Iceland Part 4: Of Hotpots and Glaciers

This is the 4th (and final!) part of my Iceland trip summary. If you've missed the first or second or third part of our Iceland trip you might want to read those first.

I left of with us heading back into the wild after restocking groceries in Akureyri.

We weren't going to see the sun for the next 36 hours so we decided we'd try and hit up any hotpots that we could on our way. Hotpots to Iceland are like Saunas to Finnland or pubs to Ireland. Everyone, every age gets together to soak in hot water pretty much every day. It started in natural pools where water gushes from the earth already the perfect temperature for a relaxing bath and now every town has a pool/hot tub and it's a huge part of everyday life. 

Once the sun disappeared and the possible outdoor activities dwindled down due to crazy winds and sideways rain, we found ourselves understanding the Icelanders love of hot water pools. It's a great way to enjoy the outdoors even when the northern weather doesn't want to cooperate.

We headed along the northern coast of the island through the rain and decided to try our luck at Grettislaug, a hot pot I'd read about in the hotpot guide book our rental company had loaned us.

We arrived at the little cafe and dock at what felt like the end of the world. It was right on the coast and the only thing separating the pool from the stormy waves was a rock storm wall. We were the only ones there when we arrived. Everything was shut down and it felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie.

I honestly did not feel like undressing and jumping in. I was cold in my winter coat... and it was a good 100 yards from the changing hut to the warm water. But just as we were thinking about turning around and heading on our way, a car full of Canadian tourists pulled up and they ran hooping and hollering around. Their excitement energized us and we decided we'd regret not jumping in.

I wore a stocking hat with my swimsuit and my winter coat over it as we ran to the water and plopped in as fast as possible. Another car pulled up and for a short time we felt like we were a part of the funniest little pool party — a couple Canadian guys, a Dutch couple, a frenchman, and us Americans. Somehow we learned all about their travels around Iceland and their political opinions about the US and I remember thinking "I will never forget this."

We stayed in the water as long as we could and then bundled back into the car and made our way to our campground for the night.

That night we could feel the wind rocking the van as we fell asleep. Our hanging lantern swayed from it's hook and running to the campground bathroom was necessary to keep from being blown over. That night and that storm were insane.

The morning brought no respite from the rain and that day we had planned to head into the West Fjords. We were halfway through driving around the first fjord (fjord — a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley) our van's clutch started giving out. We realized that each fjord would take 40-60 minutes and we had at least 6 more before we reached the first sight we were aiming for. At this point we decided it would be best to abort our west fjord plans. While this was the right decision, the next one we made was probably more questionable.

Iceland has rough, off roads called "F-roads" and while our van had 4 wheel drive and was technically rated for these F-roads, it also had tiny doughnut sized tires and we had already used our only spare tire. Anyway, for some reason we decided we'd risk heading through a pass we found on the map to the far side of the fjords were we could meet up with the main road and head back toward mainland Iceland. 

Oh, and the map showed that we'd have to ford 2 rivers, which we hadn't done yet and if we failed we'd end up with fines, not to mention we'd only seen one other car on the road all morning, so I'm sure we would have been stranded for hours before anyone could come get us. Though at this point we didn't have cell service, so I'm not even sure how we would have been able to call for help.

We did it anyway.

This is a shot of Dave crossing the first river. He made it, though he said he could feel some of the tires lifting off the riverbed and being pushed by the current. Also, while I was taking that picture, we forgot that the van was my ride and I was left stranded on the far side of the water. Even though I was wearing rubber boots, my feet weren't dry when I got to the other side.

The next river we crossed I stayed in the cab. 

Up until this point I would have said Grettislaug was the most at the end of the world I had felt. This jaunt through the pass was past the end of the world. We didn't see a single man-made sight except for the rough two track road for 2 hours.

We had the go pro mounted to the windshield for a while and I sped it up to give you an idea of what it was like:

When we finally saw the sheen of water on the other side of the pass and began the descent to the non-F road. The huge clump that had formed in my stomach finally began to loosen and I began breathing normal again.

The picture below is one of my absolute favorites from the trip. It's a farm that was the first sign of civilization after we emerged from the pass and it's amazing how relieved we were to see it. It sums up so much about that trip to me. The growth that I saw in myself — from scared to get out of the van to braving insane backroads and river crossings. It's one of the few pictures I took that might actually capture a piece of the beauty of the real life experience.

Anyway, the rest of the day we spent chasing the sun, albeit completely unsuccessfully. We did have a good stock of gummies and licorice (ew). 

We drove up the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss. This is one of the most commonly photographed places in Iceland, but we were there in such howling winds and horizontal rain that we only dared get a picture with our go pro. The other cameras didn't even make it out of the car.

At this point Dave was car sick from driving through fog and rain, so we made a plan to find a hotpot on our way to the campground and call it a day. We hadn't found any sun and we admitted our defeat.

And just like that, once we admitted defeat the day redeemed itself. We wanted to find Landbrotalaug, a cute little hot pot, I'd read about and were worried it'd be hard to find. Most of the paths to hot pots feel like you're trespassing and headed off to a dead end and then all of a sudden you actually find what you were looking for.

We found the hot pot in all it's 1 yard diameter of amazing perfect 103 degree water. We even got it all to ourselves since the larger pool in the area had attracted most of the other tourists. We felt like we'd hit the jackpot and couldn't believe it. I even jumped in first, though I half expected to find a dragon curled up at the bottom or no bottom at all and to fall into a deep dark crevice of the earth.

The water flowed out of the rock so quickly that any water we displaced, refilled within a mater of minutes. Just imagine sitting in a hole in the rock in perfectly heated water looking around at misty landscape. It was magical. We soaked it up for as long as possible.

When we were done, we passed the hot pot on to a couple of German girls who were just as excited to enjoy it as we had been.

We arrived in Borgarnes and made it in time to visit The Settlement Center before it closed. We hadn't been able to fulfill a single part of what we had planned that day, but in many ways that's exactly why it's such a memorable part of the trip. The museum was actually a perfect idea for the end of such a rainy day. It was extremely well done and a wonderful summary of the history of Iceland. We left with a better understanding of the amazing island.

We made dinner under a tarp in a sodden campground and went to sleep praying for the rain to end.

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We awoke to answered prayers and a free morning before our afternoon plans. I've written about that morning before here.

We drove leisurely toward the Langjökull glacier, took a walk through a beautiful birch forest, visited another museum, and saw two waterfalls, Hraunfossar and Barnafoss.

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We had an afternoon reservation with Into the Glacier, a tour of the largest glacier tunnel dug through the Langjökull Glacier.

Our previous day's adventure had emboldened us and we drove the F-road to the basecamp ourselves. It was stunning to approach the mountains and glacier at our own pace. The sun glinting off the snow and the dark lava stone created a beautiful contrast. Another fascinating part of the drive was to see the landscape formed by the receding glacier. It felt like young ground, freshly exposed.

The tour began with a transport up onto the glacier and we goofed off as we rode through the pristine white landscape.

First I couldn't believe we were standing on top of a glacier when we got out of the truck/tank/bus (it's actually a decommissioned and refitted nuclear head transporter).

But the surface was nothing compared to what it felt like once we walked down into the tunnel. Inside a whole other world awaited us. 

I'd never had a context for what a sad thing melting ice caps and glaciers are. Glaciers are powerful and amazing. It's heartbreaking to think we're loosing them.

The ice lit up with lights and the different layers of debris frozen into the ice surprised me. I expected it to be pretty and a great photo op, but I couldn't believe how deeply moved a felt by a bunch of ice. It was a new type of natural beauty I am grateful to have experienced.

We left the basecamp and headed south along another F-road, F550. Obviously we thought we could handle anything in our mini 4x4. This road probably took us quite a bit longer because it was so full of potholes. But on our left a mountain range reflected the setting sun and we watched snow storms up on the peaks.

Our plan was to camp at Þingvellir and we reached it just in time to explore at sunset. I don't even have any pictures because we were jogging around to see it all before it was too dark. 

Our last morning waking up in the camper was a hurried one as we packed things up in our suitcases and made sure everything was in good shape to turn in to the rental company.

But before we did that, we had one more adventure planned: snorkeling.

We'd decided to splurge on two more expensive experiences, one was the Glacier tour and the second was snorkeling between the American and European tectonic plates.

Silfra Snorkeling is not for the faint-hearted. The water was a frigid 34 degrees. We wore insulation suits under our dry suits and I couldn't even get into my dry suit and literally had two grown men holding my suit shaking me into it.

With all those layers I couldn't bend my elbows or knees properly. I have never felt more like a penguin in my life.

In such cold water there is no wildlife, but the visibility is insanely far. The water is actually melted glacier and filters through lava rock for decades, so it's deliciously clean.

Our gopro battery didn't actually last long in the cold, but Dave got some pretty good pictures before it died.

I loved this experience. My face and hands went numb quickly, and after that I just bobbed along taking in the amazing blue hues and the underwater perspective of the rocks.

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By the end of our dip in freezing water, we were invigorated and grateful. This marked the end of our camper van experience. We drove back to Reykjavik and turned in our trusty vehicle. 

The rest of the afternoon we spent exploring Reykjavik and wandering the streets. It was fun to return to the same place our trip had begun. It felt so different only 10 days later, probably because I learned and grown so much. 

Dave usually dislikes cities pretty vehemently, but even he loved ducking in and out of shops, wandering aimlessly and exploring anything that looked interesting.

The one thing Dave wanted as a souvenir was a watch and he had read about a certain shop, so we struck out to find it. The JS Watch Company was easy enough to find and once inside the most charming, cliché watch shopkeeper showed us his handiwork and Dave walked out with a beautiful one he still loves.

We met up with an old college friend and her family for dinner. They happened to be in Iceland for a long layover and it was so fun to see them and enjoy Icelandic Fish and Chips with them.

The next morning we walked to a bakery for some coffee and pastries as we reflected on our time. As we drove to the airport and enjoyed the last bits of Iceland that we could, we left with an overwhelming amount of gratitude for the opportunity to experience such a unique and incredible country. We already talk about going back and are having a hard time coming up with a country we want to visit next. Every time we talk about where to go next, we just say "Well, we could just go back to Iceland." I'd be surprised if it takes us very long to get back.