Otherworldly. That’s the word that all my guidebooks use to describe the landscape of Iceland. Accurately? Yes. Adequately? Not exactly. But even after a few days of being surrounded by the haunting black and green countryside and the stony grey coast, I didn’t realize how truly otherworldly Iceland is until I was engaged in the mundane task of renting a car.
“In case you see an ash cloud, here’s what you do,” the Hertz clerk told me after I declined the “sand and ash” insurance. “Pull over and turn the car off and wait till it passes. Do not attempt to drive through it.”
She went on to explain that, even though there hadn’t been a major volcanic eruption since 2011, there was still ash on the ground from the last one and the wind could whip it up into a dark, dangerous swirl with no warning. She also cautioned me about wild sheep in the roadway (just honk at them, and hopefully they’ll disperse), as well as the distinct infrequency of gas stations and the strict prohibition against driving my rented Toyota subcompact onto any backroads. “But you should be fine!” she added cheerfully.
As I signed my name on the rental agreement, the otherworldliness of Iceland really hit me. Ash clouds, rogue sheep, and forbidden roads? And that’s on top of geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls, rainbows, aurora borealis, and lava fields. I didn’t experience personally any ash clouds (thankfully) or the aurora (too cloudy, unfortunately), but I fit everything else in. Iceland is truly like no other place on earth, and I’m about to tell you why.
First, a mini geography lesson to set the scene. Iceland is small, and it’s also pretty empty. Two-thirds of the country’s population of 300,000 reside in the capital city of Reykjavik, which leaves only 100,000 other people spread over land about 4 times larger than the New York City metro area. And those 100,000 people are scattered around the coastline–the middle part of the country, the highlands, or “the interior,” is basically uninhabitable (this is where those forbidden roads come in, unless you’ve rented a vehicle that can ford rivers). So essentially, once you get outside of Reykjavik, you start to feel like you’re the only person for miles, and you probably are.
Driving south and west from the capital city, I felt this phenomenon immediately. Iceland’s Highway 1 is an unassuming two-lane roadway that loops the coast, bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a constantly shifting series of geographical features on the other. You know how the landscape changes suddenly when you advance to the next level in a car racing video game? Iceland changes just like that, from blackened lava fields dotted with lush green moss, to cracked and dusty brown plains, blue streams, craggy mountains crosshatched with waterfalls. Over the course of a four hour drive, I saw dozens and dozens of waterfalls. I was headed to Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon of white and blue icebergs floating in frigid blue water, and I was nearly there before it clicked: those waterfalls are melted ice from the glacier. This mountain I’ve been driving around for two hours? It IS the glacier. Spiraling up the long incline behind a tour bus, I kept craning my neck to the left for a glimpse of the bright blue water of Jokulsarlon and when I finally did, I might have squealed out loud.
The natural wonders of Iceland are impossible to number. I stood above Gulfoss, a thundering three-tiered waterfall; I watched the geothermal activity near the Hvita river, where you can see dozens of mud pots and geysers in an area about the size of a small public park–it might as well be the surface of Venus; I walked back and forth on a rickety metal footbridge to cross the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates. Can anything make you feel humbled by nature like peering down a mossy crevice into the center of the earth? You feel a little bit like you’re exaggerating when talking about Iceland–”I hiked 2 kilometers across a lava field, over the continental drift, up a mountain, then descended into the mouth of a volcano on a window washing cart!”–but the thing of it is, Iceland is remarkably unassuming about itself. All of these wonders, and dangers, are just there. Not hidden behind admission gates or the velvet ropes of a guided tour, behind fences or caution signs. The wonder is all around you, all the time.
So about that window washing cart: just outside of Reykjavik stands a long-dormant volcano called Thrihnukagigur, literally the only place on earth where a human can enter a magma chamber. I rode on an open cable lift (read as: window washing cart) down 120 meters to the volcano floor, a massive, rocky space filled with the most brilliant reds and oranges you can imagine. Magma is no longer present in Thrihnukagigur, which has been dormant for some four thousand years, so it’s allegedly “safe,” although at one point I stumbled over some loose rocks and slid a few meters down an embankment. Fortunately, I was prevented from sliding further into the earth when a boulder rolled onto my ankle, effectively pinning me in place. But after composing myself for a second I just picked myself up and brushed volcano dust off my raincoat, because that’s what you do in Iceland. I’d be lying if I said the hike back across the lava field wasn’t a bit torturous on my ankle, but those bruises were the ultimate souvenir.
Iceland is more than just its breathtaking natural wonders, though. Reykjavik is a completely charming city, full of culture (architecture and/or audio geeks must check out Harpa, a concert hall with state of the art construction), great dining options (I recommend the Grai Kotturin for breakfast, as well as a visit to Shalimar, the world’s northernmost Pakistani restaurant), and a laid-back vibe that makes navigating on foot and by car a cinch. The air in Iceland, even right in the city, is unbelievably fresh and clean. It rains a lot in Iceland–my trip was coated in a near-constant light drizzle which occasionally morphed into an upside-down snowglobe sort of disorientation because the wind from the ocean could make the rain appear to come from the ground up. Due to that wind no one uses umbrellas in Iceland, relying instead on hooded waterproof raincoats. I only experienced brilliant sunshine once during my trip, which timed itself perfectly to my visit to Jokulsarlon. I was thrilled for the sun on this particular day, since it made the glaciers sparkle like diamonds.
The rain is so commonplace that it doesn’t really limit any activities, not even visits to the outdoor public pools or the Blue Lagoon (both of which are in the Reykjavik area). I went to both, and there’s definitely something surreal about being in an outdoor pool in 10-degree C temperatures and a mild rain. The water in these pools is naturally warm (thanks to the hotbed of geothermal activity that provides energy for the entire country), and the effect of the warm water against the chilly air is incredibly refreshing. I also took a dip in a “hot pot,” where the water was so, so hot that I only lasted about three minutes. It somehow cured my post-lava-field-hike aches and pains, though. Residents of Reykjavik visit these pools year-round, and for good reason. A trip to one might be a bit off the beaten tourism path and a little out of one’s comfort zone from a modesty perspective, but I’d call it an absolute must (especially if a boulder has rolled onto your ankle during your trip). The Blue Lagoon is also a must. Less authentic and more expensive than a public pool, it’s nonetheless an incredible experience: a luxurious spa with a huge pool of hot, milky blue-white water ringed by moss-covered rocks, ethereal fog, and icy raindrops slicing through the air. Drinking champagne while relaxing amongst the lava rocks? It’s how I would imagine a spa on the moon.
I could go on for another twenty paragraphs about how much I enjoyed my time in Iceland. It’s a place of unparalleled beauty and wonder–where else on earth can you experience so many geographic marvels in such a small area? It also makes you say things like unparalleled beauty and wonder with complete sincerity. The landscape is so lovely that it goes being aesthetics and straight into emotional territory. Its beauty moves me, inspires me, and makes me long to return. I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be spending a few days there on the way back from another trip later this year, and I have a feeling that it will be like coming home.