A Tourist Wanted An Adventure. Thanks To His Confused GPS, He Got One.
Before Noel Santillan became famous for getting lost in Iceland, he was just another guy from New Jersey looking for adventure, armed with the modern traveler’s two essentials: a dream and, more important, a GPS unit.
On a frigid, pitch-black February morning in 2016, the 28-year-old Sam’s Club marketing manager was driving away from Keflavík International Airport in a rented Nissan hatchback toward a hotel in Reykjavík, about 40 minutes away. He was excited that his one-week journey was beginning but groggy from the five-hour red-eye flight. As a pink sun rose over the ocean and illuminated the snow-covered lava rocks along the shore, Santillan dutifully followed the commands of the GPS that came with the car, a calm female voice directing him to an address on Laugarvegur Road—a left here, a right there.
But after stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 p.m., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he decided to trust the machine.
The farther he drove, the fewer cars he saw. The roads became icier. Sleeplessness fogged his brain, and his empty stomach churned. The only stations he could find on the radio were airing strange talk shows in Icelandic. He hadn’t set up his phone for international use, so that was no help. At around 2 p.m., as his tires skidded along a narrow mountain road that skirted a steep cliff, he knew that the device had failed him.
He was lost and—despite the insistence of his GPS—nowhere near his hotel. There were no other drivers on the road, and there was little else to do but follow the line on the screen to its mysterious end. “I knew I was going to get somewhere,” he says. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
The directions ended at a small blue house in a tiny town. A pretty blue-eyed blond woman answered his knock. She smiled as he stammered about his hotel and handed her his reservation.
BGBLUE/GETTY IMAGES, COURTESY NOEL SANTILLAN
No, she told him, this wasn’t his hotel, and he wasn’t in Reykjavík. That city was 225 miles south. He was in Siglufjördhur, a fishing village of 1,300 people on the northern coast. The woman, whose name happened to be Sirry—pronounced just like the Apple bot that offers users directions through life—quickly figured out what had happened. The address on Expedia (and his reservation printout) was wrong. The hotel was on Laugavegur, but Expedia had accidentally spelled the street name with an extra r—Laugarvegur.
Santillan checked in to a local hotel to get a good night’s sleep, with the plan of driving to Reykjavík the next day. When he told his story to the woman at the front desk, she chuckled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh at this,” she said, “but it’s funny.”
The next morning, when he went to check out, the joke became even grander. “Some reporters want to talk with you,” said the hotel receptionist.
Sirry had posted his absurd story on her Facebook page, and it had quickly been shared around. A Facebook friend of hers, the editor of an Icelandic travel site, wrote a blog post on the “extraordinary and funny incident.” Soon his misadventure had attracted the interest of TV and radio journalists.
They weren’t the only ones who wanted to talk with Santillan. “Everybody in the town knew about me,” he says. Some Siglufjördhurians came to the hotel to welcome him and take pictures. One offered him a tour of the village’s pride and joy, the Icelandic Herring Era Museum. The chef at Santillan’s hotel prepared the local beef stew for him, on the house.
Enjoying all the hospitality, Santillan decided to spend an extra night. The following day, he went on TV, explaining to a reporter that he’d always found GPS to be so reliable in the past. By the time he made it to Reykjavík that evening, he had become a full-blown sensation in the national media, which dubbed him the Lost Tourist. DV, an Icelandic tabloid, marveled that despite all the warning signs, the American had “decided to trust the [GPS].” Before long, his experience made international news, with coverage in the Daily Mail, on the BBC, and in the New York Times. The manager of the hotel in Reykjavík had seen reports on Santillan’s odyssey and, to make up for the traveler’s hard time, offered him a free stay and a meal at the fish restaurant next door.
LARIGAN - PATRICIA HAMILTON/GETTY IMAGES
Out in the streets, which were full of revelers celebrating the annual Winter Lights Festival, Icelanders corralled the Lost Tourist for selfies and plied him with shots of the local poison, Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps. As a band played a rock song outside, Santillan kept hearing people shouting his name. Some guys dragged him up a stairway to a strip club, where one of the dancers also knew his name. The whole thing seemed surreal. “I just felt like, This isn’t happening to me,” he says.
Still, he was going to ride it out as long as he could. After the marketing manager of the country’s most famous getaway, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, wrote him offering a free visit, Santillan headed there the next day. The address came preloaded in his rental car’s GPS, since it was the one place everyone wanted to go.
As Santillan drove out under the winter sky, he marveled at how far he had come. Not long ago, he’d been just another working stiff on his couch in New Jersey. Now he was a rock star. He pictured himself resting in the cobalt blue waters, breathing in the steam. But half an hour later, when his GPS told him he had arrived, he got a sinking feeling. Looking out the window, he saw no signs of a geothermal spa, just a small lone building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The Lost Tourist was lost again.
For whatever reason, the GPS had led him not to the Blue Lagoon but to some convention center off an empty road. As he stepped into the building, he was recognized. The fact that Santillan was lost again made him all the more credible. After patiently posing for a bunch of pictures, he succumbed to an old-fashioned way of getting to where he was going: following the directions given to him by another human being.
And so, with the GPS turned off, he drove on—a right here, a left there—looking for landmarks along the way. Before long, he was soaking in a steamy bath, white volcanic mud smeared on his face. By then he’d already vowed to return to Iceland. Maybe, he thought, I’ll even live here at some point.
Until he returns, he has something to remember his misadventure by: an Icelandic GPS. The rental agency presented it to him when he returned his Nissan. It’s a reminder of his time as the Lost Tourist, a nickname he considers a badge of honor. “I like it,” he says, “because that’s how you find interesting things. If you don’t lose yourself, you’re never going to find yourself.”
Our readers share their funniest GPS-inspired snafus.
We were in Chattanooga when the GPS told us to turn right on Milliliter King. The street was ML King. Jessica Michelle Barnes, Bastrop, Louisiana
I was driving to a hotel to give a presentation. The GPS directed me to exit the freeway and drive for miles on a road that went from paved to dirt. Eventually I came to a high fence topped with barbed wire and a gate with an armed guard. “I’m guessing that this is not a hotel,” I said to the guard. Shaking his head slowly, he said, “Not unless you’re a guest of the state.” Rhonda Gilbert, Detroit, Michigan
I was driving down south in an unfamiliar area when my GPS told me to make a right turn. I was on a bridge. Ann Cappello, Hadley, New York
I used my new navigation app to help me find my way to a writers’ conference. After a long drive, I parked my car and, first things first, immediately headed for the crowded restroom. I found a stall and settled in. That’s when a loud, clear voice from my phone announced, “You’ve arrived at your destination!”Anita Morrison, Monroe, Washington