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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)

A Day in the Hornstrandir

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The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the northwestern corner of Iceland, has been almost completely spared from the corrupting fingertips of mankind. No roads scar the landscape and there are no permanent residents, unless you count the arctic foxes which abound in its hills. We spent a long day exploring a small section of the reserve.

Red House Valley

Hornstrandir is a major destination for hikers seeking to get away from civilization, and most stay for four or five days, walking from one end of the peninsula to the other. The experience must be incredible. Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t allow for such a long excursion, so we had to be satisfied with a cursory peek into Iceland’s wildest corner.

The ferry let us out at Hesteyri, where there’s a café/guesthouse catering to hikers passing through. A number of ports around the peninsula are irregularly served by tour companies based in Ísafjörður, but Hesteyri is the easiest to reach. By the way, the process of booking tickets to Hornstrandir was the most frustrating and expensive part of our trip. If you’re planning a journey, try to arrange tickets as early as possible.

With seven hours to kill, we decided on a hike to Aðalvík Bay, just over a hill to the west of Hesteyri. This was a simple hike, with a clearly-defined trail and moderate incline. The lack of challenge was initially disappointing, as I had been expecting, and perhaps unconsciously hoping for, a “vicious clash with nature” in the lonely reaches of the Hornstrandir. But since we didn’t have to waste time searching for the trail or battling the elements, we were better able to appreciate the amazing nature surrounding us.

Flower hike Iceland

Our path went through a gorgeous field of purple and yellow flowers, over patches of snow and through a massive field of stones, and we needed two hours to arrive at an overlook from where we could see Aðalvík Bay. There was a lonely red farm house below us and a beach of white sand, but we didn’t descend. We wanted to make it back to Hesteyri with time to spare, since there was something else which warranted our attention.

A couple kilometers from the guesthouse are the remains of a decommissioned Norwegian whaling station, called Stekkeyri. Following the station’s founding in 1894, Hesteyri grew into a functioning community with a few families residing there full-time. But when the factory closed up in 1940, the settlement was abandoned. The skeletal remains of Stekkeyri are easy to reach from the guesthouse, and fun to poke around.

Locations on our Map: Hesteyri | Aðalvík

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August 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm Comments (2)

Ísafjörður

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Memorably situated on a narrow spit of land which nearly cuts the Skutulsfjörður fjord in half, Ísafjörður is by far the largest town in the Westfjords. Not that it’s terribly large; just over 2700 people call it home.

Ísafjörður Harbor

Ísafjörður is small enough to comfortably see in a couple hours, but most visitors tend to stay longer. After negotiating the remote and lonely roads of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður comes across as a relative metropolis, and is so beautiful that it’s impossible to leave immediately. We hung around for three nights.

A fishing town since its inception, Ísafjörður was devastated by the near-collapse of the industry, losing much of its population and identity. So it’s nice to see the town catch on as a tourism destination. There are loads of guesthouses and hotels to stay in, some of which are supposed to be great… but we wouldn’t know. Every single room was booked out on the weekend we visited, and we had to content ourselves with camping.

Not that this was a real problem. Ísafjörður has one of the best campsites we saw in Iceland. Tungudalur is a couple kilometers from the town center, but it’s directly across from a lovely waterfall and has all the amenities you might want.

Tungudalur Campsite

We had great meals at Cafe Edinborg and Tjöruhúsið, but besides eating and enjoying the novelty of being in a functional town, there isn’t much to do in Ísafjörður. The Byggðasafn Westfjarða Heritage Museum is supposed to be nice, but we passed it up in favor of a day spent walking down by the docks, sitting in cafes, and watching planes negotiate the terrifying landing strip of the town’s airport. Ísafjörður is surrounded by mountains and the sea, forcing planes to turn at a sharp angle, and descend rapidly in order to stick the landing.

We had a great time in this little northwestern town. It’s worth visiting just to appreciate its stunning location on the narrow spit of land in the fjord, but once there, you’ll likely find it hard to leave.

Location on our Iceland Map

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August 29, 2013 at 11:57 am Comments (5)

Suðavík’s Arctic Fox Center

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The arctic fox is the only terrestrial mammal native to Iceland. Without any natural predators, the little furballs thrive in the harsh climate of the country’s interior, but are skittish and difficult to spot. Luckily for those of us without the inclination or patience to find one in the wild, there’s the Arctic Fox Center in Suðavík, near Ísafjörður.

Arctic Fox Cubs

Aside from being a great resource for learning about the animals, the Arctic Fox Center doubles as a recovery home for orphaned or injured foxes before they’re re-released. During our visit, there were two orphaned pups residing in the cage.

With round, compact bodies, bushy tails and thick fur that keeps them warm during the harsh northern winters, Arctic foxes are incredibly cute. Especially the young ones. The two which we saw in Suðavík were wary of humans, darting back inside their burrow at our slightest movement. But as long as we kept still, they’d sneak out and inspect their food dish, hoping it had magically replenished itself.

Even when the center doesn’t have any residents, it’s worth stopping by for the exhibits. The foxes are fascinating creatures, which change color with the season and form monogamous pairs. The center explains all this, and goes into Iceland’s rocky history with the fox. Despite overzealous hunting in the 19th century, their numbers have recovered and there’s no longer any reason to fear for the species’ survival.

This was an unexpected highlight of our time in the Westfjords. The center even has a cafe and small restaurant with good Wi-Fi, and we ended up staying in Suðavík a lot longer than planned.

Location on our Iceland Map
Arctic Fox Center – Website

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August 28, 2013 at 11:41 am Comments (2)

The Road to Ísafjörður

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As the puffin flies, Ísafjörður was a scant 40 kilometers away, but we were looking forward to a three-hour journey of 172 kilometers. The road leading to the Westfjords’ biggest city hems tight to the coastline, tracing six fjords deep inland and then straight back out to sea. You can drive for an hour and end up two kilometers away from where you were before. Luckily, the incredible nature kept us distracted during what would have otherwise been an infuriating drive.

Rain Amazin Light Iceland

We had set out from Norðurfjörður early in the day and cut west through the highlands of the interior. We passed stubborn drifts of ice which hadn’t melted, even in late July, and took a detour along route #635 to the Kaldalón glacial lagoon. More a long, damp valley than a lagoon, Kaldalón was formed by Drangajökull: the fifth-largest and northernmost of Iceland’s glaciers, and the only one which is expanding instead of shrinking. We continued north until the road ended at the small church of Unaðsdalur, where we paused for lunch.

During the rest of our drive to Ísafjörður, we were almost completely alone on the road. We stopped a couple times at especially photogenic spots, but otherwise kept a steady pace. Though lovely, the scenery of the fjords was unchanging, and with Sigur Rós droning on repeat over the speakers, we fell into a sort of trance. Turn south: fjord, mountains, fields. Turn north: fjord, mountains, ocean. Turn south… and so on, for hours.

When we curved into Skultulsfjörður, the sixth and final fjord, Ísafjörður finally came into view, signalling the end of a tiring and beautiful day in the car. It was a trip which we were happy to have experienced, but even happier to have put behind us.

Locations on our Map: Drangajökull | Unaðsdalur | Ísafjörður

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August 27, 2013 at 11:08 am Comments (4)

Djúpavík

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The first two things you see when approaching Djúpavík are a defunct herring factory and a shipwrecked boat just offshore: rusting shells that set a mournful tone in this tiny northern town. We made a short pit-stop here on our way to Norðurfjörður, and were entranced by Djúpavík’s melancholic beauty.

Lightning Djúpavík Waterfall

Djúpavík was founded as a herring salting station in 1917. But its glory years arrived in 1934 with the opening of a major factory which was the most technologically advanced in the world, and among the largest concrete structures in Europe. By the mid-40s, though, the fishing had dried up and the company shut its doors for good in 1954. The workers moved away, leaving behind little more than a ghost town.

But like a herring who won’t stop flopping around regardless of how often you whack it, Djúpavík has stubbornly clung to life. And it’s done so by embracing its isolation. Iceland is the most remote part of Europe, the Westfjords are the most remote part of Iceland, and the northeastern coast is the most remote section of the Westfjords. So travelers who are looking to get away from it all can hardly do better than Djúpavík.

The town is memorably nestled into a valley at the back of the Reykjarfjörður fjord, with a lightning-bolt waterfall crashing down behind it. And the herring factory, which was never demolished, serves as a reminder of the town’s brief Golden Age. During our visit, it was acting as a venue for a photography exhibition, featuring the work of Icelandic and foreign artists. The town’s hotel runs daily tours, but you’re free to walk around inside yourself.

The Westfjords are the most geologically stable land in Iceland: the least affected by volcanoes and earthquakes. But Djúpavík serves as an evocative reminder that there are other, less dramatic types of natural disasters to worry about. Global warming has caused Iceland’s fish stocks to plummet in the last half-century, and tiny towns dependent on the trade have been disappearing from the map. So far, Djúpavík has managed to resist the grave… here’s hoping it can hold on.

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August 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm Comments (2)

Hólmavík and the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft

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The first stop of our week-long tour of the Westfjords was in the tiny eastern village of Hólmavík, where we visited the unsettling Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Sorcery Museum Iceland

Although Hólmavík is the largest town on the Strandir peninsula, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s home to about 300 people, and “downtown” consists of a single road curving toward the port. But despite its small size, Hólmavík is surprisingly lively. I couldn’t believe how many cars were cruising around, nor the number of tourists.

The town’s big draw is the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. The Black Arts have a long history in the Westfjords. Life was hard in this isolated, northern peninsula, and people occasionally turned to magic to meet their needs. Whether it was to manipulate the weather, gain wealth, punish enemies or win love, the budding sorcerer could always find a spell, sacrifice, rune or incantation which might prove useful.

Need to render yourself invisible for some nefarious reason? Easy. Just paint the sign of Hulinhjálmur on a piece of lignite. But you have to use a special kind of ink, prepared in the following way:

“Collect three drops of blood from the index finger of your left hand, three from the ring finger of your right hand, two from your right nipple and one from your left nipple. Mix the blood with six drops of blood from the heart of a living raven and melt it all with the raven’s brain and pieces of a human stomach. Carve the sign on the lignite with magnetic steel which has been hardened three times in human blood.”
Icelandic Sorcery

Maybe it’s not quite so important to be invisible, after all. Instead, let’s create a monster to steal goat milk. A “tilberi”. That sounds cute!

“To acquire a tilberi, a woman has to steal a human rib from a churchyard in the early hours of Whit Sunday, wrap it in gray wool and keep it between her breasts. The next three times she takes Holy Communion, she must spit the sacramental wine over the bundle. The third spurt of holy wine will bring the tilberi to life. When it grows larger and the ‘mother’ can no longer conceal it in her bosom, she must cut loose a piece of skin on the inside of her thigh and make a nipple which the tilberi will hang on to, and draw nourishment from her body fluids.”

Forget it. And I’m not even going to get into “Necropants”. You can just look that one up, yourself.

The museum is full of fascinating/horrifying information like this. Along with the specifics of the spells, it tells the stories of people who were executed for employing them. Twenty sorcerers were put to death during 17th century witch hunts in the Westfjords, almost all of them men. The most infamous persecutor of witches was Jón Mangússon, a Lutheran pastor from Ísafjörður who had the tendency to accuse neighbors who had slighted him in some way.

We loved the Sorcery Museum. It’s not very large, but was one of the rare museums in which we avidly read every bit of information posted. Hólmavík is worth seeing in its own right, but this collection of stories from the Westfjords’ dark past warrants an extended stop.

Location on our Iceland Map
Strandagaldur: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft – Website

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August 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm Comment (1)

A Week in the Westfjords

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Bumpy gravel roads, killer avalanches, and jagged mountains carved out by glaciers are among the defining characteristics of the Westfjords, the giant peninsula which makes up the northwest of the country. We rented a jeep, packed our tent, and spent six days exploring one of the wildest and most remote regions in Iceland.

Iceland Road Trip Iceland

Only about 7000 people live in the Westfjords today, scattered around a few towns on the coast, but the region wasn’t always so sparsely populated. A century ago, there was twice that number. But people started to leave in the 1960s after a catastrophic decline in fishing stocks. During our week in the Westfjords, we saw a lot of desolate places.

A decrepit herring factory. An abandoned whaling station. A once-thriving town with boarded-up shops. However, there was a sense of optimism lurking under the surface. The herring factory has become an art gallery. The whaling station is a favorite stop for hikers. The fishing town has refocused on a burgeoning tourism industry. In a world that’s always busier, more urban and less exotic, desolation can be a selling point. In open defiance of irony, solitude-seeking tourists have begun swarming in droves to the unspoiled nature offered by the Westfjords.

So it’s impossible to call the Westfjords “undiscovered”; we saw plenty of other tourists during our time there and most of the hotels we contacted were booked out well in advance. But on the open roads of the region’s endless coastlines, even “a lot” of tourists can spread out pretty well, and we often went hours without seeing another soul.

Our trip started in Hólmavík, from where we would make a counter-clockwise circle around the peninsula, up towards Djúpavík, west to Ísafjörður and around south to Látrabjarg… with more than a few stops on the way.

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August 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm Comments (3)
The Ltrabjarg Bird Cliffs 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.
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