Iceland seems to be the destination of choice these days. Advertising Executive, frequent traveler and my good friend,  JC Catibog recently travelled to Iceland and he was kind enough to answer some questions for The Traveling Titas of Manila.

Q: Where are you based and what is your occupation?

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for 5 years now. I work in advertising — I am the Managing Director of BBDO HK.

Q: What made you choose Iceland?

Two reasons: (1) I really wanted to see the Northern Lights and (2) I really wanted an exotic destination — a place that’s very different from the places I would usually choose for a vacation.

I looked at a couple of Scandinavian destinations wherein the Northern Lights appear, but there was something about Iceland’s “Land of Fire and Ice” nickname that intrigued me.

Q: How did you get to Iceland from HK?

A: There are no direct flights to Reykjavik from Hong Kong. I flew to Amsterdam first, then Reykjavik. I took Iceland’s budget airline, WOW.

JC Wow
The early morning flight from Amsterdam to Reykjavik was as uncomfortable as the plane, and some passengers reeked of weed!
Q: Do you need a Visa to enter Iceland? 

A: I hold a Philippine passport, so yes, I needed a Schengen visa.

Q: Briefly, what was your itinerary?

A: I was in Iceland for 7 days and 6 nights.

JC Days of Gray
7 days and 6 nights of gray skies and rain – as you will see in ALL my photos!
I arrived Reykjavik early afternoon of Day 1. I wanted to get over jet lag as quickly as I could, so I spent the day walking around the city. It’s rather small and compact. My hotel is right in the city center so it was easy to get to Haligrimskija Cathedral (see below) and the Sun Voyager sculpture.

JC Cathedral
A wee bit of a hike to get to the Haligrimskija Cathedral
Day 2: As with all the other days, I had an early start. I went to the glorious Blue Lagoon — a must-visit when in Iceland. Remember to book well in advance, as they get fully booked quite quickly. Had a delicious late lunch at the Lava restaurant before heading back to Reykjavik.

Day 3: I joined the 12-hour Snaefellsjokul Peninsula tour (with Reykjavik Excursions). We saw the Kirkjufell mountain, Snaefellsjokul glacier, and the Djupalonssandur black sand beach. To be honest, this is the tour that I was most underwhelmed (in relative terms) by. I thought that it was just a lot of cliffs. The black sand beach, though, was stunning. Be mindful of the waves – they are super dangerous.

JC Day 3

Day 4: I joined a tour of the Golden Circle conducted by Gateway to Iceland. This one, I enjoyed a lot. The day started with a quick trip to the Secret Lagoon (not so secret, if you ask me). We had a pleasant swim in a small but lovely hot spring. Then, we went to see the Thingvellir National Park (which a has a long and fascinating history!), the magnificent Gullfoss waterfalls, and the Geysir hot spring (have your camera ready!).

JC Park
The Thingvellir National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Center
A rift valley with its high cliffs makes Thingvellir National Park a magnificent natural backdrop for the open air parliamentary assembly (or Alþing) of Iceland, which was held there annually from around 930 AD to 1798.)

JC Horses Day 4
Cute, adorable but hardly Icelandic horses.
Owners leave them out in the cold all-year-round! They do not want to spoil these horses  or make them weak by giving them shelter.

Day 5: I joined a tour of South Iceland conducted by Arctic Adventures. We visited the Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls, the Reynisfjara black sand beach, and the Eyjafjallajokull (remember the one that erupted recently that put the whole of Europe at a standstill?) and Hekla volcanoes. These should be familiar to a lot of people as these were featured in a lot of Hollywood movies. The highlight of this trip was the glacier hike on the Solheimajokul glacier. The glacier sits on top of a most violent volcano that Icelanders, nonchalantly, say will erupt soon.

JC Day 5

Day 6: This was a very long trip (15-hours!) to see the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon (by Reykjavik Excursions). The trip was, definitely, worth it as the glaciers were otherworldly and magnificent. Along the way, we stopped by a beautiful hotel (Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon) for lunch. I saw the Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls again as it was on the way.

JC Day 6
Otherworldly glaciers
Q: What is the best time of year to go to Iceland?

A: Depends on what you want to see. You will only see the Northern Lights in winter. If you want to experience 24/7 sunlight, go in summer. I would imagine that a trip in summer would photograph beautifully.

Q: Can you navigate Iceland on your own or do you need a guide? Where was your base?

A: As I am a risk-averse traveler, I needed to join tour groups led by experienced guides. Some friends have tried driving and loved the freedom to explore.
The practical home base for me was at the center of Reykjavik. Bus pick up for the tours I joined was a just few meters away from my hotel.

Q: What are the prices like for food and accommodations?

A: Overall, Iceland is an expensive city to visit. A trip in winter would be cheaper (summer is their peak season), but still expensive compared to other vacation destinations.
Good news is, you don’t have to buy water! Cold water from the tap is super clean and refreshing. (Bad news is that hot water, because it’s geothermal, stinks! Hold your breath while taking your hot shower!)
Q: Describe the food scene, what was your favourite meal?

A: My goodness, the food is really very good! I did not really enjoy the traditional cuisine, but modern Icelandic cuisine is divine! Even hamburgers in pubs and lamb soup in bus stops are super-yummy. Check out Lava, Apotek and The Grill Market — these are my absolute favorites! I loved their lamb, beef and minke whale!

Q: Did you see the Northern Lights? If yes describe, If not, why not?

A: The weather being temperamental, I had to check every day (at around 6pm) whether there were tours to see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, because Iceland was experiencing its mildest winter in decades, there was a lot of rain and clouds. And since the Northern Lights require clear skies, I did not see the fabled Aurora Borealis. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my trip immensely! I do not have enough superlatives to describe the experience!


Q: How cold was it when you visited and what is the appropriate attire?

A: It wasn’t so cold when I was in Iceland (again, mildest winter in decades, so, 2-5 degrees Celsius). It was colder in Amsterdam! Again, the weather in Iceland is very temperamental. Have a down jacket, raincoat, waterproof boots, thick gloves, thick socks and a trapper hat (to protect your ears from cold wind) ready. Water-proof pants would’ve also been a good idea, I thought, especially when I saw some other tourists getting in and out of them in the bus. I brought thermal undies, but I ended up just using the top. I did not get to use my scarves — for some reason, I thought they were just cumbersome to use and carry around.
Q: Describe the the locals?

A: Lovely, friendly and hospitable. They are used to having tourists all-year-round.

Q: Favorite experience?

A: Overall, it was a magical, awe-inspiring, otherworldly experience. Iceland’s vast and intimidating landscape is just humbling. It certainly made me feel like an insignificant speck of dust touring God’s magnificent creation. To be honest, Iceland is so amazing that I had to revisit and revise my bucket list of places I want to visit in the future!
My favorite activity: I loved the glacier hike the most, as it was the scariest and it really pushed me out of the comfort zone.

JC Glacier

Cover Photo Credit: Bus Travel Iceland