We had such an amazing day yesterday.
We woke up to beautiful sunshine and packed our bags for our Golden Circle day trip. The Golden Circle is a sort of standard first-time-in-Iceland tour that takes you away from the coast to the country’s interior, through landscapes that show off some of the best that Iceland has to offer: waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and valleys cracked in two by shifting tectonic plates.
Our route took us through snowy mountain passes, across the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and then through farmland to the thundering Gullfoss waterfall. We stopped for lunch near Geysir, the grandfather of all geysers, and then we drove through the incredible Thingvellir National Park, a historic site with spectacular views.
Along the way we stopped periodically to snap photos of volcanic mountains and extra waterfalls, and to pet shaggy Icelandic ponies by the side of the road.
Our group was small and our guide was extremely knowledgeable, both about the natural and geological phenomena around us and the history of the country.
One of the most striking things about Iceland for me is the lack of large trees. Since the mid-century, our guide explained, locals have been planting millions of trees, hoping to grow enough to eventually produce their own lumber.
But much of the landscape we travelled through yesterday was only recently (as in, since the last ice age) covered in lava, and doesn’t have enough top soil to support large plant growth. For now, moss is the only plant that can take hold there, since it doesn’t have to grow deep roots like trees.
Over time, the moss will decompose and sand and dirt will blow into the area and it will become fertile for small, scrubby Icelandic birch trees, and, potentially, other plants, our guide said. But that won’t happen within any of our lifetimes.
It’s because of this slow, fragile growth, our guide said, that locals are so protective of moss. It could take 50 or more years for a rock to become covered in moss, and if a tourist steps on it and kills it in one go, it sets the natural process back dramatically.
“Icelanders, in general, are mild mannered people,” he told us. “But if you want to see one get really angry really quick, step on a moss-covered rock.”
The result of all this is a series of stunning, almost alien landscapes completely void of big trees. And at the edge of these moss-covered stretches: mountains.
Iceland is actually an extension of an underwater mountain range formed at the edge of two tectonic plates, and everything here has been formed by volcanoes and earthquakes.
The geysers spout 100 degree Celsius water heated by underground lava (Strokkur, the most active geyser we saw, shoots this sulphuric water up to ten metres into the air every five to ten minutes).
Lava also heats the hot springs that provide electricity and heating for most Icelanders. The hot water in the taps smells of sulphur and is heated by volcanoes, while the cold water comes from glaciers.
The very word Reykjavik comes from the volcano-powered steam. The name translates to “smoky bay,” our guide said, a reference to the vapour rising off the plentiful hot springs in the area.
Perhaps the most striking part of our tour was Thingvellir park.
Ringed by volcanoes and home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, the park straddles the line between the tectonic plates. In the heart is a deep rift valley, filled with black pumice covered in moss.
The tectonic plates move apart at an average of two centimetres a year, our guide told us, but this doesn’t mean they gently separate. Rather, they tend to violently pull apart in an earthquake every few decades or even centuries, moving metres at a time.
This has left jagged cliffs on either side of the valley, and rocks striped with waving horizontal lines, revealing the tides of lava that poured out to form the ground beneath your feet.
We had about an hour to wander the park and walk up to the rock where historians believe Iceland’s first parliament of chieftains used to meet every summer to set laws for the regions around the island.
To get there, we crossed a bridge over some of the clearest, purest water I’ve ever seen. In fact, our guide said, the location is popular with scuba divers who enjoy views of up to 100 metres through the water.
To demonstrate, our guide dropped a coin over the edge of a bridge (after clarifying that it was, indeed, legal to do so) and we watched it spin down to the bottom for nearly 30 seconds.
Both Dario and I dozed on the bus trip back to the city, exhausted by the fresh air and wealth of information we’d inhaled over the course of the eight-hour tour.
We came back to freshen up and then headed out for dinner.
Because the prices are so crazy here we agreed to splurge on one nice dinner out and cook for ourselves the other nights, and last night we made good on our promise. We ate at a cosy gastropub near the centre of the city, indulging in some local beer and a really delicious meal of lobster soup and duck salad, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and slices of blood orange.
Today is our last full day of this trip and we’ve rented a car for some adventuring outside the city. It is sunny and gorgeous outside. The kind of day that makes you feel so happy to be alive.