Imagine an island separating Europe and North America, home to dozens of volcanoes, topped with some of the largest glaciers outside of the Arctic. A country with only 300 thousand inhabitants and over a million sheep (!), attracting over 2 million tourists every year. Where active volcanoes keep adding new land via lava eruptions, waterfalls keep bursting out of the mountains as glacier ice melts from geothermal heat…
Our Iceland trip in the Spring of 2017 involved circling the entire country in just 9 days!
As our plane descended onto Reykjavik, we were already intimidated by the snow-covered city, not sure whether our compact car could handle the weather. Luckily the weather took an 180-degree turn over the course of the week. On our last day, we were able to enjoy the outdoors in summer outfits.
As we were driving through the highlands of southwest Iceland, aka Golden Circle, we frequently caught sightings of these beautiful Icelandic horses.
Our first stop was to Langjökull, the second largest ice cap (glacier) in Iceland. We hopped on one of these bad boys to touch foot on the glacier.
We put on funny (but necessary) suits to keep ourselves warm while snowmobiling to this beautiful ice cave. (Langjökull)
Next, we headed to Gullfoss. Fun fact: the sun (and global warming) melt down glaciers, filling canyons with water, thereby forming rivers… and when elevation changes… waterfalls! Gullfoss is one of those waterfalls, fed by the Langjökull glacier.
The Icelandic geysers are world renown. In fact, the word “geyser” comes from Geysir, the oldest known geyser, dubbing the phenomenon. The area around Geysir is full of hot springs and gushing geysers. Strokkur, one of Geysir’s smaller neighbors, is about to erupt!
Last stop of our first day was Seljalandsfoss. Powered by the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano glacier, this is another pretty waterfall.
Walking behind the waterfall was amazing! (Seljalandsfoss)
After an adventure-filled, long day, we spent the night at peace. Talk about room with a view — the ocean on one side, mountains and waterfalls on the other! (The Garage)
On our second day, we continued driving east on the southern coastline. We came across these buildings that have become part of the rock. Icelandic turf houses: perfect insulation against the harsh climate!
After seeing yet another mighty waterfall (Skogafoss), I just couldn’t. 🙂
Next, we headed to the southernmost point of Iceland: the arch with the hole (or Dyrholaey), formed by lava meeting the ocean.
After a short hike, we arrived at the beautiful Reynisfjara black sand beach, famous for its neat rock formations. Legend says two trolls were turned to stone (Reynisfjara stacks), trying to drag a ship to land on this coast.
Naturally-formed basalt columns on one of the beaches. (Reynisfjara black sand beach)
Turf-covered structures are part of the traditional architecture style in Iceland, mostly due to the lack of timber. Hofskirkja is the last church to be built in this style. (Hof)
Skaftafellsjökull is an outlet of Vatnajökull, the largest continental glacier in Europe. This is where Interstellar was filmed.
We got the chance to walk (with special crampons) on the ice and learn more about glaciers. The views were stunning! (Skaftafell National Park)
Diamond Beach was one of my favorite places in Iceland. Sadly, it is the result of Vatnajökull receding inland. As that happens, cute little icebergs are left on this beach.
Some were even large enough to ride! (Diamond Beach)
The receding glacier formed this lake (Jökulsarlon), and it keeps growing. Taking a boat ride around the lake was a great way to explore the many icebergs.
Seals would pop in and out of the water to say hello. 🙂 (Jökulsarlon)
This charming little artsy town on the East Fjords of Iceland is called Seydisfjordur and it is definitely worth visiting. However, getting there from the southern side requires driving through mountains via a curvy gravel road full of huge potholes, under a thick fog. One side of the road is water or snow (depending on the altitude) and the other is a steep cliff — there are no guard rails! We passed by one car that was stuck in the mud. Thankfully the rental cars in Iceland are equipped with sludded snow tires, increasing traction, so we were able to make it with our Hyundai i20.
Borgarfjörður Eystri is another town along the Eastern Fjords, mostly famous for its bird watching. Thousands of these Atlantic puffins like to nest here, providing great photo opportunities. One of the benefits of Eastern Iceland being tough to access is that the number of tourists drops dramatically compared to the southern or northern regions. We had the town all to ourselves!
We rented this lovely cabin off the lake in Egilsstadir for a good night’s rest.
On our way from the eastern fjords to the northern coast, Mt. Herdubreid (the Queen of Icelandic mountains) is visible from Rte 1. This tabletop shaped volcano is called a tuya, a result of volcano lava melting through a glacier sheet.
Fun fact: Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, also fed by Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. What we didn’t know is that busloads of tourists are always there, mainly thanks to its accessibility. It’s best to arrive well before tour buses arrive, or right after they leave. The sights are spectacular though, with a particularly grayish hue due to its mineral content.
Nearby, we stopped by the Krafla caldera, and the moon made a cameo appearance.
Iceland is the world leader in geothermal resources. There are many regions in which hot water just bursts out from the land — this is what happens when the island is made up of glaciers and volcanoes! These energy-providing “hot springs” do come with a caveat, though: high levels of sulfur means it smells like rotten eggs.
Lake Myvatn has lots of sightseeing around it, making it the second most popular place to visit in Iceland (after the Golden Circle). Some of the neat geological features here are the pseudo craters. They look exactly like craters, except for the lack of volcanic magma underneath that normally causes such formations. They exist in Iceland and Mars!
A rough gravel road followed by a strenuous half-hour climb brings you to the base of the Hverfjall volcano, another sight in the Myvatn area. Views from the top make the hike worth it!
A day full of hikes is best topped with a visit to the thermal bath… with a view of the lake and the volcano! (Myvatn Nature Baths)
Early morning whale watching tour brought us to Husavik, a small seaside town on the northern coast of Iceland.
We enjoyed the great views of the ocean, snow-capped mountains, and lots of birdlife on our way to see whales. (Husavik)
We caught sight of many Humpbacks and Minke whales. It’s always amazing to see these ‘gentle giants’… (Husavik)
Where’s Fero? It is hard to spot me in this photo of Godafoss (literally: waterfall of the Gods). The story is that around year 1000, Iceland’s legislative assembly was debating the official religion. A lawspeaker named Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi made the choice to switch to Christianity (from Norse paganism) while strolling around this area. He consequently threw away statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall.
Regardless of their choice of religion, Icelanders have strong feelings about non-religious fantasy beings like elves and trolls. It is part of the folkloric tradition (called ‘huldufolk’) to be mindful about such creatures that are believed to reside in Iceland, and even governmental decisions are made as to not upset them. (Akureyri)
We took the scenic route from Akureyri to one of the northernmost towns, Siglufjordur, passing through newly constructed tunnels and more scary mountain roads. Weather was much better this time though… At the end of the day, our cabin’s little hot tub made another perfect ending.
Next morning, we stopped at the remnants of this tiny village, consisting of cute turf houses and a church. (Glaumbaer)
Although we didn’t have time to explore all the way to the Western fjords, we checked out a few more sights before completing the loop around the island. Hraunfossar is not as mighty as some of the other waterfalls, but I think it’s quite pretty.
We saved one of the top attractions for the last. Thingvellir National Park is famous for two reasons: First, it was home to Althing, the oldest parliament in the world (founded 930, moved to Reykjavik in 1844). Discussions were held frequently on this site about various national matters, with thousands of people attending.
Another significance of Thingvellir is that it is situated in a valley that marks the geographical boundary between Europe and America.
The continental tectonic plates drift away 2 cm every year. In some parts, it has widened and filled with glacial water. It takes decades for the water to complete its journey from the glacier to this valley, which allows it to be filtered and purified until it is crystal clear and sediment-free. In fact, that is why there are no fish in the water — quite amazing!
Once I heard this is the only place in the world where you can swim in the crack between two continents, we just had to do it! Even the 2 C freezing water couldn’t stop us, so we bundled up with dry suits and went in. The dive was exhilarating — highly recommended! (Silfra)
Our final day was reserved to wander around the capital Reykjavik. The cathedral at the top of the hill is quite beautiful. Inside, an installment of hundreds of metallic pipes is particularly impressive.
Reykjavik is a young and vibrant town with a peaceful waterfront to stroll around.
The city has its fair share of art and this one is probably the most famous. Named Sun Voyager, the shape is inspired by the Viking ships, but its metallic modern-looking design is quite fascinating. Great place to stop and reflect on everything we experienced and learned about Iceland. (Reykjavik)
No trip to Iceland is complete without stopping by the Blue Lagoon. Its close proximity to the airport makes it especially popular — getting into the baths requires pricey tickets to be reserved weeks ahead of time. We simply strolled around the lagoon for a while and took off for the airport.