The Land of Ice and Fire (Part Tveir)
I only spent 48 hours in Iceland on a stopover before eventually arriving in London, but I was overwhelmed by the beauty and splendor throughout all that I saw. The first half of my Golden Circle Day Tour was spectacular and the second half was even better.
After visiting the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, my tour continued with a stop in Geysir. Geysir is the name of the Icelandic town as well as the reason for the term we now use to describe a periodically spouting hot spring (“geyser” in English).
According to my lovely tour guide, Helgi Jón, the Great Geysir is the “grandfather of Geysir,” as it was active as long as 10,000 years ago and, at its peak, erupted to reach a height of 170 meters. Since 2009, it has stopped erupting altogether, but another nearby geyser called Strokkur has taken its place as the tourist attraction, erupting every 3-7 minutes.
When entering, you walk on a flat plain at the base of a mountain and as you walk along a path, you pass small geysers. At this point in time, the main tourist attraction in Geysir is Strokkur so that’s where the crowds stop and wait for the main portion of their stay.
Looking at Strokkur is odd- it is a large pool that bubbles and gurgles, then starts steaming and boiling, and eventually erupts. Large crowds gather round the edges and wait with cameras up, ready to shoot at the moment it begins. The size of the eruption varies, as does the lapse between them, so while I was up close for a couple of eruptions, they were both small. Then I walked off to other geysers and there was a huge eruption (pictured above) and a second eruption immediately after, soaking the people around it.
After our visit to Geysir, we made a quick pit stop at my request. Earlier in the day, I had asked Helgi Jón if we could stop to meet some of the horses I kept admiring along the side of the road. These were some of the most beautiful horses I had ever seen – all colors and types with something wild about them. Helgi suggested I get some bread for them at our lunch stop so we could feed them after finishing up at Geysir.
Once we got out of the shuttle, all ten horses in the pasture came up to us immediately. We fed them the bread and had a few pushes and shoves, but all in all, they were extremely friendly. We had been told that Icelandic horses are one of two breeds that can travel at five different speeds. Most horses can only walk, trot, canter, or gallop. Icelandic horses have a glide which is apparently smooth enough that you can rest a cup of water on one without losing a drop. These horses are purebred with no natural enemies. I was very happy to get to pat one on the nose, simple as it may be.
Our last stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Þingvellir (the Icelandic letter is translated into “th” and pronounced “think-vell-ear”). As we drove towards the site and I listened to Helgi tell us about it, it became very clear that Thingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance to the Icelandic people. Helgi never seemed particularly emotional about what he said until he began discussing this place – you could hear a lot of pride and personal connection to it.
Thingvellir is important on so many levels. Parliament was established here in 930, before it moved to Reykjavik in the 1700s. It is the site of Iceland’s largest lake in a beautiful rift valley. The most unique feature is that the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates can be seen at Thingvellir, creating a canyon with walls of lava on each side. According to Helgi, the rift divides at a rate of two centimeters per year, causing the valley to sink down further. Water in the lake is filtered through the lava over decades, so it appears very clear and pure.
The first reaction I had when walking out towards Thingvellir was that it was one of the most calm and beautiful places I’ve ever been, which is strange considering there are also towering lava walls on either side of the valley. I didn’t have the opportunity to get close to the lake, but from afar it was absolutely stunning. The water appears as if it is made of deep blue glass. The edge of the plates was a big climb – up many stairs and then a steady incline. The largeness of it gives a sense of what two centimeters per year of drift really is. It’s big!
After climbing to the top of the walls, I met back up with my group to drive back to Reykjavik. During the remainder of the drive, Helgi Jón told us about Icelandic legends – the Hidden People or “Huldufólk.” These people, who are said to live in cliffs and secret places, can only be seen by some. Helgi told us a legend that goes back generations in his family which I won’t even attempt to write because I will most certainly butcher it. However, he described the beliefs relating to these people in more detail.
According to folklore, those who help the Hidden People are fortunate and happy, the ones who don’t are not. They are believed to live in the rocks and mountains, so it is considered bad luck to throw rocks as you might hit one of them. Helgi described the Hidden People as normal humans, who use colorful tools and avoid electricity. However, throughout the years, the perception has changed to the point where they are thought to be elves. This is up for debate. Decades ago, Helgi said, 40-50% of Icelandic people would say they believe in the Hidden People. Now only 4-5% do and Helgi is one of them.
I was sad to hear that the believers were dying out, but apparently the Hidden People have influenced decisions in recent history as well. There has been a history of incidences in which changes to the natural land (roads going into untouched areas mainly) have had bad things happen during construction. These incidences are often believed to be due to a lack of respect or care for the Hidden People. Helgi explained that even last year, due to protests held by elf supporters and local environmental groups, construction was stopped on a road to allow the hidden people to move and find a new home. Hearing this story warmed my heart – I had such an overwhelming connection to the magic of Iceland, it only felt appropriate that legends closely tied to the land exist in a real way.
Leaving the next morning was difficult, as I felt that I only scratched the surface of the country in my two days. I’d love to return and rent a car for a few weeks to see the less traveled and less touristy areas.
Keeping true to Iceland, I listened to Sigur Rós (a famous Icelandic band) on the plane to London and smiled from ear-to-ear: If this was the first 48 hours of my indefinite, round-the-world trip, I am in for a treat.