I had significantly less driving to do today, which my body thanked me for. My shoulders were becoming increasingly painful at the end of each day. My plans for the day started with a visit to an outdoor hot spring – which was listed as opening at 11AM. I was less than an hours drive away, so I knew there was less of a rush to get there early. Still, with best intentions to sleep in, I was awake early, and had left the hostel by a little after 9AM.
As I mentioned earlier, this Secret Lagoon wasn’t scheduled to open until 11AM. I thought I’d take a chance, and hope to find something else interesting in the area. It was just before 10AM when I arrived, but I wasn’t alone in the car park. Soon an entire coach arrived. When they all walked inside, I thought I’d try my chances, and followed them in, and found that they were accepting customers already. I’m not sure if their website, Google Maps listing and front door signage were all wrong, but it seemed that, at least today, they were accepting customers at 10AM.
They put great efforts into educating about the rules of bathing – with special emphasis placed on how to wash pre-bathing. For the curious, it strictly requires that you shower in the nude, carefully washing your entire body in gender segregated changing rooms. The nudity ends here though, and clothing is required before walking outside into the steaming pools.
I haven’t been to an outdoor hot spring (or even an indoor) in what feels like years. That feeling of stepping outside into the freezing air, and taking the first steps into the hot water was as good as it has ever felt. The bottom of the pool was covered in rocks, so walking was difficult – but comedic to watch everyone else. After acclimatising to the heat, I started to feel less comfortable, as there were limited places to sit and relax in the water. Many of the other bathers were using the pool noodles to float around. There was a shallower edge at one end of the pool, where the edge of the pool is the natural slope of the ground – the negatives of sitting here are it being near the sources of the scalding hot water.
As mentioned just before, surrounding the large, rectangular pool were the bubbling springs that filled it. My body had absorbed enough latent heat to allow me to take a quick walk around without needing to fully dry off and get changed. Having only a single towel in my possession, I was doing my best to avoid getting it wet.
Not having much need to rush today, I took my time, dipping in and out of the waters, cycling between the hotter and cooler patches in the pool. I would often start getting bored in Japan after 45-minutes of soaking, but today I was struggling to find the energy to leave. Experience of soaking in Japan had taught me the importance of drinking water while being at the point of near perspiration for extended periods of bathing. I was still light-headed by the time my steaming pink flesh made its way to the change rooms, but it was a manageable level.
This is one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland, though I suspect it’s got something to do with the proximity to Reykjavik, more than the actual scenery. It was a fun little drive to get there, with the smooth paved road quickly deteriorating into a series of potholes so broad that it became impossible to avoid. I clenched my teeth the point I was worried they’d crack each time a car approached from the opposite direction, fearing that a stray rock would chip the windscreen or something else.
There were queues of tour busses lined up, and the rather large car park was looking full. Considering this was late February, I couldn’t imagine the kind of chaos July or August would bring. I snacked on some more muesli bars, and joined the crowds and made my way down to viewing area for the falls.
My pessimistic outlook on the falls were unfounded. These falls, while not being particularly high, were flowing with a savage intensity. The canyon that it drained into was a sight to behold, and even after two solid days of sightseeing in Iceland, I was happy to know that I could still be impressed by the sights.
Not much further along the Golden Circle was another major tourist drawcard. As I approached, the density and size of the hotels increased, until directly opposite was an enormous new hotel complex in the final stages of construction to join the others that had been only a few years earlier.
It was quite unlike what I was expecting, with no discernible smell of sulphur. There was a constant hissing of steam from bubbling vents of beautiful turquoise waters.
But, the main event was the giant geysir that erupts nearly 20m into the air. I found my position and braced myself in anticipation of the display. And I waited a little more. My steely grip of my camera slowly faded, until the point that I’d almost put the camera down. The pool of water ebbed a few times, causing false panics, and for me to raise my camera again in anticipation.
Then, without the slightest hint or warning, there was a giant hissing roar and steaming water gushed out far higher than I had anticipated. The steam cleared, and once again we were left looking at a slowly bubbling pool.
It might have only been a few minutes between eruptions, but it felt like an entire afternoon while standing, watching and waiting. After my second, I started to wander around and see the other smaller geysers in the park, occasionally looking in the right direction in time to hear the roaring hiss of the eruption.
While I’d seen a fair few waterfalls already in the past three days, I made a special effort to see one last one. It was right on the drive between Geysir and Reykjavik, so it seemed too good to miss. Looking on Google Maps, it looked like only a minor detour. As I approached what I thought was going to be the entrance, I found that there were signs directing tourists to enter from another direction. Being a responsible tourist, I heeded their advice and continued in the direction of the signs.
The new car park was a fair amount further than the other car park, but still an easy 6km return hike. Or least it would have been if it was a hike, and not an ice skate. The serenity of an empty trail (sans the horses) made for a beautiful energising experience – the lethally polished icy trail made for a nerve wracking one.
It was a combination of blind grit/stupidity/determination as I cautiously slid my way closer and closer towards the falls. The closer I came to the falls, the riskier the trail became. The uneven, off-camber icy trail now skirted the edge of a small cliff, with the surging waters just below. I’m being a little dramatic, but the safety margin was quite narrow, but I’d risked injury coming this far, I wasn’t going to give up and return empty handed.
I came to a small waterfall, which I initially mistook for the real falls. The water was brilliantly coloured, and it thundered through a small canyon, before the aerated waters fizzed back towards the car park. I briefly considered continuing the trail further towards the real falls, but a combination of fear of injury, and a desire to do/see other things before it got dark had me turning around and penguin-shuffling back towards the car park.
On the start of my hike I’d had several groups tell me that it was dangerous, and that I should not continue. I thought that it was nonsense, and that I was a far more experienced anything than anyone. Now, it came my turn to pass along my warnings to a group of young German (speaking) men. I think they took my advice as seriously as I took the advice I received, and they slipped and slid on along the slick trail towards the falls.
This is the last of the big-ticket sites along the Golden Route (if you are driving anti-clockwise, as I was). I truly didn’t know much about it, other than it having historic significance as a previous place of parliament, and it being a beautiful national park. Due to this, I didn’t plan on making any stops.
For the most part, it was much less scenic than what I’d enjoyed along the southern coast. That was until I drove past an epic rift that looked like a surgical incision through the crust of the earth.
Reykjavik Old Town
I knew that Reykjavik was a relatively new city, and of quite modest sizing. I’d already skirted the outside of it early on my first morning here, as I raced towards the south coast. Still, finally driving into town, I couldn’t help but be a little surprised by how small the city was.
After coming from London, it was amazing to see how spread out things were here, as well as how low the town felt.
I picked KEX Hostel, which is infamous for being quite a hipster haunt. I was actually shocked with what I found, as it was actually far more hip than I could have guessed. It was almost painfully so. I checked into my £50/night bed in a 6-bed dorm, and then sat around in the beautiful common area, making my £6 happy hour beer last as long as possible. There wasn’t much going on in the hostel, and I was starting to get hungry, so I made my way out for my first meal in Iceland.
It was still weird to walk around downtown Reykjavik. There was a decent concentration of bars/restaurants, but it still felt so small and to a degree, empty. I imagine there is loads going on, but it hadn’t really sunk any hooks into me yet.
For dinner I went to the ominously touristic sounding, Icelandic Street Food. It was one of the highest rated restaurants in town, and somehow it appeared to be moderately priced. I stopped thinking of the price in pounds, and just ordered what I felt like eating – which was a hearty lamb casserole in a bread bowl. Amazingly, it was possible to have refills once you’d finished your soup. However, after two lamb casseroles, and one creamy seafood soup, my bowl was ready to collapse – and my stomach was painfully full.
I continued to wander around the town, looking for something exciting, but either I was too early in the evening, or it was the wrong night, because there was only moderate activity. Rather expend too much energy walking around, punishing my body with alcohol, I retired back to the hostel, and started reading a book in bed.
The next morning, I woke early and finished the last of the food I’d bought. I thought I’d try a coffee from the hostel, since it looked like it should have good coffee. I asked the guy on the reception what it was like, to which he grimaced and told me that he goes up the road to get his coffee! I certainly appreciated his brutal honesty, and the coffee from the nearby Bismut was amazing – and cheaper than I expected.
I checked out of the hostel, packed my car, and went for another walk around town. The first stop was to the stunning Hallgrimskirkja, whose columns rose like volcanic basalt formations. It’s almost certainly the tallest building in town – at least in this part of town.
Inside wasn’t quite as impressive, but the pipe organ was a work of art.
I was now just killing time as I walked around town again. I was curious about a small hotdog stand that had a large queue when I walked past last night. It was a little early for lunch, but I thought I’d give one a try anyway. I don’t know if it was the special mustard they used, but no sooner had I finished this hotdog, I’d ordered and devoured a second. No regrets.
Most of the buildings in town seem quite plain, there were the odd few that really stood out as being different. I don’t know if modern Viking is a style, but I felt like if it wasn’t, it should be – and it should apply to some of what I saw.
I had one last walk along the waterfront, enjoying the distant peaks across the still waters, then hopped in my little rental Fiat 500 and made my way towards the airport.
Like all tourists, I wanted to visit for a dip in these waters. I was even willing to pay the £60 entrance fee, but there was no availability for the next several weeks. I thought I’d still go a check it out, unsure what I’d be able to see.
It turned out to be a fantastic idea, as there are large outdoor lagoons that surround the bathing area, and their pastel hued waters had me salivating.
I managed to walk into the bathing area to see what it was that I was missing out on. The water looked incredible, and the walk up bar was an interesting idea.
But, it has to be said, looking further afield, the nearby thermal power plant couldn’t be ignored as it hissed away in the background. It would have been a great experience, but I’m glad that I managed to visit a quieter and more rural (and cheaper) hot springs in the Golden Circle.
It had been a hectic few days, rushing to squeeze in as much as possible, but it had absolutely been worth it. I cannot wait for the day that I return to see more of this breathtaking country!
Bonus – flying over Greenland
By a twist of luck, I tried to gain the sympathy of the staff at the airline check in. I checked if they had any available seats in exit aisles, as my longer legs are rather cramped in regular seats. To my amazement, they gave me a front row window seat. Not only did I have an exceptional amount of space, I had fantastic views out of my window.
Leaving Iceland there was little to see, other than cloud. But, eventually we crossed over the eastern shore of Greenland, and it was one of the most mesmerisingly beautiful sights I’d ever seen. The jagged teeth of granite rose out of the flat ice. Glacier after glacier rippled down the valleys. Eventually the glaciers got thicker until the peaks were completely covered under giant white plains.
This seemingly featureless landscape continued on for what felt like hours, but eventually we were back over the ocean, and the sea ice stretched out as far as could be seen. Splinters of broken ice spread out below like veins in marble. The flows were abstract, yet familiar, and it helped keep my tired eyes awake.