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Iceland

posted Jul 27, 2012, 7:21 PM by Justin P
We arrived at Keflavik airport around 8 or so in the morning on Sunday, July 15, crossed through passport control and got our luggage. And just as the hotel owner had said, our driver was waiting nearby with a sign with our names on in it. We drove for a while through beautiful lava fields on the peninsula, almost like a lunar landscape, for a ways before heading into Reykjavik and to Mosfellsbaer. We made a quick stop at a bank so I could withdraw cash from the ATM (a much better deal than exchanging currency at the airport, as suggested by the driver), and were dropped off at Hotel Laxnes. The room wasn't supposed to be ready yet, so I was hoping they would hold our luggage so we could walk around a bit and stretch our legs after the overnight flight. But surprisingly, our room was almost ready and within five minutes, we were able to get into our room and unpack. We had lunch at the KFC next to the hotel, then headed out to explore the delightful little village of Mosfellsbaer. First, we headed down to where the rivers flow into the sea. There were a number of Icelandic horses grazing in this area and we couldn't help but stop and visit. Icelandic horses are smaller than other horses and their blood lines have been kept pure for 1000 years. No horses can ever be imported to the island and even an Icelandic horse that leaves may never return. After taking some pictures and petting the horses for a bit, we walked further down to where a small peninsula juts out into the ocean and saw some sea birds on the shore and some beautiful flowers growing among the lava rocks. Then we briefly headed back to the hotel to use the restroom and then headed north towards the rivers. It didn't take long to find our first waterfall of the trip - Tungufoss, a relatively small but very pretty waterfall just downstream from where Route 1 crosses the river. We hung around here for a while taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful scenery before following the trail further upstream to see a few smaller cascades along the river. To the right (east) we could see Mount Helgafell and a trail heading up the mountain. But we were tired from our overnight flight and decided to head back. We got some pizza for dinner and went to bed early to get ready for our Landmannalaugar tour in the morning.

We woke up at about 730 in the morning and had breakfast at the hotel and then got ready for our tour. At about 9, the tour bus picked us up and we headed east towards the Iceland Highlands. We stopped at one of the last gas stations before going off paved roads to pick up lunch and use the restroom and could see Hekla Volcano in the distance. Our first stop was Hjálparfoss waterfall (which means "help"), a beautiful split waterfall that comes together among towering cliffs of basalt above the falls basin. Then we headed on further into the highlands, passing a restored viking hut very close to the falls and the Búrfellsstöð hydroelectric plant. We continued on through ever increasingly bumpy and rugged roads as the amount of vegetation began to decline. Passing through lava fields, I couldn't help but think that this must be what the landscape on the moon or Mars looks like. At least the closest that most of us will ever get to see. As we neared Landmannalaugar, we made two more quick stops. First, was Hnausapollur crater, an ancient volcano that had filled with crystal clear blue waters. The second was Frostastaðavatn lake, a beautiful crystal blue lake. We stopped at both sites for five to ten minutes to take some pictures, then made the short drive on to Landmannalaugar. The last part of the drive was perhaps the most challenging, with two rather deer stream crossings to arrive at the main area. I was not expecting such a crowd here, so far out in the middle of nowhere. There were close to a dozen buses, maybe 50 or more cars (well 4WD vehicles at least), and a huge camping area with close to a hundred tents set up. This is my kind of place - the backpacking mecca of Iceland! We quickly ate lunch then set out to hike the loop trail around here. Our tour guide warned us it takes up to two hours and we would have to go quickly to make it back in time. But I assured him that we are experienced hikers and would have no trouble completing the hike in time. Just past the bathrooms and camping hut the trail climbed steeply through a lava field before coming out into a beautiful valley amidst the colorful rhyolite mountains that make Landmannalaugar such a popular destination for hiking and backpacking. Although most of the area is devoid of life, this valley was full of grass and small, white wildflowers creating an almost magical atmosphere. Continuing on the trail led up further to an area with several geothermal vents, belching out steam and sulfurous gases. A beautiful sight, but not such a beautiful smell. The loop trail now headed into the lave fields though magnificent towering displays of lava rocks, some 5 meters tall, some much smaller. In the distance, the campsite at Landmannalaugar looked much smaller, but the vehicles and tents could still be made out. The trail then led to the edge of the lava field where a river below had carved a gorge. Slowly descending, we followed the trail as it approached closer and closer to the river before finally meeting up and following the river out to the plain and looping back around to the campsite. Although this hike was only maybe 4 km, it was one of the most beautiful and enjoyable hikes I have ever done. I couldn't help but think that I need to return with more time and do a backpacking trip through this wonderful area. Since we returned with more than enough time to spare, I took a quick dip in the natural springs. It was very shallow and quite warm, although the smell of sulfur was noticeable. The rocks along the floor of the spring were quite hot and when I got out, I was a bit chilled. Such a difference between the water and air temperatures. We headed back to the bus and the driver offered us dried haddock "chips". I'm not a big fan of seafood, but I thought I'd give them a try. Luckily, he also offered a shot of Brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps drink that covered up the taste of the chips. Once everyone returned to the bus, we headed back and drove for some time along unpaved roads in the Icelandic highlands, with two stops. The first was near Hekla volcano for some great shots of the stratovolcano and a conspicuous sign for it. The next was just a little further on, where a great deal of pumice from the eruptions of Hekla. We took a couple specimens as souvenirs before taking off. We continued a little ways further on the unpaved road and finally hit a paved road - Route 1 along the southern coast - as we made our way back to Mosfellsbaer. Along the way, we made a detour in Eyrarbakki, a small coastal town that used to be noted for its fishing. These days, however, the largest employer in town is Litla-Hraun prison, the largest in Iceland. Another interesting spot in Eyrarbakki is Húsið, or House, the oldest wooden building in Iceland. After that, we headed back to our hotel, and had dinner before heading to bed after a very long day. We didn't arrive back to the hotel until after 8, but keeping track of time is so difficult when the sun is always up!

Tuesday was our tour of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, north of Reykjavík. Due to the driving time, it was also perhaps our longest tour, especially considering how much there is to see and do on the peninsula. Our tour guide, Helgi, picked us up from the hotel around 9 and we began the tour. Shortly, we passed Mount Esja and saw some hikers beginning their ascent. I was disappointed that I didn't have the chance to climb this mountain, being so close to our hotel in Mosfellsbaer, but that will just have to be something for another trip. Following Route 1, we went though the tunnel under the fjord and stopped near Borgarbyggð at a gas station to use the restroom and pick up some sandwiches for lunch. Then the driver headed on Route 54, which leads to the peninsula. It was a beautiful drive with more gorgeous mountains and seascapes, making the time pass quickly. Our first stop was at Olkelda, a farm with a mineral spring with naturally carbonated water. Helgi claims the water has healing powers and that he always drinks three cups when doing this tour. I drank about a half of a cup - it was a little potent for my taste. A sign nearby indicating the mineral composition of the water was very interesting. Sodium, iron, calcium, and various other metals in the water had concentrations ten or more times that of normal drinking water. Regardless of the healing properties, the taste was a bit much for me. Next, we went to Ytri-Tunga beach along the south coast of the peninsula, known for seal colonies. The beach was very rocky with a lot of seaweed growing on the rocks, making for a hazardous scramble out onto the rocks. But we were able to spot several cute seals frolicking in and out of the water. A few even turned around to pose for the camera. We returned to the bus and continued along the southern coast of the peninsula. We passed numerous beautiful waterfalls and I wish that we had the chance to stop and view them, but there just wasn't enough time. Our next stop was a scenic overlook near the home of one of Iceland's most infamous residents - Axlar-Björn, perhaps the world's first serial killer, who killed travelers and stole their horses. He was finally caught when people noticed he had more horses that he should have been able to afford. The overlook, despite its notorious past, had wonderful views and we could see the Bjarnafoss waterfall in the distance. Our next stop was Arnarstapi, a small fishing village in the shadow of Mount Stapafell. This village is incredibly beautiful with rugged cliffs along the shoreline. We ate lunch by the cliffs and watched the countless seagulls flying in and out of the cliffs, where they had made their nest. Climbing around to different spots, we found a great spot overlooking the bird nests and could see some of the younger birds safely perched on the precarious cliff faces awaiting a meal from their parents. Another interesting spot on the cliff was a natural bridge over the sea below. We followed the trail back around and stopped to check out the statue of Barður Snaefellsás, a half-man, half-giant from an Icelandic saga that took place in Snaefellsnes. We then drove a short ways to Hellnar nature reserve (I would have preferred to make the short hike, myself) and saw more beautiful cliffs and rock formations along the coast. There was even a cave in one cliff that I climbed through. We also stopped briefly at the Visitor Center and signed the guestbook (not many North Carolina entries in there) and learned a bit about the natural history of the area. Then we headed to Djúpalónssandur beach along the west coast of the peninsula. It was just a short hike down to the beach, with both black sand and black volcanic rocks. The rocks are claimed to be "energy stones", a questionable marketing claim, but we decided to collect a few to bring back with us. And the waves here made the most beautiful and hypnotic sound as they gently crashed along the shore. As the water drifted back out, the sound of the rocks tumbling together was absolutely wonderful. I shot a short video of waves, more to capture the sounds than the sights of the waves. Then we walked up the beach to Djúpulón lagoon, a beautiful pool or crystal clear blue and green water below the rocks. And hiking back up to the parking lot along Nautastígur Trail we saw the Gatklettur Rock or rock with the hole with a view of Snaefellsjökull glacier through the hole. Our next stops were at two craters on the western end of the peninsula. First was Hólahór Crater, which we could drive into. We took some pictures, including a great one of Sandy and I in the crater with Snaefellsjökull glacier in the background. The next was Saxholl crater, which required a steep climb up to the top. Then we continued on to Ólafsvík, a small village, for a bathroom break and snacks. While others in the tour were getting snacks, we ran up the road a bit to get a shot of Baejarfoss waterfall in the mountains just above town. Sandy did stop to get some ice cream though. We had one more stop on this tour, a scenic overlook above Ólafsvík with views of the town, the ocean, and surrounding mountains. On the drive back, we also saw Stöð Mountain, a peculiar mountain that pops right out of the water. It also had an interesting shape, where looking at it from one side, the mountain appeared wide; looking from another side, it appeared narrow. We drove on through more lava fields and colorful rhyolite mountains before finishing the loop around the peninsula and heading back. For dinner, we decided to try something more traditional and headed to Álafoss and had some traditional Icelandic meat soup. Then, after a long day, we got some rest to prepare for our next tour.

Wednesday, we had our tour of the Golden Circle, perhaps the most popular and famous tour in Iceland. We had Helgi as our tour guide again. Our first stop was in the town of Hveragerði, a very seismically active town. At the small mall where we stopped to pick up lunch, a rift in the floor could be seen from a recent earthquake. Then we headed to Kerið crater and then on to see our first waterfall of the day - Faxi (also called Vatnsleysufoss), the small one on the Tungufljót river. Well it didn't seem too small to me. It didn't have a particularly high drop, but was very wide. And although we couldn't get close and had to view it from an overlook, it was quite beautiful. Then we headed to the big one - Gullfoss. This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland and for good reason. Gullfoss was amazing! Even more so than Niagara. It was starting to rain and combined with the mist from the falls, we started to get quite wet. But we still went out as far on the rocks as safely possible and enjoyed the beauty of one of the most amazing waterfalls in the world. When we were done here, our next stop was Geysir. It was lightly raining when we arrived and we walked around a bit to see the different geysers. We also took a short trail to head up a hill and get a nice view of the surrounding countryside. As we headed back down, it started to rain harder and harder. We stopped at the Great Geysir to watch it erupt, but by now, it was raining quite hard. So we headed to the restaurant and shops to get out of the rain and dry off a bit. Since we had already bought lunch in Hveragerði, we got back on the bus and ate there. Helgi told us that this heavy rain was unusual in Iceland, it was "like what we see in the movies." But definitely not unusual to us; this was more like a North Carolina downpour. We then drove to Þingvellir, the site of the oldest parliament in Europe, established in 930. It was also the site of the rifts of that mark the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and where the North American and Eurasian plates are separating. The rain had lightened up considerably to drizzle, but we were a bit wet and cold from getting drenched in the downpour. We first stopped near the Þingvellir church and walked around a bit for some pictures of the Nikulásargjá and Flosagjá rifts and the surrounding lands. We could have done a hike to the next stop, but I was voted down and we drove. :( So we drove up to the visitor center at Fræðslumiðstöð and saw more rifts as well as a great view of the valley and lake below. Then back to the hotel. After dinner, it had completely stopped raining so Sandy and I decided to go for a hike. It was relatively early, around 730, and we had plenty of daylight left. So we hiked up Mount Helgafell for a great view over Mosfellsbaer and Reykjavík in the distance. There was a logbook to sign at the summit. I'm pretty sure we were the only ones from North Carolina! Then we headed back down and stopped in the pub at the hotel. Sandy had a screwdriver made with Reyka Vodka. After a sip of this, we knew we had to get a bottle or two from the duty-free store to bring home - it was delicious. I had a Gull, an Icelandic beer. It was a little light for my taste but pretty good nonetheless. After enjoying our drinks, we headed to bed.

Thursday was our last tour with Iceland Guided Tours, the South Coast Tour. We had a new tour guide this morning, Javier. Originally from Spain, he had a Masters Degree in glaciology and had worked for an engineering firm, before falling victim to the financial crisis and now worked as a tour guide. With his science background, he made a great guide in terms of explaining the fascinating geology of Iceland. Our first stop was Skógafoss, meaning waterfall of the forest. At 60 meter tall and 25 meter wide waterfall, it is one of the most powerful in the country. We had about 30 minutes for photos and exploring before heading to Sólheimajökull glacier, an outlet glacier that is almost a tongue sticking out from the bottom of Mýrdalsjökull glacier. It was a little cold and windy as we made our way through a lava field to the glacier. Being summer, the glacier was receding so a pool had formed at the end of it, with small icebergs floating. Javier explained that we were walking through a moraine, a valley that has been cut by the movement of the glacier. And due to all the volcanic rock that had been absorbed, the ice was black! Well, not completely, but it was mostly black with patches of white here and there. As we approached the glacier itself, there was a weather station. Being a tourist spot, it didn't seem the best choice of location. We walked a little bit on to the glacier and found various hole and crevices in the ice and a few spots of blue ice. It was starting to rain now, so we headed back and bought some hot chocolate at the little restaurant at the entrance to the glacier. Then we headed to Vik and had lunch at Strondin Bistro and Bar and went shopping at Vik Wool, where Sandy bought a fleece. Javier washed the bus while we were shopping then we turned back on Route 1 and stopped at Reynisfjara. Reynisfjara is a beautiful beach area with amazing towering cliffs of basalt columns. And on these cliffs, there was a colony of puffins! I was so excited to see puffins. We watched them playfully waddle about on the narrow ledges high no the cliffs. One here and one there would then fly off, furiously flapping their wings and diving into the sea for fish. I climbed up a section of the columns to get some closer shots of the puffins and we quickly went in the "cave" for a photo. Javier warned us that rocks occasionally so we should limit our time in the cave for safety reasons. We walked up and down the beach then headed back to the bus, a little sad we couldn't spend more time. I could have spent the day here. Then we went just a little further back and stopped at Dyrhólaey, a small promontory with amazing pillars and arches of volcanic origin. There were also a few puffins here as well as arctic terns, ducks, and gulls. We spent about thirty minutes, then headed to our last stop - Seljalandsfoss. Another beautiful 60-meter tall waterfall, this one was not as wide as Skógafoss. But it is possible to walk behind the waterfall and see it from all angles. There were a few smaller waterfalls within a short walking distance, and we also tried to climb up to what looked like a cave, but there wasn't much there. We used the restroom facilities here and then made our way back to Mosfellsbaer. We had a quick dinner and while Sandy took a bath, I went for another hike. This time I headed towards Reykvavik and started up Úlfarsfell. I think I got off the trail a bit and started heading up a part that was quite steep with loose rocks. But there was a park bench up here! So I sat at the park bench and enjoyed the view over Reykjavík before heading back. It was getting late, after 10, and though it wasn't getting dark, I decided to head back. It would be our last day Iceland tomorrow. :(

After breakfast, we were picked up and shuttled to Laxnes Horse Farm. We got our helmets and horses from the staff. My horse with Binko and Sandy's was Harpa. We followed the guide with a large group, about 20 riders. I probably should have left the camera as it was just something else to worry about and I wasn't able to take any shots from one the horse anyway. I've only ridden a horse once and I'm a little nervous up there. But Binko was a sweet horse. And a hungry one. As we headed down the trail, she wanted to stop frequently and munch on the grasses growing along the trail. She also didn't like to follow. If she stopped for a bite to eat and another horse passed, she quickly passed. Unless it was the guide - she knew to follow her. It was a pretty exciting ride, with Binko galloping a bit and a few fords to cross streams. We stopped near the waterfall we had seen on our first day in Iceland. Getting down, I let Binko eat while we were resting and fill up before the ride back. At one point, she wanted some grass deep in a bush and nearly pulled me over trying to get at it. Sandy's horse Harpa had an inch and tried to use her as a scratching board. After a few minutes, we got back on our horses and headed back. Those who wanted to ride faster went first, but I figured it best to stay slow. We made it almost all the way when a horse behind me got spooked. The man riding yelled "Stop!" (like a horse is going to listen) and startled Binko who took off. I nearly fell back off the horse, but was able to catch myself and rein in Binko. I sure didn't want to fall after doing well for most of the way. Back at the farm, we returned the horses and were shuttled back to our hotel. It was just after lunchtime so we took the bus to downtown Reykjavík. We had Thai lunch and stopped at the Icelandic Phallalogical Museum. Yes, they really have one. Then we headed down to the water. Unfortunately, it started raining, well drizzling really, so we headed up to Laugavegur, the main shopping district. To get out of the rain and use the restroom, we stopped in Lebowski bar and had a drink. And another and another. The bartenders were really great here and we stayed for quite a while. Across the street was some type of festival with a DJ spinning house music and hair stylists cutting hair for charity. Sandy ended up getting her hair cut. We had dinner at the bar and then took the bus back to our hotel, a little bit sad knowing we had to go home. Iceland is a wonderful place. I usually try to travel to places I've never been before, especially for big trips like this one, but Iceland is definitely a place I want to visit many more times.
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