Iceland is an island country of the North Atlantic Ocean, but it could be described as a mini continent. Although considered to belong to Europe and has a Scandinavian cultural heritage, it is geographically closer to Greenland and in particular to the mid-Atlantic ridge, at the confluence of two tectonic plates, the European and the North American. This position justifies the intense geological activity and the large number of volcanoes.
Iceland has a cold climate as the Arctic Circle passes slightly further north, but the warm Gulf Stream reaches the coast of the country making the climate milder for this latitude.
Iceland, despite its small size, has an amazing natural beauty, a feast of geological wonders, a symphony of nature’s elements and a demonstration of its power. Here you will find imposing gorges carved by crystal clear rivers, coastal flat areas that continue on steep slopes adorned by countless waterfalls, so many that become an integral part of the Icelandic landscape. Large areas covered by glaciers create strong contrasts with active volcanoes, lava rocks and dark sandy beaches. That is why Iceland is described as a “land of fire and ice”. Volcanic activity is responsible for the countless geothermal springs that are leisure spots for locals and also the main source of renewable energy on which the country is based almost entirely. Agricultural production is also favored with the development of greenhouses where even bananas are grown. In the summer months the sun sets for only a few hours or not at all with the phenomenon known as the “midnight sun”. On the contrary, in winter it is dark, but this fact increases the chances of seeing a spectacular phenomenon, the Northern Lights.
There are almost no trees on the island, as it was deforested 1000 years ago by the Vikings, the ancestors of modern Icelanders, to build their ships. Still the flora is unique, with a sensitive ecosystem of moss, fungi and rare plants that survive in adverse climates. The fauna includes rich ocean life such as whales, many species of seals and fish, while on land the arctic fox, the only endemic mammal, is found. The island is home to many species of birds, most notably the famous Puffins. Puffins (unofficially also called sea parrots) are seabirds of the wider North Atlantic region. They have black and white plumage and small wings that move quickly to fly in the windswept places they live, but are ideal for… underwater “flights”. What makes them stand out is the bright orange color in their large beak and the matching legs that resemble flippers. They live in large populations on the steep shores of the north where they build their nests and so their approach is hardly accessible. Also, a large number of sheep and horses are bred throughout the country. Other creatures of Iceland are the elves of its mythology, whose existence is still believed by some.
Iceland, like any Scandinavian country, enjoys an excellent system of economic, political and social prosperity and overcame fast the troubles of the global economic crisis. The cultural level is also remarkable, the visual arts, literature, music flourish in this icy place.
Icelanders as genuine Scandinavians are people who are relaxed, uncomplicated, stress-free, without social racism, honest and straightforward. They try to find solutions to their problems calmly. Their kindness and cordiality are not limited to typical levels. Despite the harsh climate, they love entertainment and social life. Their living standard is higher than the average in the rest of Europe.
The place names are many, quite hard to memorize and it’s a tongue twister to pronounce. In the following story these locations will be mentioned in more detail.
In summary, the main divisions on the map are based on the horizon points. In the southwestern part of the island, besides the capital Reykjavik, is also the so-called Golden Circle which includes many points of interest within short distance. Following the coastal perimeter route of the island, the so-called Ring Road that includes most of the stunning beauty spots that may interest the visitor, we’ll find ourselves in the southeastern part, where recent volcanic eruptions have shaken this area. Here is the largest glacier in the country, Vatnajökull and a series of dramatic landscapes with black beaches.
Heading eastern, the Eastfjords are of the most wonderful destinations in the country. As the name suggests, they are characterized by successive fjords, ie narrow sea bays with steep slopes, which penetrate sharply into the land and were shaped after the last ice age. The landscape is impressive around the small villages and many waterfalls.
The north of the island is another geological paradise. A magical land that… resembles to the moon, with frozen lava valleys, steam and bubbling mud craters, epic waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and coves full of whales. Northern Iceland is impressive. Small towns are waiting to be discovered by the visitor, such as small Akureyri and Húsavík, as well as wild horse pastures and charming coastal islands inhabited by seabirds and a few residents. Lonely peninsulas extending into the Arctic Circle and pounded by rushing ocean waves in this northern part of Iceland.
The fjord landscape continues all along the far northwest coast.
The relatively hard to reach Westfjords are of Iceland’s most dramatic landscapes and mass tourism is non-existent here, just a minimal percentage of visitors approaching the area. Slopes that are cut vertically by the ocean, where seabirds nest, up to golden beaches frame the place. Mountainous dirt roads cross the vast mountain ranges, revealing few tiny traditional fishing villages. At the westernmost tip of the country – Europe’s 2n– on the windswept, steep Cape Látrabjarg, colonies of puffins and other seabirds abound.
Finally, the central highlands are described as uninhabited areas with volcanoes and cold deserts, with an inaccessible road network interrupted by rapid rivers. Approaching the highlands requires a 4×4 vehicle.
There are so many waterfalls in the country that it is difficult to count them and even more to visit them all. Of the main ones, half of them are described in the journey, which are: Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Svartifoss, Dettifoss, Goðafoss, Dynjandi.
Through fire and ice
“Please fasten seatbelts, the spacecraft is about to land on planet Iceland.” This would be an appropriate announcement regarding the view from the aircraft window. Beneath the foggy landscape, a curved surface appears, covered with a kind of green, spongy lawn but without any trees or other elements of living presence. The impressive peculiarity of this place unfolds in my eyes from the very first moments…
Part of a science fiction film could also be the experience of the Covid test, a necessity to enter the country without quarantine. It’s my turn to enter one of the rooms, where a doctor in dressed in a biological warfare uniform, scans the barcode of my online registration that costs 9000ISK and places a stick deep in my throat that almost makes me vomit. Then he violently puts a wire in my nose, which at that moment I think will come out of my eye, so I reacted with a cry of pain. There is an obligation for a 2nd test, free of charge after 4-5 days, something we neglected until the 13th day.
The choice of such a sparsely populated destination is probably the most ideal in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2 tests reinforce this. Iceland will definitely prove to be safer than an overcrowded Greek island, and ship transportation compared to almost empty planes. The accommodation will take place every day (except one) in the vehicle and food supplied from super markets and cooked mainly in the countryside.
With a tearing eyes and a wounded nose, the entrance in this northern country is completed, following a search for transportation from the airport in Keflavik area, to the capital of Reykjavik, which is 50 km away. The cheapest way is the #55 public bus (€ 15!). However, this line does not have a direct connection on weekends and holidays, but requires a transfer. In addition, the next bus departs in two hours, so another option is the shuttle bus which costs an expense of €24.
The hostel is 1.5 km from the shuttle bus terminal and walking full loaded with baggage in the cool, quiet and cloudy city is joyful. The hostel where our sole overnight stay in a room will take place, is spotless and the visitors take off their shoes at the entrance. Reykjavik is not a big city and its center can be easily reached on foot, while the rental electric scooters used daily by the locals are also an alternative. We are going through a holiday season, so the city has reduced traffic and the presence of tourists is also limited due to the pandemic. The city center is dominated by typical Scandinavian architecture, with colorful picturesque houses. Their exterior masonry, as well as the roofs, are lined with corrugated sheet metal in various colors, the openings are decorated with carved wooden eaves, while the windows are often decorated with embroidered curtains. Between the elegant multicolor design, black is often used, perhaps to absorb the precious sun rays. The city has restaurants and bars for all tastes, but the prices are very high. Indicatively, a main course starts from at least 5000 Icelandic kroner (+ €30). Whale, horse and puffin meat is served in some absolutely touristy restaurants! No matter how much you search, you won’t find anything cheap, with an exception discovered, the “101 Reykjavik street food”, a small fast food with delicious lobster soup, fish & chips, free refill of your portion and free chocolates! Reykjavik’s points of interest include the small lake Tjornin by the town hall, the pier with small and large boats where the whale watching tours start, the metal sculpture named Sun Voyager (Sólfar) in a shape reminiscent of a Viking ship. The most emblematic and photographed monument in the city is the Lutheran temple of Hallgrimskirkja. It is an imposing expressionist concrete architecture that was completed in 41 years, with the central tower rising to 74 meters and influences from the basaltic formations of the island. The main street leading to the temple is painted in the colors of pride organized in the city every year. In almost all cities, the streets of the cathedrals were painted in these colors. Reykjavik is a city with not much more points of interest, and after all, Iceland is a pole of attraction mainly for its natural beauty and less for the bars and restaurants of the capital city.
The car rental companies are based in Keflavik and#55 bus was chosen again for the transfer, with the expected bus-change due to a holiday.
Tickets can be purchased at application straeto.is or if the driver is helpful, he also accepts cash.
After extensive research, the factors of cost efficiency, freedom and adventure, defined as the best solution for the road trip, to rent a mini van and overnight there for the full duration. Thus, the rental cost covers transportation and accommodation, which otherwise greatly increases the budget of the trip in this country. The choice of a 4×4 vehicle that can move on the central highlands and the so-called F-roads, was rejected due to high costs and lack of in-car accommodation. The trip plan was on the so-called Ring Road, the perimeter route of the island that hosts most attractions and requires a respectable period of time to cover it. These facts led to the selection of a mini van, a diesel Dacia Dokker from the agency https://starcarrental.is at a cost of € 65 per day.
The vehicle has a simply designed sleeping area and includes a mattress, kitchen utensils, portable gas stove, folding table with chairs and most importantly… an autonomous “webasto” cabin heater that will be considered necessary even for August temperatures. The heater operates with an autonomous battery in combination with a minimum fuel consumption. The price also includes some additional insurance coverage such as Super Collision Damage Waiver and Gravel protection. The latter is probably necessary, as gravel is often hurled on the country’s roads, causing minor damage to the body paint. Another insurance coverage that is original in this country, is the “sand and ash protection”, conditions that due to volcanic action have caused total destruction of vehicles in the past. It is totally covered only in Full insurance package and was not selected. Fuel stations exist in most parts of the island, usually simple self-service pumps without an employee, not even a shelter. The low diesel consumption of the vehicle ensured trouble-free autonomy.
Golden Circle & South Icaland
The road trip in the land of fire and ice begins
The adjacent to Reykjavik area of interest is called the Golden Circle and includes many attractions within close distance of each other. The Golden Circle can be covered in just one day or a little longer so to spend a reasonable amount of time enjoying the magic of these landscapes. Unfortunately, it attracts the most tourist flows. While we are still crossing the Keflavik Peninsula (Reykjanes), white steams are rising on the horizon. This is the famous Blue Lagoon which is a complex of artificial pools that are supplied with hot water from the neighboring power plant of geothermal energy. The lakes that form are milky blue due to the percentages of silica and are surrounded by lava rocks, creating a spooky idyllic spectacle. Routes offer interesting landscapes that are unlike any other on earth. Crowds of tourists flock daily, even in this covid times, waiting in lines and paying a relatively high ticket for the spa facility. These mass tourism options are not my preference and the country has many more hot springs opportunities.
So, the route continues with the next stop which is Kerid crater. An intact caldera of red rocks sinks for 55 meters forming an emerald lake at the bottom. From any angle you see it, either around the crater, or descending the downhill path to the lake, you enjoy an impressive creation of nature. The feast of colors from minerals, sparse vegetation and water, compose a unique natural painting. The paradox is that this piece of land, like other places in Iceland, is privately owned and requires a small ticket (400ISK), which fortunately does not apply to waterfalls and other major attractions.
Following the route, on the horizon… something is smoking. This is probably not a heavy smoker local but another geothermal activity of earth. A detour leads to something resembling a large, old metal cauldron from a Tim Burton movie. The boiler roars and emits white, dense steam while the surrounding area also evaporates.
Even more violent underground giants are hiding in the… famous Geysir park. It is a geological park with ponds of boiling water and steamy rivers. Some of the lakes have an intense indigo color with clarity that reaches to the bowels of the spring. The main protagonist here is the Stokkur geyser that explodes, spraying boiling water every 5-8 minutes at a height of 30 meters. A few meters further is the king of geysers, the one who gives the name to everyone, the famous… Geysir. Its activation is usually caused during seismic activity and its height exceeds 150 meters, ranking it in the first places of the world ranking. Unfortunately or fortunately, volcanoes have been dormant in recent years and Geysir is also resting. After many five minutes of waiting for the small or large explosions of Stokkur, it started getting dark and the photographic opportunities of the already hazy day vanished along with the steam of the geyser. Outside the entrance of the geothermal park, on the opposite side of the road there is a luxury hotel and a large restaurant. Both have open parking and warning signs prohibiting camping for would-be trespassers. Nevertheless, there is a small clearing at the back and the first sneaky overnight will take place there without any inconvenience. The cold and humidity are intense, the temperature from 10° during the day drops at 8° or less at night and the vehicle heater proves to be vital. A few more geyser blasts are ideal to wake up an eye on next morning.
Just 10′ further on, is the first waterfall of the road trip, Gulfoss, is a large waterfall, with stepped flows and a large volume of water. A path leads to the point of the highest step, from where one admires the precipitation at the lowest triangular level and from there to the next. The weather is cloudy, with drizzle and strong wind and thus the maiden flight of the drone in the chaotic abyss of the waterfall became impossible.
In a short distance there are two more private geothermal baths. The first is called Secret Lagoon but judging by the parked vehicles outside, I would not consider it as top secret. The ticket costs 2800ISK (€ 8) which is a slightly high price for this facility. I asked to have a look and I was not excited by the oversized natural cistern. Some springs gush around with water at a temperature of 100 degrees. The greenhouses on the opposite side, which is separated by a stream, are more interesting to me. Warm light bulbs nourish tomatoes behind glass structures that are so regularly cared for that they resemble an incubator.
The second bath is called Hrunalaug and is located in the middle of the countryside. At the parking lot, the owner waits inside an SUV to collect the fee. I ask her to take a look and she allows. After a 10′ walk you reach a small valley where you meet two small, outdoor stone cisterns and a hut covered with grass that performs the duties of a locker room. I was not particularly excited, on the contrary, a few attendees seemed to enjoy it.
The road to Keldur turns into a black gravel road, like all the unpaved roads on the island. Along the way there are pastures with… electric fencing so that animals, horses, cattle and sheep do not escape. Keldur does not have many things to see. It is a settlement with 5-6 houses, uninhabited except one, whose roofs are covered with turf, as is traditionally common in Iceland. We will call them “troll houses” from now on. A young man informs that if we want to see the interior we have to pay a small ticket. It was considered unnecessary, after all they are encountered all over the country. A small church with the typical architectural line, a cemetery and a dairy farm, complete this settlement of one resident.
The next destination is the Seljalandfoss waterfall with a legal overnight stay in the adjacent camping. The truth is that legality is unnecessary, the area is large and no one cares to ask for a fee. The only reason is to use the kitchen for cooking and the freezer for the ice cells of the portable refrigerator, in order to preserve some food. The showers also operate with coins, 300ISK per 3 minutes, which if you don’t have , the reception can provide you with, on the few hours it’s open. The van is placed with a superb view to the waterfall. The weather is rainy and the darkness falls slowly, at around midnight this season. The rain is getting heavier and the whiskey bottles bought at a bargain price from the duty free of Edinburgh Airport, are matching the weather in the small vehicle’s sleeping area. But alcohol causes frequent urination and moving through torrents and mud till the baths is not pleasant. The heater is soothing in this “winter” climate and I really feel sorry for those few who spend their night in tents. The first light of day is shortly after 4 p.m. and the rain has not stopped. In the morning, the main hall of the camping is quite crowded, including some who rudely occupy the few tables for hours, playing with their laptops. I ask someone to free the space and she reluctantly does it with a delay.
Seljalandfoss is a 60 meter high waterfall that has a unique feature that you can reach a path behind its flow. Α waterproof cover is essential for the protection of the camera but the spectacle is imposing. Gljúfrabúi is a smaller waterfall 700 meters away, almost hidden by rocks and overlooked by visitors. A small passage leads to the impressively enclosed point of its flow, but you have to get wet to approach closely.
In the landscapes of southern coastline, the color shades compete with each other. The gray sea is followed by black beaches, bright green meadows with low grass, steep mountain slopes and a sky with a dark veil. Somewhere along the way, a small ship based on the ground decorates a farm and its fencing which is decorated with… numerous bras, completes the surreal setting.
A next stop and then a 40-minute trek leads to an artificial hot water pool called Seljavallalaug. The peculiarity in relation to the geothermal baths competitors, does not lie in the fact that this one is free, but that it’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by imposing mountains and waterfalls with thin successive streams of many meters that evoke a landscape of epic fantasy film. Two simple buildings act as changing rooms, although the few locals who attend do not feel particularly ashamed of their nudity. The bottom of the pool is slimy, but that does not deter me at all. While returning, I realize that I stupidly forgot my swimsuit hung somewhere. Fortunately, I have a second one, but it is a pity that I burdened the space that is maintained only by volunteers.
The waterfall that follows is the rushing Skógafoss, one of the largest on the island that can be approached very close to its flow. On sunny days a single or double rainbow is formed, but today the weather does not do us this favor. A mountain trail leads to the highest point from where the river Skógá flows over the edge. From there, the path continues parallel to the river throughout its course with whirlpools between narrow gorges and rocky masses. The persistent rain limits the enjoyment of hiking and after about a couple of hours, the water wets up to… the underwear.
The weather in Iceland changes from one moment to the next and as the locals say, if you do not like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.
Arriving at Vik the rain has temporarily stopped. Vik, which is 180km from the capital, is the largest settlement in the south, as it has a population of… 290 inhabitants! In addition to the few houses, and the small church that dominates the hill above the city, there is a small shopping center, with a super market for renewal of supplies and spotless toilets. Vik’s beach is black as ash. The ocean waves unfold foaming on the black sand, composing a landscape unusual for our planet. In the background, through the sea, emerge the three emblematic Reynisdrangar rocks, famous from many photos of Iceland. My drone will make its maiden flight, but I am still a very ignorant pilot. The beach is completely empty, and only as the weather improves, some more people show up. We decide to carry the chairs and whiskey bottle, enjoying the moments on the beach. But the weather plays dishonest games, the cold and the drizzle that comes back make staying outside unbearable. Fearing a sandstorm, it’s decided not to spend the night in the parking lot of the supermarket which is exposed to the sea, but a little further in a rather private area with bungalows. In the morning we return again, waiting for the market to open at 10am with its clean toilets, and also a microwave where you could heat something to eat. At some point I think I hear an employee speaking Greek with a colleague. I guess I either haven’t woken up yet, or that Icelandic has words similar to my own language. I found out that the young Greek employee had started work just three days before and from what I later learned in the small world of social media, he had been invited by his Greek uncle who permanently lives and works there. We finally see the sun of the north. The weather is enjoyable for a few more walks on the black beach as well as on the hill with the small cathedral, but the landscape does not have the same eerie aura, the sun does not match with it.
A few kilometers back before Vik is the wreck of the famous dakota plane that made an abnormal landing in 1973 in Sólheimasandur, fortunately without casualties. The owner of the area, which consists of barren stoney land, decided that he did not want unauthorized traffic on his premise and blocked the road. So, you have to walk 4km, about 45′-50′ until you reach it and same to return. Despite the easy route, people are lost there in the winter. The captured aircraft emerges with its aluminum surfaces resting on the black ground. The wings are missing, as are the engines, but in the damaged cockpit you can still see the wirings. Fortunately, at times the attraction is empty of visitors, although there is usually a storm of selfies taken at every possible point. With a few stunts you can use some holes in the fuselage as steps and climb to the roof for a panoramic view. Of course, the signs warn of the instability of the construction with the beams having receded in many places.
On the way back to Vik we meet Dyrhólaey, with a series of impressive, panoramic views. A steep dirt road leads to the highest point of a cape with a lighthouse and a view of a vast black beach to the end of the horizon. At another point of view, two rock formations with arches dominate the edge of the sea, hosting countless puffins and other seabirds flying in the chaotic void. Due to the bad road there are not many visitors, unlike the lowest point of view, Kirkjufjara, with a strange rock planted in the black sand from where the famous Reynisfjara beach starts. You’ll need to get there by car to the famous spot of this beach that receives a large number of visitors, where impressive basaltic formations rise up in hexagon shapes, createing a strange geometric rocky phenomenon. Reynisdrangar rocks are seen even closer to this beach.
You have to travel a long way to the next settlement before nightfall. Of course, this is a joke, as Iceland’s afternoons last around 5 hours. The settlement is of negligible size and searching shelter for cooking under the persisting rain, is fruitless. But there is a small camping of those that have outdoor sinks, bathrooms with hot water, but not indoor dining areas. Usually the owners are absent in the evenings and so it will be a “friendly concession”, one of the many that will follow. The illegality will continue on the side of a super market that will become our camp.
Fjaðrárgljúfur. Hard to pronounce, even harder for one’s mind to absorb all that beauty of this imposing gorge. The river Fjaðrá like a knife has torn the earth and the moss has nestled in every aspect, dressing it with bright green velvet. The dramatic light gives an eerie hue to this miracle. Maybe this point has also been the setting for a science fiction movie.
Steep slopes with small waterfalls, houses with turf on the roof, farms with sheep and cylindrical hay bales dressed in white wrappers are scattered around, dominating the landscape until we see the first point of the glacier. The enormous Vatnajökull, the largest in the country and also Europe, flows in almost motionless rivers of ice towards the lower lands and the sea. The main access point is too crowded, the parking lot is almost full and requires a ticket. Although we travel in the era of covid pandemic and tourism is much less than usual, it’s too much for me. I’m not a fan of crowds at all. So another point is chosen where after a few kilometers of dirt road, you meet the Svínafellsjökull glacier. The rain starts again and the camper van is very convenient in such circumstances, where you can take a nap until the weather gets better. Indeed after an hour the conditions improve and I hope to even do a drone flight. A plaque with names of missing persons welcomes the visitor and reminds that nature here is unpredictable and unforgiving. The rocks are quite slippery and access does not seem safe from one point onwards. The spectacle is extremely impressive. The glacier, with shades of white, black, but mostly intense blue, ends up in a beige lake, while the low clouds adds the necessary atmosphere of mystery. The drone finds it difficult to fly at high altitudes due to strong gusts of wind, but it will manage a few shots above this magic view. The weather conditions force us to skip the Svartifoss waterfall that stands out from the others as it flows in black basaltic lava columns. It was 1.5 km hiking from the visitor center with the controlled parking.
The overnight spot will be organised camping again, with spacious facilities and in order to freeze the ice cells. Unfortunately the elderly owner informs the next day that he forgot to put them in the fridge of his house as promised.
Hof is a small settlement of a few houses with a background of another small waterfall that gives the necessary picturesqueness. A 130-year-old church with a turf roof is a well-known stopping point on this travelled route.
Soon after, you come across one of Iceland’s most iconic sites. The glacier ends at the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, where detached icebergs float in it, composing one of the most spectacular images at any time of year. Nature displays its power and harmony in this game of white sculptures that travel slowly on blue waters against the backdrop of the imposing, icy torrent. As expected, this landscape has been the setting for many Hollywood movies. The lake flows under the road bridge to the sea and small or massive pieces of ice are washed away by the waves on the beach. With a little imagination, the ice on the black beach resembles diamonds and the beach is fairly named Diamond beach. Many seals swim in the lake or waiting at the mouth of the estuary to hunt their fish. Some are particularly curious about the human presence and pose with grace. Another takeoff of the drone will take place on a lake shore that’s not frequented by people. To my great surprise, a professional drone pilot comes with a FOV drone, which is navigated with a VR casque. The “bird” flies at excessive speeds, making a hell of maneuvers near the slopes. Due to my great stupidity and inexperience I am distracted and at some point looking at the screen of my controller, I see the image from my own drone hovering a few inches from an iceberg. Shocked, I bring it back, considering my stupidity… in the vast expanse of the lake I almost crush this expensive toy on an iceberg.
At the busy point of the beach, large ice “sculptures” offer a unique theme of photography and non-stop selfies by tourists.
Hofn is a small fishing village on a small peninsula. Lacy shores with shallow lagoons follow, officially marking the enchanting Eastern Fjords. The first tunnels encountered, reduce the distances by crossing the rocky masses and bridges connect passages over the sea, in the inner shallow parts of the narrow bays.
Djúpivogur is another insignificant fishing village with few houses, but the importance lies in the surrounding landscape. Crossing a dirt runway, you drive to another beach with black dunes where sparse vegetation grows. Shallow ponds mirror the clouds and mountain ranges in the background… and the light… this gentle light, gives the forms soft shadows and pastel shades that any painter would envy. The port of the small settlement is adorned with 34 granite eggs, an artistic installation called “Eggin í Gleðivík – the Eggs at Merry bay”, and regardless of their artistic value, demonstrates the Icelanders’ appreciation for arts. The route to the charming Eastfjords continues in the light of the prolonged sunset. The names of the settlements cannot be memorized… Fáskrúðsfjörður, Reyðarfjörðu. But the indescribable beauty of this place will be unforgettable. A wooden bench next to a lighthouse will be the dining room, with the cold air causing chills to the body, as well as weak flame of the stove, which is struggling to boil the water.
The night falls in the capital of the Eastfjords, Egilsstaðir. Next to the lake formed by the river Lagarfljót, an area of unknown property will be the camping point. The sky in eastern Iceland is clear these days and the Northern Lights forecasts, gives some hope. However, as in previous nights, the view is disappointing. Although there are not many clouds to intervene, the brightness of the sky even at 2 α.m. is so intense that it is impossible to observe the phenomenon.
Since Egilsstaðir is not coastal and there are still some points of interest along the fjords, we follow a beautiful east route on a winding road that climbs the mountains and meets a plateau where snow is still preserved. Even in this wilderness, you encounter artistic interventions such as a creation with colorful concrete cubes an a TV set placed on each one.
The steep slope that follows reveals the majesty of the fjord and the town of Seydisfjordur where the road ends. This city is also the port that connects Iceland with the Faroe Islands and Denmark, with a weekly voyage of the ship MS Norröna. Seydisfjordur is built around a small lake and the mouth of the fjord, with picturesque, colorful houses and a typical temple with the typical rainbow-coloured pavement. High mountains with snow-capped peaks surround the settlement and a waterfall flowing behind the last houses, gives even greater grace to this remote town.
After breakfast on a bench outside the supermarket, we will walk around the city and its beauties, enjoying its peace.
The road leads back to Egilsstaðir from where it follows an inland route. After 130km there is an intersection. Here we don’t continue straight to Lake Mývatn area which we’ll visit later on this trip, but we follow a direction to the right, on a perimeter route towards north, with intermediate destination at the Dettifoss waterfall. The next 40km on road #864 are dirt with many potholes that strain the small vehicle. It’s one of the two approach options that are not connected each other by a bridge. The chosen one leads to the east side of the gorge which is extremely impressive, the landscape looks like a mysterious planet from a science fiction movie. But the awe that overwhelms you is as soon as you see the Dettifoss. What an unbelievable power is manifesting before my eyes! The largest waterfall of Iceland and greater Europe, falls into a chaotic abyss full of clouds of water vapor that swirl constantly. This side does not have many visitors, in contrast to the opposite where there is a metal observation deck. You can also get very close to the rim, stand and touch the water a few meters before it falls into the deeps. The spectacle is not compared to others, the rest of waterfalls on the island now look small in front of it.
Continuing north, the dirt road will further torment the vehicle and our bones up to the tarmac road #85 of the ring road that leads to the north Atlantic coast. On the one hand the snow-capped mountains and on the other the all-golden rays of the sun that penetrate the clouds and brighten the haze of the sea horizon. At the time you think that the sun will sink into the ocean and the night will spread its veil, there is an extension of time, as if the earth stops. Husavik welcomes us dressed in peachy shades of light. There is also a bench here, on a hill with an amazing view of the bay, with the city lights flashing slowly, a cargo ship sailing under black clouds before the sunset hues. The icy north wind penetrates the clothes and causes chills, while the stove struggles to keep the cooking flame lit. The carton I had procured to use as my drone’s take-off helipad is ultimately valued in cooking as a curtain for the air. A dirt road outside the city leads to a remoteness that seems suitable for overnight, with the heater at full to alleviate the chills.
The landscape is revealed in the morning, with small lake with swans and cormorants that live in large numbers in these areas. On the ground, however, I see some birds dead for unknown reasons. However, the unexpectedly interesting element of the location, is a modern wooden kiosk, open on one side, overlooking the area view. Nowhere in the whole country do we find such an ideal shelter that offers moments of relaxation under the hot sun and comfort for breakfast preparation. Surprisingly, the weather is warmer here in the north and although we are a short distance from the Arctic Circle, the temperature will reach 20° in the coming days while the humidity will be absent. The warm current of the Gulf Stream that runs along the north coasts probably has a significant effect on the climate. Apart from being a fishing center, Husavik is also a starting point for whale watching tours. The price is around €56, but on the one hand I have repeated a similar experience in Madagascar at a short distance from the sea mammals, and on the other hand the required time would delay our travel schedule that is starting to be tight.
Heading south again, we find Lake Mývatn and the wider area of the volcanic valley, with many points of interest. Passing a large power plant in a landscape where the soil emits steam, we reach the area of Krafla and the volcanic lake Viti. At the bottom of a large crater, the lake water with its bright blue color composes another idyllic spooky spectacle. The silhouettes of the visitors look like ants on the uphill rim of the crater and at its highest point the view is stunning.
The area near the lake, is a vast valley of solidified lava that in many places emits hot steam and offers interesting hiking trails.
Leirhnjukur is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, an inhospitable but at the same time idyllic place with almost milky white lakes and boiling mud holes. The surreal landscapes of Mývatn continue with the Námafjall desert. We are used to the stereotypical image of deserts with dunes and complete calm, but this is different. Here, the bowels of the earth roar and burst furiously, breaking the crust, with smoke and bubbling mud. The whole valley is like a pot on fire.
In Mývatn there are also hot spring baths that compete worthily with Blue Lagoon without suffocating number of visitors, but in recent years prices have risen here as well.
One of the shores of the lake is scattered by small craters covered with grass, even small islands-volcanoes. In satellite imagery they look impressive, like a green version of the Moon’s surface. Arriving at the Skútustaðagígar crater complex and following the path around them, I was not impressed with the spectacle. They might have been more interesting from above, but I did not bother to deal with them further and fly the drone. On the contrary, the ice cream made by the nearby farm with the milk of its cows was delicious.
Another waterfall follows, the famous Godafoss. Despite its reputation, it is neither impressive in height nor in volume and its unique feature is that it flows in a curved, wide-width cliff that gives the impression of multiple waterfalls.
Returning to the North fjords and the city of Akureyri, the biggest of the north. Just before, there is a 7.5km tunnel which is the only one that requires tolls (1,500ISK) but with a small detour one can avoid the complicated process of online payment. It is a beautiful, organized city with an impressive cathedral, a pedestrian street with bars and restaurants and like any Icelandic city, with public swimming pools. Accommodation will be in camping area because, among other things, it’s time for laundry. The campsite is located quite outside the city, on a forest hill and the unhelpful clerk, will refuse to supply coins for the washing machine in exchange for credit card payment. After the morning walks in Akureyri and the bakery of delicacies, the ring road continues embracing the lacy fjords of northern Iceland. The tunnels are now frequent, with long length and usually with a sole traffic lane, therefore the non priority lane traffic is obliged to stay in one of the provided recesses in the tunnel rock. Just before Davlik, a group of children, boys and girls in diving suits jump from a bridge into the river enjoying their swim. They show off their skills and posing for my camera and their mother.
A few more tunnels with a total length of 11 km connect with Ólafsfjörður and then Siglufjörður, the northernmost city of the country and a historic fishing center with spectacular natural beauty. The main building is a hotel of typical local architecture with a fishing boat moored at its pier and an outdoor jacuzzi enjoyed by the tenants.
The distances between the few residential areas are now long and tiring.
Arriving at Blönduós there is not much courage to search for a parking spot and sleep. The coastal road leads to a dead end, with a footbridge, a smaller port and black houses as if they were painted with tar. Finally following a muddy dirt road outside the city, we climb a hill with a panoramic view.
Blönduós, with a population of about 900, is built on the sides of a glacial river. It has many traditional houses but the most characteristic is the church with the very special architecture, a conical concrete construction that refers to a volcanic crater. As in other cities, there is a playground with a kind of large trampoline that looks like an oversized pillow. I really want to play there but there are kids who enjoy it at the time.
Wild or domesticated horses are found everywhere in Iceland, but on a gravel bypass, a whole herd gallops, followed by 2-3 horsemen, giving me the opportunity to stand in their path, admiring and photographing the proud animals in all their glory.
Hvammstangi is probably the last point of civilization before we enter the unknown of the Westfjords. Though, the city looks like in oblivion. We set up a breakfast table on the waterfront, causing nuisance to seabirds who dominate the area and become somewhat aggressive.
This is where the wild west begins. If Iceland is considered an isolated country, here we are talking about the end of this land and the European continent. Sparsely populated, with a poor road network, this foggy peninsula is explored by a minimal number of visitors.
Maybe there is not much motivation for someone to get this far, straining their vehicle and body. But this place has a charm different from the rest of the island.
A strange phenomenon is observed on the shores, an accumulation of many tree trunks. The sea currents have deposited them here, carried from the coastal forests of northern Siberia, on a journey that is estimated to take about 7 years.
Hólmavík is a settlement that looks somehow abandoned. We can not find a restaurant in operation to satisfy our hunger, nor a market. So the stove takes action again, protected by the carton, preparing food for later consumption.
An amazing point of interest is the one where seals frequent. At first I thought it’s a matter of luck to see any of them in the water. But then I see one, two and more splashing carelessly. One of them is resting on a rock covered with yellow algae and is not bothered by my presence or my long stay photographing it from quite close range. An area of low rocks with water channels and a substrate of thick seaweed, hosts a large colony of seals, some huge, some young, some injured by fights between them. I walk carefully between algae and water and I manage to get close enough, admiring these wonderful creatures.
Sunset brings magical colors to paint the heavy clouds, the snowy mountains, the waters of the narrow fjords. The melancholy charm of the western fjords is hard to describe in words or pictures.
The next settlement is called Súðavík and has not many things except an arctic fox shelter.
We are aware of a community sports area open to the public, but also I discover that one of the wooden buildings in the surrounding area is unlocked, hoping to continue cooking protected from the cold. Unfortunately, before we can even transport the pots, a group of kids passing by notice us and calls the “boss” to give us permission. An angry, rude man arrives and sternly warns us to get out immediately. His most compassionate wife informs us that there is camping site a little further. Indeed, the facilities, although open-air, had a dining room with a canopy and the mission was carried out under extreme cold. Again, there was no one at the camping, so the payment was skipped again. It is almost midnight but we decide that some more distance should be covered. But… oh! We forgot the gas stove in the camping and we return to get it.
Ísafjörður is a relatively large city and we are looking for a place to sleep on a small peninsula that extends into the bay of the fjord. We are indeed discovering a field with several more vehicles and trucks.
Good morning, we will brush our teeth at a waterfall and continue west. The road is broken, part of it is under construction and the rest is full of potholes. Another large waterfall is found here and surprisingly has some visitors. It is the Dynjandi stepped waterfall.
The route meets a shipwreck lying ashore. This is a steel hull from 1912 that the sea washed away here in 1981, apparently aged at that time. A large group of motorcyclists comes and we take some photos.
Next is a golden, idyllic beach, with shallow calm waters, which does not look like any of those met so far. What a pity it is to be in this latitude and not possible to take a swim! The road becomes hard-core, punctured by continuous potholes and the car’s suspensions reach their limits. There are some scattered houses around.
Látrabjarg is the westernmost cape in Iceland and the 2nd in Europe, but you feel it’s the edge of the world. What an imposing landscape! There, on the edge of this land, the rock is cut abruptly into a gap to the wild ocean, and this steep shore continues for many kilometers. The winds are blowing at storm speeds and the rain makes trekking even harder, but fortunately after a while it stops. The edge of the cliff is unstable and needs attention if you do not want to have a fatal end, but what you see below is worth a little risk. Colonies of thousands of birds nesting in edgy places on the rocks, give life to this wild place. I’m a bit disappointed, thinking I’ll see puffins from far distance, but then I see one just in front of me, almost at a touch point distance and without caring about my presence. After capturing it in every possible photo pose, we proceed to explore the steep coastline against the backdrop of the sea that is illuminated partly by light rays escaping through the clouds. For some reason there are no more puffins as you walk away, but there are dozens behind, in the most accessible areas. With their small wings they fly awkwardly to the windswept heights and are so elegant with their orange beaks and matching legs.
The road back to the southwest is hard, mountainous, deserted, foggy. After the mountains, meeting again the sea, there is a ferry connection that crosses the big bay, slightly reducing the driving time. Apart from the expectedly expensive ticket, the days and hours of itineraries are not suitable. So, with time running out, we drive the long distance to Varmaland where the routine of occasional use of camping facilities will be repeated, as a “kind offer” again.
Two days left from finishing the trip, so this one includes leisure, enjoying the public swimming pools of Borganes. At a cost of just 1000ISK, you enjoy modern facilities and many different types of pools. You receive a key to your closet and in the locker room you realize that Icelanders, young, old and children, are very comfortable with nudity. Apart from the indoor and outdoor, big sized swimming pools, there are smaller ones with water temperatures of 38, 40 and 42 degrees, as well as one with cold water. There is also a dry sauna and steam bath as well as water slides. Although I was discreet with some souvenir selfies, the person in charge located me, probably from the surveillance system and forbid me from taking photos.
Before returning to Reykjavik via the large underwater tunnel, we are in Akranes, on the peninsula opposite the bay of the capital, a picturesque part, with two majestic lighthouses.
Back in our familiar place, the last night in Reykjavik takes place in the free municipal parking located at the port, after enjoying the famous lobster soup at the favorite fast food and a few beers at the romantic bars of the pier.
Before returning the car in Keflavik and our return flight, we decide to go to the health service for a 2nd Covid test that will probably be useful for the next destinations. Of course, instead of 4 days from the first test, 14 days have passed and this surprised the health staff who called the supervisor for explanations.
Iceland filled my soul with unforgettable moments, amazing landscapes and a sense of freedom in the midst of the most difficult travel period in history. It was definitely the ideal destination at this occasion, which I hope will be overcome soon and with as few casualties as possible. Even the 14 days with 20-hour daytime of the summer season, proved to be limited for a place that has so many natural attractions. Maybe in the future, there’ll be another chance to admire Iceland dressed in winter outfit, to explore the central highlands and maybe to see some of its impressive places with Northern Lights as a background.