I spent about three days in Iceland on my way to Greenland and one and a half days on the way from Greenland. I honestly did not read anything on Iceland prior to the trip, nor did I buy any guidebook on Iceland.
To save time, I contacted Extreme Iceland literally before I boarded by first flight, and they managed to come through with a few ideas by the time I arrived in Reykjavik. I was not too fussy, as long as the company is not operating big buses and herd us like cattle (Extreme Iceland was perfect on both counts). Vaguely, I know I wanted to go back onto a glacier, and if I could, to try ice climbing again (though I did not get to do this at the end). I also wanted to experience walking in an ice cave. The point is I wanted to do active things, and not only visit places and take photos. I did have a great trip. I got lucky with having a great group on my first day to Ϸórsmörk (in English: Thorsmork) in the super jeep and we were a small group of 7 on the trip to the South Coast and Jökulsárlón glacier.
The immediate issue with Iceland is the number of tourists it aims to attract and has been attracting (apparently the big tour companies have invested massively in their Iceland operations). I was told their average number of visitors annually had been 1 million (a quick check with Icelandic Tourist Board statistics confirmed this up to 2014), but recently someone in the industry told me that the goal is to have 2 million tourists visiting Iceland. During my visit, the feel is already like a factory churning out as many tourists as possible, and there is nothing special when you join this kind of trips.
When I did the Thorsmork super jeep tour and the South Coast overnight tour, we stopped at the same gas station with many other tour buses. Everyone was heading to Seljalandsfoss, Skófagoss, Reynisfjara for the black beach and basalt column, and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. I did an overnight trip to visit all these places, and even then I could not spend much time at each place. Imagine if one does it as a day trip. One would not see anything. As a matter of fact, I stopped twice in Seljalandsfoss on both tours due to program overlap. It was a little bit disappointing but I made the best of it (see below).
I skipped Blue Lagoon, Gullfoss, and Geysir at the end. I was told that Blue Lagoon is actually man-made, so I was not that interested to go and see it. The water is clean, but apparently it is the by-product of a geothermal plant. Furthermore, we had to engage Grayline or Reykjavik Excursion to get there because there is no public transport and supposedly it is hard to buy entrance tickets on the spot. It just does not seem right to have such limited options. I missed Gulfoss and Geysir because I rather went snorkeling in Silfra in Thingvellier National Park in my limited time after being recommended by a couple of Americans I met earlier. Snorkeling or diving between the two Tectonic plates can only be easily done in Iceland. I have seen geysers in Bolivia before. I have been to Iguassu Falls and Niagara Falls, so seeing any big waterfall was not a priority.
Here are the highlights of my trips:
A. Tour to the valley of Thorsmork and ice cave in Gígjökull on a super jeep 4×4 was a fun and bumpy trip. And as a solo traveler, I got to sit in front! In Iceland, no one is allowed to drive off-roads to conserve the habitat for plants and animal by conserving its soil. Thus, everyone drives a 4×4 to drive on bad roads 🙂 Ice caving, checked!
B. During our overnight trip to the South Coast and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, we had a rewarding two days. First, we got lucky with Northern Lights. Our little hotel had a grassy area right outside the door and we lied down and looked up the sky while enjoying the 45 minutes show.
Second, the mass of ice from Jökulsárlón glacier bay is immense. When all stood still (meaning no noisy tourists) and you stayed quiet, you could hear the water flowing and the ice creaking while pushing against one another. It is in this kind of moment, when on realizes, humans are just small part of this planet. It will outlive us.
Third, the basalt columns on the black beach are impressive. The freak wave of this beach can be formidable, too. Two months ago a Chinese tourist got swept away. His remains are never found.
Fourth, I love the moss over the volcanic rocks, though. It is a foreign landscape. I had never seen that before. This lava field was created after the large eruption of Laki in 1783.
Last, the Svínafellsjökull glacier walk was incredible, but too short. I love glaciers and I love doing glacier trekking (not much opportunity to do it in my part of the world unfortnately). I could do that the whole day, instead of just 90 minutes. On the ice, different areas can look very different due to crevasses or the impact of rocks which moved after being bulldozed by the glacier as it moved. We also have to be careful of crevasses. We saw a crevasse system which had an estimated depth of 50 meters.
C. Hidden from sight from the Seljalandsfoss (foss means waterfall in Icelandic), there is a falls hidden between the rocks, called Gljufrabui falls. On the second visit, I went up the path to see the waterfalls from the top. It was vertigo-inducing. Seljalandsfoss itself is very well visited. It was nice, but nothing too special.
D. I was lucky to have great weather on my first day in Reykjavik. So I had the chance to get a 360 view of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja. Something about the red roofs among the other colored roofs really speaks to me.
E. Snorkeling in Silfra between the two tectonic plates (American and European). One can also dive, and when you dive, you can touch the two plates when you reach out both arms. The snorkeling session was about 40-45 minutes. It was an easy float because of the current and buoyancy of the dry suit. Only in the last section you need to use your legs to get to the platform to exit the lagoon. The hardest parts was putting on the suit and wearing the suit on land. I felt a bit claustrophobic with the rubber piece around my neck, although I was assured the suit was too big for me and the dive.is team was very reassuring. You will forget all about it once you are in the water though. They do not call it liquid meditation for nothing! I went with dive.is. I posted a video on “roaminjuliet travels” youtube channel.
To enjoy Iceland properly, one would need to make one’s own trips and find secluded places to enjoy Iceland’s serenity. A case in point, K, whom I met during the dog-sledding trip in Greenland, is a veteran visitor to Iceland. She never went to Blue Lagoon. She would go to a local swimming pool to swim or a public local beach which has hot water pool nearby. So under her guidance and recommendation, I did go to a local swimming pool, jumping around between the pool with 8-12 degrees Celsius to 40-42 degrees Celsius. Outside Reykjavik, the population density is less than 1 person per square kilometer. So the potential for seclusion and creating original itinerary are definitely there.
However, during this trip Iceland was not my main purpose. It was just a stepping point to Greenland. I will probably be back. There are some places that have piqued my interests.