Friday, October 05, 2012


Iceland was an opportunistic visit that was made with the hopes of it being something more. As with all travel, the visit didn't go anywhere close to how I'd originally envisioned it but nevertheless worked out to be interesting anyway. Iceland is out of the way and expensive by anyone's standards. Since Iceland's financial crisis a few years ago, nearly bankrupting the country it has apparently become cheaper. That's kind of a scary thought because it's still at high Scandinavian prices. It's understandable though as it's an isolated country with a small population, virtually no industry and everything has to be imported. By small population I mean a country of only 350,000 people, more than half of which live in or immediately around Reykjavik, the capital. As Iceland is comparable in size to England, the population density feels (and is) really low.
Tourism is a growing part of the economy now and has steadily risen over the years and is up to 2 million visitors a year now. There are now a few budget airlines flying to Iceland from all over Europe for pretty cheap and a few people I know have even visited it lately. Getting to and from North America is limited to flights on Icelandair but fortunately Icelandair now allows up to 1 week as a stopover in Iceland for no extra charge if you are flying between Europe and North America. I knew I had to be back in Vancouver at the beginning of September, so I booked a one-way ticket back to Seattle (the closest airport that Icelandair flies) with a full week stopover before I left for Iran. At the time the price was comparable to any other one-way route back. My hope had been to convince Savannah, Kees and/or the parents to join me in Iceland where we could rent a car as a group and do some exploring together.
While I was in Iran though, they all failed to get their schedules organized and I returned to Europe to find that I would be going to Iceland alone. Renting a car was immediately out for me as being way too expensive. Buses are also pretty expensive and don't provide a very thorough or flexible system as the population is low and most people own cars there. In the weeks leading up to my departure I was frantically searching for couchsurfing hosts only to find it extremely frustrating in comparison to the hospitality of Iran (though I suspect nowhere will ever compare to Iran). The majority of Icelanders were unresponsive though a few were either going on holiday themselves or already hosting. I make it a general rule to try and find hosts that are local, meaning I will first try to stay with an Icelander in Iceland or a Turk in Turkey before looking for expat hosts. If you want to go to a country to learn about it and get to know the culture and people why stay with an American or Brit? Thus it's a little ironic that I really only met 1 Icelander during my week there as I ended up being hosted by a Filipino and hanging out with the Icelandic Filipino community.
Not that I'm complaining. I knew as soon as I was accepted by my host, Josh, that I'd be well taken care of. Josh picked me up from the airport as he lived right beside it. The Keflavik airport is 50km from Reykjavik, the capital, in the town of Keflavik. Keflavik is a small community of about 15,000 people with a few other smaller towns nearby but Keflavik is still ranks as the 3rd largest town in Iceland. Keflavik was the site of a large US airforce base until 2006 when it was shut down. The buildings of the base have now been converted over into a university and many dorms and cheap housing for the locals. This was where my host lived in a nice apartment and where I based myself for the week. I find it ironic that once again I found myself following in Sky's footsteps as he had had a stopover at the Keflavik base while it was still operational on one of his trips home from Iraq. My host was a nurse, working all sorts of strange hours at the local hospital so I was home alone a lot and it rained 5 of the 7 days I was in the country so I was not inclined to go wandering around much. The temperature for the week ranged from about 8C to 13C day or night with sunset around 9pm at the beginning of september. After summer in Iran I was freezing in comparison and not prepared with proper clothing. 3 layers was not enough for me so I was feeling very much like a tropical boy when I saw locals wearing t-shirts out there.
Josh turned out to be the president of the Philippine-Iceland organization Phil-Ice so he had a lot of contact info about the country. I met lots of Filipinos at various meetings and gatherings and was surprised to learn that Filipinos are the 3rd largest immigrant group in Iceland after the Poles and Thais. Works for me because I love them and I may have spent more time talking about the Philippines than Iceland while I was there. I was also reacquainted with some delicious Filipino food (though I still say it's one of the sadder cuisines in Asia) as well, so can't say I had much of an Icelandic cultural experience overall. It was Filipino culture on top of the beauty of Icelandic nature.
I saw a bit of Keflavik, they had their festival while I was there but unfortunately it was raining that day and there wasn't much going on. We all went out for the fireworks that night. For the first time ever I saw a mistake/accident in the fireworks when there was an explosion at ground level halfway through the display and for a while the fireworks were going off on the surface of the bay itself instead of up in the air. I thought it looked kind of cool and eventually it righted itself.

A church near Keflavik.

Housing where I was staying at the old US base near Keflavik.

The road into Keflavik.

By far the most famous and popular tourist attraction in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, a large geothermal spa between the airport and capital. There are bus loads of people that go directly from the airport to the Blue Lagoon during their stopovers. There are mixed opinions on the whole thing and I'm inclined to believe it's a tourist trap and overpriced at 40 Euro for the basic entry package of towel and access to the pools. Josh had a Filipina friend working there that got us in for free and the facilities and services are quite nice, so maybe if you made a whole day of it and had better weather it could be nice.
The concept of geothermal energy is nothing special in Iceland, most of their energy and even municipal hot water comes from rich underground sources with massive untapped energy potential. (This and a lack of heavy industry means that air pollution in Iceland is minimal and the air is super clean and fresh.) Even the smallest communities in Iceland have public swimming pools and there are apparently other thermal pools in nature to be swum in as well, but the Blue Lagoon is of course the most organized and convenient for visitors. The water in the Blue Lagoon comes directly from a nearby geothermal power plant and is a perfect 38C. The water is rich in silica, sulphur and other minerals and is said to have amazing healing properties. Consequently the water is a cloudy white/blue such that your body parts completely disappear within inches of dropping below the surface giving everyone an eerie bodiless look. It's somehow fitting for such a bizarre landscape surrounding the lagoon.

Water outside the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon.

The Reykjanes peninsula (containing Keflavik and the Blue Lagoon) is almost completely devoid of vegetation as it is mostly lava fields of black uneven rocks covered with a layer of moss or lichen. As you fly overhead during landing or takeoff the peninusula looks like the end of the world or a foreign planet and it's not surprising at all that Iceland is used as a filming location for such things. Because the land is also without any significant hills, the lack of vegetation and buildings allows you to view such a large area over the landscape that it is possible to easily see the steam rising from the power plant beside the Blue Lagoon from the old military base at Keflavik. I suppose I should've found the whole landscape depressing and most people probably would but having that telescopic effect of such clear and cold air once again and the completely black landscape was too interesting to depress me in such a short time. I was to learn quickly that it isn't only the air that is so clean and clear but the water in the streams, lakes and along the shore is also usually so clear that it almost looks as if it isn't even there...
I'm told that the best time of year to visit Iceland is June and July for their summer. August is already too late apparently and has more unreliable weather. I know I'd like to come back for another visit and get further afield than I managed to get this time and will take that advice. Hitching and camping are supposed to be very doable, but I wasn't prepared this time around for such adventures. I was also worried about getting to the attractions that way. As it turns out, this need not be much of a concern. Once again I was incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful host. I'd landed in Iceland without a plan and a few other possible contacts and had expected to stay with Josh for only 2 or 3 days. He quickly assumed the complete host role and convinced me to stay for the whole week with him. He worked crazy shifts but he got 2 days off toward the second half of the week and so we made up a plan to visit a few of the nearby famous attractions and camp a night in doing so.
Our first day out it rained for most of the day, ruining the view and blurring the boundaries between land, sea and sky. We drove along the coast from Grindavik to the ring road (the highway that forms a loop around the outside circle of Iceland) and then over to Landmannalaugar. It took us several hours of driving to get to the middle of this national park where we had hoped to camp and relax in a natural hot spring. Josh had never been there before and with the heavy rain and rough conditions we found when we arrived he had lost all interest in camping there. I was inclined to agree with his thoughts on the situation and so, despite our having just driven for several hours to get there, the last hour or so of which had been on bumpy dirt road, we turned around a drove back out of the park.

Near Landmannalaugar national park.

The road into Landmannalaugar.

The steaming hotsprings at Landmannalaugar.

There are a lot of dirt roads in the interior of Iceland. It's appropriate to point out here that there are a lot of large SUVs being driven around Iceland. It's like a mini-America in that regard. These dirt roads also often have unbridged streams and so the black soil, complete lack of development and stream crossing action had me seriously wishing for another 4x4 adventure somewhere. We continued another couple hours until finally arriving at Skogafoss and camping there for the night. Skogafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in the country at 25m wide and 60m high. It doesn't sound all that great but the setting is really nice as the water tumbles off the ancient sea cliffs of Iceland from back when that was the coastline (which is now 5km away). Another nearby waterfall we saw was Seljalandsfoss which falls off an overhanging cliff such that you can walk around behind the waterfall. We'd woken the 2nd day to picture perfect clear blue skies, though it was still very windy and no warmer. It was so windy in fact that at times it looked and felt like the water on the falls was being pushed back uphill and many of the smaller streams tumbling down the cliffs simply vanished into the air.



Our campsite at Skogafoss.

Behind Seljalandsfoss.

With the better weather I was finally able to see what I'd missed on the drive the day before. Skogafoss was the furthest point we reached and so the 2nd day we spent taking the long route home, via the Golden Circle, the most popular little tour loop in Iceland. The drive was beautiful. Along the ring road there are some small towns and villages but more often the landscape was dominated by the old cliffs as we drove along the ring road, with large farm houses backed up against the cliffs with grass fields stretching out seaward for their horses or sheep. I could easily imagine mom falling in love with the place and wanting to stay there. There were still very few trees to be seen, but the grasses and farmland had made the landscape a little greener at least. Because the sun sits so low in the sky all day (because Iceland is so far south) the lighting is perfect for photos all day long. It really changes the way you see and appreciate the landscape.

A typical farmhouse at the base of the ancient sea cliffs.

A small crater lake.

Landscape around the Golden Circle.

Iceland apparently has the best mutton in the world. I tried it once while there and would have to agree because it didn't taste like anything, which is better than a typical muttony taste, haha. I'd had no idea before arriving in Iceland how much they value their horses though. Their horses remind me a little of Mongolian horses as they are shorter and smaller than the average horse but very tough. Before roads came along the horse was the lifeline for people living inland. The horses were specially bred for the conditions and climate and have developed their own special “5th gait” for the rough terrain. The horses are so protected in Iceland that you see signs all over the airport warning of strict controls on any used horse riding equipment and no horses are allowed to enter the country. Even an Icelandic horse that leaves Iceland must leave it forever.
Having been distracted again, let's return to the Golden Circle. It being the most popular day tour out of the capital and it being the first sunny day in a couple of days, suddenly all the tourists came out to do the trip on the same day. Honestly, there weren't that many people, but it's more than I'd been seeing in Africa or Iran this year. With the 2 waterfalls first and then as we progressed up the Golden Circle I realized that hitching and visiting the sites would be quite easy since all the attractions are literally on the side of the road and pretty much visible from the car as you drive by instead of requiring a long hike in to see.
There are 2 main natural attractions on the Golden circle, and 1 historical one, though we also stopped off to see a small crater lake on the side of the road too. The first natural attraction was Geysir. Because Iceland is so geologically active it's no surprise that there should be geysirs in addition to all the hotsprings everywhere. In fact THE Geysir from which all other geysirs derive their name, is a now largely inactive geysir that we stopped to see. It is the oldest known geysir in the worldand is only active after an earthquake or other big local disturbance. Right beside it is Strokkur geysir, one of the most active and reliable in the world, shooting water up to 25m every 8-10 minutes.

Strokkur geysir.


The original Geysir.

10km further up the road is Gullfoss one of the most famous waterfalls in the country. It's a wide waterfall that plunges into a crevice in 3 stages though none of them are high. It's a powerful looking waterfall but somehow a foreign interest group had plans at the beginning of the 1900's to damn the river and destroy the falls. Crazy. Fortunately they were stopped in time and the falls are still there. It reminded me of a mini Victoria Falls.


We made our final stop along the Golden Circle at Thingvellir. Thingvellir is Iceland's Unesco site and main national park. Within the protected area is the largest lake in Iceland, with very clear water. It's possible to scuba dive in the water with dry suits though I am not sure what there is to see, nor am I antwhere near resistant enough to the cold temperatures just yet to try it. Thingvellir is a rift valley where the North American and European tectonic plates are pulling apart leaving many cracks and fissures all through the area. It's been said to be the best place in the world to see so clearly 2 plates separating. Of course earlier this year I was in Ethiopia where the African plates are separating and creating the Great Rift Valley, but it's on such a large scale that you can't feel it in an intimate way. Besides, the area around Thingvellir is much more active with the plates separating by as much as 5cm in a year!
The valley is beautiful, the water so clear, the grass so green, the fissures so well defined, the spot is amazing and so maybe it's no surprise that it was chosen as the site of the first Icelandic parliament from 930 to 1271 until Iceland fell under the rule of Norway and Denmark for a few centuries. In the early days the members of parliament would make an annual trip to the spot from all around Iceland for the parliamentary assembly and the laws of the land would be recited for all to hear until the next year when they would be reminded again. It also functioned as the main court of the country too. Seems pretty crazy but I guess it must've had a festival atmosphere about it at times as well. The site remained an active location of cultural and political power until 1789.

Thingvellir valley.

The pole in the center marks the place of the ancient parliamentary assembly at Thingvellir.

A view of the lake from Thingvellir.

Thingvellir is only about 50km east of Reykjavik so we drove through the capital and made a quick stop on our way back to Keflavik. It's a pretty town with a great location along the water, clean and small. Not much there in the way of specific highlights though there is a Saga museum we didn't get into though we enjoyed the view from the lookout area on its roof. There is also a tall church that looks like it wants to blast out into space.

A view over Reykjavik.

Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland with statue of Leif Eriksson in front.

Overall I'd have to say that I liked the look of Iceland and would love to visit a little longer during high summer to get the really long days and hopefully more sunny days to visit more of the country. This stopover was mostly to get a quick feel and I liked what I felt so have added it to the growing list of places to come back to someday.


At 12:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

boo, i was waiting for these photos. amazing as always.


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