indicated a much larger Goree slave trade. Prof. Gueye showed the author a copy of the relevant document in June 1998; it is a summary of slaving voyages from 1763 to 1775, which add up to 294 ships carrying 103,135 slaves. The only destination indicated is “N. Gulinee” (Upper Guinea), and Gueye simply maintains that Goree, with its excellent harbor, served as a transhipment point for some of the ports in present-day Guinea and the Petite Cote of Senegal (south of Dakar), whose small size and sand bars made them unattractive destinations for ocean-going vessels. This claim is probably true, but the major slave trading outlets of this region were at St. Louis and the Gambia River and would not generally have required such services. (I am grateful to Martin Klein for help with this issue).

[2] The ship which took Obama to Gorée was called “La Signare.”

Iceland’s Ring Road: A Road Trip for Hikers


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The Ring Road (Route 1) is a 1330 km highway which loops around most of Iceland’s perimeter. Ben and I drove all the way around it this summer— and were entranced. Below, you’ll find our week-long itinerary — with star-ratings, travel tips, photos, and short descriptions. You can access the Google map of places we visited or considered visiting here.

If you’re planning a vacation to Iceland, this post is for you — especially if backpacking sounds a little too intense, but “great photo opportunity five minutes from the parking lot!” isn’t what you’re looking for either. 

Our points-of-interest map.


Read this section if you just want the “best-of” list. Otherwise, skip to the complete itinerary below.

  • Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to a gazillion (=27) waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. National Geographic calls it one of the world’s 21 best hikes. (25 km 1–2 day hike; doing just a small part is worth it.)
  • The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km; day long hike.)
  • Jökulsárlón. Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. (Not a hike; just the definition of sublimity.)
  • Stuðlagil Canyon. A natural cathedral of basalt columns, with a roaring river at the bottom. Hike through grassy meadows with only sheep for company, pass a gorgeous waterfall (basalt columns again), find your way down to the bottom of the canyon. (8 km (two-way) hike.)

The Itinerary

Day 1: The Golden Circle

Overall: This requires driving off the Ring Road. If you’re in a hurry and more of a hiker than an attraction-check-offer, you can skip this day; the only thing you might be sad about missing is Gullfoss.

Þingvellir National Park: Site of the (10th-18th century) Icelandic Parliament.
3.5 stars: Lots of historical value (e.g. you see the place where alleged witches were drowned), not that much perceptual/aesthetic value. Beautiful cliffs and river, but you’ll see much better ones later in the trip. Very crowded.

Strokkur Geysir: Active geyser. 
3.5 stars: Definite “yes” if you haven’t seen a geyser before. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, you might be underwhelmed.

Gullfoss: Giant two-tiered waterfall.
4.5 stars
: Roaring sublimity, big chance of rainbows. Viewpoints both above and below the falls. Worth braving the (significant) crowd.

Kerið Crater Lake
3 stars
: There’s an entrance fee and the lake is quite small. The colors are probably better earlier in the day; when we got there, the lake was in shadow. Worth it if you’re new to crater lakes.

Campsite: Hamragarðar. 
Amenities: Includes kitchen.
Bonus: The waterfall right above the campsite is an explorer’s heaven in miniature. There’s a little cave, a view of the fall from between two slabs of rock, and an exhilarating scramble (with chains) up to (near) the top of the fall — all doable in ~20 min total.

Day 2: Fimmvörðuháls Trail.

Seljalandsfoss: Waterfall you walk behind. 
4 stars: Worth walking behind; not worth getting up at sunrise.
: The internet recommended going there at sunrise. This was weird, since in August you can’t see the sun from behind the fall. (Sunset might have been better.) Then again, the complete lack of people at sunrise allows you to really appreciate the roar of water from behind the fall.

Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to 25 or so waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. (25 km 1–2 day hike; we only did a few km.)
Details: Start by the imposing Skógafoss waterfall. I recommend coming up close to it, to appreciate the height — but only if you wear waterproof clothes! The trail goes up to the top of the fall, and continues by the side of the Skóga river and its myriad waterfalls. (Sometimes the trail splits and you get to choose whether to come up close to a fall or appreciate it from afar.) 
5 stars: We only did the waterfall part, which is indescribably beautiful. (Waterfall after waterfall in ultra-green landscape, the sea behind you, snowcapped Eyjafjallajökull to the side.) Our biggest regret after the trip was not doing the full hike — since it’s not a loop, this requires catching a bus at the end of the trail.

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Skógafoss waterfall. (Eve for scale.)
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Fimmvörðuháls Trail. (One of over 20 waterfalls.)

Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: Viewpoint with rock arch over the sea.
3 stars: After Fimmvörðuháls trail, this was underwhelming (and we wish we’d stayed longer at Fimmvörðuháls instead). The drive up there is steep, narrow, and a little scary. The view is great… but not really appreciable after a day with 20 waterfalls. Might be more worth it earlier in the summer, when you might spot puffins.

Campsite: Skaftafell Campground (two nights).
Bonus: Glorious view of Skaftafell’s mountains and glaciers, which turn pink during sunset.

Day 3: Skaftafell Glacier Hike

The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km loop; day long hike.)
Details: Take the S3 trail counterclockwise from the park visitor center. (Unless you prefer starting with meadows and ending with glaciers.) You’ll have the magnificent Skaftafellsjökull glacier to your right for ~5 km. Then, take the (excitingly strenuous) S4 trail up to where an unnamed path goes up Kristínartindar peak. I definitely recommend continuing up this path — it’s about a half hour of fairly arduous scrambling, but you won’t forget the view from the top (which includes two giant glaciers). Retrace your steps to the S4, then keep following the S4 until it rejoins the S3. Follow the S3 through soothing meadows, until you get to signs for Svartifoss waterfall. Follow these; from the incredible waterfall it’s just a short descent back to the campsite.
5 stars: Two giant glaciers, jagged rock formations, a peak to ascend, green meadows, ocean view, basalt-column waterfall… all in one hike just long enough to be pleasantly exhausting.

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View from Kristínartindar peak.

Day 4: Glacial Lagoons

Hnappavellir: Cliffs for outdoor climbing. (Iceland’s largest rock-climbing area.)
4 stars (1 star for non-climbers): This was our first time outdoor bouldering, so we’re not reliable judges. We had a lot of fun, but found the routes very challenging.

Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon
3 stars
: In any other context, this would be 5 stars — but this glacial lagoon pales in comparison with the bigger Jökulsárlón, which it borders on. And it doesn’t have seals.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
5 stars:
Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. Leave yourself plenty of time to take in the view! (It took up all of my attention, so it didn’t even matter that there were a lot of other tourists.)

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Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Camping: Eyjolfsstadir Campsite
5 stars: This was our favorite campsite (and the only one which stood out to us on the trip). Inexpensive (by Icelandic standards), nestled between two cliff/mountain ranges, with a really friendly owner. You drive right by the fjords to get there.
Bonus: Sveinsstekksfoss is an easily missed waterfall marked by an “Enter at your own risk” sign a few minutes’ drive from the campsite. The marvelous view of the fall has the fjords as background.

Day 5: Stuðlagil Canyon

Klifbrekkufossar: Waterfall with view over the fjords.
2 stars: It’s a 25 km drive away from the #1, and indistinguishable from countless more easily accessible ones. (E.g. Sveinsstekksfoss is more exciting.) We were misled by this site, which calls it “one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.”

Stuðlagil Canyon: 4 km (one-way) hike to basalt-column canyon with river at the bottom. 
5 stars: You’ll find the sublimest part of the canyon at the end of a 4 km hike through meadows, with a basalt-column waterfall to rival Svartifoss halfway along the way. It’s possible to descend almost to the canyon floor, which I highly recommend. Few experiences compare to visiting this natural cathedral, with its geometric basalt columns, and the water roaring right next to you. The spot is almost entirely unknown to tourists. It also has a fascinating history: most of the canyon had actually been underwater until a dam built around 2006 affected the sources of the river! The hike itself might feel a little monotonous, but in the right mindset it’s completely idyllic (meadows! sheep! no other people!)
Warning #1: Don’t let Google maps guide you to Stuðlagil — that will take you to the wrong side of the river. Instead, turn off four kilometers earlier and follow the hiking instructions found here.
Warning #2: Finding the safe path to the canyon floor is tricky; descending down the safe path is not particularly tricky. Do not try scrambling down rocks to get to the bottom — there’s a safer way down, you just need to keep looking for it. (If you see a micro-waterfall in an area with reddish stones, you’re following the right path.)

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Stuðlagil Canyon

Goðafoss: ultra-wide waterfall.
5 stars: I was so tired that I didn’t even want to stop here, I’d already seen a million waterfalls, and I still managed to be impressed! (We were so exhausted from Stuðlagil that for once we were glad that the parking lot was right by the falls.)

Camping: Camping Tjaldstæďi
4 stars: Had a kitchen with a goat (!) that vacuumed the floor and accepted pettings. Buildings with borderline cute/kitsch thatched roofs.

Day 6: Lake Mývatn

The area around Lake Mývatn is full of post-volcanic attractions. There’s a lava field (Dimmuborgir), a volcanic crater (Mt Hverfjall), steam vents, and more. All the attractions are close together and have parking lots, so you can drive between them or, as we did, string them together into one of the hikes here.

Dimmuborgir — Hverfjall — Grjótagjá Hike
4 stars: All the attractions are wonderful, but quite crowded. 
Tip: There are several routes through the Dimmuborgir lava formations. The one marked “dangerous” is the only one worth doing if you’re in decent shape — it’s unpaved and less crowded. No dangers in sight. The estimated hiking time they give you for this is also way too high.

Day 7: Drive back and Reykjavik

The northwestern part of the Ring Road has relatively few attractions, so we decided to just drive back to Reykjavik on the last day, stopping only for a picnic and short stroll by a random river along the way. [Note that the northwest part of Iceland has plenty of attractions that aren’t along the #1; we left those for another trip.] If you prefer leaving best for last, you might consider going around the #1 clockwise instead.

When we got back to Reykjavik, we felt pretty done with tourism, so we decided to go indoor rock climbing instead.

Klifurhúsið: Bouldering gym in Reykjavik
4 stars: Typical bouldering fun! Around $13 entrance fee — by Iceland standards, this is really good value for money.


Ready to pack your bags? Here are some tips before you do.

Getting there: Iceland is the perfect place for a stopover on a flight between Europe and North America. Icelandair and WOW Air both let you stay in the country for a week (sometimes longer) between two legs of your flight without paying extra — but in my case, booking a separate Warsaw-Reykjavik flight with Wizz Air and Reykjavik-Boston with WOW Air turned out to be the cheapest option. So look around!

Getting around: All of the places on our itinerary were accessible by a two-wheel-drive vehicle — so you can still see amazing places if you rent the cheapest possible car.

Weather: Prepare for rain, wind, and cold temperatures, even in the summer.

  • Wind-management: Use your car to shield your tent from the wind at night. Also, a bandana doubles as a muffler for the howling and a face mask for the midnight sun.

Saving money: Iceland is fiendishly expensive. In order to not go completely broke, try:

  • Camping. Campsites are “only” about $20/person (as a psychological trick, we pretended that we were paying for a hotel room) — I’m not sure I want to know how much staying in a hotel room would have been. It’s legal — and free — to camp anywhere that isn’t a national park (or, presumably, someone’s backyard), so if you’re braver than us, you could try that.
  • Bringing your own food. We brought peanut butter and tortillas for lunch (this is a surprisingly good hiking meal — just bring a lot of peanut butter), dry dinner ingredients (red lentils, freeze-dried vegetables, couscous, powdered sauce) and a camping stove, oatmeal for breakfast (adding nuts/sugar/dried fruits recommended) and snacks.
  • Getting VAT refund forms for large expenses. We didn’t realize you have to ask for a special document along with your purchase to get a refund at the airport. (This only works for purchases over 6000 ISK (~$60).)
  • Using the bathrooms in gift shops. Though it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, paying $2 to use the bathroom is a little absurd. At a lot of tourist attractions, the gift stores will have free bathrooms.
  • Bringing your own data/phone plan. If you’re traveling from within the EU/EEA, your cellular plan will work in Iceland at your country’s rate.