I'm excited to share a guest post this week from my mother, who recently returned from spending one month in Buenos Aires, leading college students on a study abroad trip. Read about her thoughts on the city below:
Back one week from spending a month in Argentina with a group of college students, I’ve had a little time to process and reflect on the experience and the amazing opportunity of living in Buenos Aires for long enough to get past the “vacation” aspect and be a part of daily living in this sprawling, vibrant city.
There’s so much to share, but I thought I’d focus on life in the city – going about one’s daily routine as the Porteños do. Citizens of Buenos Aires are known as Porteños, or “people of the port”; sitting on the edge of the expansive Rio de la Plata, Buenos Aires is a port city and evidence of this is deeply rooted in everything from architecture to food.
One of the things I noticed right away is that Argentines are inherently courteous and gracious. Upon greeting someone, or even meeting someone for the first time, expect a kiss on the cheek. Even toward the end of our stay, this continued to catch me by surprise as I’m not accustomed to kissing someone I’m only just meeting. But this is the custom, and everyone gets a kiss – men to women, women to women, men to men. When departing, “Ciao” is heard far more often than “Adiós”, an influence of the Italian roots that run deep in this South American country. Even at the end of a half-day tour that we went on, others in the group made sure to say “Ciao” to all the rest of us before leaving.
The greater Buenos Aires metro area is home to 13 million people, so it can be crowded at times. The Subte, BA’s subway system, is massively popular and during rush hour can be unbelievably crowded, but even so, as the train approaches a station you’ll hear “Bajas?” – people asking those between themselves and the door if they’re getting off (literally – “are you getting down?”). If so, the asker will wait, and if not, those staying on engage in a coordinated effort to shift around and allow the asker to get off. On a train where every part of one’s body is pressed in by other bodies, this is definitely a team effort as there is just no room to spare. (Side note, by week three I discovered the bus, which was far less crowded and allowed me to see the city at street level during my commute – win-win!)
Speaking of the Subte, at times when it’s not so crowded and there is room to move along the aisles, you may see people placing items on the hands or laps of those who are seated. These are vendors selling everything from candy bars to packs of tissues. The vendor walks the length of the car placing the items, then walks back before the next stop. If you want the item, you hand over your money and if you don’t, he simply picks it back up.
This pervasive courtesy, which to me comes across as a sense of community (a “we’re all in this together” type of attitude), extends to other parts of life as well. Lines in Buenos Aires are a fact of life – people stand in line for buses, ATMs, even lunch at McDonald’s(?!?). But have you ever seen a line for an elevator? Upon arriving to our school building the first day, our students bunched up in front of the elevator as that is how we tend to do in the US; but in Argentina, the right thing to do is form a line – it’s all very orderly and polite.
Argentines are evidently huge lovers of dogs. We stayed in Palermo, a comfortable neighborhood bordered by large parks and sprinkled with green spaces. During the day it was a common site to see dog walkers with 8, 10, even 12 dogs making their way toward the park for some outside time. For a dog lover seeking adventure, consider a stint as a dog-walker in Palermo – seems to be no shortage of opportunity!
While we were in Argentina we witnessed 2 subway strikes, an airline strike, and numerous protests/demonstrations. Strikes and demonstrations are frequent occurrences and for the most part are peaceful events. One that we experienced was a massive gathering with groups seemingly supporting a variety of causes with huge banners, music and chanting. It was a passionate and high-energy event, and while the crowd coursed down four large avenues toward the main plaza with banners showing support for all manner of serious issues, it also had the feel of a street festival, with food vendors and general good vibes.
Buenos Aires can be a bit much – it’s a huge city! But as such, it also has much to offer. Even in the busiest areas there are green spaces or small, neighborly coffee shops that can offer some quiet and a respite from the busy-ness of the city. If it’s just too much, stop into a coffee shop and order a café con leche. It will most likely be freshly brewed just for you, and served in a cup and saucer with a tiny napkin and a little cookie – so civilized and nice, it just begs that you spend a little time to relax and realize how remarkable the world is and how blessed you are to be able to experience it!
In the last in our short series of the best ways to travel through Iceland, guest writer Tess Miller shares her experiences of camping vs. staying in lodging accommodations.
Camping vs. Lodging
For me, camping around Iceland is the way to go. We rented camping gear in Reykjavik, which included a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and even a wifi hot spot. There are camping grounds all over the country that are safe and easily accessible. They all have bathrooms, showers, kitchens, and some even have laundry. There is a fee to stay at each campsite, but compared to staying in hotels or cabins, it is by far the cheapest way to go. Some campsites are in towns, others are in canyons, others near the beach. Camping adds to the adventure of traveling through Iceland and really allows you to experience the country.
That being said, there are many other lodging options, such as hotels, cabins, and Airbnbs. Lodging does tend to be a bit pricey and you should book these well in advance to your trip if you want to get the best rates during the right times of the season.
To sum up my experiences and preferences about traveling through Iceland, it doesn't matter when you go or how you do it. What really matters is that you do.
I would be remiss if I did not discuss the real reason you would visit Iceland, the amazing country itself. Below is a map with my favorite places I have seen in my three trips; once around the Ring Road, once across the South Coast and once to Snaefellsnes peninsula. All of the points of interest are marked with a road sign as you get off the highway. Everywhere you look is beautiful, and while the points of interest are amazing, the most beautiful places are off the beaten path. The more you explore, the more beautiful the country becomes. For example, don’t just go to the bottom of Skogafoss, make sure you hike to explore behind the waterfall; don’t just stand at the bottom of the Gerdeburg Cliffs, but climb to the top; take every trail you can to see as much as possible.
This map has towns/ cities as well as points of interest bookmarked with pictures to help you plan your trip around Iceland!
To view the full map with place names, click the link.
Thanks for reading along and I hope you feel more confident in planning your own trip to Iceland.
Part II of our Iceland series written by guest writer Tess Miller explores the best times for visiting Iceland. Tess lists the pros and cons of going to see the midnight sun during the summer months or the Northern lights during the winter season. Both are amazing natural phenomena so keep the timing of your trip at the forefront of planning.
At any given time, Iceland looks like a scene from a different planet. The landscapes, weather, and presence of the Northern lights contribute to creating a world all its own. However, the changing of the seasons results in drastic changes within the physical appearance of the country. Obviously, the snow makes it look completely different, but there are also so many different things to experience in the summer vs. the winter.
In the summer, hands-down one of the coolest things you get to experience is the midnight sun. I watched the sun begin to set at 11:26PM on my first night there. This allowed us to fit more into the day and have a flexible schedule because we could stay out until midnight or wake up at 3AM and start the day to avoid long lines and large crowds of tourists. Basically, it’s almost always light out, so your schedule is what you make it.
Even though it is “summer,” it’s still fairly cold by most people’s standards, so you should still plan on packing essential items like your jacket, gloves, and a hat. The country is lush, green, and beautiful, and the summer is a great time to rent a car because the road conditions are safe and driving is easier.
While you get the midnight sun during the summer, the winter months bring you the Northern lights! They say that September through April are the months where you can see them, but it's not an event you can strategically plan for and guarantee that you'll see. One of our tour guides said “someone could come for four days and see them every night, but someone else could come for two weeks and not see them at all.” You really just have to be in the right place at the right time. While everyone who travels to Iceland during this season has the goal of seeing the lights, prepare yourself mentally that to see them is a treat, and if you don't get to witness the show, try not to be disappointed. You'll just have to schedule a return trip!
The winter season also comes with all of the winter interests, which is something Iceland excels at. Activities like snowmobiling, dog sledding, and glacier hiking are both popular and thrilling. Hiking out to the explore the glacier caves has been one of the best experiences of my life; I felt like I was walking into an episode of Game of Thrones. The one downside to visiting in the winter is that while Iceland is cold in the summer, it is REALLY cold in the winter. I went in March and that was tough enough, so I can’t imagine going in January- always pack accordingly!
So, when will you go to Iceland?
I'm excited to introduce our next guest writer and a close friend of mine, Tess Miller. Tess has traveled to Iceland three times over the past three years and has compiled a list of valuable pros and cons about when, how, and where to travel throughout Iceland.
Read below about her experiences of renting a car vs. participating in a pre-planned tour group:
Most of my life, the only thing I knew about Iceland was the myth that Greenland was icy and Iceland was green and that they mixed up the names to prevent people from going to Iceland. Now, I have been there three times in three years; I can’t seem to stay away. I am by no means an expert, but I have learned a bit in my experiences in the country. Even though I have been there three times, each trip was unique and I don’t think I would ever get sick of this amazing country. There is so much to see, learn, and experience; I feel as though I have only scratched the surface.
Rent a car vs. Book a Tour
The first time I went to Iceland, my brother and I rented a car and drove the Ring Road. I loved having our own car because we could choose our own stops and move at our own pace. We could stay at Gulfoss for an hour and a half waiting for a man to kayak over the falls, or sneak past Skogafoss to find another hidden waterfall without getting left behind.
We rented through Iceland 4x4, who were wonderful. They picked us up from the airport, drove us to the rental car facility, were helpful and made the process easy, and dropped us back off at the airport at the end of our trip. It is pretty easy to drive in Iceland, especially as an American because they also drive on the right side of the road.
The Ring Road is a single lane highway around the country and much of the time, you might be the only car in sight. Of course, its busier in the cities, especially Reykjavik, but not too bad. Before we went, I had read that gas stations are scarce, but we did not experience this. Just be smart about filling up when you can and don’t let it get too low. Something that could be good or bad depending on your personality, is that if you drive yourself you need to do more research.
The tours take you to the points of interest, but if you are doing the self-guided tour, you need to find them for yourself. They are well marked around the Ring Road and you could just drive and stop at random ones, but that could take you forever because there is so much to see!! The down-side to driving a rental car is that it can be difficult and limiting at times. This is rare, but depending on where you go, you may not be able to get there in a rental car. Some points of interest require fording small rivers, which is extra risky in a rental car. The roads are also very icy during winter months which would make renting a car riskier. Overall, the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks of renting a car, but it is important to consider.
As for tours, there are also a lot of benefits to touring Iceland with a structured tour. I cannot speak for all of the tour groups, but Arctic Adventures/ Extreme Iceland (same company) has awesome tours. The second time I went was in the winter so I didn’t want to drive in possible icy conditions. We went on two 2-day tours, the Northern Lights and Snaelfellnes Peninsula tour and the South Coast tour.
We really enjoyed both of our guides and all of the stops we made. This was a much more educational experience because our tour guides told us about the history of the country, geological facts about the terrain, and myths and stories from the Icelandic culture. While we drove around the country, I was just fascinated without really understanding what I was seeing, but the tours answered some questions I had and and questions I hadn’t even thought of.
Of course, the downsides to the tour are that you are stuck to a given schedule and you are possibly stuck with annoying tourists. (Sometimes you make friends ;)) The tours through Extreme Iceland were a good size; we weren’t in a charter bus full of people, but we also weren’t in a small intimate group. The big thing about tours is that your tour guide could make or break your tour. We lucked out and had great tour guides who made the experience unforgettable, even on the rainy days.
I travel and then I write about it. I hope you enjoy my experiences, and can learn from my trial and errors!