We landed in the pitch black and blowing snow of an early Icelandic morning. It would’ve been 1am back home, but in Iceland it was 6am and the sun would be up in a few hours. I was famished. We stopped at a breakfast buffet in the Keflavik airport to grab a quick bite before grabbing our bags and trying to find our way to the car rental desk. It was my first taste of Icelandic prices, but the smoked salmon, cheese, hardboiled eggs, and fruit was worth the airport premium and the inflated exchange rate at that time in the morning.
After waiting in a long line, we signed the documents, got our car key, and struggled through the blinding snow to the back lot where we were told the car would be parked. The keyless entry helped us, and we kept pushing the button until we saw the lights flash in the darkness. It was a Renault Clio, in decent shape with stick shift, and I almost debated heading back inside to get something a little bigger with four wheel drive. I decided against it, and we tossed our bags into the back seat and I familiarized myself with the car for a few minutes before putting it into gear and started following the Google Maps blue dot toward our airbnb north of Reykjavik in a town called Mosfellsbær. It is almost an hour drive on a good day, but with the slush on the roads, the morning rush hour, and the bad visibility it took us quite a bit longer to get to our destination.
The airbnb was awesome. The host met us at the door and showed us to our room, where we had a hot shower and passed out for a few hours. We crawled reluctantly out of bed in mid afternoon, and headed to a nearby coffee shop/bakery to plan the rest of our day. My wife wanted to ride an Icelandic pony, so we booked a horseback tour through an old lava field for the next day and then a snorkelling trip at Silfra for the day after. Feeling accomplished, we went to a grocery store next door and bought some food to cook for dinner over the next couple days to save us the expense of eating out.
The horseback riding was pretty cool. It started bright and early in the morning with the tour leader giving us some history about the Icelandic horses, and an introduction to the riding style and the tölt, (a gait that Icelandic horses are known for) before heading outside to meet our steeds. We rode them around inside the paddock for a few minutes to get used to them, and then headed out for the open trail. The horses were easy going and comfortable to ride, and the smooth gate of the tölt carried us along our way. The guide stopped us numerous times and told us about the lava formations along the trail, about the history of the park that we were in, (it was used as a mine in WW2), and gave us some riding tips to help out. When we got back, we unsaddled the horses, gave them a pat goodbye and headed back to the car to warm up.
Later that day, we went to Reykjavik and ate lunch at a pub before checking out the Icelandic National Museum to catch up on the settlement history of Iceland and the Viking culture that was common before Norway forced a switch to Christianity.
The following day, we drove deep into Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park to meet our guide for the Silfra snorkelling expedition. We were told that the water would be pretty cold, so we put on dry suits and got a rundown on what to expect. We would be snorkelling in the rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. These plates move apart from each other at a rate of about 20cm every year opening up rifts and cracks in the landscape and causing small tremors. The cold water there never freezes or warms up, but stays about 2 degrees centigrade year round. Due to the cold temperatures, plant life has a difficult time growing, which means that fish are nonexistent as well, but the temperatures enable a snorkeler or diver to see for a long way through the clear water. The views were astounding. My face and fingers went numb about halfway through, but the topography and rock formations and deep cracks that went as far as the eye could see took my mind off the numbness. When we finally reached the end, the guide helped us out of our suits and we were glad that we brought a change of clothes as some water had found its way inside.
The Þingvellir visitor’s center provided a cup of coffee and some cake to warm up and re-coup. Afterward, we continued down the road and hiked to the Öxaráfoss waterfall, a site of historic importance in Icelandic history as it was the site of the first Viking parliament and the place where many capital punishments were decided on and carried out.
The next day, we left our airbnb and drove east along the southern coast of Iceland, stopping at the Secret Lagoon hot spring, where the water bubbles out of the rock and flows into a pool where it cools down enough for swimming. A small geyser shoots up periodically from the rock and steaming streams and pools of water feed the pool. As entrance is limited, and guests are required to shower thoroughly before entering, the pool is able to stay clean without the use of chemicals. The warm water was relaxing and rejuvenating after our previous days of activities and cold water snorkelling. We ate lunch and continued on our road trip to Höfn. It was pretty late when we arrived at our hostel, so we checked in and caught up on some sleep.
We had nothing planned the following day, so we drove about an hour past Höfn looking for hiking trails and scenery. We stopped at the Viking Cafe just before a large tunnel through the mountains and spent a few hours hiking between the massive mountains and the ocean along black sand beaches. This is one of the first settlement spots that was used in Iceland, and the remains of stone structures and foundations are still visible along the beach. A Viking village is set up there, made from drift wood and poles which was used as a movie set years ago. The village is in various degrees of decay, but the buildings still stand and we were permitted to enter the village and hike through it. It was getting dark when we returned from the hike, and we drove out to the gates of a NATO radar site and lighthouse on a peninsula out in the ocean and took pictures of the surf and mountains in the fading light.
We drove back west toward Keflavik early the next morning, stopping at the Glacier Lagoon to witness the seals play amongst the icebergs floating in the bay. The early morning light caused the glaciers to glow in the still water and we watched for quite a while before continuing to Skaftafell and the start of a glacier hike that we booked the previous day. We donned crampons and hiking boots and took a ride out to the start with a group of six other people and hiked for several hours up the glacier and across slippery ice and snow, while the guide explained how the glacier was formed and how it in turn formed the landscape around us. He told us the glacier is receding and the spot that we were standing on would be gone in a few years. On the way back, we fed two ravens that followed us on our hike, whom the guides named Huginn and Muninn after Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology, said to fly across the world and bring information back to the god Odin. We stopped in an ice cave made from streams of melting glacier water and hiked through it, marvelling at the immensity of the ice and clarity of the colour.
We spent that night at another airbnb outside of Vik, a farm far from other houses. They had horses, sheep, and calves and explained how they let them go in the summer to free range and graze until autumn when they go out and collect them again. The hosts told us about the mountain Litla Dimun close to their house that is reported to be the home of a village of elves, a tall, beautiful, wise and immortal race of beings that live inside the mountain. They told us that many people have communicated with the elves and they all describe the village and buildings the same. You must go inside one of the many caves and meditate and the elves may communicate with you. The mountain was steep and rocky, but not too tall so we drove out to it and climbed it, relaxing high up above the world and watched the river gurgling and rushing past the base. On the way down we stopped in a cave and felt the closeness of the rock and the dampness of the interior. It was easy to imagine it as a home for another being and I could see where the folklore had come from.
We continued on our way in the afternoon and stopped at Geysir Center to see the famous Icelandic geyser, and then to the Skogafoss waterfall. Both places were fairly touristy, but worth the trip. We had hoped to make it all the way around the island, but after eight days we were only able to see the southern half, as there were too many things we wanted to do when we were there. Unfortunately, it was quite overcast the entire trip so we were unable to see the northern lights, but that just gives us a reason to return another time. All in all, it was a beautiful trip to an amazing country full of lava beds and glaciers, hot springs and cold snorkelling, warm people and cold beer. I would return anytime.
Jonathan Beam is the author of Crimson Morning - The Philosophy of Travel, available on the member page by signing up above. He is a blogger who writes about travel, adventure and philosophy. He has also written a novel that is currently under consideration to be published!