This is Iceland.
Minimal, stark, wide open landscapes dotted with numerous waterfalls, craters, and rivers. A beautiful place unlike any other place else on Earth. The coziness of small European towns intermingled with the natural beauty to rival that of the American West.
Then there are tourists. Iceland’s popularity has increased drastically over the last decade. Prior to the Great Recession, Iceland received only the hardiest kinds of travelers - those interested in eclectic music, knitting, Icelandic horses or trying out fermented Shark. Iceland was one of the hardest-hit countries in the global financial crisis, and it made one decision that a decade later keeps growing the tourism industry. Icelandair’s (and previously Wow air’s) stopover program allows travelers to mainland Europe to disembark and spend a couple days in Iceland at a very low cost. This stopover program introduced Iceland to the world. Instagram also helped make Iceland hot. March is traditionally low season in Iceland, so Natalie and I were surprised to find so many tourists, but we tried to make most of it.
We flew out Friday night and arrived in Reykjavik at 4:30 AM. The Wow air flight from Boston was not particularly comfortable. It was hard to get any sleep as the seats were crammed and the crew decided to keep the cabin lights on all night. Nonetheless, cheap airfare was worth it.
Going through the Keflavik airport passport desk and customs was a breeze. Renting a car was also quick and simple. We drove out to Reykjavik to explore for a bit, in hopes of finding some delicious breakfast spot. The drive to Reykjavik was a little bit slower than the typical 30 minutes as it just snowed the night before. Upon arrival, we easily found a place to park downtown and walked around. Most stores and cafes were closed this early. After some research, we found one highly-rated bakery cafe, Sandholt Bakery that was open. The coffee and food was amazingly delicious and fresh, albeit a bit pricy like most things in Iceland.
After a quick bite to eat, we started our way to Iceland’s south coast. Known for numerous waterfalls and black sand beaches, we were excited to explore and see all of that landscape under a dusting of snow. The drive was treacherous because we had to cross a mountain pass between Reykjavik and Selfoss. First stop on the south coast was Seljalandsfoss - the waterfall you can walk behind. As soon as we pulled in, we were greeted by a full lot of private cars and at least three tour buses. Parking was paid and there was a massive crowd headed towards the beautiful, half-frozen waterfall. We decided to skip the crowds, took a few photos from the parking lot and moved on.
The next stop was Skógafoss - one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland that I’ve seen previously. Less crowded, Skógafoss is majestic even with the reduced water flow of the winter season. Beautiful as a it is, due to excessive tourism, photography is challenging at the base of the waterfall. We hiked up a small trail to discover more stunning waterfalls and rapids up above the main waterfall. A lot of side trails that lead to amazing viewpoints of the falls were closed due to slippery winter conditions and a ranger was walking around asking people to stop stepping on moss - clearly annoyed at the number of tourists there.
After Skógafoss we drove down to Vík, the beautiful black sand beach. The scenery was to die for, and we may have almost gotten swept away by the strong waves. The word “vík” actually means “port or harbor” in Icelandic. Even though there was no harbor nearby, Icelanders typically name everything quite literally. Reykjavik, for example, is “Bay of Smokes” as the word for smoke in Icelandic is “reykur”.
After Vik, we attempted to find the Sólheimasandur plane wreck, but realized quickly that there’s no road that goes close to it and it’s either a 40 minute hike or a $20 bus ride out to the wreck. What once was a hidden gem is now a commercialized tourist trap.
We spent the evening walking around Reykjavik in search of a place to get a bite to eat. We were hoping to find something authentic and local. Quickly we found that most restaurants have completely outrageous prices, small serving sizes, and mediocre selection. It took us over an hour to finally find a fish & chips hole in the wall that was both affordable and delicious. Reykjavik Street Food was no fuss, no thrills, just good food.
After dinner we visited Micro Bar where the bartender tricked us by giving us a larger-than-ordered drink size, thinking that we won’t notice. The beer selection in Iceland as a whole is impressively great, just not at Micro Bar. Don’t go there.
Day two we decided to drive north to Snæfellsnes peninsula. About an hour and a half north of the Capital Region, Snæfellsnes is home to glaciated mountains, rolling valleys, and stark lava beaches. On the way up, we stopped at numerous incredibly scenic stops to snap a few shots and take in the scenery. Eventually we made our way to Kirkjufell falls and mountain. Kirkjufell is one of Iceland’s most-photographed geographic features. The only thing is, just like most places in Iceland, it’s pretty challenging to capture it wild, without people.
While not a natural landmark, perhaps one of the most instagram-worthy spots in Snæfellsnes is Búðakirkja, commonly known as “little black church”. Búðakirkja is not a functional religious establishment, but rather a scenic landmark that is frequently used for weddings and photo shoots.
Towards the evening, we visited Krauma spa on the way back to our hotel. Why not Blue Lagoon you might ask? Last time I visited Iceland, I did visit the Blue Lagoon. While nice, it failed to impress me last time - a busy tourist trap with lukewarm water. Since my last visit, the admission prices have gone up significantly and there is no way to get in without booking ahead of time. We decided that it was not worth it. Besides being a massive, tourist trap, Blue Lagoon is not even a natural feature, contrary to the common belief. The silica-rich lagoon was created as part of a geothermal power plant operation and has been slowly expanding since the original creation as silica fills the lagoon and prevents water from leaving. This is incredibly damaging to the surface water and not sustainable. The water also contains arsenic and mercury, not the kinds of chemicals I would like on my skin. Krauma was a cheaper, more natural alternative that we were incredibly content with. Located a bit farther from the city, Krauma is a natural hot spring that has been converted to a sleek, modern spa.
Overall, this trip, like any trip to Iceland has been amazing. But I was disappointed by the crowds and it felt like Iceland may have lost its soul as it found all of the tourism dollars. I’d love to go back and visit more remote areas of the country - eastern fjords, the highlands, and remote glacial national parks.
While many things have changed in Iceland for the worse, Iceland has been partaking in a massive reforestation project. In the 5 years since I last visited, there has been a significantly notable increase in tree canopy across the country side. The vikings wiped out Iceland’s forest hundreds of years ago, and it’s exciting to see the landscape starting to come back to its’ natural state.