22 Jun Above ground and below water in Iceland
by André K. Fredriksson from Sweden
To go to Iceland remains somewhere in the top 10 on my to-do-list, despite the fact that I have already been there several times, including the whole summer of 2009 when I went there to study Icelandic, something I had been doing on and off in my spare time prior to that.
I am fortunate enough to travel abroad every once in a while for work, which was the reason for my last couple of visits as well as this one, and we usually go about once a year. But now it had been over 3 years since my last trip here, so I was prepared for at least some things to have changed, and rightfully so.
On this trip I was traveling with a group as part of my job for the weekend, but I also stayed two extra days to do something I’ve been longing to do for a long time, scuba-dive at Silfra.
Arriving on a Thursday
Flying in over the southern parts of this huge, dramatic and mythical island, Iceland offered a really nice view from my window seat on this rather sunny day.
Iceland has always been well known for it’s dramatic landscape shaped by volcanic activity and with numerous volcanoes scattered throughout the island, a result of the island being situated on on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
The weather can be pretty much whatever it wants to be and as a result it’s not something people tend to talk about, and on this trip we got sun, rain, snow, hail, strong, wind, no wind and so on.
About a week prior to our visit Iceland and the area around Reykjavík got some of the heaviest snowfall this winter, which has been one of the warmest ever recorded.
Our first stop after arriving at the airport in Keflavík, about a 45 minute drive south of Reykjavík, was Bláa Lónið (the Blue Lagoon) which I think would count as my favorite tourist trap in the world. This artificial lake, located only 20 minutes from the airport on the way to Reykjavík, is actually a bi- product of the nearby geothermal power plant and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Despite this it is absolutely amazing and the hot water makes it the perfect place to go after a long flight, possibly enjoying the sunset as we did. And it is weather proof! It doesn’t matter if it rains or snows, in fact it makes it even better in a way.
Naturally, it draws a lot of visitors, so my advice is to buy a ticket (or group ticket if you can) in advance. The lake/pool has been expanded and is being expanded further in order to take more people and it as never felt overcrowded, at least not to me.
Friday I’m on a glacier
Getting up early is not a problem when you know what you have something exciting scheduled, as is often the case when going to Iceland. This is not the place to go to relax, if you get the opportunity to go to Iceland you’ll want to do and see stuff!
On this day we had our own version of a classic tour scheduled, the Golden Circle day tour which I guess is the most common day tour in Iceland (probably with whale watching as runner-up). But we weren’t doing the regular trip in a regular bus but in a heavily modified Mercedes, with a driver who clearly has a distaste for asphalt. And a result of that, we were doing the Golden Circle with a twist 🙂
These so-called Super Jeeps are typical for Iceland and have increased in numbers following the rise in tourism. They are modified in Iceland to enable driving on or close to the glaciers and to deal with the Icelandic weather in general.
As we were quite lucky with the weather we headed straight for the Langjökull (”long glacier”) glacier, or at least the beginning of it (since it’s so long) where we went offroad more or less the minute where the asphalt ended and the gravel road started. Regular cars and even SUV’s need not bother. Our driver Einar was loving it and so were we!
The gravel road soon turned in to meter deep snow which meant deflating the tires in order to get more traction and not sink too deep. Not a problem. The Mercedes monster plowed went over it without a hitch. The only time we had to stop and back up was when we were defeated by a steep hill, much to Einars disappointment, after having slowly inched the truck almost to the top. I guess we had too much to eat for breakfast that day.
Nevertheless, it was super fun and rather exciting to go where no man had gone before* across untouched stretches of pure, white snow and I can highly recommend trying it or to go on a snow mobile trip, of which we saw plenty on our way up.
* Yeah that’s probably not true.
After having enjoyed himself and the rest of us on the glacier side, Einar took us safely back down (by going on the side of the road) and onto a more traditional stop and part of the Golden Circle – Geysir.
Geysir is the geyser which all geysers got it’s name from. Makes sense, right? Now, Geysir itself hasn’t made a sound in like 20 years or so, but its little brother Strokkur next to it on the other hand goes off about every 5-10 minutes, making it a slightly more reliable tourist attraction, and it’s well worth the short wait even in cold conditions. The water in the pool, which is hot enough to boil an egg in (I’ve tried it once), makes some rather beautiful bubbles and is constantly in motion between bursts, and the burst of water itself is pretty spectacular. Just make sure you’re not standing downwind when it goes off!
And yes, I did get a photo of it but unfortunately I was too close at the moment so all you see is water spray.
Next up was Gullfoss, a mighty waterfall which came close to being turned into a hydroelectric power plant once, but the courage of one brave woman saved it. It’s quite a remarkable story about an even more remarkable waterfall that you really should put on your list of things to see when in Iceland.
Our second to last stop on our day tour was at the perhaps most important site in Iceland, Þingvellir National Park, where the oldest, still running democratic parliament was established at in 930 AD, the Althing.
The site itself consists of a small church (in photo) and a rift valley that goes along the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which is where the Althing was held until 1798 and where a flag post now stands.
On the top of the ledge overlooking the park and lake is a visitor center and view point and the valley itself is easily accessed by a paved pathway.
This is also the location of Silfra, the water filled fissure (rift) where I’ll be diving later during my trip!
Our last stop on this non-standard Golden Circle trip we did partly for the fun of driving offroad up the side of a volcano, and partly for the view from the top 🙂
It was getting late and we were all feeling a bit tired, probably because of all the fresh air and possibly from bouncing around in the truck. It was time to head back home and get some rest.
And by rest I mean food and drinks.
Reykjavik is known for its night life and there are plenty of nice bars in downtown Reykjavík, and restaurants too for that matter. We had pre-booked a few of the nicer ones; Lækjrarbekka, Restaurant Reykjavík and Fiskfélagið (the Fish Company) and we were never disappointed.
Icelanders like to party and go out a lot during weekends, but during our trip most people we saw and heard were tourists, usually from the US. The most notable place we went to after dinner was one of the newer places in town with the very trendy and clever name Pablo Discobar, already famous for its cocktails and cool vide and I can totally see why.
And although bars close at 3 AM during weekends, some from our group managed to stay out until 5 AM. Luckily for them the following day had even more fresh air in store!
Saturday on a horse
Another day in Iceland, another day of fresh air and another day of traditional activities – horseback riding followed by an afternoon in the hot pots.
Icelandic horses are smaller than most horses but are not ponies. ”If you call an Icelandic horse a pony the owner might get upset with you”, our driver told us. The size and temper of these beautiful species of horse seems perfect to me, and I understand why so many people import horses from Iceland.
The riding school Ishestar (Ice horses), located about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavík, is one of many to arrange riding tours in the area and I guess more are opening and/or expanding as a result of increased tourism. It was very professional and well organized from start to finish, with riding gear and clothing, grouping based on experience, matching of horses and rider and so on.
The actual tour we did took about 1 hour, which was good since a few in our group quickly got cold because of the windchill, and possibly from not having slept a whole lot the night before… Personally I quite enjoyed it and was rather pleased with my decision to go in the intermediate group as it had been around 20 years since I’d ridden a horse, while others thought that intermediate was way too slow. So I guess my recommendation is to go with the fast group if you have the slightest experience as these tours out of necessity are very tourist friendly.
After our experience with the Icelandic horses we headed straight to Laugardalur (bath valley) and the outdoor pool area of Laugardalslaug (bath valley baths) to get warm and relax for a bit.
For obvious reasons you’re not allowed to take photos in the pool area, but I can tell you this much: When I lived in Reykjavík in the summer of 2009 I went here almost every day, just like many Icelanders head straight to their local pool after work.
Soaking in the hot tub is an important part of the Icelandic way of life and every town has at least one public pool. And they’re all heated, even the big outdoor pools in Laugardalur, thanks to the cheap, geothermal energy. This is where news and politics are discussed and business deals are made, much like in the saunas in Finland. It’s a tradition I could get used to.
Rise and shine, today everyone but me are going back home, but only after a quick visit to the famous penis museum, or ”The Icelandic Phallological Museum”.
This is the place to go if you, as a man, would like to see how you stack up against other penis wielding creatures on the planet such as various whales, an oxe, a mouse or why not the Icelandic handball team?
Bizarre and intriguing at the same time and clearly a must-visit!
Diving back up on a Monday
After having seen my group off and gotten some rest and much-needed sleep it was finally time to go diving!
There are several dive sites in Iceland, but none of them are nearly as famous as Silfra in Þingvellir National Park, and it has been on my top 5 list of dive sites to visit for a long time, so naturally I was super excited. Also, I had been able to time it so that this would be my 100th dive 🙂
I had booked the dive 2 months before as I knew it was a popular site, which turned out was a smart move as it had become very busy already. My dive company of choice, Dive.is – the biggest dive company in town, came around and picked me up at 8 AM. I would be diving together with a guide and another diver, a guy from the US. Together we formed one of three groups diving with the company. Apart from us there were also a bunch of snorkelers as well as divers and snorkelers from two other companies. Busy site indeed.
The ride to Silfra took about 45 minutes. Upon arrival we got in our gear, went through a dive briefing with our guide and, after seeing the snorkelers off, got in the water.
Silfra is all about the water, the location and the scenery. There’s hardly any fish to see because of the current and underwater topography (although we managed to see a tiny fish resting on a rock), and it’s quite chilly even when wearing dry suits with under suits and long underwear underneath.
What makes Silfra so special is the clarity of the water, which is a result of the water having been filtered through lava rock on its way from a nearby glacier, a process that takes between 30-50 years, before it finally ends up in the lava fissure (rift), filling it while also providing water for the nearby lake Þingvallavatn.
The visibility is estimated to be around 120 meters, but since the longest, non-obstructed stretch in Silfra is only 100 meters it is impossible to experience in real life unfortunately. Nevertheless, 100 meter ”viz” is pretty amazing and it also makes colors underwater appear richer.
With the weather Iceland gets at this time of year, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to do two dives in Silfra during one trip. The reason for this is simple: You don’t want ice to form where it could block your air supply. And since it’s a 200 m walk from the exit point to the parking and another 100 m from the parking to the entry point, there’s plenty of time for things to freeze up, especially in windy conditions.
We were lucky though. Conditions allowed for a second, slightly faster dive after a short hot chocolate and cookie break, and we were just as eager to get back in again and possibly even more excited about the dive when we exited the water for the second time.
At this point the fast growing tourism industry in Iceland had me a bit worried. As we were getting ready to go in the water for our second dive, looking over towards the parking lot I could se a huge group of people getting ready to go snorkeling, and as I started walking back after the dive I could see them all covering the surface of a large part of Silfra, with their snorkels and backs sticking up.
Iceland has the eruption of the volcano beneath Eyafjallajökull back in 2010 to thank for the increase in tourism lately. Before the eruption, which left most of Europe’s air traffic grounded for several days, Iceland received around 300k-500k visitors every year. After having put Iceland on the map, the eruption has lead to the number of visitors increasing by around 300% to nearly 2 million. This has not only raised prices but has also put a lot of strain on infrastructure and, naturally, the area around popular sites such as Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss.
Of course tourism has lead to many positive things too, especially for the Icelanders who suffered a lot during and after the economic crisis in 2008, but it’s hard not to worry, especially if you have witnessed the negative effects from heavy tourism, and I have.
Despite this I already look forward to going back to Iceland, which I might do again this fall. Hopefully I will be able to visit and dive in other parts of the island. And if there’s one tip above the rest for those interested in visiting this amazingly beautiful and mystical place, it would be to explore other places aside from Reykjavík. Because Iceland has so much more to offer, and there’s no lack of space or places to see!