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.
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.