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Sjáumst Síðar, Iceland

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The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn’t need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.

Goodbye Iceland

Only 300,000 people live in Iceland. This shocked me at first. An entire country for a population smaller than that of Honolulu? But by the end of our stay, 300,000 felt like a lot. Iceland might be a country in name, but in spirit it’s a big, widely-scattered family. We’d meet people in Akureyri with cousins we’d photographed in Ísafjörður. “Húsavík? Sure! My sister works at the town bar. Stop by and say hi.” Or we’d see a friend from Kópavogur during a visit to the Westman Islands. And he would just wave, like it’s no big deal. Like it’s right around the block!

Considering the small and tightly-knit population, the sheer number of tourists who come to Iceland should be overwhelming. Walking down Laugavegur, the main street of Reykjavík where foreigners far outnumber locals, I always felt a little guilty. After all, I was one of these invaders. But although it would be understandable for Icelanders to turn insular, shunning strangers under the guise of protecting their culture, they are among the most welcoming, friendly people we’ve ever encountered. Whether striking up a conversation at the bar, offering advice, pulling over when we stuck out our thumbs, listening to our stories or sharing theirs, locals were always happy to engage with us. Icelanders are proud of their country, eager to know what we’d seen and what we thought.

And they have reason to be proud. Iceland is home to the most bizarre and beautiful nature we’ve ever seen, bar none. The glaciers, the geothermal areas, the desolate interior, the raging arctic oceans, the black sand beaches. The hiking! During our walk along the Fimmvorðuháls Trail, the moment we crossed between two glaciers and saw the valley of Þórsmörk beneath us, glowing in the evening sun, was one of those transcendent experiences I’ll never forget. How many times in your life does something happen that you immediately know will be etched into your memory forever? It’s rare. But perhaps less so in Iceland.

The nature is unforgettable, but that’s only half of what makes Iceland so special. We were just as amazed by its people. This tenacious little community who brave life on an island which (let’s be honest) is set to explode any day now. Who, despite their small number, have their own language, compelling history and incredibly rich culture. Who have created one of the most liberal, tolerant, environmentally-friendly, pragmatic and down-to-earth countries on the planet. These people who love camping! Who party like maniacs! Who bathe in rivers and climb glaciers for sport! Who knit!

Iceland, you’re fascinating. We left a little sad, but with amazing memories and friendships that I’m sure will stand the test of time. And I have no doubt that we’ll return. It’s your fault. You welcomed us with open arms and now, we’re kind of family.

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Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
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November 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm Comment (1)

The Earth Is Angry: Hverir and Grjótagjá

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Like an irritable old codger fed up with the neighbor kids trampling his flower bed, the Earth has posted “No Trespassing” signs all over Iceland. “Nothing says Stay Away better than a hissing pool of mud,” reasons the Earth. “And what’s more, I’ll make it stink of sulfur!” Makes sense, but what do we humans do? We turn it into a tourist attraction! Man, are we annoying.

Hverir Hot Springs

The Earth is at its boiling, steaming worst in the Hverir geothermal area. Pools of bubbling mud, strange rock piles like mini-volcanoes relentlessly belching steam, and a nearly unbearable stink of sulfur… just the kind of place we humans love! What’s wrong with us? Why should busloads of tourists seek out this seething little park near Mývatn?

It must be the novelty. Places like Hverir aren’t going to bring us to tears with their glorious beauty, but it’s fun to see another, darker side of our planet. And I suppose there’s a kind of beauty to be found here as well.

Grjótagjá Hot Springs

Nearby Hverir is Grjótagjá: another spot where the Earth once had a rage fit. Grjótagjá. The name even sounds like a growl. Here, the crust has simply cracked in two, creating a long, jagged fissure into which pools of geothermally-heated water have collected. Years ago, these cave pools were popular spot for bathing Icelanders, but after a series of eruptions that ended in 1984, the water became too hot.

Earth: “Growl, grumble, grjótagjá… Earth ANGRY!” [Cracks the crust]
Humans: “Oh hey, look everyone, a new swimming pool! Thank you, Earth!” [Jumps in pool]
Earth: “I said leave me alone!” [Erupts volcanoes]

We spend our whole existence polluting it, ripping up its forests, killing its atmosphere and dumping our garbage into its oceans… it can’t be any surprise that the Earth wants a little space to itself. A place free of our annoying and destructive behavior. But do we get the hint? Sorry, Earth, you’re just too fascinating to leave alone, even when you’re angry. Maybe especially then.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Hverir | Grjótagjá

Dimmuborgir Guesthouse

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More Pics from the Grjótagjá Fissure
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October 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm Comment (1)

The Jarðböðin Nature Baths

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While we enjoyed our visit to the Blue Lagoon, we did have a few complaints. It was too expensive, too crowded and although the landscape of black lava was striking, it could have benefited from more variety. Iceland was apparently listening to us and taking notes, because we found all our complaints improved upon at the “Blue Lagoon of the North”: the Jarðböðin Nature Baths.

The Jarðböðin Lagoon

Situated just a couple miles from Mývatn, the baths at Jarðböðin are the perfect way to end a day packed with activity. We visited after touring Viti, Leirhnjúkur, Hverir and Grjótagjá, and our bodies were in desperate need of rejuvenation. The water in the pool was at a perfect temperature, hot enough to be slightly alarming at first, and we soaked our tired bones for well over an hour.

In addition to the main pool, there’s a hot tub, steam rooms and a pool of refreshingly cool water. The Jarðböðin lagoon is artificial, with water provided from a nearby borehole owned by the National Power Company. Rich in minerals beneficial to the skin, the water also deters bacteria without the need for artificial cleaning agents.

Jarðböðin does suffer from the same problems as the Blue Lagoon, but to a lesser degree. At $20 per person, it’s still expensive to visit, but not outrageously so, and the pool is well-known enough to be crowded, but not to an unpleasant degree. We really enjoyed ourselves here and nearly returned the very next day.

Location on our Map

(Jarðböðin Protip: There are two sets of dressing rooms; one inside and the other just outside the main building. Almost everybody goes to the first room, so if you head to the back, you’ll usually find yourself alone.)

Cabins Right At Lake Myvatn

The Jarðböðin Lagoon
The Jarðböðin Lagoon
The Jarðböðin Lagoon
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October 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm Comments (0)

The Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur

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Not far from the Viti Crater on the northeastern side of Mývatn, we encountered the lavafield of Leirhnjúkur, which is part of the Krafla volcanic region. Nearly thirty years after the last eruptions, the ground here is still smoking and hot to the touch.

Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur

There’s a five-kilometer path leading through Leirhnjúkur, which took us a couple hours to complete. It should have been faster, but we were slowed significantly by both the snow and the scenery. Many of the trail markers were completely buried and, for safety’s sake, we took our time. With hot pools, steam vents, craggy lava rocks and sections of super-heated dirt pockmarking the ground, Leirhnjúkur is not the kind of place you’d want to accidentally veer off the path.

The lavafield provided a study in contrasts. It was bizarre to be standing ankle-deep in snow, while touching a scorched-black patch of earth that was still painfully hot. The latest volcanic activity here occurred between 1975 and 1984, a period during which there were nine eruptions. These “Krafla Fires” gained fame across the world for their curtains of lava.

Another amazing sight in a region simply full of them, Leirhnjúkur was the most exciting hike we did while at Mývatn.

Location on our Iceland Map

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Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur
Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur
Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur
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October 24, 2013 at 6:10 pm Comment (1)

Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

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After visiting the cliffs of Ásbyrgi, we hopped in the car and drove a few minutes south to the Vesturdalur campsite and the start of an extraordinary five-kilometer trail which would bring us through the Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) to the foot of the Rauðhólar (Red Hills).

Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

The Hljóðaklettar rocks are a wild array of basaltic columns, twisted and angled in every conceivable direction. The bizarre bending of the rocks results in caves, towers and other unclassifiable geometrical shapes. It’s like being on another world, and the area has an alien and almost menacing sort of beauty. Formed when the powerful Jökulsá River washed away chunks of volcanic craters, the rocks at Hljóðaklettar have strange acoustical properties which reflect, enhance or mute the river’s roar, depending on where you’re standing. Hence the name “Echo Rocks”.

After leaving Hljóðaklettar behind us, we approached the Rauðhólar (Red Hills), volcanic cinder cones made of pure red scoria. Capped with white snow, the hills add a shocking splash of color to the otherwise black and gray landscape of lava, mountain and river. You’re no longer allowed to ascend the Rauðhólar, as over-hiking had started to degrade their quality, but that’s not a big deal. They actually look better from a distance.

Location of Vesturdalur on our Map

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Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar
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October 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm Comments (3)

Ásbyrgi

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It was an early Monday morning when we visited the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. We were all alone in the park and during the two hours we spent there, we hardly spoke a word. It’s the kind of place which robs your voice.

Ásbrygi

Iceland is a country full of bizarre natural wonders, and Ásbyrgi is yet another. The canyon defies logic. You’re walking through a forest, when suddenly there’s this massive cliff wall towering 100 meters into the air, encircling you on three sides. There’s a pond at its foot, into which a small waterfall is trickling. And, while you should be concentrating on the sheer magnificence of the scene, you can’t stop wondering … how did something like this form in the first place?

Modern-day geologists have an answer for us. Something about catastrophic glacial flooding swiftly carving a chunk out of a relatively warm lava bed. But I prefer the origin story from Norse mythology. Ásbyrgi is believed to be the place where the horse of Óðinn, Thor’s father, stamped one of his eight hooves down onto the earth. It would explain the shape, and the pool at the base of the cliff looks just like a rain puddle collected in the hoof-print.

There’s a network of trails around Ásbyrgi, and a few excellent lookouts from which you can take in the scene. We only had a couple hours, and so stuck to those which were easiest to reach. With more time, we’d have been able to climb to the top of the cliff, or even scale Eyja, a giant rock island which sits in front of the horseshoe. There’s also a popular multi-day hike leading from Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss.

Regardless of how much time you have, it’s worth going out of your way to see Ásbyrgi. It’s an area of sublime beauty, especially in autumn when a thick forest of birch and fir trees have turned colors, and was one of the surprise highlights of our trip around Iceland.

Location on our Iceland Map

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October 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm Comments (4)

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)

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.

Location on our Iceland Map

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

The Kaldidalur Interior Route

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For 60 kilometers between the Hvitá valley resort of Húsafell and the Þingvellir National Park, the bumpy Kaldidalur (Cold Road) cuts between glaciers and across lava fields. It takes about two hours to traverse and acts as a kind of beginner’s course to the country’s highlands.

Kaldidalur River

We tackled Kaldidalur after having visited the Glymur Waterfall at Hvalfjörður. The weather had been pleasant enough by Icelandic standards, but took a turn for the worse almost as soon as we started the journey to Þingvellir.

Although the low clouds and pounding rain obscured from view the glaciers surrounding us on all sides, it also added something to the experience: the sense of hopeless desolation which should be a part of a journey into the highlands. As we bumped along southward, hopping from one pothole to the next at speeds barely eclipsing 20 miles per hour, I surveyed the lifeless landscape through the rain-battered windshield and a cold dread enveloped my soul. “This is perfect,” I said to Jürgen. “What do you feel right now?”

“Despair.”

We didn’t have much of a view, but Kaldidalur skirts right between two glaciers by the names of Ok and Þórisjökull. The landscape was otherworldly, almost completely lifeless until we neared Þingvellir. And though the road presented some tricky driving, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Actually, it made me eager for our next challenge in the highlands, which would be coming up very soon.

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October 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm Comments (3)

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

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Sjumst Sar, Iceland The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn't need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.
For 91 Days