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Goðafoss – The Waterfall of the Gods

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Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, is found just off the ring road near Akureyri. Although this makes it an easy stop for tour buses, don’t let the threat of crowds keep you away from one of northern Iceland’s most impressive natural sights.

Goðafoss picked up its name in the year 1000, after Iceland converted to Christianity. To demonstrate his adherence to the new faith, a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði carried his pagan idols to the top of the waterfall and threw them into the churning void below. A bold break with the past, and I imagine Þorgeir held his breath for a while afterward, just in case the old gods weren’t so obsolete after all.

We were visiting early in the morning and the road from Akureyri had been almost completely free of traffic, so I was astounded by the crowd which had already gathered at Goðafoss. There were two big buses and at least ten other cars in the parking lot. The crowd definitely detracted from the experience, especially since a surprising number of them were misbehaving. I saw three different people throw their cigarette butts into the falls. Unbelievable!

To help mitigate my rage, I told myself that they must have a reason for the cigarette-tossing. Maybe they’re giving up smoking! Maybe they’re following the example of old Þorgeir, when he embraced Christianity, and instead of casting off their obsolete pagan idols, they’re throwing away their final cigarettes. A fantasy, I know, but it did help lessen my anger. A little.

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October 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm Comments (3)

The Annual Horse Roundup at Sauðárkrókúr

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Most of Iceland’s horses spend their time free in the highlands, instead of on farms. Like sheep, they roam at their whim, with neither supervision nor control, able to graze wherever they choose. But once a year, toward the end of summer, they’re brought down from the mountains.

Wild Icelandic Horses

We happened to be in Sauðárkrókúr during this year’s roundup, which sees a group of farmers recruit their friends, neighbors, and even some courageous tourists to hop into the saddle and gallop off into the vast highlands. Their mission: locate and herd every horse in the area to a corral set up outside town.

Jürgen and I didn’t participate in the round-up, which was fortunate for everyone involved. The farmers, we’d have slowed down; the horses, we’d have lost; and ourselves, we’d probably have crippled. But we got into position near the corral to watch the team come down off the mountain, with a huge herd of horses running ahead of them.

Watching the descent was exciting, but the action in the corral was even better. Here, about 80 horses in a large central pen were separated into stalls, one by one. It was pure chaos. The horses moved in a herring-like swarm from one end of the pen to the other, while a few brave souls were tasked with identifying certain horses by their brand, then isolating and directing them into the appropriate stall.

We saw people tumbling, horses stampeding, liquor disappearing, dogs flying, and all manner of high-spirited foolery. The team had started the round-up at dawn and by 5pm, when the corralling got underway, a definite party atmosphere had settled in. Whoever wasn’t in the pen directing horses was drinking beer or passing around flasks full of whiskey.

The flying dog, by the way, had thought it a good idea to enter the stables and “help out” with the horses. Before he got trampled, someone picked him up by the scruff and hurled him up and over the wall.

Even for those of us who weren’t actively participating, the corral was great fun to experience. It only happens once a year, so you have to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re visiting Iceland in September, make sure to ask around. Round-ups such as the one we saw at Sauðárkrókúr take place all across the country.

Location of the Corral on our Map

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October 14, 2013 at 7:06 pm Comments (8)

Me and Mósa, My Icelandic Horse

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Our time together was short, but Mósa didn’t need long to work her way into my heart. I loved her soft coat, her short stature, her rich color, and how she farted with every other step. I loved her mane, and her mild countenance when I accidentally pulled some of it out. I loved how determined she was to speed past others when it came time to gallop. I loved her stubbornness. And most of all, I loved that she didn’t buck me off, although it would have been so very easy.

Me And My Horse

We were invited on a morning ride with Hestasport, based in Varmahlíð’s beautiful Skagafjörður Valley. Hestasport is among the oldest horse recreation companies in Iceland, with roots that go back to 1974. They offer tours to fit any level of interest or skill, ranging from an hour to a week.

After meeting our guides for the day, we were introduced to our horses. Perhaps because they’ve evolved to cope with the country’s rough nature, Icelandic horses are known for their lively characters. They’re wilder than their cousins on the continent, a bit more spirited. They’re also smaller (technically ponies), and come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Mósa was charcoal gray with a black stripe running down her spine. She was, I assured her while stroking her mane, by far the prettiest horse in our group. “Even if you are a little farty”.

Another unique trait of Icelandic horses is their number of natural gaits. Other horses are born knowing how to walk, trot an gallop, but Icelandic horses can also tölt and skeið. This ability and their friendly demeanor have made them popular around the world. There are, in fact, more Icelandic horses in Germany than Iceland. But once a horse has left the island, they are never allowed to return. Strict laws on importation have kept Iceland’s stock exceptionally pure.

Our tour with Hestasport lasted for a couple hours. Mósa was well-behaved and only once disobeyed my command to continue moving. Because they’re smaller, Icelandic horses are more comfortable to ride than other breeds, and I was only partially incapacitated after two hours in the saddle. Riding an Icelandic horse is one of the country’s quintessential experiences, and Hestasport is a great place to do it.


We also had a wonderful night. In addition to the riding, Hestasport rents excellent cabins that have access to a large hot tub. Exactly what an aching body needs after a day atop a horse. The cabins themselves are nicely outfitted, with heating, good showers and fully-equipped kitchens. Very comfortable.

Location of the Hestasport Office
Hestasport – Website

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October 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm Comments (5)

Ósar and Borgarvirki

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Stretching into the arctic waters of the Atlantic on Iceland’s northeastern coast, the Vatnsnes Peninsula is usually over-looked, but has a couple worthwhile places at which to stop. At Ósar, there’s a seal colony which lives on a sandbank just across a narrow stretch of water. And the Viking-era fort at Borgarvirki offers interesting history and a fantastic view of the region.

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Borgarvirki

It was an extremely windy afternoon, and we feared that Ósar’s seal colony wouldn’t be home. At first, these fears were borne out. We hiked about fifteen minutes down to the shore, but didn’t see a single seal. Eventually, though, one raised his head out of the water. He was watching us closely, taking our measure, and only disappearing when Jürgen started making kissy-noises at him.

The flirting must have worked, however, because seals now started popping up all over the place. We saw at least ten, diving around, playing, and always keeping a careful eye on us. We had hoped to see them basking on the shore, but it wasn’t exactly a day for basking. Still, if you want to see seals, Ósar seems a pretty safe bet.

Next up was the ancient fort called Borgarvirki, just south of Ósar. It’s built atop an immense volcanic plug and dates from the settlement era, but not much else is known about Borgarvirki. It doesn’t appear in the literature or accounts of the time, so nobody knows for sure who built it or for what purpose. I assume it was a defensive lookout, because from the top you can see for miles.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Ósar | Borgarvirki

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October 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm Comments (4)

Hveravellir: Halfway through the Highlands

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At the midway point of our journey along the Klöjur Road, we stayed overnight at Hveravellir. After hours of desolate lava fields and no signs of life (apart from the occasional shrub), we greeted this lonesome outpost like Bedouins stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.

Hveravellir Iceland Blog

Hveravellir is a lodge with the most basic of services: some food, a room to relax, beds, and most importantly, people to talk to. The Klöjur Road gets lonely! So, although I felt bad for the two girls working in the lodge, nothing was going to stop Jürgen and I from blabbing their ears off. I’m sure the tale of our harrowing journey through the highlands was fascinating to them. I’m sure they hadn’t heard the exact same story a million times before.

Once we got our fill of human companionship, we explored the area. Hveravellir is built around an active geothermal area, and a short path leads past a number of bubbling, sulfur-spewing holes in the earth, each with its own name and personality. Öskurhóll is a white volcano-shaped mound spitting out constant clouds of steam at high-pressure. Fagrihver is a beautiful light-blue pool with crystallized sulfur covering half its surface. Eyvindarhver is an evil, yellowish spring; in the infrequent moments when it isn’t belching smoke, you can see a horrific, moaning face in its depths.

Eyvindarhver was named after Eyvindar the Outlaw, a famous figure from Icelandic history who lived in exile with his wife, Hella. One of the harshest punishments in 17th-century Iceland was banishment to the country’s highlands. It was basically a death sentence, but in the unlikely event that the criminal should survive twenty years, he or she would be pardoned. Eyvindar and Hella were among the few to withstand the elements for so long, and they managed it by living part-time in Hveravellir. Here, they could stay warm, and even boil sheep in the hot springs.

Not all of the hot springs at Hveravellir clock in at a deadly, sheep-cooking temperature. In fact, the best thing about staying here is the perfectly-heated tub just outside the sleeping quarters. After a long day on the road, nothing could be better.

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October 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm Comments (0)

Glymur – Iceland’s Highest Waterfall

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For a rewarding day trip out of Reykjavík, it’s hard to do better than Iceland’s highest waterfall, Glymur. Found at the end of Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), Glymur is hidden within a canyon, and an hour’s hike is required before it comes into view. But the walk is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself completely worth the effort.

Glymur Waterfall

We hadn’t heard a lot about Glymur during our time in Iceland, so I was surprised to learn that it was once one of the country’s most popular sights. But that was before 1998, and the construction of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. By allowing drivers to cut directly underneath and across the fjord rather than having to go around it, the tunnel reduces driving time from an hour to seven minutes. Quite a boon for industrious Iceland, but a disaster for the popularity of poor Glymur. Used to be right off the ring road! Used to be a practical stop halfway around the neverending fjord. Used to be, Glymur got some love.

Aww, we still love you Glymur! We had an excellent time hiking to this amazing waterfall. There’s a lot packed into the three kilometer track, and it was a far more exciting walk than I had been anticipating. You’ll climb a horribly steep hill, edge along a dizzying cliff, and even crawl straight through a cave. But the best part is where the path leads to a thin log balanced over a river. As in: “this is how you’ll be crossing”.

We made it across the log, up the hill, along the cliff and through the cave, and had Glymur as our reward. 196 meters high (643 feet), this is an incredible waterfall. We had ascended quite high, and behind us was a landscape almost as impressive as the waterfall itself. If you’re looking for a fun half-day excursion out of Reykjavík, definitely keep Glymur in mind. It may be past its prime in terms of popularity, but the relative lack of other people only improves the experience.

Location on our Map of the Glymur Trailhead
The Trail We Followed: Wikiloc

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October 8, 2013 at 8:53 pm Comments (7)

The Reykjavík City Zoo

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Not all that many animals are native to Iceland, and those that do exist can be notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. So if you want to see creatures like reindeer, seals and foxes, and don’t have time to scour the coasts and countrysides, head to the tiny Reykjavík City Zoo.

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The zoo is part of the immense Laugardalur park just outside the city center. We needed a really long time to locate it, and were exhausted by the time we entered. So I was happy to discover that the zoo isn’t all that big. At just 750 krona, it’s among the cheaper things you can do in Reykjavík and won’t take more than an hour of your time. Unless you have a kid who just loves pigs or chickens. In that case, good luck, because there are a ton of them. Your little chicken-lover will never want to leave.

We found the seals right away, swimming endless loops around their small pool. They made me a little sad. Even the pups had clearly gone insane from the boredom… all there is to do is swim the same loop over and over, all day today, tomorrow and every day thereafter for the rest of your life. From the seal pool, we wandered through stables where some truly massive pigs were feeding and a cow was hooked up to a milking machine. We saw a few rabbits and Icelandic goats, but paid them short shrift. Apologies all around, but we only really cared about the foxes.

The zoo has well over a dozen arctic foxes kept in a huge pen, and they were great fun to watch. Very playful, they were wrestling around with each other, hopping in and out of their burrows and keeping a watchful eye on our movements outside the cage. Unlike the seals, they had plenty of room and seemed to be truly happy.

The foxes aren’t the only ones having fun, because toward the back of the zoo is a theme park with carnival rides for children. We possess neither kids nor any kind of tolerance for their maddening darling squeals of delight, so we skipped out on this. But it’s another reason the zoo is such a popular activity for Icelandic families.

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September 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm Comments (2)

A Boat Trip Around Heimaey

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We had already walked around Heimaey, but we also wanted to check out the island from the water, and so we bought tickets for a 90-minute boat ride offered by Viking Tours. Caves, cliffs, seals, puffins and some of the other uninhabited islands which make up the Westman archipelago were all part of the program.

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The tour looped around Heimaey in a clockwise direction, with our captain pointing out the various natural features in both Icelandic and English. We saw plenty of sea birds, including puffins and kittiwakes, and even spotted a seal wallowing about the mouth of one of the island’s caves. The seal moved aside as our boat entered, giving us the chance to admire the cave’s strange colors.

Although the weather was bad and the sea was choppy, the boat ride was a lot of fun. We circled around a couple of the smaller islands just off Heimaey’s coast, and entered another cave near the harbor where our captain, a hulking man with shoulder-length blonde hair, pulled out a saxophone to show off the cave’s acoustics. As a kid growing up in Ohio, I couldn’t have guessed that one day I’d be soaking wet in a cave, in Iceland, on a boat, listening to a direct descendant of the Vikings play Amazing Grace on a sax. One of those surreal moments you’d have never been able to anticipate.

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September 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm Comments (0)

An Unexpected Encounter at Heimaey’s Aquarium

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Whereas we had enjoyed wonderful weather on our first day in Heimaey, our second day was marked by unrelenting rain. We tried to grit our teeth and ignore it, but eventually had to seek shelter. Soaking wet and in toxic moods, we burst into the Aquarium and Natural History Museum, never expecting to encounter a little fellow who would brighten our spirits immensely.

Puffin Kiss

Before escaping into the refuge of the museum, we toured around Heimaey Town. During the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, the eastern section of the town had been buried, and some of the buildings are still half-poking out the pitch black wall of rock. Today, you can walk atop the cooled lava field; memorial plaques indicate which building is buried under your feet.

Stafkirkjan

Walking across the lava was neat, but by the time we reached the Stafkirkjan (Stave Church) bordering the harbor, the rain had dampened whatever enthusiasm I’d started the day with. Despite my rancid mood, even I could recognize the simple beauty of this black-timbered church. A gift from Norway, it was built in 2000 and modeled on the famous Urnes Stave Church in Bergen.

We stayed inside for awhile, drying off, and then darted across town into the Sæheimar, Heimaey’s aquarium. We weren’t expecting much, and were only visiting because it was so miserable outside. But the place quickly won us over. There’s a room with stuffed models of the birds of Iceland, another with the island’s various minerals, and a third with aquariums that house all manner of indigenous fish and crustaceans.

It was enjoyable enough and worth the 1000kr ($8.30) ticket price. But then, as we were about to leave, the staff introduced us to a young puffin who was found orphaned as an infant, and now lives in the building. He’s known humans his whole life, and is completely comfortable with our species. “Cute” doesn’t even begin to describe him. He was so soft and quiet, so colorful and personable, I thought of putting him in my pocket and sneaking out.

By the time we left the Sæheimar, we were feeling great and had completely forgotten about the awful weather. Of course, minutes later we were soaking wet again, and the smiles had disappeared our faces. But for a short period at least, the Sæheimar and its resident puffin had cheered us up.

Locations on our Map: Stafkirkjan | Sæheimar
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September 21, 2013 at 11:03 am Comments (5)

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.

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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)

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Goafoss - The Waterfall of the Gods Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, is found just off the ring road near Akureyri. Although this makes it an easy stop for tour buses, don't let the threat of crowds keep you away from one of northern Iceland's most impressive natural sights.
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