My first day in Iceland was surreal and beautiful. However, day two blew my first day out of the water.
At the advice of my friend Erica, I signed up for a Golden Circle guided day tour. The company she recommended was booked up (even two months in advance), so I was recommended to book with Iceland Guided Tours. Iceland does tours well – they know all the hostels and hotels in town and ask for a pick-up location, they take the guesswork out of things for someone like me who doesn’t have the lay of the land.
At 8:30am, I waited down on the street for my shuttle with a coffee. Helgi Jón, the jolly Icelandic tour guide, picked me up first. We drove around town and retrieved eight others, all older couples – two from the US, one from Australia, and one from the UK.
We drove through Reykjavik and back out to the nothingness. Helgi Jón talked about the various new neighborhoods developing, land masses we passed, and other interesting facts about the native lands. Our first stop seemed to be a random pit stop, but it ended up being quite an interesting location.
Hveragerði is a town in the valley below a huge mountain with many hot springs. They call it the “Flower Town.” In this town, people use the hot springs for power. The town includes a restaurant with all “earth cooking” – cooking solely using steam from the springs. Helgi informed us that Hveragerði had just held an ice cream festival in the town and that the menu included a breast milk ice cream. Supposedly, this began when a local woman, married to the head of the festival, donated some breast milk for an experimental flavor. The ice cream turned out so well that the town received enough volunteers to feed every festival-goer. Let’s keep in mind that the festival brought in hundreds of out-of-towners – that’s a lot of volunteers!
We drove by a vacated lot with a concrete slab, cracked down the middle and steam coming up to the surface of the ground. As it turns out, there was a house built on top of the hot springs and it eventually had steam coming out of its floors. The owners had to vacate the house. Can you imagine steam coming out of your floor one day? Another fact I found really interesting was that there is no cemetery in this town, as it is not considered proper to bury someone in the hot ground. Ah, the reality of living in Iceland!
The real reason we stopped in Hveragerði was this: there was an earthquake in 2003 that split open the floors of Hveragerði’s shopping center. Instead of knocking the structure down and rebuilding it, the town embraced this natural disaster and covered the huge split in the ground with glass, lighting the crags and allowing visitors to see what it is really like to live in this unique land.
I learned a whole lot on this tour. As we drove by it, Helgi Jón explained that Mt. Hekla is one of the most active volcanos in Iceland since its discovery in 874 – he said that it has erupted 19 times. At the time of Hekla’s discovery, being burned in everlasting flames was how Hell was described. In this vein, the volcano was proclaimed by the Pope as “the Gateway to Hell.” Furthermore, eruptions were said to be the worst souls being kicked out of Hell. From this belief, a saying became common among Swedes: “Go to Mt. Hekla.” This eventually translated into: “What the heck!” Coolest fact ever!
Helgi then took us to a small waterfall to “prepare us for the real thing” (the bigger waterfall which we’d see afterwards). We piled out of our little shuttle at the top of a hill. It was simple: a valley, a waterfall, a rushing river. However, there was something magical about this little waterfall. I didn’t even get it’s name but I saw a man fishing in this completely serene, remote place. The sun was beating down making the 50 degree weather feel about 80. I ran to every side to see the details from a different perspective and took in all the beauty this little spot had to offer.
It wasn’t until I got back on the shuttle that I noticed the incredible lens flare within my photo (pictured above). In my photography class this summer, I grasped onto the concept that a good photograph captures how the photographer felt at the moment of hitting the shutter. This photograph captured exactly how I felt at this wonderful no-name waterfall.
The next stop was certainly the “real thing.” This huge waterfall is called Gullfoss, named after gold evening sun on the water of the Hvítá River. The water falls into a huge canyon, creating a spectacular view from all angles.
As I walked along a narrow path down to the main viewing point of the waterfall, I was completely drenched in mist. I couldn’t yet see what was causing so much blow-back, but I lingered in this spot for a moment and managed to keep my camera dry as I snapped a photo. The mist created these spectacular pockets of water, which were magical on their own and it felt just as special as the rest of the scene.
Standing at the main drop of Gullfoss was spectacular. To be quite honest, it felt like I was standing on the set of Game of Thrones, which, strangely enough, I was… they film all over Iceland.
Behind me (pictured left), you can see the huge drops into the canyon. The majesty of Gullfoss was just another reminder of how small we are, how much can happen by just allowing a climate to grow and change untouched, and how much beauty I haven’t even seen yet.
This post only covers the first half of the Golden Circle Tour. The second half is up next, including coverage of uber-active geysers, Sigur Ros references, and insider tips about Iceland’s mythic Hidden People.