Travelogue: 3 days in Athens, Greece (and why 1 day is enough)

Athens conjures up visions of ancient historical greatness. Thousands of years of history have left behind rich legacies studied in classrooms all around the world – Socrates, the home of the first modern Olympic games, origins of famous philosophers and scientists, and really old ancient ruins. From the “things to do” front, it seemed that there would be plenty to do – museums, ancient archaeological sites, and without a doubt, feasting on Greek food. So it was just terribly unfortunate that I found myself deeply regretting spending 3 days in the city in mid August, peak tourist season.

But I digress. If I could do it all over again, I would not spend more than 1 day here unless I was:

  1. An avid archaeologist
  2. Interested in old, abandoned, decrepit buildings
  3. A graffiti artist

Athens is filthy. Trash is everywhere, pigeons swarm the streets, and the city reeks of motorbike emissions mixed with choking cigarette smoke. Leave any area outside of the touristy zones and you’re met with an unrelenting display of struggle. Few buildings and walls were spared from splatters of graffiti. A haven for urban exploration, to be fair.

Walking to the Archaeological Museum

This is actually a university building. It was fenced off and the gates were covered in protest signs.

The city is sprawling and extensive, but areas worth exploring are concentrated to a small area. There was no point in taking public transportation – the most we had to walk was 2 miles, and that was to the National Archaeological Museum, which was located in a not so   nice area of the city. In the sweltering heat of Athens, walking 2 miles felt like an eternity. Water bottles were a must, and we took great care to get chilled bottles.

Acropolis is the only worthwhile archaeological site

…unless you’re an avid archaeologist or history buff.

The archaeological sites are really the only “attractions” in the city, save a couple of touristy neighborhoods and Lycabettus Hill. We stayed in the south side of the city, so we passed by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch on our way to Syntagma Square to exchange some euros at Kapa Change. We didn’t know it at the time, but to actually go into the sites costs money. Hadrian’s Library, for example, cost 4 euros. The lady at the booth told us we could purchase a pass package to most of the archaeological sites (including the Acropolis, but excluding the Panathenaic Stadium) for 30 euros. It would be cheaper than paying for them individually.

What we didn’t know was that the bulk of the ruins could pretty much be experienced without actually paying the entrance fee – you could view most of the interiors simply by looking at them from outside the fence.

You can see this before going into the site.

Not a better view…why do I need to see ruins up close?

In the end, I decided that the only one really worth visiting was the Acropolis which was 20 euros by itself. The only benefit to buying the multiple site pass at Hadrian’s Library was skipping the long line to buy the entrance ticket at the Acropolis.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, part of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena, Athens, Greece

Escaping the heat in the shade

Still, I felt like it wasn’t worth it. The Acropolis is the only site worth paying for; everything else is just the same thing with slight variations. We were so tired and hot that we didn’t even have the heart to go into our third archaeological site, instead opting to sit in the shade for a half hour just outside of the site. The 30 euros felt more like a donation than anything else.

Food

Walk around any of the touristy areas in Athens and if you just happen to glance at the menu (or even just literally be passing by), someone working at the restaurant will come out and practically demand that you eat there. The conversation would be more like “Are you hungry? We have kebabs, souvlaki…” or “Please come in and sit! Here is a table for you!” or “What would you like to eat?” These guys are unapologetically in your face about it – they will usher you in, go over the menu, and ask you where you want to sit, as though you had already made up your mind about eating there. Maybe it’s just part of the Greek hospitality culture, but it was a turn-off for me. I think that some of the waiters genuinely wanted you to feel welcome – in truth, the people were mostly pretty friendly, but I couldn’t help but think they were just trying to lure naive tourists.

That being said, restaurants in touristy areas definitely tended to be more expensive, but that didn’t mean the food they served was bad – in fact, I quite enjoyed the food there. I had some seriously good gyro meat. The food was truthfully the only redeeming thing about Athens.

3 euro gyro!

>3 euro gyro…best chicken I’ve ever tasted at Smile Restaurant

Classic Greek Salad

My friends and I really enjoyed the meat pies at Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki, which had outdoor seating and a friendly waitress.

Meat Pie, Athens, Greece

I’m not crazy about baklava, and traditional Greek dessert is basically a bunch of variations on syrupy, flakey, greasy stuff. I did have my fair share of Greek yogurt though.

Traditional Greek dessert

Lycabettus Hill

Other than the Acropolis, watching the sunset from Lycabettus Hill is the only other thing worth seeing in Athens. It’s a bit of an uphill walk to the top, but if you’re in decent physical condition, you should have no trouble. At the top is an expensive restaurant and a church where you can sit on the ledge and look out over the city. It was swarming with tourists, but the view from the top was spectacular.

On the way to the top…a mild climb.

Sunset

There was a huge crowd of people I had to swim through to get a view without people.

Lycabettus Hill is in the distance.

Weather

Checking the weather forecast, I knew it would be hot. Every day had a low of at least 80 and a high of at least 90. The Greek summer sunshine is no joke – I acquired many tans, and the UPF 50 hat I purchased from REI the day before my flight was one of the most useful items I brought. The heat was exhausting and made walking and exploring a greater endeavor than normal. If you’re a native Floridian or someone who has no qualms about hot weather, the weather will not bother you as much.

Other Thoughts

Honestly, I feel bad about not having much good to say about Athens. The city is old and decaying and I feel sorry for the people who are struggling to keep it alive and running. They really do try to make you feel welcome, but the economic depression is heavy in the air. Mainland Greece gets overshadowed by the allure of the Greek islands, and for good reason (Santorini will be covered in a different post).

My friend said it reminded her of China.

Decay and graffiti

More decay

Not sure I’d want to park a car in there?

That said, there are gems.

A pretty church roof…couldn’t get a great view of it though.

Hadrian’s Arch

If you’re a cat lover, you’ll find yourself enamored by the numerous strays. They probably help keep the rodent and bug population down.

Stray cat

Life is hard for strays, though.

Poor cat is probably overheating under the midday sun

Athens does have its prettier areas, but they are concentrated, and you can definitely hit most of them in a day.

Ancient Agora

All in all, if you’re flying into Athens, it’s worth a stop – just not a long one. Like I said, unless you identify with any of the 3 things I listed at the top of my post, your time will be better spent at the islands.

Writer’s Hiatus, Social Media, and Overcommitment

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It’s been a while since I’ve published a post. The whirlwind that was summer, all of the current events, work, activities…like everyone else, I had a lot going on. This post is an apology, really, but also a message about how minimalism does not solve all my problems.

There was many points during my hiatus in which I felt overwhelmed. Society expects a lot of us. We are all told to tough it out, put up with it, just deal, just do, grit your teeth and don’t worry about the outcomes. That our resilience will predict our success. Everyone gets through it, eventually, anyway, so why shouldn’t you.

For a while, I was worried that what I was writing was sounding like endless amounts of complaining. Our exposure to the media, which is getting increasingly good at riling us up, has given me an unhealthy dose of anxiety. Every time I log onto my social media accounts, even if it just to check on the status of events I’ve committed to attending or become aware of events I’d like to attend or catch up with friends, I’m blasted with political posts and emotion-mongering clickbait. The more time I spent online, the more dissatisfied I’ve felt with my life – a common problem, in fact. There is a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, and hardly in a good way. I love talking about the practical benefits of minimalism and how it has saved me a lot of time and given me the time to do what I enjoy most, but when I am using that time saved to browse Reddit, Instagram, or Facebook, the time is still wasted.

Minimalism has freed up my time significantly, freeing me from silly pursuits like mindless shopping. Type A people like me always feel like there is something more to be done to better our lives, whether it’s learning new skills, career development, working out, fixing/upgrading things around the house, or maintaining relationships and friendships. Everything requires time and mental or physical tolls, and unless you are perfectly regimented, it is easy to slack. And then the circle of anxiety continues – slack off, panic about slacking off by mindlessly watching Youtube or browsing social media, repeat. I filled my schedule with activities and commitments, and the constant go-go-go took its toll, and I quit writing the blog for a while.

When you stop doing something that used to be a source of enjoyment, you start to question yourself. Could it be depression? Just personal change? In the end, it was an issue of overcommitment. There was too much to be done, and I couldn’t do it all. I still feel like I am in that mode. I deleted Instagram, going on it only once a day at most (instead of 10 times a day). I created Facebook events, but ignored most others, for my own sake. With the holidays approaching, it was time to slow down and enjoy the closing days of 2017. And with the first snow day yesterday, happy hot chocolate season, and don’t forget to enjoy the wintery merriment.

On Taking Better Care of Our Stuff

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Much of minimalism revolves around detaching yourself emotionally from your things. Declutter this, throw away that, donate what you don’t love, and so on. But what it does not preach so much is how to take care of or maintaining what you do have.

I learned a very expensive lesson when I dropped my camera on a recent trip to London. I was changing the lenses and forgot to wear the strap when it slipped out of my hands and onto the concrete ground. The impact ended up damaging the sensor and causing an ugly black mark to appear on all my subsequent photos , and for my readers who aren’t also photographers, sensors are extremely costly to replace. That incident reminded me of how I really need to take better care of what I do have – things do have a lifespan, but they can be increased with proper care and lovin’.

I’ve talked about the maintenance of things and how they can be burdensome. Things that require a disproportionate amount of care (such as luxury handbags) tend to not provide worthwhile returns. As I’ve settled into my new normal as far as quantity of belongings goes, I’ve been noticing the wear and tear on my things more as I mostly keep what I use every day or at least on a regular basis. I stopped using the dryer for anything other than bedsheets (which I only dry because I only have one set) and began hanging my clothes instead of using the dryer,  just like how I no longer dry my hair with a hair dryer. After all, it seems silly that we need to have these machines that cost  a few hundred dollars spin our clothes around and blow hot air on them – clothes are advertised to last x number of washes but who knows about the dry cycles. I hand wash all my knives, pots, and pans. I make sure that I don’t keep any messy piles around where things can damage each other from just bumping into other things (jewelry is a good example of this). I clean my bike regularly. I keep tabs on what I have in my refrigerator so I don’t waste food. The same can be said about our bodies. Our bodies are designed for movement, and I take great care to ensure that I am active every day. Long flights and train rides make me jittery (I have urges to do pull-ups on the safety bars). Exercise is a celebration of what our bodies are capable of, and it pains me to think that so many people never realize their bodily potential. The less time we take to take of our bodies, the more quickly our bodies will deteriorate over time. And we must use our bodies every day.

Things are responsibilities and I feel that I have a responsibility to take care of things that serve me. The fewer things that I own, the more attention I can devote to taking care of them. Chances are, some amount of the earth has been destroyed to create the things you own. We won’t be able to be perfect about it, but let’s take a little time to take care of what we do have, if at least not to need to buy replacements and require more resources from the planet than we’re already consuming.

How to Make an Active Minimalist Happy

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Why is it, that being “happy” remains an elusive thing – so much so, that it often attributed as a life goal? Like happiness is an end state – that once we attain it, it is forever ours?

Outside of survival needs (food, water, shelter), most of us desire the same basic things, like being loved and accepted by our family, friends, and greater communities; being safe, in good health, and free from worry; having the freedom to exercise our passions without judgment and consequence. Any sensible person also knows that these “basic things” can easily be taken for granted, and that in this day, having any of them is, unfortunately, still considered a privilege. There are many things outside of our control that can disrupt the balance and rhythm of our lives. And sadly, it is too often in moments when we confront our own mortality that we realize just what is truly important. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Minimalists, and especially active minimalists, tend to emphasize the importance of just “being” or simply “doing” what is natural. Becoming a minimalist is often a product of some sort of discontent, so stripping away the excess garbage allows us to discover our hidden values. The moments we live outside of work and social media are where the raw, unscripted parts of our lives emerge – the words and behaviors that expose our own humanity. The behaviors we exhibit outside of the job title, the family role, the caretaker, the provider, and so on. We are most passionate – most human – when we take off the mask with our titles and roles. And we all wear masks in most places, if only for society to function properly.

Unsurprisingly, it is in those moments when we’re true to ourselves that we feel most liberated. And when we are true to ourselves and accepting of that truth, we begin to feel that elusive thing we call happiness. Personally, I am happiest in an environment where I can naturally “be.” Not “expected to be,” not “supposed to be,” not “meant to be.” Some of you may wonder, what if to “be” is to also be toxic, violent, or condescending? Color me an optimist, but I believe that if someone is truly happy, that person would also be in a position to genuinely be supportive of others. Happy people don’t put others down.

Fancy gifts, money, and swanky dinners can be treats for just about anyone, but for a minimalist, genuine relationships cannot be beat. Shared moments, experiences, and passions can be cherished more deeply than new things, and they cannot be taken away from you.

An Interview with an Ultralight, Minimalist, Cross-Country Bikepacker

Today, I am extra excited to present to you my first interview with a real-life Active Minimalist, Sarah. Not long after she obtained her PhD, she packed her bags, put what few possessions she had into storage, and biked solo(!) for three-thousand miles from California to Florida.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The magnitude of her 55-day journey and inspiring stories touched me so deeply I just couldn’t resist asking her if she’d allow me to feature her story on this blog. I felt like a million bucks when she accepted!

A few weeks ago on a lovely Friday afternoon, I was doing as most office bees do – happily wrapping up work for the week, excitedly anticipating the sunny spring weekend in which I – in true minimalist fashion – planned absolutely nothing, which happens so rarely that I cannot remember the last time I didn’t have an obligation of some sort. In between emails and reports and phone calls, I fantasized about the books I would read, the food I would cook, the friends I would catch up with, and so on. Then, in the early afternoon shortly after lunch, a message popped up on my phone. She mentioned that she was in town and asked if I was interested in playing board games.

I hadn’t seen Sarah at all since she graduated and gleefully whisked her tiny self off to California, so I was super psyched that she was going to be in town during the one weekend I was available to host her. Back when she was still in the area, we often got together with friends to play board games and hang out. After a few back-and-forth texts, I found out that she was arriving the next day and would only be around for the weekend and didn’t yet have a place to stay, so I offered her my couch and an extra blanket. She spent the days catching up with other friends in the area, and I was lucky enough to hear about her most memorable moments and thoughts about her remarkable journey. As it turned out, she was on her way back to California and staggering Amtrak train trips. She burst through the front door with a glowing smile and I had never seen her happier. At that moment, I didn’t even know that she had been on the road for so long.

Credit goes to MMM for the interview format.

Trip Overview

Me: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I am so lucky to have such cool people in my life. So, how did you decide that you wanted to take this journey?

Sarah: It was just a fun thing I wanted to do.

Me (aside): Ahh, spontaneity – one of the joys of a minimalist lifestyle. The freedom to pack your bags and journey wherever your heart desires – that is bliss.

Me: And that is the only reason you need! How did you decide the route? How many miles did you bike and how long did it take?

Sarah: I started in San Diego near UCSD, biked to the coast, and then mostly followed the Southern Tier route which ends in St. Augustine. It was about 3000 miles and took about 55 days. I started on March 1st and got to Jacksonville on April 26th.

If you’re ever interested in bike touring, I can recommend two websites – the Adventure Cycling Association which has lots of route maps and indicates where all the rest stops, campsites, grocery stores, bike shops, motels, convenience stores – and Warmshowers, the biker hosting website which also has an app.

There are also lots of bike touring blogs out there.

Me: About how many miles did you bike each day? Did you ever stop or did you bike straight from start to finish?

Sarah: I didn’t train for this, so it was difficult at first.  The first day, I only went 15 miles – it was all uphill and into a headwind. But I did get faster – about 2/3 through, there was one hill I went on, when I crested the hill, that I felt the weightless feeling.

I averaged about 50 miles a day – more miles in flat states and fewer in the mountainy ones. The most I biked in one day was 104 miles. I had forgotten my Kindle at the last place I slept.

And I got faster – the second day, I only went 15 miles! It was all uphill and into a headwind. I remember one moment when I was going up a large hill, and when I crested the hill, I got that weightless feeling – the kind you get when you’re on a roller coaster – and that’s how I knew I had gotten faster.

I did take breaks – I also took a couple days off.

Me (aside)The awesomeness of discovering how your body just adapts to the demands you place on it is a superb confidence booster. We talk about working out as though it was some annoying thing we have to do – but really, it’s just a celebration of the body’s miraculous capability of doing amazing things.

Gear

Me: (eyeing her bike – there was a rack in the back with 2 panniers…and that was about it): Is that really all you brought?!

Sarah: Yep (proudly pointing at her things) – that’s my entire life! I saw a lot of other bikers on the same route and I always had the least amount of stuff. Usually people had bags in the front of their bikes and along the frame. People like to pack a lot of stuff.

Me: Haha yes – people like to be prepared, and no one wants to be stranded in the middle of rural America. What clothing did you bring?

Sarah: 2 pairs of bike shorts, 1 pair of bike pants, 2 pairs of normal shorts, 1 pair of jeans, though I would have brought something else because jeans are heavy and not very comfortable to sleep in. A few shirts…1 biking jersey, but mostly t-shirts. A few tank tops. I didn’t bring gloves…that surprised people. A hat.

Me: What about sunglasses?

Sarah: I had safety glasses.

Me (aside): Sarah didn’t wear biking shoes – made sense – she then only needed one pair of shoes. She was also riding a normal commuter bike. Almost everyone else had clippy shoes. Also, if I were to do a trip like this, I would most certainly bring sunglasses to avoid damaging my eyes!

Me: Is your phone the only thing you brought? Did you also bring a backpack? How did you pack your things?

Sarah: Yes. I did also have my backpack. I had my phone and toilet paper in here.

Usually, I’d strap my sleeping bag to the top. When it rained, I wrapped it with a black garbage bag.

(pointing at the right pannier) In here, I had clothes and supplies.

(pointing at the left pannier): Food went in here.

Me (aside): She brought so little stuff that there was really no need to balance the weight.

Me: How and where did you sleep? Did you usually get up early?

Sarah: I mostly camped in my 20 degree sleeping bag and single-person tent (North Face Stormbreak tent). I didn’t bring all the guylines and stakes so the tent was only about 3 pounds. I usually woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast in my tent, went to the bathroom, and then got on the road. I often liked to get on the road before the sun rose so I could finish biking before the hottest part of the day.

Me: Did you bring any bike supplies?

Sarah: A pump, one extra tube (if I got a flat I would buy one at the next town), tire levers, a patch kit, a multitool, chain lube, and extra screws for my rack. It’s a good thing I had those screws because one screw did fall out.

Me: Did you get any flats?

Sarah: Yes – 2 flats – both in Texas. There were a lot of thorns – goathead thorns – and random debris like tire bits. It was like going through a minefield. Texas is very wide so it ends up being a third of the trip, so it’s not surprising.

Me (aside): I’d categorize Sarah’s setup unquestionably in the ultralight category. Ultralight is often thrown around as a marketing term in the outdoor gear industry and there aren’t any well defined “weight limits” for lightweight vs ultralight. But looking at her gear, I consider Sarah’s setup to be ultralight-minimalist. She didn’t splurge on anything very expensive and only brought what she really needed. She didn’t even bring a sleeping pad! She told me her puffy jacket was enough and that she didn’t feel the rocks underneath. I’m sure being young helped too.

Me: Let’s talk about food. Did you bring a stove? What did you eat?

Sarah: I ate normal food – vegetables, fruit. I mostly ate food that didn’t need cooking – trail mix, peanut butter, protein bars, avocado, cheese/salami/tortilla to go with the tortilla. I stopped at grocery stores a lot and also fast food places and restaurants. I averaged about 2 tacos a day. Sometimes 14, sometimes 0, but averaged 2.

Food tastes better when you’re biking, somehow! There was one day when I ate a liter and a half of ice cream. It was hard at first for my body to get used to, because – no exaggeration – I needed three times the amount of food I normally ate, which is only 1000-some calories. I was burning about 3000 calories a day.

That reminds me – there was one time when I saw these berries on the side of the road, so at the next convenience store I asked what type of berries they were. And they were blackberries! So the next time I saw them, I spent like 2 hours picking them. It was like winning the lottery.

Me: Did you drink anything besides water?

Sarah: I only drank water, but it was important, especially in the desert, to have enough water, so sometimes I strapped a gallon of water to my rack with a bungee cord.

Me (aside): She did make a full list of her things:

  • Shoes
  • 2 1-liter Nalgene bottles
  • 1 Camelbak bottle
  • Hat
  • Red and blue bags for clothes that double as pillows
  • Light jacket
  • Soft shell rain jacket (doubles as sleeping mat)
  • 20F sleeping bag
  • 1 person tent
  • Dish towel
  • Clothes (2 bike shorts and 1 bike pants, 2 normal shorts, 1 normal pants – jeans, ~6 tops, couple handfuls of socks/underwear)
  • Bag of food w/a few sandwich bags and a plastic spoon
  • Helmet with mirror
  • Safety glasses
  • Daypack
  • Kindle
  • Pen/paper
  • Wallet/extra cash
  • Smartphone/headphones
  • Extra batteries
  • Headlamp
  • Toiletries (toilet paper, pads, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, comb, shampoo/conditioner, soap, razor, tweezers, nail clippers, scissors, hair ties)
  • Bungee cords/panniers on back wheel rack
  • Bike tools (pump, tire levers, extra tube, patch kit, multitool, chain lube, zipties)
  • Trash bags
  • Reflectors
  • Sunscreen
  • Bike lock

Trip Details

Me: What kinds of people did you meet? Did you ever feel alone?

Sarah: Mostly retired people, and they were from all around the world. They usually tried to figure out what I’m doing. Everyone asked my age. Then they’d ask if I was alone. Then they’d ask if I was afraid of this, this, and this. They were always telling me what I needed to be scared of.

People are very, very nice. They offered to drive me to the next town, the next campsite, the grocery store. They would invite me to sit with them at their campsites and share stories by the campfire. There were a couple bikers that I met at the beginning of the trip, and then didn’t see them for about 1,000 miles, and then I saw them again.

It’s promising to see people in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, even a woman in her 90’s – still staying active and getting out there. I heard a lot about the legendary 90-year old biker. She would stop anywhere – even at the bottom of a big hill after losing all her momentum – and stop, just to take a photo. People would fondly tell stories about her, including one where they saw her bike lying on the side of the road, and, worrying that she was hurt, looked all around for her…and she had simply gone to lay down in a big field of flowers with a big smile on her face!

My goal is to be a cool old person.

I never really felt lonely. You meet a lot of people along the way – at rest stops, at campsites. I met new friends – people I would stay in touch with. Plus, I had my communication machine smartphone with me.

Me: Were there a lot of people doing the same route?

Sarah: Yes – a few hundred per year do this route.

Me: Were you ever scared?

Sarah: Not really. The people I encountered – when they caught onto what I was doing, they were like, “you’re alone? Aren’t you scared?” and proceeded to tell me all the things I should be scared of – the standard three.

I always felt safe at campsites.

There were a couple times when I was afraid that I was going to get run over…people not paying attention. The only time I was scared was when I got bitten by a dog. I got chased by dogs all the time but this one was waiting for me, and then as I passed, it ran up next to me and attacked.

There was one stretch near the sand dunes where there the road would go up and down, but you couldn’t see what was on the other side of the hill, and there was no shoulder. When I saw a car, I stopped and pulled over.

Me (aside): Fear is something that I struggle with more than I like to admit. We talk about biking being dangerous, and if you constantly put yourself in careless situations, it can be. Sarah assured me that people she met were very, very nice. I was tempted to do the finger wag of disapproval myself! Bad things can happen anywhere, wherever you are, even close to home, or even at home. All you can really be is as vigilant as you can and exercise good judgment. Bikepacking has its risks, as does careening down a highway at 70+ mph during rush hour.

Me: Did you have a favorite state?

Sarah: Arizona. I really like the rocky landscape – moreso than trees.

Me: What about least favorite?

Sarah: Louisiana…but not just because of the dog. The people, the love of guns. They had margarita drive-thru’s there! I once saw one that was attached to an ammunition store and a post office.

Me: What was your favorite day?

Sarah: It’s really hard to pick just one – there were so many good days! The prettiest day was when I visited the Tonto Forest in Arizona by the salt river. I also like the first day – the first day was nice because I got to see a couple friends in SD that I hadn’t seen in 5 years. I also took a short ferry on the day I made it to Florida and there were birds that followed the boat’s draft, occasionally diving into the water to catch fish.

Me: It was your birthday recently right? Happy belated! Did you do anything special on your birthday?

Sarah: Yes – I ate a lot of ice cream, went to a really cool aviation museum, and saw an air show. The planes flew super close!

Me: Did you take any days off?

Sarah: I took two days off – one after getting bitten by the dog, and once in Tallahassee. It was going to rain that day.

Me (aside): Pretty amazing – she had all the time in the world, yet she only felt compelled to take a couple days off. 

Me: Did you get a lot of sunburns?

Sarah: I got a light one and a few inches on my back because I missed a spot. Putting on sunscreen was part of my routine – I usually put it on in the morning. I became a connoisseur of sunscreen because I went through 4 bottles of sunscreen! I recommend Neutrogena’s SPF 70 sunscreen that comes in the yellow bottle which doesn’t smell as bad and isn’t as icky as other sunscreens.

I never had to reapply it throughout the day – they always tell you to reapply it on the back of the bottles, but not because the sunscreen degrades – sunscreen technology is advanced enough that that doesn’t really happen – it’s because people don’t apply enough and everywhere the first time. Also, some people sweat like crazy, but I do not.

Me (aside): I guess I get to stop stressing about reapplying sunscreen!

Me: What would you do differently next time?

Sarah: I would not bring jeans. They’re heavy and not comfortable to sleep in. I probably also wouldn’t bring my u-lock. Most people had cable locks.

Next time, I’d also like to bike tour with somebody. Being by yourself gives you freedom – but it’d be nice to be able to share gear and have someone to talk to.

Me: Are you looking forward to being back home? What do you miss?

Sarah: Yes. I miss my computer. I miss having a bathroom I can use at any time. I even miss cooking! I always thought of cooking as a chore, but I miss it!

Me (aside): Sarah has always been a minimalist in just about every way, but she didn’t realize there was a word for it. Back when she was still working on her PhD, she had explained to me why she liked Soylent, and her explanation told me right then and there that we were on the same wavelength, though I am not such a fan of Soylent. 

When she left, she left some bananas and a small bottle of Nutella on my counter with a note telling me that bananas and Nutella were an excellent alternative to energy gels. I told her that I would love to accompany her on her travels, but that 2 months was more vacation time than I had available to me at the current moment, and our trip would need to be shorter than that (unless I staggered it in December-January).

It’s easy to be swept up into the dreary monotony of routine and spend off-hours vegging on the couch or some picturesque beach. For many people, adventuring doesn’t really come to mind when we think about vacation and decompressing.

Sometimes, we look at people like Sarah and cast our net of judgment on them. She’s crazy! Who would ever do a thing like that? Think about what could have happened! How…cavalier! But the truth is, we need people like that. We need people to show us what we’re capable of. We need people to try crazy things. Otherwise, Everest would never have been climbed, planes would never have been invented, skydiving wouldn’t be a thing, and how on earth would we ever have gotten to the moon?

We need more people like Sarah to show us that there is more to our lives than routines, that we might as well be bold, explore the world, and show everyone else just how beautiful the world can be if we give it a chance.

The Lose-Lose Choice of Living in an American City or Suburb

Via Pixabay

Growing up, I considered myself a “city person.”

In retrospect, I now realize that translated to “I don’t know what to do with myself when there aren’t people and businesses surrounding me.” Then, when I did go to the city, the first thing I did was find a major shopping street, and let my pop culture insecurity-induced consumerist desires come to life. Ok – that’s not quite the truth – in reality I have so little awareness of pop culture (I become pretty clueless when people start talking about famous actors and other celebrities) that its impact on me is pretty minimal. But the part about finding a major shopping street is true. As a kid who stayed at home 99% of the time, I racked up plenty of insecurities over time and never quite figured out how to deal with them, and buying my way out was a coping mechanism that I had to get rid of. The idea of minimalism and simple living in classic keeping up with the Jones’s environment was not a concept I was ever really exposed to until much later.

I admit, cities have perks I enjoy immensely. Infrastructure is wayfarer-friendly, which means stores and services can be easily accessed without a car. There are more festivities and public events. There are more career and networking opportunities. The social scene is more diverse. Simply put, the availability of human beings you can interact with is just greater. It is tiring, though, especially as an introvert, to be out and about all the time. Fortunately, introverts can experience not-being-entirely-a-hermit by mingling in the city, with the option of talking to others.

At the same time, city-living has its limitations. It’s expensive. Really, really expensive, for some cities. You’re paying a major premium for the privilege of being in the middle of the action, and for some, it all gets old as priorities change. Approaching 30, my city-dwelling friends are starting to reach typical home-buying and family-rearing age, and more and more of them are starting to leave the city in favor of buying a home with a lawn and hosting large parties and barbecues on a back door patio.

This is where it gets tricky.

I have mixed feelings about suburbia. Or at least, the suburbs I’ve been to.

First of all, its ludicrous that every single American family is expected to own their own huge private dwelling – do we really need to eat up that much land and resources to support our already rich lifestyles? America is a huge country, with not great rail infrastructure. Thus, it was built on the premise that the vast majority of its inhabitants owned cars. And so, chances are, you are driving your car everywhere. To the grocery store. To the daycare. To Target. To the gym. To the yoga studio (I guess to make up for the stress of driving there??). To your kids’ dance practice. To the theatre. To work. All that time spent driving is time not spent walking, or cycling, or doing something else remotely active. So of course, we start losing our health, unless we become gym rats or runners, which is pretty difficult if you’re tired and run-down all that driving (it’s not exactly an energizing activity). Exercise and moving around is just not built into suburb life. Sitting on the couch, driving everywhere, and sitting at restaurants/movies/offices is, well, fattening. At night, walk around any neighborhood in a middle-class suburb and you’ll probably be 1. The only person walking and 2. See lots of flickering TV screens in the windows.

Ideally, being active should be easily baked into the day. We buy all sorts of fancy equipment for our houses, hoping that dropping that money will motivate us to work out. But it doesn’t help that suburbs are ill-equipped to handle bicycles. All sorts of sidewalk-riding routes (too dangerous to ride on the road, so the next best choice is riding on the sidewalk) and disappearing sidewalks (sidewalks that just “end”) next to 45-mph speed limit roads and the absence of bike racks at strip malls are not conducive to bicycle riding. Everything being so spread out makes it so the grocery store and the school are too far apart to realistically walk to.

So when I ask myself the question of whether or not I am a city person, I have to be frank: it’s hard to say. Neither is great. As a minimalist, I think I have an overall dissatisfaction with both. I don’t want to be surrounded by advertisements and businesses wanting money, and I certainly don’t like high costs of living. At the same time, I don’t want to be too far from people in general – feeling connected to our communities is a basic human need. I feel like I have this dream of living in a city like Copenhagen, where bicycles rule the road, people value their health, and the community is in god spirits.

Fortunately, there is hope – millennials in Seattle have recently reversed the trend – car ownership is finally starting to decline, thanks to the uptick in people cycling, car-sharing, or public transportation. For our health and for our environment, I look forward to a future where we are not boxed into car ownership should we choose not to live in an expensive city.

You Know Yourself Best

via Unsplash

If you’re like most healthy individuals in the modern world, you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who for the most part, mean well. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, cashiers, the list goes on.

And whenever you get out there and share something about yourself with anyone, whether it’s what you plan to do for the day, where you plan to vacation next, what car you want to buy, who you plan to date, I’m willing to bet that whoever you share your little life tidbit with, that person will always offer an opinion, regardless of whether or not you’ve asked for one.

We are so quick to judge that we don’t even ask ourselves before speaking whether or not our opinion is warranted. Most of the time, we just want our voices to be heard and understood.

But of course, you will ruminate over it, at least a little bit, more so if this person has more stake in your well-being – coaches, parents, spouses, and children come to mind – or if this person has been in a similar situation before. Sometimes it’s convenient to let someone else decide your fate for you. Just let ourselves be blown by the wind, wherever it may take us.

People will always tell you what they think or what they would do if they were you. But they are not you. You are you.

You’ve lived at least a handful of years on this planet (if you’re reading this blog, anyway), and while you will not always make decisions that work out in your favor in the end, it’s more unfair to your acquaintances to place the burden of your fate on them. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t uneducated decisions. You should certainly do the best you can to recognize and acknowledge risks. And you should know that you are an ever-evolving, always dynamic, never entirely settled human being. In all likelihood, you’ll have different tastes, different dreams, and different friends over the course of your lifetime.

There is a reason why the top regret of the dying is not having lived the life true to oneself rather than the life that was expected. The social pressure we are subjecting ourselves just might not be worth the cost of regretting how we lived.

We must take responsibility for ourselves without forcing the burden of the consequences upon someone else. That is how we learn and, perhaps, in the scurry for a fulfilling life, reach a place of personal enlightenment.

Minimalism is  journey that is best undertaken with the support of fellow minimalists, as it is a concept not well understood by those who have not experienced it. But you are the only one who can decide if it is right for you. I write this as a way of supporting that journey, but you are always free to choose another path.

Knowing that, I hope, is freeing.

Signs that Minimalism is Working for You

Via Pixabay

I’ve been rocking the minimalist mindset for a few years now. I had gotten myself deep in clutter during my early 20’s and resolved to change it around 24 or so. Growing up, I had picked up my mom’s habit of never throwing away anything for the sake of not being wasteful. A virtuous reason, but not without its consequences. It took me a long time to realize that my time spent cleaning up and organizing my things was also wasteful, and buying more and more stuff was only adding to the pile. Watch The True Cost and you’ll get a not so rosy picture of the hidden tolls behind our consumption habits (the montage of young teenagers showing off their shopping “hauls” on YouTube stuck with me, but here’s an example of what I mean).

Not everything is bad, though. Minimalism when viewed from the outside is criticized as stark, idealistic, and full of sacrifice. When I first heard of tthe  concept, my immediate reaction was defensive. How many things am I allowed to own to be a “minimalist?” How can I be without my things? What if I regret throwing something away? Who would I be without my treasured possessions? So I tip-toed into the journey tentatively, slowly – not quite Marie Kondo style where you go all in, but as the journey has progressed, I’ve noticed quite a few things.

1. Cleaning takes less time. I used to get tremendous joy from the act of cleaning up and organizing. It gave me a sense of accomplishment – as moving around and other forms of exercise usually dies. But it honestly gets old after a while. It’s a bandaid solution to the problem of why does my home get so dirty so easily that it warrants cleaning it so much? Now that there is so little stuff to put away, all it is is some scrubbing and vacuuming of stray bits of dirt and hair every couple weeks and my place is still largely spotless.

2. You no longer have a need to “organize” things. Everything has its place. Stuff that gets used is returned to their places. But for a while, I spent a lot of time perusing The Container Store, looking for ways to better organize all of my stuff.

Then it hit me: Silly Meg – You don’t need more organizing solutions. You just need fewer things that need organizing. I think my dad said it best when he exclaimed that it was ridiculous that I was buying containers for things that already came with free containers. Decanting is generally an aesthetic exercise (unless you buy in bulk).

Not that an utter lack of thoughtful design in your home isn’t valuable – because it is very much a way of creating a sanctuary you actually want to be in – but reducing the stuff removes some of the need for it. I haven’t had to organize makeup since I switched to rubbing some argan oil on my face when it gets dry. If I need makeup I can borrow it from someone who uses it more often so I don’t need to blow money on something I only use a few times a year.

3. Less time looking for things. When you know where everything is, and your system prevents stuff from getting misplaced, then you won’t need to look for things as often. Given the ridiculous amount of time and panic we put ourselves through looking for our things, clearing out all of the hiding places will make what we do own more easily accessible.

4. A decreased need, and desire, to go “shopping.” With fewer things comes fewer maintenance tasks, and fewer tools needed for those maintenance tasks. With how much thought I put into purchases these days, and how little desire I have to get into my car and drive, it’s no surprise that I rarely go to the mall these days.

5. …and subsequently, a change in your spending habits. With less stuff needing maintenance and care, my trips to Target whittled down from once every two weeks to once a month. Purchases made on a whim were reduced as I got more thoughtful about what would make the cut to live in my home. The price of maintaining, storing, moving, and disposing of the item and subsequent environmental impacts are all questions I’d ask myself before handing over any cash. What I do spend my money on – classes, books, travel, gifts for others –  is all tied to innate desires and goals rather than buying stuff that I’ll get tired of in a few months.

6. Less bumping into things – less stubbing of toes, accidentally whacking an elbow, stepping on odds and ends, knocking over decorative knickknacks, and other annoyances. Helpful for adults, children, and older adults too. With a clear floor, there isn’t just room to walk, but room to dance!

7. More time to ponder life. Ohh, this one is huge. Somehow, I’ve gotten myself into a situation where I’m getting identity crises on a weekly basis. With less time living life on autopilot mode (cycling through routines without any break), I’ve gotten more and more thoughtful about how I want to live, which leads to me questioning my thoughts, behaviors, and actions more thoroughly. Living with intention has thus become a habit.

8. More space in your brain. This leads to more calmness of mind, as you have fewer things that call for your attention and valuable brain energy. There are only so many things you can deal with at any one time, and Type A personalities like me tend to forget that. You’ll then also be more able to comprehend difficult subjects or run your brain through something mentally challenging.

9. You’re more efficient with your time. I suddenly found that I was spending so much less time doing mindless, unsatisfying tasks, and spending more time on things that have proved fulfilling. The workout equivalent for me would be the mindless 30-minutes-on-a-treadmill workout vs the lifting progressively heavier weights workout, where I can see and feel progress.

10. You’re happier . This is the bottom line, right? All of these enhancements should lead you to become a happier, more fulfilled human being. If it’s not working out this way, then perhaps there is another type of change that needs to happen. Minimalism is just a means to an end.

On Belonging

via Pixabay

I’ve read no fewer than two articles on the subject of belonging this week (here and here). These days, I sense that with the superabundance of digital content being published at a rate faster than our mind can even begin to comprehend let alone process, our world has careened into a sort of identity crisis. It’s no wonder, witnessing so many opinions and beliefs flying around in the playing field, all the while being bludgeoned and battered by the unfortunate triad of fake news, cyber-bullying, and clickbaity sensationalist news headlines.

Every community, culture, and social construct stems from a system of beliefs and principles. They manifest in the form of behaviors, tendencies, aesthetics, and practices, eventually evolving into traditions. People feel pride in the adopting the traditions and customs of a particular social group or culture – it is in essence a framework, a mold, that we can conveniently use as a guide – an instruction book on how to live life. Yet, I fear that our tendency to gravitate towards assigning ourselves a predefined template for our personalities will steer us away from blazing our own trail and delight of celebrating our ever-evolving selves. We resist potential growth opportunities if we stubbornly cling to steadfast ideas, rooting ourselves firmly, mistakenly believing that such resoluteness is a indication of strength and honor.

It is much easier to declare that you fit the mold of a Hogwarts house, or the personality of  a Game of Thrones character, or a Myers-Briggs personality type, than to express your persona in your own unique way. But when confronted with the idea that *gasp* you could be dabbling in some of this identity, and some of that identity, and those distinctions make you fit not-so-neatly into the box, you’ll naturally find yourself at odds with where you belong and who you really are. Multiracial individuals, multicultural families, individuals living in foreign lands, and first-generation immigrants experience these difficult feelings all the time.

Why should we so quickly ascribe ourselves to a particular group or entity, when we could be remembered as our own unique selves instead?

Why don’t we stop thinking that other people aren’t legit enough to be considered a part of a certain group?

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to be that person with an asterisk-worth story to tell?

Why don’t we make it our goal to draw inspiration from bits and pieces of cultures and entities, and form our own beautifully messy path, instead?

For starters, I am an Asian woman who is neither petite nor delicate. I bike to work and regularly do pull-ups – not to show the world that I can “defy stereotypes,” but simply because being strong is healthy and increases my quality of life. I tend towards math and science, but art and language are equally intriguing to me, so I eagerly treat myself to crafting blog posts and appreciation of modern architecture and design – not because I’m supposed to be academic, but because I am genuinely interested. I take care of domestic chores – not because it’s my tendency/duty as a woman – but because like most people, I would rather live in a clean house than a dirty one.

In reality, I don’t feel the need to justify these behaviors. What’s the point? No one really cares about the justifications. They just want the answers. They just want to know you as That person who Does X, or Is Y.

And psst most people really just want your validation. Imagine everyone walking around with a sign that says, “Make me feel important.” You don’t owe them anyone an explanation of why you are so uniquely you, but of course, it is your freedom to do so anyway.

I hope that the willingness to be comfortable with purpose and change (as opposed to the whimsical and fickle change that drives people crazy) will make us stronger as individuals. which, in turn, will enable us to strengthen the communities we leave our mark in, regardless of whether or not we “belong.”

 

How To Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 3 – East Fjords & North to Mývatn)

Welcome back! This post is a continuation of my Ring Road Self-Drive planning series. Part 3 will take you up the east and through northeast Iceland. There is so much to see and so many options for hiking and sightseeing that this itinerary will hopefully be more of an outline that you can use to fill in the gaps.

Day 3 (optional+1): Höfn to Egilsstaðir

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
1
Drive to Djúpivogur
1.5
104
2
Take a break in Djúpivogur/visit egg sculpture
0.2
-
3
Drive to Breiðdalsvík
1
64
4
Rest in Breiðdalsvík
0.2
-
5
Drive to Fáskrúðsfjörður
1
47
6
Rest in Fáskrúðsfjörður
0.2
-
7
Drive to Reyðarfjörður
0.4
22
8
Rest in Reyðarfjörður
0.2
-
9
Drive to Egilsstaðir
0.5
34
10
Rest in Egilsstaðir -or- continue to next step
0.2
-
11
If daylight hours permit, drive to Seyðisfjörður
0.5
27
12
Have dinner in Seyðisfjörður
2
-
13
Stay in Seyðisfjörður or drive back to Egilsstaðir
0.5
27
14
[option] If staying an additional day, explore Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir region
-
-
TOTAL
8.4
325
Details

Driving the East Fjords is a pretty straightforward task. There aren’t many “attractions” to stop for per se, but you’ll probably end up looking for turnouts so you can capture photos of the majestic scenery. This section of the road is in a more remote part of Iceland, with small fishing towns dotting your route.

Before leaving Höfn, be sure to fill up on gas if you’re running low. The stretches of road are long and I wouldn’t risk getting an empty tank on these roads. Restock on groceries if you have to, then leave Höfn and continue on your way northeast. The glacier outlets crawling down the mountains slowly fade from view as you turn north, route 1 starting to hug the coast, a path that avoids cutting straight through the rugged wildness and endangering it from human contact. Instead of lava fields, hot springs, and glaciers, you’ll be bestowed with a superb, if not a little scary, coastal drive. I sincerely wish you the best of luck that weather is in your favor.

This photo look familiar?

Cliffs on both sides of you, you’ll drive through a couple of relatively shallow fjords with 180 degree views of steep mountains, carved by mighty Vatnajökull. I hope you have a wide angle lens here – otherwise, a panorama will do. I certainly have not mastered fjord photography.

But I can try, no? Also, look at how quickly clouds just come in to cast shadows on your photos.

Djúpivogur: The first town on your way to Egilsstaðir. There is a museum here and a strange egg sculpture called Eggin í Gleðivík. If you’re on an exceptionally relaxed pace with money and time to burn, consider a side trip to Papey Island – 4 hour tours leave from here. I think the Westman Islands would be a more worthwhile side trip, but not having been to either, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Otherwise, outside of maybe scouting out a WC and a hot dog, continue on your way.

These are eggs of different bird species in Iceland!

Breiðdalsvík: After getting a taste of fjord driving, you’ll make it to the next town. Here, you have a choice of either continuing on Route 1 to Egilsstaðir or continuing through the fjords on Route 96 and optionally, Route 92. Either one you choose, there will be a part of the route that is unpaved. I originally planned to continue on Route 96, and my host at Höfn confirmed that it was the correct choice. Route 1 goes up a steep mountain pass that is rumored to be quite scary, being a gravel road with occasional lack of guard railings.

Not much to do in this town, though there is a hotel and a summer-only cafe, so continue on your way.

Fáskrúðsfjörður: If you have 5 hours to kill, consider hiking up the magnificent 743m high rhyolite mountain Sandfell before you get to this town. I haven’t done this hike personally, but judging from internet photos, it looks like a splendid hike. On that note – don’t be afraid of considering more hikes in the region – there are plenty of choices. I wish I could write about them here, but that brochure I linked should help you customize your trip to include some outdoor activities.

Continue on.

Tired of fjords yet?

Reyðarfjörður: King of the fjords, this town sits in the longest and widest fjord of the east. There is a war museum here and some options for accommodation. Not a bad place to stay for a night, but if you’re staying further north, continue on your way.

Fjord water

Unless you’re driving up through more fjords on Route 92, you’ll depart the coast and drive up through a mountain pass and eventually be rewarded with a splendid view of the valley Egilsstaðir sits in.

Egilsstaðir valley

Egilsstaðir: You made it! I booked accommodation at Kaldá Lyngholt Holiday Homes which rents out mini cabin guesthouses. Kaldá is a wonderfully hospitable host and the cabins are clean and super cute. If your trip includes more east fjord exploration, consider staying more than a night to cover as much of the region as you can, as there is much to explore.

If you have more daylight hours, I suggest making an extra trip to Seyðisfjörður to have dinner, nestled just over a mountain.

Seyðisfjörður: Seyðisfjörður has become something of a tourist-town, so there is plenty to explore, including shops, restaurants, and indoor hot tubs. I had the most scrumptious gluten-free chocolate cake of my life in this town at the restaurant Skaftfell Bistro.  The drive itself is super scenic and you’ll get a fabulous view of the fjord as you descend down the mountain. If you’re staying in Egilsstaðir, you do have to go in and out the same way. Alas, I don’t have much to say about this area, but I’m certain other blogs have more information.

It’s a work of art!

I do wish I had more time in Seyðisfjörður, because we arrived quite late and didn’t have a chance to walk around much. There are quite a few hiking trails, some of which lead to waterfalls. If you are visiting in the summertime, I  would recommend spending another day in this region if the weather is good just to partake in some of the hiking and having some more time to explore the region.

Day 4 (optional+1): Egilsstaðir to Mývatn

Itinerary
Step
Description
Time (hours)
Distance (km)
1
From Egilsstaðir: Drive to Dettifoss
2
128
2
Visit Dettifoss (depends on weather)
1
-
3
Drive to Krafla/Víti Crater
0.8
53
4
Visit Krafla/Víti
1
-
5
Drive to Hverir
0.15
10
6
Visit Hverir
0.5
-
7
Drive to Grjótagjá (turn left onto 860)
0.1
4.5
8
Visit Grjótagjá
0.6
-
9
Drive to Hverfjall (cont. on 860 to Rt. 1)
0.2
7
10
Visit Hverfjall
1.5
-
11
Drive to Dimmuborgir
0.15
4
12
Visit Dimmuborgir
1
-
13
Drive to Skútustaðagígar
0.12
11
14
Visit Skútustaðagígar
0.6
-
14
Stay in Mývatn area
-
-
TOTAL
9.3
218
Details

Before you read this section – there are a lot of ways to tackle this section, and because I traveled only in the shoulder season, a lot of the roads were blocked or partially covered in an impassable mixture of snow and mud – I can only talk about what I’ve experienced, but as I’ve researched, I’ve found other places I didn’t consider, so I’ve included options below that I have not personally gone to just so that you can be aware of them. I also did not put them in my suggested itinerary, so how you decide to fit them in is up to you. I’ve indicated those attractions with an “option” tag. More information and photos can be found here – an excellent site for your planning.

Today you will drive to Mývatn (vatn means “lake”), a geothermal region that is home to a Blue Lagoon lookalike, Mývatn Nature Baths, among a lot of other geothermal phenomena. The earth’s crust is thin here, which makes for a  gold mine of natural attractions. There are quite a few attractions in this area, so I’d recommend staying somewhere in the vicinity. Enjoy the scenery as you drive through the mountains – there is a lot of beauty here.

Not an attraction…but I stumbled upon this weird blockage of sorts while exploring the valley.

When I visited, the elevation definitely changed a bunch. Due to the recent snowstorm, I felt like I was really in the arctic.

Cooooooool

Check your map, but after about 100 km or so, start to watch out on your right side for the road that will lead to Dettifoss. There are actually two – 864, which is unpaved, and 862, which is paved. 864 will have a better view, but it is gravelly and more dangerous. Google automatically makes you take 862, but if you are blessed with great weather and clear roads, you may prefer 864 for its view.

Dettifoss: Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It is fed by – you guessed it -the mighty Vatnajökull which colors the water gray due to the volcanic silt that it carries with it. During shoulder seasons, you may find yourself unable to walk much of the paths here. When I visited in mid/late April, the entire area was covered in snow and most of the trail was too muddy and slippery, so the authorities fenced it off so visitors couldn’t get too close. It was also super foggy due to the mist and there was not much to see.

What an unfortunate view…:(

From Route 1, there are two ways to get to Dettifoss: Route 862 and Route 864. 864 is the closer one if you’re going counterclockwise around the ring road. Which side is better is a debate that has been addressed. 864 is an unquestionably better view – you can see the entirety of the horseshoe part of the falls, where 862 will only get you a partially obstructed view. I was only able to take 862 at the time I visited due to snow obstructing the other road. On the other hand, 862 is also a paved road where 864 is gravel and a bit more dangerous to drive.

Dettifoss is reminiscent of Niagara Falls. It has an “American Falls” and basically its own Horseshoe Falls. No, seriously.

I mean, maybe without the vertical basalt walls.

Definitely a better visit in the summertime, in my opinion, especially because driving so far off the road (and back) is not worth it if you can’t see much of the falls.

[option] Ásbyrgi: If you plan to drive all the way around 862 and 864, you can’t really miss a visit to this gorgeous horseshoe canyon. I personally have not gone (probably something you can only access easily in the summer if you’re driving Route 1), but from what I can see in the photos, it’s worth a visit. Also worth noting is that this area (862/864) is all part of Jökulsárgljúfur. More information about things to do in this area – WAY more than I can provide you at this moment in time – can be found here. If you are traveling in the summertime, you might want to spend one day exploring this entire region and spending the next day in Mývatn, because the distance around 862 and 864 (and 85 at the northernmost part) is about 80 miles (127+ km). Considering the amount of stopping to sightsee and hiking you’ll be doing, there’s not a ton of time to get to Mývatn and do it justice. Also…if you are planning to go whale watching in Húsavík, then you will definitely need another day if you want to thoroughly visit Mývatn.

If so, continue driving north onto route 85, circling the coast, until you get to Húsavík.

[option] Húsavík: This town is popular for its popular whale-watching tours, though I personally did not do one. You would probably need to stay an additional day to be able to fit this in your itinerary, because the tours are about 3-4 hours long, and you’ll definitely want to be there earlier to find a place to park and settle in. You can also stay here overnight and then drive down Routes 85 and Route 87 to Mývatn.

[not optional, though I did not visit] Krafla & Víti (Hell): Regrettably I was not able to visit Krafla and its jewel blue crater lake as there was too much snow on the road and I would’ve had to walk a considerable distance to the trailhead. From all the sources I’ve read, people have recommended not to skip over Krafla, and some say that Víti is more stunning than Mývatn itself.

The road to the next attraction, the geothermal field Hverir, is only mere few km down the road.

Hverir: Right off the ring road are these walking paths surrounded by bubbly mud pots and boiling hot springs. Hverir is the hot spring region at the base of Námafjall. This highly active area is reminiscent of Yellowstone. It’s not too far off Route 1, so it’s worth a visit if you’ve never been to Yellowstone before. It’s pretty cool to look at the steaming mountain nearby. Don’t worry too much if you don’t end up visiting it – there are plenty of geothermal attractions in Reykjanes that are pretty similar – though I got a kick out of seeing these:

Not pictured: SSHHHHSHHHSHHSH

The pile of rocks is funneling the steam and making a loud hissing sound. You can walk right up to it – at the time I visited, it was not fenced off.

Not far from here is a place where you soak in a less crowded version of the Blue Lagoon.

[option] Mývatn Nature Baths: This is North Iceland’s version of the Blue Lagoon – it’s essentially a smaller version of the same attraction in a different place. I did not personally visit it, but I’ve heard that it is cheaper than the Blue Lagoon and less crowded (given how difficult it is to get entrance to the Blue Lagoon nowadays, this is a viable alternative).

There is a nondescript road to the next attraction that loops into route 848 that goes around the lake (I tried to outline it using the dotted line on my map), but if you want, stop by Reykjahlíð to stock up on groceries and gas first.

Grjótagjá: Google has trouble navigating here, so you’ll need to look for the sign closely. – it is easy to miss. The famous Game of Thrones season 3 sex scene was filmed in this little cave with a completely natural, absolutely stunning geothermal pool. When I visited, there were some other people taking a dip inside the pool. It is a bit tricky to climb  into the cave – you’ll definitely need to be careful not to slip and crack your head open on rocks. This cave was formed by a lava fissure and the water is still being heated to a bathing-friendly temperature by the lava deep underground. Definitely stop by this cave if you can and bring your swimwear!

Sorry…I don’t have good pictures…but look!

Continue driving south until you reach the entrance to the impossible-to-miss tuff volcano, Hverfjall.

Hverfjall: The road to Hverfjall is full of potholes, so be gentle with your 2-wheel-drive if you rented one. This was difficult to walk up in mid-April – the trail was difficult to find underneath all the slushy snow and mud (another situation in which appropriate footwear will earn its worth). But this adorable tuff ring volcano is a sight to behold – it’s not terribly tall, so you can still hike up the slope without too much trouble if you’re in decent shape. It’s quite gravelly though, so be prepared to get some rocks in your shoes if you’re not wearing proper boots. It’ll take you about 15-20 minutes to hike up, and over an hour to get all the way around it.

Mr. Donut Volcano is best enjoyed from the top or from far away.

Dimmuborgir Lava Fields (“Dark Fortress”): All sorts of shapes and sizes of jagged lava rock. It was hard to get to at the time I went, and roads were mostly muddy and gravelly. I skipped this one when I visited, but I would definitely check it out next time.  Don’t worry too much if you miss it – there are other areas with lava rock formations, especially just off the road!

Skútustaðagígar: There is a walking path around these funny looking pseudocraters. These are created when steam bursts through the ground during a volcanic event. Try to resist the temptation to walk over the fenced off areas.

In all honesty, seeing them from far away is cooler.

If you did everything up to this point, congratulations, that’s a lot of stuff in one day. If the weather is good and the roads are clear, I actually recommend that you only do some of them and then go back the next day to finish them off so you don’t feel rushed.

Continue around to Vindbelgjarfjall if you want to take a 2-3 hour hike to a splendid 360 degree view of the lake.

[option] Vindbelgjarfjall: Labeled as Vindbelgur on the sign, this is a 2.4 km hike to a fine bird’s eye view of Mývatn from the summit of an extinct volcano. I added this in for the active people out there. I didn’t hike this, but it’s another activity you can add to your itinerary if you’re out of things to do (which is unlikely).

A note about dinner: the Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe is AWESOME. It’s a farm-to-table restaurant here you can eat super fresh dairy and check out the cows you get it from.

“Geysir bread” – bread that is baked underground by an all-natural heat source…the geothermal heat!

Stay in the Mývatn area – there should be plenty of options for accommodation if you book early enough. If you’re visiting in the winter, I hope you get to see the northern lights, as they are quite stunning with the reflection of the lake.

Well…it’s supposed to be a lake, anyway. But we saw a lot of snow.

Stay tuned for part 4, where we cover more of north Iceland, including an epic drive around the monstrous Tröllaskagi peninsula.

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