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A Walk Around Heimaey

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A stroll around the island sounds nice, we thought. A leisurely pace, pleasant weather, verdant hills, volcanoes, beaches, cliffs and a bit of puffin-spotting… a perfect way to spend the afternoon! Hours later, collapsed onto a couch from which we were physically unable to arise, we reflected on this early optimism. The ridiculous buoyancy in our step as we set out on an “easy stroll” around Heimaey. Oh, we remembered how cheerful we had been. We remembered with blackest hate.

Heimaey Stock Photo Westman Islands
The view from Klif (not Herjólfsdalur)

The weather was so nice, and we had been so optimistic about the ease of our planned hike, that we decided to start by climbing up to the rim of Herjólfsdalur, the crater which forms the northwestern corner of the island. We even eschewed the normal trail, and started at the back of the crater, near the port. The trail here looked rough, requiring the use of a system of ropes, but our spirits were high and we set off upwards without a second thought.

After about forty minutes of pulling ourselves up the hill, our arms and legs were burning and we had worn blisters into our palms. But we were now high enough to survey the scene… and realized that we had climbed the wrong mountain. Entirely the wrong mountain. We weren’t on the Herjólfsdalur crater, but Klif, its neighbor to the east. I suppose we had been worrying about tumbling down the hill to our deaths and not concerned with silly trivialities like “thinking”. But this was an extremely bone-headed mistake.

Still, the view from Klif was nice.

This misadventure cost a lot of energy and time, but we continued on our counter-clockwise walk around the island. First, we passed by the crater we had planned to ascend, Herjólfsdalur. This bowl-shaped formation cradles the town’s campground and golf course. On the first weekend in August, it hosts the popular Þjódhátið festival, which attracts thousands of hard-drinking, music-loving youth to Heimaey.

Streets Vestmannæyjar

Continuing south, we approached the hill of Stórhofdi which sits like a ball at Heimaey’s foot. Along the way, we saw thousands of puffins in the water and air. We crossed black sand beaches and admired some of the other islands that make up the Westman archipelago. All quite beautiful, and nearly enough to distract us from the hike’s length. It took hours to reach Stórhofdi. I couldn’t believe it, and still don’t know how we underestimated the island’s size so severely. It looks small on a map? The clear northern air makes things appear closer than they are? We are idiots? Probably all three.

After circling Stórhofdi, we started back north along the eastern coast of the island. By now, our happy spirits had vanished, and we trudged in brooding silence along the Brimruð beach to Ræningjatangi, also known as Pirates Cove. It was here that the Algerian pirates anchored their ship in 1627 before ransacking Heimaey.

We arrived back in town at around 8pm, utterly destroyed, and marched straight to the nearest bar. In spite of our aching bones, it had been an amazing day out… but if we had to do it again, we’d rent bikes.

Locations on our Map: Herjólfsdalur | Stórhofdi | Ræningjatangi

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September 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm Comments (4)

Vestmannæyjar: The Westman Islands

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Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.

Westman Islands Panorama

The story of the Westman Islands begins with Iceland’s original settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. After murdering his blood brother, a group of slaves Ingólfur had kidnapped from England stole a boat and fled to Heimaey. Vikings of the day referred to British Isles as the “Western Lands” and their inhabitants as “Westmen”, which explains how the islands got their name. The slaves didn’t enjoy their freedom for long, as they were almost immediately found and executed, but the name stuck.

Ever since the settlement, Heimaey has been home to a decent population of Icelanders lured by the rich fishing and bird-hunting. The islands are home to the largest puffin colonies in the world, and the people here have always been, and still are, expert hunters of the little birds. Alone on their island with abundant eggs and fish, the people of Heimaey enjoyed an idyllic existence for most of their history. Until the fateful year of 1627.

In what has come to be known as the Turkish Abductions, a crew of Algerian pirates landed at Heimaey on July 17th, 1627, and brought havoc to the tiny town. 242 people were kidnapped into slavery and 36 were killed. Catastrophic, considering that Heimaey only had a population of 500. Those who managed to survive did so by hiding in caves around the island’s shore.

The next catastrophe to hit the Westman Islands came in 1973, with the eruption of the Eldfell volcano. What had previously been a flowery meadow on the eastern side of town was suddenly a growing volcano spouting smoke and lava. The town was evacuated within 24 hours. Amazingly, only a single person died during the eruption. Heimaey was radically changed as a result: entire blocks of the town had been buried under lava and the size of the island increased immensely. Today, you can still see remains of some of the houses where the lava flow stops, half-buried under tons of rock.

Heimaey is a great place to spend a day or two. Ferries leave frequently from Landeyjahöfn, and take just a half-hour to make the crossing. The town itself is fun, with interesting sights and good restaurants, and there are any number of rewarding walks one can make around the island, including a climb to the top of the volcano.

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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)

More Pictures from Þórsmörk

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The morning after completing the 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls hike, we awoke with muscles so sore that just leaving our tent took almost half an hour. The last thing we felt like was more hiking, but we had six hours to kill until the bus back to Reykjavík. And in Þórsmörk, there aren’t a lot of other options. More hiking it is!

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We decided to walk from Básar to the Langidalur campsite, on the northern side of the valley. Our path brought us to the Krossá River, a wide and deceptively powerful westward stream issuing down from the glaciers. Traversing the Krossá is easy enough for hikers, as there’s a pedestrian bridge set up near Langidalur, but it’s a trickier gambit for cars.

This isn’t a neatly defined river with grassy banks and a steady path, but a mess of streams hurrying down the valley as quickly as possible. As the glacial runoff ebbs and flows, the Krossá can become deeper in unpredictable spots. Just because someone forded the river at a certain place yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s safe today. Once we were at Langidalur, we sat on the grass and had fun watching the cars attempt the crossing. The danger of getting stuck or pushed uncontrollably downstream, or even having your car flipped, is real and it happens frequently.

We experienced the rush of crossing ourselves, later, when our bus picked us up for the return to Reykjavík. As we splashed down into the river, we could feel the bus being carried away. But our experienced driver had little problem righting the course and we emerged unscathed on the other side. In a compact car, you could never make it, and I’d be nervous to try even in a Jeep.

Þórsmörk is one of the most lovely spots that we’ve visited in a while, so deep into the interior of Iceland, and so far from any town. I’d have been happy to stay a bit longer, even if it meant more hiking.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Básar | Langidalur

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September 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (2)

Fimmvörðuháls – Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk

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The first half of our 25-kilometer hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk had been dominated by waterfalls, barren mountain vistas, and an unending uphill climb. But after passing between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, our path would start its descent, and the clouds which had been plaguing us all day would clear up, revealing the valley of Þórsmörk below us: one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen.

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After passing the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, we emerged into serious glacier land, and were forced to trudge across huge banks of snow. The terrain was surreal. Between the snowbanks were fields of lava, strange tiny cones of ash and sinister black craters. At one point, we noticed that the land was smoking. The ground here was still super-heated from the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajökull. I reached down to touch the soil, digging down before yanking my fingers back. It was a little much for my mind to process… was I supposed to freezing here, or burning?

Once we had the smoking landscape of snow and lava behind us, the sky cleared up and Þórsmörk came into view. This valley is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland. In fact, when we asked locals about their favorite places, Þórsmörk was the most common answer. And I can see why. Having it laid out before us from the mountain heights was absolutely magical.

With the valley visible below, we figured the final few hours of our hike would be easy. Nope… nothing like it. This was by far the most challenging stretch of the day, requiring extremely steep descents on tricky terrain, at a point when we were already physically and mentally fatigued. Some sections even forced us into scooching along the ground on our butts, terrified about kicking loose a stone and tumbling down.

But slowly, slowly we made it. Our tent was waiting for us at the campsite of Básar, and we had just enough energy left to set it up before collapsing into our sleeping bags. It had been quite a day… we’ve done a lot of hiking in different places around the world, but I don’t think for sheer, majestic nature, anything holds a candle to the Fimmvórðuhals.

Locations on our Map: Fimmvörðuskáli Hut | Básar

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September 17, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (8)

Fimmvörðuháls – Skógar to Fimmvörðuskáli

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Second Part Of The Hike

The 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls, or Five-Cairn Trail, leads from the Skógafoss waterfall, up and between two glaciers, and into the valley of Þórsmörk. One of Iceland’s most popular hikes, it’s often done over two days, with a night in the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, but we pushed ourselves to complete the whole thing at once. Ten amazing hours.

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The Fimmvörðuháls is considered to be among the world’s best “waterfall” hikes, and begins defending this reputation immediately, with a steep climb up the side of the amazing Skógafoss Falls. This was the roughest ascent of the day, and we were happy to have it done with right away. From here the path levelled out, following the Skógá river uphill into the interior.

Skógafoss was just the first of many waterfalls we’d encounter. During the slow ascent along the river, we saw at least twenty, each of them magnificent. Usually, they would appear very suddenly. You’d be hiking along, lost in your thoughts, when BAM another waterfall. The Skóga River seemed to be showing off, daring us to tire of the spectacle.

After our third hour of hiking, our path departed from the river and we entered into more desolate territory, approaching the pass between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The weather wasn’t optimal during this stretch, and we trudged through the fog and an increasingly-snowy landscape without wasting a lot of time.

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At the midway point of our hike, the huts of Baldvinsskáli and Fimmvörðuskáli appeared on the horizon. These cabins are available for rent through the hiking organization Utivist, but you have to book them way in advance. Up to a year. Most of the beds are reserved for tours and groups, and camping isn’t allowed. So stopping here unfortunately isn’t an option for those of us who have the tendency to plan everything at the last minute.

The waterfalls were great, but the second half of our hike, north from Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk, would prove to be even better. Craters, glaciers, lava fields, dangerous descents, unforgettable views and hot red soil, still steaming after the 2010 explosion of Eyjfjallajökull.

Practicalities: We took the Stræto Bus #51 from Reykjavík to Skógar, which pulled up directly to the waterfall at 11:20. At a moderate pace, the entire hike took us just over ten hours. We had our tent and sleeping bags delivered to the Básar campground by Reykjavík Excursions (having dropped them off at BSÍ the day before), greatly reducing our load while hiking. The bus back to Reykjavík left Básar the next day at 15:00.

This trail is not for beginning hikers, nor anyone who’s not reasonably fit. You need to be well-equipped and prepared for everything; unpredictable weather can make this hike dangerous, and even deadly. Should you want to do this trail, but are unsure about tackling it yourself, the guys at Arctic Adventures run a two-day guided tour. Regardless of your skill level, it’s worth talking over your plans with an expert. And always make sure that someone knows your schedule. The free 112 Iceland smartphone application, which allows you to check-in and contact emergency services with your location, is also highly recommended.

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September 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm Comments (4)

Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

The Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum

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Upon arriving in the village of Árbær, I was amused by the men and women dressed in historical attire, toiling at tasks around the farm. But after an hour, I no longer registered their presence. And as the day progressed, I found myself worrying about the impending harvest back home. Would old Betsy survive another winter? Say, that’s a fetching wench. I wonder whither she brings that bucket of mead, and what her dowry may be. And then my cellphone rang, snapping me back into reality.

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Found atop a hill overlooking Reykjavík, Árbær was once a real farm. But today it’s been converted into the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum, which aims to recreate an authentic historical setting. We joined a free tour of the grounds, led by a woman dressed as a comely maiden of days past. She told us about the history of the farm, while showing us into the minuscule house where over a dozen family members lived. We saw the the stable, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the toys the children would play with, and the tools their parents would use to knit.

And we saw people actually knitting. One of the coolest things about this museum is its large staff, who are there not only to help visitors, but to contribute to the historical ambiance. Passing by a house, you might see a bearded fellow on the porch working on a half-made sock. You’ll see girls tending the sheep, and others just hanging out having a chat.

Árbæjarsafn is a neat place, and does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the past. For obvious reasons, it’s a little outside of the city center, but not hard to reach by bus, and completely worth the effort.

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September 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm Comments (0)

The Ruins of Selatangar

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Since the days of the settlement, Iceland has been a land of fishermen. Rough characters hewn from Viking stock, daily braving the deadly waters of the North Atlantic without a second thought. But I imagine that even the fiercest among them felt a shiver when coming ashore at Selatangar.

Stone Tower Selatangar

Set on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula in an unforgiving landscape of black lava, Selatangar was a fishing settlement until abandoned in the 1880s. All that remains today are the foundations of some shoreside dwellings built into the lava.

A single night on such terrain would be unbearable, so it’s hard to fathom that people spent an entire season here. The “homes” are little more than caves, protected from the sea winds by walls of lava rock. Despite the passage of 130 years, some are still in decent condition. Selatangar is an exciting place to explore; it doesn’t look like much at first, but that’s only because the abodes blend perfectly into the landscape. In fact, the settlement extends over quite a large area.

Exciting, but Selatangar is also deeply unsettling. In this harsh and unfriendly landscape, a split second of inattention could result in a nasty fall onto the craggy rock. It’s the kind of place in which evil spirits might feel comfortable. Indeed, the fishermen who lived here reported being harassed by a malicious ghost they called Tanga-Tómas.

We didn’t encounter any ghosts during our visit, but Selatangar still left us spooked. The place just has an evil aura and, although I enjoyed the time we spent there, I greeted our departure with a sense of relief.

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September 14, 2013 at 6:06 pm Comments (0)

Flying Over the Westfjords

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We had spent an exhausting six days driving and camping around the Westfjords, the remote slice of land that makes up Iceland’s northwestern corner. It was an amazing trip, but also amazingly tiring. “That’s it!” we cried once back in the capital. “We’s taken all the Westfjords we can take and we can’t takes no more!” Little did we know, we’d return the very next day.

Látrabjarg Cliffs

When the opportunity for a flight over Iceland arises, we’re never going to say, “No”. And so when we had the chance to get into a Cessna the day after returning from our trip to the Westfjords, we didn’t hesitate. Just a couple days ago, we’d thrilled to the sight of airplanes landing at Ísafjörður’s terrifying landing strip… and now we’d be doing it ourselves.

Here’s something to know about Ísafjörður’s airport: pilots from around Europe come here to train for “difficult” landings. If you can land at Ísafjörður, you’re pretty good! Luckily, our pilot turned out to be pretty good. We flew in at an angle, straight toward a mountain, and dropped sharply toward the landing strip. The touchdown was smooth, but I have no shame in admitting that I very nearly soiled the back of our cute little plane.

The landing was the most exciting part, but flying over this region which we’d just driven through was wonderful. There, the Látrabjarg Cliffs! Breiðavík! The Dynjandi Falls! Patreksfjörður and Flateyri! From the air, the sheer insanity of the Westfjords’ landscape comes to life. There’s a reason hardly anyone lives here: this is a godforsaken land of unbreachable mountains and eternal snow. To fully appreciate its grandeur, you have to see it from above.


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September 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm Comments (7)

The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs

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Home to millions of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets, Látrabjarg is the westernmost point in Iceland and the largest bird cliff in Europe. Birds are lured here by the infinite rocky outcrops which, protected from the northern winds, are perfect for nesting. And humans come for the sheer spectacle of so many birds in one place.

We knew that we’d see puffins on our visit to Latrabjarg, but hadn’t expected to get so close to them. Despite being hunted in Iceland, the little guys are completely unafraid of people. They tend to nest toward the top of the cliffs, and after I had sat down to watch one do his thing, he waddled to within a couple feet of me, totally uninterested in my presence. Adorable as they are bobbling and skidding across the water, they’re even cuter up close.

A path extends for over a mile up and along the cliffs, bringing you to ever greater heights. But since the best view of the cliffs is close to the parking lot, a hike is strictly optional. It was fun just to sit on the grass and watch the birds through a pair of binoculars. I could spot hatchlings clinging for dear life onto their piece of cliff, puffins clumsily flying with fish in their beaks and thoughtless razorbills pooping on the heads of their downstairs neighbors.

An amazing and utterly unique place, Latrabjarg is a must-see during any trip to the Westfjords.

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September 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm Comments (11)

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A Walk Around Heimaey A stroll around the island sounds nice, we thought. A leisurely pace, pleasant weather, verdant hills, volcanoes, beaches, cliffs and a bit of puffin-spotting... a perfect way to spend the afternoon! Hours later, collapsed onto a couch from which we were physically unable to arise, we reflected on this early optimism. The ridiculous buoyancy in our step as we set out on an "easy stroll" around Heimaey. Oh, we remembered how cheerful we had been. We remembered with blackest hate.
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