Here YA contributor Debbi recounts a cliffhanger of a tale chasing puffins in the wild solo while on a road trip in Iceland.
How far would you go to see puffins in the wild? What would you do to see something so unique and unforgettable on your travels? Would you ever risk your life in favor of spotting a few puffins in their natural habitat?
I would risk it all, even if it were unintentional. I suppose Iceland does that to you.
So let me tell you about this one time where I drove over ten continuous hours in one day to get from Goðafoss Waterfall (northeast Iceland) to Látrabjarg (the westernmost point of Iceland). It ended up being wildly longer than the ETA on Google Maps originally suggested; mostly, it was because of how often I’d pull over and take photos of the breathtaking scenery and landmarks.
There is a reason Iceland is Insta-famous, guys. It’s hard to take a bad picture here. Iceland was made for road trips.
For those who haven’t been to Iceland yet, you are in for a treat. I’ll try to describe it here to the best of my ability – though it’s virtually impossible to do it justice.
This country has a sheer natural beauty, inconceivable beyond measure. Just imagine yourself driving in an endless wonderland of towering mountains, vast stretches of green valleys, and majestic waterfalls taller than the Empire State Building.
Iceland is dramatic and home to many filming locations. In many ways, it has to be seen to be believed.
A bird nerd goes to Iceland
But I knew there was more to this country than its unbelievably gorgeous landscapes. As an avid “bird nerd” like our dearest Liz (WHO HAS A FREAKIN’ SUBCATEGORY OF POSTS DEVOTED TO BIRDS), I vowed that I wouldn’t leave Iceland without seeing its iconic bird: the Atlantic Puffin.
Yes, puffins. Those cute, derpy-looking, compact, penguin-like birds.
They’re my absolute favorite animal in the ENTIRE WORLD, and if I could ever own a pet puffin, I would (newsflash: you can’t). My love for puffins is borderline obsessive, rivaling only my fangirl squeals over Lord of the Rings when I was 12.
I should preface this by saying that I am possibly the queen of misadventures, even after seven years of traveling. How? WHY? Is it just sheer, dumb luck?
No. I just have a horrible tendency to “forget” to research things beforehand and do everything spur of the moment. This ends up biting me in the ass most of the time.
I mean, the previous days of my trip consisted of circling landmarks and stops with a Sharpie on two paper maps (YES, don’t laugh) and then plunked each destination into Google Maps.
So the morning I decided to find my beloved puffins, I pulled out my paper maps and Googled “best spots to find puffins in Iceland” while warming up the engine (told you I’m last minute). Someplace called “Látrabjarg” was listed at the top of the search results.
Látrabjarg is one of the immense bird cliffs in Europe and, obviously, a HUGE hotspot for puffins. The photos online were filled with hundreds of puffins everywhere. IT WAS CALLING TO ME!
My dream was going to come true: I was going to see freakin’ puffins in their natural habitat!
Off to Látrabjarg to find some puffins
Now, the official site for thestated that Látrabjarg is “easily accessible by car.” I loftily shrugged off an estimated “7 hours, 47 minutes” drive as a piece of cake.
Newsflash: It was NOT a piece of cake, no matter what type of cake we’re talking about here.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I had no idea that I’d be risking my life in the next few hours, with each event snowballing into something worse. You know those remarkable travel stories about turning a dire situation into something outstanding, and it all ends up working out in the end?
This isn’t going to be one of those. Remember me deeming myself, Queen MISadventuress?
But alas, when you’re puffin-oriented, you stop at NOTHING to see those derpy fellas.
I took my sweet time passing numerous signs (all with names I couldn’t pronounce) and stopping whenever I saw a pullout in the road to take more photos. However, when my eyelids started to droop, I knew I had to speed it up.
My only saving grace was being there at the tail end of summer, meaning that my days were blessed with about 20 hours of bright sunlight.
Always allow for more time on the roads in Iceland
OR SO I THOUGHT. Because on this particular day, maybe because I was driving to the westernmost tip of the country that consisted of towering mountains, the sun decided to disappear a bit earlier.
Quick travel tip here: Don’t underestimate the time it takes to drive in Iceland. Even though the road seems like a straight shot, guess what? The drive between main destinations is longer than you’d expect, especially when you’re pulling over to take photos of other landmarks (and you will). RESEARCH thoroughly beforehand!
I started to get exhausted. I still had over two hours of driving before I reached the little red “destination” point. To make it worse, I knew that pin drop wasn’t the Goddamn end-all place I’d be seeing puffins.
So why the hell did I cram over 10 hours of driving in one day? Well, as any broke backpacker [living off a loaf of bread and a packet of ham for the week] would do, I was maximizing every second of sunlight that the days provided. I put pressure on myself to see as much of Iceland as I could in eight days, and I didn’t care if that meant driving from sunrise to 2 A.M. daily.
And then it turned pitch black at 9 P.M. out of nowhere. Cue instant panic. WHY so early?! Didn’t Mother Nature know that I had a date with puffins tonight?!
I didn’t have a choice but to keep driving, even though the high beams made it even harder to see. With only had two days left in the country and a deadline to return the rental car, I was in a rush.
Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but when I commit to something in my travels, I follow through 100%. I’m not a quitter, and I’d rather risk death over not going at all (insert sheepish laugh here).
Out in the middle of western Iceland, it might as well have been a supermassive black hole for me. With no idea how many cliffs were around me or where the cliffs were, it was so scary.
I was doing everything in my power to stay awake, from blasting electronic music, driving with the windows down, slapping myself every few minutes, and taking deep breaths to prevent myself from hyperventilating.
Why didn’t I just pull over and rest for the night wherever I was? Because Stubborn is my middle name. Nothing would deter me. So what if I wasn’t blessed with 20+ hours of sunlight on the ONE day I needed it most?
I was freakin’ committed to these puffins.
The time crept to 10 P.M., and I was still 45 minutes away from the “destination,” whatever that even meant. Was that pin the area of Látrabjarg, the base of Látrabjarg, or the tip-top of Látrabjarg?! I knew it wouldn’t be the last option, but I had to prevail.
And then I heard it—Screzzch screzzch. My car was slowly doing an upwards incline along an extremely gravelly, bumpy road.
I turned off my music instinctively (y’ know, that thing we do to act like it improves our concentration).
A holy shit moment on the edge of a cliff
Are all roads this steep? How wide is this road? Is this dinky car capable of this incline? Why didn’t I rent a better car? Oh my God, IS THIS THE CLIFF?
Yep, I was driving up a cliff. I had finally reached the home of my derp babies. Now, I truthfully love heights and live for adrenaline-pumping activities like bungee jumping. But driving along cliffs in the absolute darkness?
Holy shit, this was an actual death wish.
To make a terrifying situation even scarier, it was still pitch black- but to the point where my high beams now hindered my vision. I could only see fuzzy dust particles floating around the light near the front of my windshield. I was scrunched up against the steering wheel, gripping it so tightly that my hands went numb.
To anyone who knows what this feels like- it’s like all feeling loses your body, right?!
My entire body was so clenched with fear; I felt like I was going to snap. The road (if it could even be called that) was extremely narrow. I only knew this based off of how close my left side mirror kept coming to the side of something substantial. I could just barely see the edge of the right side of the road drop off into sheer darkness.
One wrong turn and I’d scratch the car… or worse yet, tumble off the cliff and most likely die. Too dramatic? Well, I didn’t pass any cars on my way up, so that most likely meant that no one was around. That was a chilling realization.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, AM I RIGHT?!
The minutes moved at a glacial pace because I was driving so damn slow. The higher I drove on the cliffs, the denser the fog became. My high beams whittled down to nothing more than a dim blur.
I was fucking terrified out of my mind.
I held my breath each time I accelerated slowly and did my best to inch around the corners carefully. Why was I risking my life just to see PUFFINS?
I had a fleeting (stupid) thought of just killing the engine and staying put. And then what? A car comes barrelling around the corner, tumbling both our cars off the cliff?
Nope. I couldn’t turn back even if I wanted to.
And then, my GPS announced that I was 15 minutes away. I felt a jolt of excitement rush through my body, instantly followed by fear. Uh, where the hell was I? Was I directly above the ocean? Were there trees below me, or was it like that graveyard scene in The Lion King?
Wait, I just lost reception?! FUCK.
Here’s when I legit panicked. I couldn’t rely on anything else, but my gut and the “road” that I assumed led me to some sort of safety. Without cell service, my phone would only continue its directions as far as that final pin drop.
And then it happened. I felt my car lurch sideways, the right rear wheel clearly no longer on the road. My heart immediately sunk into my stomach, and my face drained of all feeling and color. All hell had broken loose.
I’m GONNA FUCKING DIE.
After whispering a string of profanity simultaneously while praying in my head that I’d survive, I jerked the wheel to the left and slightly accelerated. Did this even help? Would my movement seesaw me over the cliff with the car?
I was shaking profusely and had tingles shooting through my hands.
Nope, the car was still tilted. It was like one of those Looney Tunes cartoons, except this wasn’t even remotely funny – it was my fucking life at stake, and I was all by myself.
I swear I almost passed out at this point. When I blinked, I saw white splotches. Exhausted or paralyzed with fear, I wasn’t sure. I had never been in a situation on my own like this (let alone in a car in a foreign country). It was my first time renting a car abroad, and I get it stuck on a cliff in the dark?! OF COURSE, GO ME!
Any sudden movement meant severe injury or death. Since I could only see dust particles and fog in front of me, I was guessing at how far to accelerate.
I didn’t have a solution, except that I needed to accelerate the car or else I’d join that wheel hanging off the edge. Slow and steady, I did what maniacs and bad drivers do- I pussyfooted the accelerator.
“Shitshitshitshitshiiitttt” were the only things I remember saying while trying to stay alive.
And holy crap, by a miracle, I felt the car fully upright again. The whole scenario was undoubtedly less than a minute long, but I felt like I had just carried The One Ring all the way to Mordor.
I was back on the road, blindly navigating toward wherever the GPS was pointing me. But at this point, I was yelling in the car, “SCREW PUFFINS, GET ME OFF THESE DAMN CLIFFS!”
I thankfully didn’t have any more wheel-off-the-cliff scares, but it took me a while to reach a “safe” patch of land. As expected, that pinpoint was not my intended destination- it was only the entrance sign for the cliff.
It was past midnight by the time I reached a suitable camping site. I parked, got out to shake my jelly-like legs in the fresh air, and fell asleep in the back of my car to the sound of ocean waves crashing in and out.
Daylight comes and time to see puffins
The next morning, I awoke thinking everything had been a bizarre dream. I still had a short but extremely steep drive up the actual cliff (thank God I didn’t try THAT at night).
When there was nowhere left to drive further, I knew I had finally reached the long-awaited Látrabjarg.
It was extremely foggy, but I had the steep cliffs all to myself. The cliffs plunged so far below me, straight into the ocean, that it made my stomach hurt just by looking down. After my near-death incident and remembering how Liz accidentally lost her phone, I took photos like a platypus.
I laid down on the grass, using both my legs and hands to push me closer to the edge. The views were astonishing. They were worth every bit of my prior panic and profanity.
And guess what?
I saw ONE puffin. Only ONE puffin!
It was right when I was about to give up and hike back (isn’t it always like that?) when I caught a glimpse of the fella. My heart fluttered and went *THUD* (like when you see your crush walk by). Visible for mere seconds, I caught a glimpse of that bright orange beak and knew it was a puffin. He was in a little nook on the bird cliff, making himself comfortable by shuffling around and then disappeared. I waited in the frigid air for at least another 20 minutes, fixated on that spot I saw him burrow in. Alas, there were no further sightings.
The puffin moved way too fast for me to snap a photo, but that was a good thing. I definitely would have dropped my phone out of chaotic excitement if I had it out, especially since I was right along the edge when I spotted him. I was also incredibly far away, on the opposite side of the cliff, but my eyes didn’t deceive me- I had, indeed, seen a puffin in Iceland.
This somehow validated my near-death experience from the previous day (which I never even mentioned to my mom and boyfriend, by the way. It was NBD, right?!).
And yes, it turned out that I had gone to Látrabjarg in the wrong season for puffin sightings (to all my fellow puffin lovers out there, Westman Islands is probably a better option).
So folks, always do your research before you decide to drive across nearly an entire country by yourself in less than 24 hours. Because really, you’re not invincible. Or better yet, just stick to renting a 4WD vehicle if you’re keen for some real, rugged adventures.
My ironic souvenir was a puffin keychain that now dangles from my backpack, reminding me of that death-defying experience and all the harrowing memories that came with it.
Have you ever had a near-death experience like this? Are any road trips gone wrong? Better luck finding puffins around the world? Spill!