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7 Biggest Mistakes Travelers Make in Iceland

June 16, 2016

Once inhabiting the furthest fringe of a traveler’s radar, Iceland’s raging popularity today has turned the country into one of the hottest destinations on the globe. A decade ago, less than 350,000 foreign visitors entered Iceland, while this year, a staggering 1.5 million tourists will visit Iceland—five times the country’s resident population!

What may be great news for the Icelandic economy could also threaten everything that makes Iceland so attractive: the austere and empty landscapes, the barren silence, the pristine water and sky, and the unbothered wildlife. Smart travelers should be aware of the challenges posed by the rush of mass tourism, and plan their adventures accordingly. Here’s are seven of the biggest mistakes made by newbies and how to avoid them.

Pristine water and sky in Iceland

1. Never Leaving Reykjavík
Yes, it’s a cool city. Yes, it has a phenomenal music and club scene, the restaurants are world class and unique, the geothermal swimming pools rock, and you can pretty much walk anywhere. But trust me: The best of Iceland lies outside the 101, way out in the wilderness. So get out there! And not just for brief day trips—take the time to go way beyond the capital to the emptiest wilds of the country. That is where Iceland shines brightest.

2. The Golden Circle

Ugh. The Golden Circle is not a thing—it is simply a well-marketed day trip to three fairly interesting highlights—Thingvellir, Gulfoss, and Geysir—that fit nicely into an easy bus loop from Reykjavík. While they are certainly worth the visit, it is too easy to be lulled into believing that you’ve seen the best of Iceland. You haven’t—the Golden Circle represents the most deeply-tread track on the tourist trail, now lined with a caravan of tour buses. Step outside that loop and you’ll not only set yourself apart from the maddening crowds, but you’ll also get to know a more authentic Iceland.

3. Driving the Ring Road

Simply circumnavigating Iceland via the Ring Road does not equal seeing all that Iceland has to offer, either. The trip usually boils down to spending 5-6 days behind the wheel going a maximum of 40 mph on a narrow road along with tens of thousands of other agitated tourists,  all the while missing out on some of the country’s best sights that are nowhere near the Ring Road. Iceland is not the Indy 500. Instead of focusing on the road ahead of you, pick a few regions you want to explore (e.g. The North, the West Fjords, the east), grab a domestic flight there, then roam the area by car, foot, bicycle, horseback, or snowmobile. You’ll maximize your vacation time, cut out all the stress, and be able to better enjoy the country.

4. Skipping the West Fjords

The far northwestern corner is truly the best Iceland—boundless and beautiful, remarkably empty and wild—yet less than 3% of foreign travelers ever make it to Iceland’s most remote region. The deep fjords, hiking trails, and nature reserves up there are still the best-kept secret in Iceland, and guess what? It’s not on the Ring Road. Skipping the West Fjords is like going to Wyoming and skipping Yellowstone.

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AFAR inspires and enables those who travel the world seeking to have deeper and more fulfilling travel experiences. AFAR's platforms include the award-winning AFAR Magazine; AFAR.com, recently named a Top 10 Site That Makes Travel Easier; the non-profit foundation Learning AFAR; and the immersive travel series AFAR Experiences.

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