According to the Icelandic Tourism Board, 1.7 million tourists traveled to the Scandinavian island of Iceland in 2016 (40 percent more than their 2015 arrivals) and spent a total of $51 billion tourism dollars, Iceland’s highest ever to date.
My friends and I were among those 1.7 tourists who made their way last year to see the most intriguing and breathtaking country of 2016, where what you expect to see are exceeded by extreme and diverse weather conditions and the overall experience of being there.
A destination that is commonly in the bucket list of many, Iceland’s most popular attraction to the rest of the world is the Aurora Borealis, commonly referred to as the Northern Lights. Though it may also be seen from other countries like Norway and Sweden, the Northern Lights will always be synonymous with Iceland. And so we booked our stay for six days, hoping that we would have enough time to catch this symphony of lights.
From September all the way through to April, Iceland is treated to this natural display of magnificence. Aurora Borealis, a name taken from that of the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, is a natural phenomenon that occurs when electrons collide with the upper parts of the Earth’s atmosphere. When these electrons interact with the atmosphere in the Earth’s magnetic field, energy is released, causing fabulous luminous green, yellow, orange and red streaks across the sky. On clear winter nights, sightseeing trips are organized around this spectacular yet unpredictable natural phenomenon. The ideal location for sightings varies and tour leaders are skilled in “hunting” the lights, finding locations where conditions are best for seeing them on any given night (we found ourselves outside the President’s house on the first night). We downloaded an app for our phones so it would be our official guide during our five night hunt.
There are no guarantees that you will see the Northern Lights during your stay, but in most cases, sightings are recorded outside populated areas, especially away from the lights coming from Reykjavik. Unfortunately for our group, the lights encounter and display of colors will remain a mystery, despite all our efforts each night to catch her glory. She was elusive for the entire duration of our stay. But even when we weren’t blessed with the Aurora sighting, what we did find out for ourselves is that there so much more to Iceland than just the Northern Lights, which made the journey still worth every hard earned peso spent.
A quick 40-minute drive southwest of Reykjavik leads to Iceland’s most iconic geothermal pool. With 130 active and dormant volcanoes, Iceland produces some of the world’s leading natural spring and geothermal pools. From the winding road leading to the lagoon, we saw the swirling ethereal mist above the iridescent azure waters of Blue Lagoon.
Located right at the dark jagged rocks of an 800-year-old lava field, the man-made pool uses superheated water from a nearby lava flow to produce heat for a municipal water-heating system. From there, it flows into Blue Lagoon, where bathers wade. The water hovers around 110 degrees through the hot spring and feels restorative against the damp, nearly freezing air. The ever-present drizzle paused just in time for the setting sun to pierce through the thick fog, illuminating the water and baking the algae mud mask spread across my face.
The water’s rich minerals are touted for their healing abilities. But the sheer beauty and the soak were enough to keep me feeling warm and invigorated until bedtime. And yes, our faces and skin all glowed and felt so much tighter after the time spent in the Blue Lagoon. And what made the lagoon a fun experience was the fact that they allowed guests to drink wine and other drinks whilst bathing in the hot water.
Thingvellir National Park
On our way to the National Park, we stopped by a random farm where there were several Icelandic horses grazing about. I have been a horse lover for many years and seeing these smaller, more rounded versions of the regular-sized horses was too irresistible. I had to either ride them or pet them at the very least. When the ponies willingly approached and cozied up to me with their blow dried mane (or so it seemed), I felt like melting away. Even the horses are friendly here in Iceland, I told myself.
Eventually, I tore myself away from the Icelandic horses and continued on into Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thingvellir exemplifies Iceland’s greatest appeal, its pervading grandeur. The sprawling slate sky was punctuated by cliffside peaks and towering waterfalls, surrounded by endlessly flowing lakes and creeks, and separated from a cascading geyser by stretches of birch and willow. I couldn’t help but feel small in these surroundings. But the overwhelming beauty of the landscape invited me to feel like a welcome houseguest in my newly discovered favorite land.
The Golden Circle
After waking up at 9 a.m. to pitch black darkness, the reality that we were really in Iceland dawned on me. The sun only started to rise at 10:30 a.m. so we went on with our day-two road trip that covered three of Iceland’s most popular sights between Reykjavik and the southern uplands.
First stop: Strokkur Geyser. A short walk through heavy mist and the smell of rotten eggs led to a large pool of bubbling water. Three minutes later, the geyser erupted, sending boiling water 100 feet into the air, and jolting us into a short startled cry that quickly changed to laughter. What a sight! Further down the road, we hit the second stop: Gullfoss Waterfall. We descended the wooden staircase high above the falls and walked to the edge of a rocky cliff where the water makes its first 36-foot plunge. The canyon bends around the cliff and tumbles 69 feet down before narrowing and turning away. A faint rainbow appeared over the crest and stretched down, following the fall.
The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik and the entire city is just so amazingly beautiful, immaculately clean, and offers some, if not, the most naturally photogenic landscapes one can see in this lifetime. Driving around and going from one place to another, you know you’re in Reykjavik just by looking out of the window: its topography and terrain are all so different and unlike other European cities.
In the city center downtown, I relished the charming old world architecture with some of the most modern and vivid street art I’ve ever seen. Brick walls and bakeries were all decorated with cheerful depictions of children and animals, a bright spot on an otherwise bleak winter morning. Here you will also see, towering at 244 feet high, is Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s largest church. From the cathedral’s tower, Reykjavik’s utilitarian architecture looks positively quaint. The tidy rows of gray apartments show off brightly colored roofs. A statue of Leif Erikson (a gift from the United States to the government of Iceland) stares down the major thoroughfare, a straight shot to the shore of Faxa Bay.
For those interested in visiting Reykjavik and Iceland, my only advise to you is to do it at the soonest possible time, because at the rate that this country’s tourism statistics are shooting up each year, so will the rates for the already pricey tickets, accommodations and excursions. Before long, it will be impossible to escape the hordes of people and crowds already flocking to Iceland.