A week in the Land of Fire and Ice

I am convinced that Iceland is one of the top five most beautiful countries in the world. It’s vast landscape varying from incredible mountains, about 130 volcanoes, to glaciers and plains of nothing. Its Hekla Volcano is the place where Director Ridley Scott chose to use as his planet in the “darkest corners of the universe” in his film “Prometheus.” I had the pleasure of spending 8 days there in early April 2015 and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

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I arrived at the airport in Reykjavik and it didn’t take too long before I found a local waiting to pick up his girlfriend who happened to fly in on my flight. I sat down a seat a away from him and started talking to him, told him that I was hoping to find someone heading toward the city and he said as long as it was okay with his girlfriend, I could ride with them as far as they were heading. I caught a second ride that took me into the city and started exploring.

It wasn’t long until Iceland’s weather started showing itself and there was a full out hail blizzard. For about ten minutes. Then it was decent, only snow flurries and a bit of wind. I even saw some blue in the sky instead of grey clouds. The saying goes, “If you like the weather in Iceland, wait 10 minutes,” and it’s true, ten minutes later, the hail storm was back.

I ended up staying in a hostel my first night to avoid the weather. I met a group of travelers from all over and hung out with them. We ended up being a group of five and since the beginning of April is the end of the Aurora season, went hunting for a dark spot to try to see the lights. It reminded me why I do not like traveling in groups, decisions are so slow to be made. The hunt was unsuccessful.

þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

The following night I was scheduled to couch surf with a local, Petur, and his son for a couple of nights. It was absolutely great, the Icelandic people are so kind and welcoming. He took me to a local thermal pool, a much more budget-friendly version of the Blue Springs that everyone raves about. I didn’t see the point in spending about six times as much when the local thermal pools are where the locals are. It was very relaxing, indoor and out, different pools of different temperatures, depths, it had jets and even a water slide. He prepared traditional snacks and a “filler” dinner, a kind of rice pudding that I enjoyed, but Iceland isn’t known for it’s food, so it wasn’t something to write home about. He introduced me to his vinyl collection and I listened to his album “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens about fifty times. On my second night with him, I used his spare key to go watch the night sky in hopes of seeing the lights. The forecast was unusually high and I was lucky enough to be able to lay out under the stars and watch the Lights dance across the sky for a few hours before I became too sleepy and returned to the apartment.

Petur told me that he believed that in the country side, I could knock on a few doors and about half of the locals would open their doors to me and invite me in for a night, so after my two nights with him, I set out to hitch hike the famous Golden Ring Route and spend my nights in random locals homes. I received two rides with locals before I arrived at my first destination; Þingvellir National Park. During one of my rides, the woman let me see how the locals view nature. She told me about the mountain on the opposite side of the harbor from Reykjavik. She told me that “She” was wearing her White Dress and that she must have an extraordinary closet because throughout the year she wears so many different dresses filled with so many different colors. Many believe in invisible elves, trolls, and other creatures. It’s just another reason why I love this country.

Geysir

Here at the Þingvellir National Park is where I met Shaniece, a awesome person and the best police woman I’ve ever met. She was from Virginia and was traveling for the first time by herself. We had the same plan, so I was able to catch a ride with her. We ended up spending four incredible days together. We continued on the route and came across some Icelandic horses, stopped to try to pet them and met a couple of ladies from Los Angeles, Danielle and Laura. Danielle is the stage director of Marvel on Ice and helped produce the awesome Power Rangers Reboot while Laura is an editor at Playboy. Having been a huge Power Rangers fan growing up, I was a bit star-struck. We met up with the two again at the next stop, the geothermal area that contains the famous “Geysir” and “Strokkur,” and the four of us became fast friends. Geysir erupts hot water into the air up to 100ft every 10 minutes or so and is where our word “geyser” comes from. We continued onto our final stop in the Golden Ring, the Gulfoss Waterfall with the ladies in tow.

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Danielle and Laura returned to Reykjavik for the rest of their trip while Shaniece and I continued onto the village of Vik, population about 200, where Shaniece had booked her hotel. We spent two nights here and this is where my hopes of finding kind locals would come in. After exploring the beach and agreeing on what time to meet up in the morning, Shaniece and I parted for the night. I went knocking on the doors of the village. The fifth person to answer their door was an older local lady, Lara, she was home alone, her husband wasn’t going to be home for a few hours, but to my delightful surprise, she almost instantly said yes and showed me to the spare bedroom downstairs.

Lara was so kind. I came upstairs to ask about the bed covers and she offered me crackers and hot chocolate. She made me the best home made hot chocolate you could imagine, I had never seen anyone make it with a bar of chocolate and milk, it was amazing. We talked for about an hour. She told me about her daughter, Doctor in Sweden, her son, a fisherman, and her career as a elementary school teacher. She was retired and about to go visit her daughter. She told me that she wished she could have traveled more when she was young, but ended up getting married and having a family, so she was unable to. I felt bad she hadn’t been able to travel as much as she’d wanted to and I hope I’ll be able to make my reader’s travel dreams come true. Lara was even more optimistic about the locals welcoming spirits than Petur, she felt 3/4 people would welcome someone into their home rather than Petur’s estimate 1/2.

Sadly, at least in Vik, tourists are ruining this culture. The next night, I heard a very opposite view. The seventh door I knocked on was the home of Aran and his wife Eva, two local police officers. When I asked Aran if they would welcome me into their home for the night, he went and discussed it with Eva, and I heard her say Couch Surfing. I informed them that I am a Couch Surfer and that made them feel confident enough to invite me in. We talked for about an hour or so before it got too late. They had once had an account to host, but were immediately overwhelmed by the vast amount of requests they received and ended up closing the account. They informed me that at one point, it was true, nearly anyone would let a traveler stay with them for a night rather than be left outside in the cold, but tourism has grown so fast that it has become common for the hotel and hostel in the village to fill up, even in the off season, so many people come to their doors knocking. On top of this, tourists walk onto local’s lawns and look into their homes as if they’re at a museum. The locals are becoming jaded. We must respect property and privacy if we want to even hope for locals to be kind and welcoming.

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Shaniece and I at Jökulsárlón,

During the second day with Shaniece, we made a long trip to Jökulsárlón, an amazing glacier bay where we got to walk on the most idyllic glaciers. We got extremely lucky, during our two days in the South, we experienced really good weather for Iceland at that time, while Danielle and Laura were suffering grey skies, rain storms, and roads being shut down due to the weather. After Jökulsárlón, we finished our day off with a trip to the Skaftafell National Park to see Svartifoss, or Black Waterfall.

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Svartifoss, AKA Black Waterfall

When we returned to Vik and I found Aran and Eva to spend the night with, I was given an awesome offer. Eva was going to the local horse stables in the morning where they kept their horses and asked if Shaniece and I would like to ride. Horseback riding is a big attraction, Icelandic horses are unique, very cute, and it has been illegal for any horse to enter Iceland for over 130 years to preserve its genetic purity. That includes any horse that has left the country from re-entering. With a bit of struggle, I woke Shaniece up and off we went to meet Eva.

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On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at a few places we’d wanted to on the way to Vik but didn’t have time to. We went to Reynisfjara first, AKA Black Sand Beach, where there are rock formations similar to the Black Waterfall’s formations. We struggled but succeeded to find a crashed airplane from years ago that the government decided to leave. We saw multiple more waterfalls including the huge Skogafoss fall and finished off our tour with the frozen Kerið Crater Lake. The GPS took us down a wrong road and we ended up walking through woods and foot high snow to find the fenced back entrance. Someone inside told us we had to go around and pay to enter, but we decided it would be easy enough just to go through the fence, and who would know?

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After our final stops, we made it back to Reykjavik for my final day and Shaniece’s last couple. We kept in touch with Danielle and Laura and ended up meeting up with them at a bar for trivia. Danielle was meeting up with an old friend of her boss who had been living in Iceland for the past 10 years after falling in love with a local. He owned an acting school and is a radio host. He ended up winning the trivia and treating The ladies and I to drinks with his winnings. He was also a couch surfing host and ended up spending the night with his girlfriend and allowed me to stay in his home for the night. We also met another couple of awesome people and we all hung out well past the end of trivia. It was a great night.

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The next day, I started hitch hiking to the airport to catch my flight the next morning. I started going to gas stations and just ask people if I could have a ride because I was not having much luck with my signs. It took longer than I expected, but after a few rides, I finally came across a government official who was heading close to the airport. It was pouring rain out, so he didn’t think I would have much luck catching another ride, so he kindly decided to take me the final 10 or so miles to my destination. At the airport, I was dumbfounded. I had never seen an airport with signs that said no sleeping or eating in the airport, but here they were. I realized I needed to find a hidden area where no one would notice I was sleeping because I did not want to go back out into the rainstorm to try to sleep for the night. I found the restrooms and was very happy to see that the doors to the stall were from the ground to the ceiling and the stall were big enough to lay down in. I had my own private suite. Another traveler had the suite two doors down.

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Iceland was amazing and I can’t wait to go back and experience it in the summer. Being so far in the northern hemisphere, on June 21, it’s longest day, the sun sets just after midnight and rises before 3AM, so there is nearly 24 hours per day to explore this gorgeous and incredible country.

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Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua

I arrived at Quetzal Trekkers headquarters in Leon, Nicaragua at 7:30AM, a half hour before we were scheduled to leave. I found a group of four girls waiting outside for the door to open, and after a minute, we were all welcomed inside. I made the reservation with Quetzal Trekkers the day before by calling their office, and once inside, I told the man at the desk my name and he handed me the safety release form to fill out. I put my backpack in a locked room for the day and was given the gear I would use for the day. The gear was in a yellow stuff sack and composed of a yellow jump suit, gloves, goggles, and a filled two liter bottle of water. After another woman and man arrived and we all said our general introductions and at 8, we all climbed into the truck and started on the hour-long ride to one of the youngest volcano’s in the world; Cerro Negro!

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Upon arrival at Cerro Negro, we all climbed out of the truck and were officially introduced to our volcano-boarding-boards! These are pretty much just a piece of wood with a metal plate on the bottom and a wooden-tile kind of finish at the back to help it slide down the volcano, and on the top, two pieces of wood nailed on to prevent sliding off and a rope to hold onto. Once we were all out and had our boards, our tour guides, johnny and Rachel, started explaining the safety rules of going down the volcano. There are no ambulances or hospitals around, so although the guides have first aid kits, it is always a good idea not to get hurt. They explained that the best way to go down is sitting at the back of the board, holding the rope with both hands while your feet are off the sides of the board to control speed and stability. Another way to control speed is by leaning forward and back, the further back you lean, the faster you will go and vice versa. Johnny also said that if we want to ignore their safety rules, that was fine too…

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Rachel showing us how to sled

After we all said we understand the rules, we started on the hour-long hike up the rocky volcano. It was more difficult than expected; the rocks on the trail were unstable and every step was a struggle not to slip and gain leverage for the next step. We stopped about every 10 minutes, a total of four times, to make sure everyone was hydrated – on the second hike up, one of the ladies in the group fainted from a mixture of dehydration and anxiety, but after a few minutes of laying down and hydration, she was back up and ready to ride again! When we made it to the point we slide down, we put our gear down and continued onto the peak of the volcano.

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The rocky terrain of Cerro Negro
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The peak is just to the left

After taking some photos and enjoying the view, we all went back to suit up and get ready to fly! We all put on our yellow jumpsuits and once Rachel and Johnny were half way down the volcano to provide help if needed, one of the girls asked, “So, who’s first?” and the other man said, “How about the crazy one?” Well, I had just been nominated, not that I was not going to offer anyways! Remember when Johnny said that if we did not want to follow the safety rules, it was fine? Well, I have a habit of trying to do everything the most extreme way, so while most people go down on their butts as recommended, I tried to surf it!

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Our yellow jumpsuits!Screenshot_2014-06-09-13-20-19

Looks pretty good doesn’t it? Notice the people in the background; I had not actually started gaining any real speed yet. When I finally started, I started to regret trying to surf it, I was pretty much sitting on my feet, holding the rope in one hand and trying to maintain stability and speed with my one free hand – the hand that was holding my Gopro. Along with dragging my camera, in its case, through the rocks of Cerro Negro for about two minutes, leaving it nearly unusable, I also was nearly sideways the whole time because of the resistance on once side and on the way down, johnny called out to me, “Did you remember anything we told you?” I also ended up much dirtier than anyone else in the group! Luckily, on the second time down, I gave my camera, out of its case, to Rachel to record me; sledding this time.

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While not as extreme as surfing it, I gained a whole lot more speed and enjoyed it 100x more! Because it is necessary to use your feet to maintain stability, they end up shooting rocks at you the entire way down, everyone ends up with tons of small rocks in their hair and dirt all over; I even coughed up a rock! The experience was incredible, definitely a bit of an adrenaline rush, although if it is not a big enough rush for you, it is possible to take a bike to the park and ride a bicycle down the volcano; you can even try to break the record speed of 172KM/H! If you decide to do this, it is about 30KM ride away from Leon to the volcano and only a $5 entrance fee into the park, so you can save money too!

I decided to go with Quetzal Trekkers instead of some other, more popular and populated tour groups for a few reasons; first, they are a not-for-profit organization, all of the guides are volunteers, and also rent their boards from another not-for-profit called Sonati Tours. Second, unlike the other companies, they give two opportunities to go down the volcano instead of one, so at $30 per person, which is the average price, they are definitely the best value. Third, the smaller group of 7 was much more enjoyable, calm and easy to be with over the other, larger, louder, and more chaotic groups of around 20, such as the popular Bigfoot Hostel group. At the end, they fed us a delicious lunch of vegetable sandwiches, I had 4, along with cookies and like the other companies, they gave us a free t-shirt. Rachel and johnny were both very nice and fun to spend the day with, I am really happy I decided to go with Quetzal Trekkers!

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Rachel, Johnny, and myself

I am currently communicating with Sonati Tours to get information about board rentals to solo travelers or small groups so to avoid the additional costs of the tour company, although they were definitely worth it and it does not seem there will be too much money to save either way!

Have you ever done an unusual type of boarding or tried to do something the harder way in hopes of it being more of an adrenaline rush and it ending up failing such as mine? Leave a comment; I love reading stories!

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My 15 Hours In Masaya National Park

I am just going to get it out-of-the-way; sometimes, I break the law. It is generally trespassing, but I can not say I have not broken other laws, especially the drinking law in the US, because after traveling and being allowed to drink, there is no going back! Now, if you want a blogger who follows all of the laws, is an upstanding world citizen, and travels in general luxury on around fifty dollars a day, then look somewhere else, because that is not The Travel Economist, but if you want a crazy blogger who travels on about ten dollars a day while having incredible and unique adventures, adventures that very few others will ever experience, adventures that you can not pay for (thankfully!) then you have found the right guy!

I had been up for two hours already (5.45AM)
I had been up for two hours already (5.45AM)

Around in the town of Masaya at around five-thirty at night and made my way over to the Masaya Naional Park entrance. I already knew that they were closed and that they have night tours, so I knew I was not going to legally get in that night, and if I did get in, I would have to watch out for the tour. The guard was still at the gate, so I asked him what time they open and closed and for a map of the park to study for the next day; not a complete lie! Then to pass the time, I walked over to the town of Nindiri to get some dinner and food for breakfast; I made it back over to the gate at 7.30. I found not one, but two guards at the gate and figured it would be nearly impossible to sneak past them, so I decided to go over and tell them the truth. I told them that I have no good place to camp for the night and if, even though the park is already closed, I could camp out there. I got the permission, and with that, I was legally in the park! But only to sleep in the restroom area right inside the gates. I figured, “no problem, they will not have guards here twenty-four hours a day!” – I was wrong! I never expected a national park to pay for guards all night long. After going to sleep in my sleeping bag at eight and waking up at three forty-five in the morning, I packed up my stuff and got ready to head into the park to reach the peak by sunrise, but right as I was leaving, the guard was coming! My heart raced and I quickly came up with a plan, I decided to set my stuff down and sit down next to it. If he asked, I would tell him I simply could not sleep, and packed up my stuff out of boredom so it would be ready for morning. Luckily, he just said, “Tranquillo?” (relaxing?) I told him, “Si” and he went on his way, an hour later, I was on my way!

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“Do Not Enter” has no meaning to me!

I walked for about an hour and a half before making it to the main crater. I walked to the left and saw a sign that read something like, “300MTS to caves, available with night tour by guide,” and headed down the road to it. There are some trails throughout the park, but most of it is a paved road. I walked down to the unmarked, but obvious, trail that led to the cave, and once I found it, followed the carved stairs into the cave created by the volcano. The photo above is not of the main cave, the main cave has a pretty big entrance and no signs, also, the trail ends at it, so it is not to be missed. After walking a minute into the cave, the only light was that of my headlamp, after a couple of minutes, I reached the main attraction – an area filled with a couple of hundred bats! This was my first experience in a bat cave, I have always wanted to get into one, but never had the chance, so this was amazing to me. I stayed in the cave, mesmerized by the bats, a bit nervous and very excited, for about a half hour before leaving due to a dying head lamp and the worry that someone would find my backpack that I left near the entrance to the trail as a precaution – if anything happened to me (having no helmet on,) then they could quickly find me knowing that someone must have taken the trail to the cave.

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In the bat cave formed by lava

When I headed back to retrieve my gear, I saw a man standing with it with a curious look on his face, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, I am in trouble.” When I reached him, he was not upset, he simply said to me that leaving my stuff there was dangerous – it was still only seven-thirty in the morning, the park was not supposed to open for another hour and a half and I did not expect anyone to show up for at least another half-hour, but he was a local, working with the cattle and horses that roamed the park and did not work directly for the park. I thanked him for looking out for my stuff and we went on our own ways; I, obviously, relieved and thanking God that he did not report me!

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I continued back up to the volcano area again, explored a bit more of the park, and at eight-thirty, started walking towards the entrance of the park. At just past nine O’clock, a van of workers passed me with the most curious looks as to why this tourist is coming down from the volcano only a few minutes after it opened, but, they did not stop. Others passed me in the same manner. When I finally reached the guard gate at just passed ten, I stepped over the chain that prevented cars from entering or exiting without paying, said, “adios” to the somewhat confused guard, and was on my way to my next destination having had free entrance into the park, and safe place to sleep, and a day of the park all to myself!

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I am not sure if this tactic is duplicable, it was difficult and relied on the main security boss’s decision to let me in and the guard at the gate being less than alert. As you can see below, there is a road that goes from thee Nindiri area following the Masaya Lagoon and into the parks camping area. I considered taking this route, but decided the distance was too far to go by myself at night and it was possible that I would not be able to get in that way anyway. The man who found my stuff along with a few others came in from the cave area, which leads me to believe that the route is able to be used to enter the park after closing and without having to worry about the guards, or by taking one of the roads from behind, such as the Panama road.

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There are two other options to having access to the park for the night; the first is to enter the park before three in the afternoon, you will then be allowed to enter because you have enough time to go to the top and back before five; while you are in the park, find one of thousands of different hiding spots to hide out at until around eight or later, the later, the better. At this time, all of the night tours and guards will be out of the park and at the main gate area or at the camping area. You then have access to the park to yourself.

The second option is to do as the first option, but, instead of hiding, register for the allocated camping area, and then, around two or three in the morning, sneak past the guard and into the park.

It is also important to note that during their rainy season, May-mid-November, often, the weather creates too much smoke in the volcano’s crater to be able to see the main attraction of the night tours – the glow of lava in the crater! I met a group who had just finished the night tour, and they could not see anything.

To enjoy the park legally;

Park opens: 9AM

Closes: 5PM

Night Tours: 5PM and 7:30PM $10

Entrance fee – non-residence – $4

So, have you had any close calls while trespassing or any similar situations to mine? Leave a comment and let me know, I would love to read about your stories!

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