They call it „the land of ice and fire” for a reason. There are not so many places in the world where you can experience the contrast of the two in such a magnitude and concurrence. I like to think of it as of some other planet. Don’t bother dreaming of going through the space, just visit Iceland and you will get the idea how the other worlds could look like.
You can visit this tiny piece of land in the Northern Atlantic as many times you want and it will never be the same but will never cease to surprise too. Iceland has many faces. It can become inhospitable with winds reaching 200km/h, sandstorms, volcano eruptions, long and cold winters. On the other hand, it can charm you with the most beautiful show on the sky during the longest nights, casting Aurora Borealis as the main actress. It can pop up all the colours on a cloudy moody day, introduce you to puffins and whales and even catch you by surprise with some cloudless sunny days. Believe me, you are everything but prepared for the sun if you travel there.
This trip was special for many different reasons, which I will bring to you one by one. It left me so many times speechless that writing this article was quite difficult because it required putting so many breathtaking moments into words. I truly hope I will manage to bring it to you the way I lived it, both with photos and words.
But let’s start with some basics to introduce this small but amazing European country:
Country name: Iceland (Ísland in Icelandic)
Capital (and the largest city): Reykjavík
Population (2019): 358,780
Official language: Icelandic (English is widely spoken too)
Currency: Icelandic króna (ISK)
When to go?
High season: June – August
Shoulder: May, September
Low season: October – April
High season offers you endless daylight, all of the interior mountain roads open and much more possibilities for hiking. On the other hand, prices reach their peak and number of tourists too. You should know that Iceland became one of the top touristic destinations in 2010 so be prepared for some crowds. Shoulder offers a bit colder weather but still plenty of cloudless days and lower prices. Low season weather can be tricky and many of the interior roads are closed. Days also become shorter, but that is a good thing if you want to see the Northern Lights.
We visited Iceland first week of April, where days are quite long, but still leave a possibility to see Northern Lights during the night (if you are lucky because Aurora season is at its end in this period).
- Iceland is eco-friendly country with 85% of its primary energy supply coming from renewable sources (Geothermal 65%, hydropower 20%). Almost 100% of country’s electricity production comes from renewable energy.
- Unlike the other Nordic countries, Iceland kept its traditional name system. This system is not based on family names but on father’s (patronymic) or mother’s (matronymic) first name with suffix -son or –dóttir (daughter). It can sometimes cause complications when travelling because family members have different surnames. For example, a boy and a girl from the same father named Magnus will have surnames Magnusson and Magnusdóttir respectively. First names, not previously used, must be approved by Icelandic Naming Committee.
- Iceland is the only NATO member with no standing army. In 1949 Iceland joined NATO without standing army and on the condition that it would not be expected to establish one.
- There are no mosquitoes on Iceland. Although some species live on Greenland, Iceland’s variable winters with temperature drops and rises are inconvenient for their breeding.
- Hákarl (rotten shark in English) is a national dish. Shark meat is fermented in a particular process and hang to dry for four – five months. It has ammonia rich and fishy taste. If you are brave enough, give it a try.
Booking an organised trip was a whole new experience for us. Nevertheless, we decided to give it a try because we wanted to relax a bit and just be taken care of instead of being in charge of everything. Having followed Italian photographer Stefano Tiozzo on many journeys through his amusing documentaries, we were thrilled to find out that he was organising a trip to Iceland. And not just a regular trip, a photo trekking trip! It sounded almost too good to be true. It was planned as a 7-day-photo-trekking along the Iceland’s southwest coast, along the the Golden Circle and further east. Backpacks fully packed with water-and wind-resistant clothes, photo camera and action cam ready, adventure spirit awaken, and we were heading to Frankfurt to catch our flight to Reykjavik where we should meet the tour guide Stefano and the rest of the group. Eleven people in total, including both guide and drivers. Ten Italians and one Montenegrin. The adventure could now begin!
I will put chronologically the highlights of the trip for you to easier distinguish what may and what may not be interesting for you to visit or add/remove from your wish-list. Survival guide with a short summary can be found at the bottom of the page.
Day 1: Peninsula Snaefellsness
Two 4WD Land Rover Defenders waited us next morning with Roberto and Andrea in front of the hotel and we headed to Snaefellsness. It’s a beautiful volcanic peninsula northwest from Reykjavik, and already at the beginning of the ride we took an underwater tunnel below the Hvalfjörður fjord. How cool is that? 🙂
The landscape was sprinkled with snow, which was quite unusual in April. Contrasting the white of the snow, black volcanic rocks emerging every here and there seemed even darker. We drove around Snaefellsjökull glacier under which rests a volcano, the gate for Jules Verne’s “Journey to the centre of Earth” and visited two beautiful small cities: Hellnar and Arnastrapi, where we could start the photographic sessions.
Both cities are located on cliffs, similar to famous Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, just darker. Strange weather conditions with rain and strong wind blows that freeze your fingertips and make you clean your camera lens every second didn’t discourage us. And how could they? We were standing on moody black cliffs, with volcano-glacier in the background, wind spreading the truly missed smell of the sea and a lot of seagulls balancing along the wind currents above our heads. Their shrieks were music to my ears at that moment. On the other side you could notice the sun rays passing through the clouds, illuminating the horizon above the disturbed sea. All that in vibrant colours of blue, green and yellow.
The journey continued to the famous Kirkjufell mountain, probably the most photographed mountain in Iceland due to its scenic location. It was interesting to learn that the mountain itself originates from the dynamic process of spreading and reduction of the glacier. The ice is moving the earth, often creating hills and mountains along the way. This scenic mountain was not only beautiful during the day, it was even more amazing during the night with Northern Lights activity above it. We were truly lucky to witness it.
April is not the perfect month for observing the Northern Lights and the activity we saw was probably just a weak representation of what you could see during the winter months but it was impressive. If you asked me how I felt at that moment, I couldn’t find a proper answer. Not even now. Although it’s a natural phenomenon, you feel like you are witnessing some kind of miracle. Green, purple and constantly changing in front of your eyes, hypnotising you with its colours and form that will never be the same. Each show is unique. Even weak one, like the one we saw that night was a lifetime memory.
Day 2: Starting the Golden Circle at Thingvellir national park
We left Snaefelsness Peninsula in the morning to start the Golden Circle route, a very well-known touristic road along the southwest coast. First stop was Thingvellir national park, a place of great historical and geological importance. Why both you may ask? The answer on the first goes back to the 10th century, particularly year 930, when the first European Parliament was established at this very place. The name itself means “Assembly Plains” and the Alþing general assembly continued to convene there until 1798. It played a great role in the history of the country, and not just the political one, but also a social one. People from all parts of Iceland used to gather there during the two weeks of the assembly in temporary cottages, exchange their goods and follow the assembly members.
A legislation from 1928 declared Thingvellir as a national park, the first one in Iceland, to both protect the historical and geological site. The national park was decreed:
“a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged.”
Why geological site? The answer laid in front of our eyes there. The Mid-Atlantic ridge emerges to the surface in front of our eyes. It is the very line where American and European tectonic plates collide, making the area seismically active and creating visible cracks or faults which traverse the landscape. Basically, while driving through Iceland, you can be at one point on the American tectonic plate and some minutes later on the European one. Said enough, the landscape is so incredible that was inspiration for many paintings.
We visited three sites and started by the Almannagjá ravine, covered with snow and seeming soft. We could admire a panoramic view of the lake Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. You can go diving in the summer season here and explore Sifra Fissure through incredibly clear though cold water (2 degrees in May).
The next stop was the famous Geysir Strokkur, the most reliable in the world. It erupts every 5-10 minutes, blowing the pillars of water and steam up to 20m in the air. We had a small photo session on shooting the “boob-looking” moment of eruption.
It was also incredible to witness more than one eruption that happens in just several seconds.
The treat of the day was Gullfoss waterfall with its incredible staircase look, reminding of miniature Niagara falls. Snowy and icy scenery was magical. This waterfall was a private property in 20th century and under discussion for electricity production. Fortunately, it has been sold later to the state of Iceland and declared a protected area.
Now you can enjoy it’s powerful sound while walking around and discovering its many levels and strange ice formations all around it during the colder months.
Day 3: Seljandsfoss, Skogafoss and Dyrholay
Hringvegur is a ring street embracing the whole island. We joined it on our way to the first waterfall of the day, the beautiful Seljandsfoss. But first we stopped to have a closer look at Icelandic horses, a very unique kind. They are smaller and more fluffy than regular horses and capable of withstanding harsh long winters. A breed has very few diseases on Iceland and that is why it’s protected by law from import/export. Once a horse leaves the country it is not allowed to return anymore. We shared a moment of (mutual) appreciation 🙂
Seljandsfoss is one of the most famous waterfalls on Iceland. I will give you two reasons why. First one is that it seems like it appears from nowhere. There is a street and a cliff you drive around, with small creeks appearing here and there, and then after one curve – a whole big waterfall. You have to stop and take a closer look. As you start approaching the waterfall, you will notice a small passage leading behind it. As you can imagine, one can even walk behind and get a different perspective. I’ve seen so many photos of this waterfall and it is not like those instagram places that look better on photos than live, it is absolutely worth a visit. Some of the best photos of the sunset were made from the behind this waterfall. We couldn’t walk behind because it was completely frozen and unapproachable but we could admire its beauty from the front, entertained by a photo session of a woman in Indian “sari”, somehow not having cold. (Teach me master, how?).
A short walk further and you can see a crack in the cliff that works as a passage to another waterfall. In some waterproof boots you can walk through the narrow opening and be amazed again by the hidden gems of Iceland.
Next stop was Skogafoss waterfall. It is much bigger than Seljandsfoss, integrated in the surrounding rocks as if they had opened their arms wide and let the water fall through. Being used to moody scenes of this place, sunny day with cloudless sky above it took me by surprise. Snowy at the top, icy at the bottom and with two rainbows in front of it, this waterfall seemed more like oil on canvas than a real scenery. You can also hike up the nearby rocks and see it from above (or more from the side) but I preferred to remain humble sometimes and be reminded how small and fragile we are in front of the nature’s powers. Where better than in front of the power of water, especially when you can observe it so closely but still safely. After having quite some fun by making photos in front of it and putting our whole equipment under water resistance test, we proceeded our ride to Vík and a charming Dyrholay promontory.
Before reaching Dyrhlay, we had a stop at Hvolsvelli glacier tongue, the first one to see so close (like first two wonders were not enough). The sun was shining and the ice was reflecting in different colours and forms. I didn’t have a tele lens to capture the real close-up, but photos can show it at least a bit. We even witnessed some TV-series shooting set on the glacier.
It was afternoon and almost sunset time as we started ascending to the hill where Dyrholay lighthouse watches over the horizon. On the way up, stacks of Vík and wide black coast stretch in both directions. Snow made it even more particular with white stripes hiding the true width of the black sand beach.
You should never be disappointed with the weather conditions, especially it you are a nature lover. Every one of them has something new and unique to offer, weather we find it beautiful or not. For me, personally, the true beauty hides in imperfections because exactly those make it stand out of ordinary.
We descended from the hill to a lagoon with the most peculiar reflection ever. I was so excited about it that I managed to forget my whole backpack on the coast and we had to return to get it. 😅 Luckily, it was there where I left it and intact.
Iceland is a very safe place in terms of crime rate. In smaller villages and cities people don’t even lock their house doors. I envy them a bit for that kind of freedom to be honest.
Another night session of Aurora Borealis, this time on black beach and much more intense and dynamic than the first night. If I was amazed the first time, here I was speechless. There was no cold for me, no wind, nothing but a starry sky, raven black sand under my feet, couple of ships, a lighthouse and the northern light. I don’t know if I could handle the happiness overload in high season for Aurora when this one moved me so much.
Day 4: Reynisfjara, Eldhraun, Skaftafell, Vatnajökull
Starting at Reynisfjara beach, getting a chance to enjoy its beauty during the day this time. The sea was calm so we could walk around and explore a beautiful cave, all decorated by blocks of lava getting cold and forming unusual pillar-like structures. You can probably recognise it from the movie “Noah”.
We hit the road again along Hringvegur and could observe an immense desolate landscape, formed when the great glaciers of southern Iceland melt. That’s how we reached Eldhraun lava field, which stretches over 560 square kilometres. Its lunar-like surface is covered by moss. And not just any moss, but I will come back to that.
As a young volcanic island, Iceland does not have a lot of vegetation. Around 5500 types of wild plants is still much lower number than in other countries as the climate doesn’t allow much variety. You will notice that there are almost no trees around the country. The disappearance of the trees dates back to Vikings that used them for their ships and for heating. Forestation is in progress right now but it will take quite some time to recover the forests.
Moss, or Mosi in Icelandic, grows all over the country. Something like 600 different types of this beautiful but resilient plant are observed throughout the island. Moss can grow in difficult environments and tolerate temperatures up to -30°C.
This type of moss is very delicate and it’s strictly forbidden to walk over it. Please respect the rules when in this region. Stepping on it or leaning on it can leave a “footprint” that will take 30-40 years to disappear and plant to fully recover.
In the summer, this field thrives with radiant green colour. We found it grey and lunar like, intercepted by the white of the snow, but not less impressive.
Following the circular street again, which stretches along Iceland’s perimeter, we reached Skaftafell national park. After a small hike, we could see a desolated desert-like landscape on one side, and a lonely alluring waterfall on the other side. It was Svartifoss. Volcanic rock formations surrounding this lonely waterfall seemed unreal, as if they were carefully cut and constructed by someone to make the waterfall seem even more dramatic. During these two days, “wow” became my most common word. How to avoid that when it seemed that we were jumping from one planet to another? So much landscape diversity in such a small space.
Next stop was a glacier tongue of the biggest glacier in Europe – Vatnajökull. Tongues are the smallest branches of glaciers, which are not static but rather dynamic. Some natural formations come out of their constant process of expanding and reducing such as hills, mountains, lakes etc.
Considering that, this glacier tongue seemed anyway impressive enough, making it hard to even imagine the size of the whole glacier. Vatnajökull you can only see from the plane as whole. Standing in front of it, smaller than poppy grains, my head still had some difficulties to understand that it’s not snow but ice. The whole mountain of pure thick ice was smiling to my littleness in all shades of blue and white and it was astonishing.
Day 5: Hoffelsjökull, Jökulsarlòn glacier, Glacier lagoon
Starting the day at Hoffelsjökull glacier tongue where we could enjoy a lovely sunny morning and compete who will make a crack in the ice with the stone (like kids, I know, but aren’t we all still kids?). You can visit many glacier tongues but they are nothing alike. Every one of them has its own history, his own formation story and the beauty to charm you with.
This was a good preparation for what came next – visit to Jökulsarlòn glacier and Anaconda ice cave. We had a very witty local guide – Ragnar. Someone who grew up with the glacier and its changes over the last 30 years. A middle-aged man with sun kissed skin and piercing blue eyes, casually dressed in wool sweater, possibly thinking of us as pussies in 3000 layers on a cold but sunny day. Ragnar showed us couple of “Game of Thrones” filming locations. If it hadn’t been sunny, you could have almost believed that “White Walkers” live there and are about to attack you any minute. He also explained us the dangers of driving or hiking over the glacier. You wouldn’t believe how some innocent surfaces can be dangerous and life-threatening. An experienced guide is necessary to prevent such situations.
We entered Anaconda ice cave on one of the last possible days of visit. There, many amazing tunnels in the ice get completely flooded over the summer. The water keeps the existing tunnels, expands them or even creates the new ones. This is why visiting an ice cave is an unique experience. The same ice cave may be completely different the following year, or not be there at all. Due to the global warming, the duration of these caves has reduced. It leaves quite an impression on you when you get that kind of worrying information from a local who witnesses it every day, observing every little change which eventually leads to the disappearance of the cave.
At the sunset we returned to Jökulsarlòn lagoon to capture some pink sky above icebergs entering the ocean.
Day 6: Jökulsarlòn lagoon, Vík, Cayon near Storamork
What can be a better start of the day than visiting the most famous and most spectacular beach on Iceland? Some of you will say a cup of coffee and I can totally agree but just wait to see the photos before saying the coffee again.
Black-sand beach dotted with blocks of ice in the most disparate shapes and sizes. It looks like someone dropped diamonds all over the place.
Sunrise is the most spectacular time of the day for photos but you won’t be disappointed at any time. Big and small icebergs come from the Jökulsarlòn lagoon, navigate slowly to the ocean, just to be pushed back to the shore by the Atlantic waves. Interesting fact is that this lagoon was closed for Hollywood film set on one occasion and it froze completely for several days. It was for one of the James Bond movies (don’t ask me which one because I am not sure – it should involve scene with Aston Martin cars) and one of the cars involved in the scene apparently still sleeps at the bottom of the lagoon..
We started driving back direction west and stopped at Vík for a panoramic view of this cute little city that fits in one photo. Some beautiful landscapes were observed on the way.
I told you at the beginning that you can be everything but prepared for the sun when you visit Iceland. Luckily, Iceland was very kind to us regarding the weather. None of us expected so many sunny days and possibility to visit all those places without weather obstacles. Having fulfilled our program for the day before the predicted time, one surprise activity was organised and it involved visiting a hidden waterfall in the depths of Skaftafell national park. We put out equipment and our shoes through a real challenge there of going through the water, climbing the canyon parts by holding for a rope etc. In the end, we admired this magical place with our hearts full and our feet dry.
Day 7: Peninsula Reykjanes, Reykjavik
On the last day of this trip we visited Peninsula Reykjanes, which hosts the most varied geothermal areas of the south of the country. We learned a lot about the ice part in the previous days and the time came to learn something about the fire. Krysuvík is a geothermal area where steamy landscape gave a glimpse of what’s going on under the earth’s crust. It is a strange but at the same time interesting landscape. I guess because of so many colours. The soil was in all shades of red, striped with purple and yellow at some points. All of that contrasting the blue of the water coming out on the surface. Yellow traces come from sulphur, which you can smell very well when around geysers. We proceeded further towards Reykjavik and stopped for a short visit around an industrial zone where thermal plant peaks from the clouds of steam over the red soil.
Some would say that this part is the most boring of all but I found it very interesting and different, especially because of the strange colours and “passive” activity happening in every moment below your feet.
We spent the afternoon in Reykjavik where I managed to buy two books (yey!) and enjoy the lovely colourful houses, interesting cafés and lava-pillar-shaped church. The city is very cute but it cannot compete with nature which surrounds it.
We went for the best pizza in town (remember, I was with an Italian group) and summarised this incredible journey. It wouldn’t be the same without the great people we got a chance to meet and spend time with, hopefully in future too.
That is why I have to dedicate few words to them and thank Stefano for the incredible organisation, photography workshop integrated in the daily activities and most interesting information told with such an enthusiasm. Thank you for letting us learn from you, not just about photography but also about Iceland and its interesting formation history.
Thanks to Roberto and Andrea for being the best drivers, the most patient listeners and answer-providers to every single question during the whole journey. Thanks for letting us eat in the car 🙂
Last but not the least, group “Supplemento Kiul” (Sabrina, Marco, Roberto, Francesca, Michele, Alessandra and Alessandro) for making this trip unforgettable. I truly hope we will get a chance to travel together again.
In the end I couldn’t describe it as I wished. It wouldn’t be possible even in my mother tongue. Not even photos are enough in this case. This is the one you have to go and see with your own eyes. Breathe the fresh air from a cliff above the rough sea, let your feet get soaked in the black sand, put some spikes on your shoes and climb that glacier or just put some warm clothes and enjoy an endless beauty of the northern lights.
As I was flying home from Reykjavik, watching the glacier from above, I knew that I had left a piece of my heart on Iceland and that I would come back for sure to find it.
What to pack?
- Backpack instead of big luggage (I cannot repeat that enough times) with the rain cover 🙂
- Good walking/hiking waterproof shoes.
In winter months some warmer shoes are necessary. Feet and hands are parts that get cold easily and you don’t want them to be like that the whole day.
- Jacket – water and windproof
- Rain trousers
You should dress in layers because weather can and will be unpredictable. Accent on the water- and windproof clothes, which should keep you dry and warm during the storms or heavy showers. Avoid cotton clothes during the day if possible because they lose their insulation properties when wet and take too long to dry.
- Gloves, hat etc.
- Photo camera and its accessories (make sure your daypack has a rain cover too)
- Sunglasses (reflections on the white glacier surface can be tough without the glasses)
- Basic medication (painkillers, your regular medicines), first-aid kit
- Headlamp or torch
- Swimsuit (if you are into hot springs)
- Plastic bags to separate dry and wet clothes
- Proper navigation tools if you go on your own (maps, GPS)
- Camping gear
It is possible to rent it in Reykjavik but prices are not cheap at all. Do bring your own if you can.
- Good mood and readiness to be amazed
How to organise a trip?
You should decide which route you want to take based on the period of the year and activities you plan to do such as hiking, wildlife watching, cycling, scuba diving, hot springs etc . As I said, some central roads are closed in winter but Ring road is open all year, apart from the extreme weather conditions when it can become dangerous: wind storms, thunderstorms, snow etc.
www.vegagerdin.is – actual information about the road closures
www.vedur.is – weather forecasts
You can rent a car and explore on your own. Make sure you take some bigger car like SUV or 4WD if you want to go off-road or visit some places a bit further away from the main street because roads can be unpaved and with the small car you may be in trouble.
There is a possibility to get the route and a car organised by agency and then you go into exploration on your own. Based on your start and end location, tour can be customised for you. If you are looking for a recommendation, don’t be shy to write me.
You can book many guesthouses around the island, some of which are also registered on booking.com or you can camp in many camping places along the road.
Remember, it is not just the Ring road that you should visit. The best places are on the small detours.
Just writing this makes me want to go again and explore more. So please be kind and do share your experience and photos with me until my next trip there.