Iceland had been always on my Bucket list of places to visit. But the thought of preparing for the trip had always been daunting. My partner and I finally decided to visit Iceland in December 2019. After spending ten days driving 2500kms around the country, I can honestly say there is no other destination as beautiful, charming, hostile, and diverse as Iceland.
To up the adventure quotient, we ditched the plan of taking standard tours and decided to do a self driven road trip. The entire island is connected by one single road- popularly called the Ring Road.
There's a popular saying in Iceland
If You Don’t Like the Weather in Iceland, Just Wait Five Minutes.
Unfortunately this goes both ways!
During this trip, we witnessed a complete range of weather. One minute the sun is shining and the ocean mist is hitting the face and minutes later, it's cold and grey.
Because of the high latitude, the days are extremely short during winters. Sunrise is around 11 AM and sunset between 3 and 4 PM. Having a window of 5 hours of sunlight, it was very difficult to capture the mesmerising beauty of Iceland in pictures. I am not sure if the pictures below do justice, but I leave that up to you to decide.
Having our car pre-booked, upon landing in Reykjavik, we headed straight to pick it up. To be able to drive on the snow-covered slippery roads, we chose a 4x4 SUV with studded winter tires.
Southern Iceland and the Golden Circle#
Southern Iceland is arguably the most popular region for tourists. This southern coastline boasts a little bit of everything, from beautiful beaches, thermal baths to breathtaking waterfalls.
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park which is also listed in the UNESCO world heritage sites. The amazing geology around the park stems from the fact that it’s sitting directly between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. What a better place to be in 2 continents at once!
The next stop was Kerid. A stunning volcanic crater that is 3,000-years old.
Geysir Hot Springs is an area with high geothermal activity. It has a live geyser that spouts water 30 meters (100 ft) into the air every few minutes.
30 minutes from Geysir is the mighty Gullfoss waterfall. As you can see in the picture, there is a pathway that takes the tourist up close to witness its might. But the winds that day were so strong and painfully chilling that we were barely able to stand on the viewing deck.
Traveling further south, we encounter the famous Plane Wreck. In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur.
Driving on the sand is prohibited so we had to walk 3km to reach this wreckage from our parking spot. Walking miles on the black and white (due to the frozen snow) barren land was quite a surreal experience. To skip past the tourists, we started the journey at 6 am in the morning. To our surprise, we were on the only ones at this spot!
Skógafoss is one of the biggest and most splendid waterfalls in the country tumbling down from a height of 60 meters. It was very difficult to keep the mist from depositing on the ND filter on my camera. Still, I was able to capture this long exposure shot. The mist and the sunlight were perfect to capture the rainbow too!
Going further down south, we come to the Reynisfjara black sand beach. Its beautiful black sand, powerful waves, and the nearby Reynisdrangar sea stacks make Reynisfjara a truly exclusive place to visit. The reason for the sand at Reynisfjara being black is that it is formed from heavily eroded volcanic rocks which are black. This is a popular filming location and has been captured in Game of thrones, Stars wars, and more.
For most, this is the last stop of southern Iceland and we could see many tourist vehicles traveling back to the Capital.
But we still had 3/4th of the country to cover!
Pushing onward to the ends of Southern Iceland we started to notice the landscape shifting, becoming more and more dramatic.
Alongside the road, there are many beautiful and friendly horses in fields, waiting to greet anyone who stops to say hi.
Our planned Itinerary involved Glacier hiking on the Vatnajokull, Europe's largest glacier. But just a day before, we got a message about the cancellation because of extremely bad weather. Although disheartened, we were very hopeful of what the next set of days had to offer.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is on the other end of the park. This glacier lagoon is a beautifully bright blue bay of icebergs and glacial water flowing from the glacier and making its way into the sea.
On the opposite end of the lagoon, is the most famous beach in Iceland, the Diamond Beach. Here, pieces of crystal clear icebergs from the nearby lagoon wash up on black sands and resemble diamonds. The contrast of crystal ice against the black sand beach is simply breathtaking.
As the Ring Road circled around the eastern coast, the landscape becomes wilder and emptier.
Journey to the North#
This was hands down, the most nerve-wracking part of the trip. The roads were dangerously slippery and fully covered with a thick layer of snow. Even thinking about it gives me jitters.
Thankfully we were able to get past the seemingly endless journey. The weather started to clear a bit and we could again see the geography changing. The geothermal activity near Námaskarð was pretty high. You could almost smell the sulphur in the air. The constant emission of the fumes has made the ground utterly sterile and acidic, unfit to sustain any floras and faunas. We saw many fumaroles with hot steam coming out of them 24x7.
After an arduous drive of 6 hours, we finally reached Mývatn Nature baths - a set of geothermally heated pools. Taking a bath in these hot pools with snow falling over our heads was a surreal experience.
Driving towards the western Peninsula#
The weather getting away from Northern Iceland was quite different. There was a blanket of snow stretching as far as eyes could see. Because the roads had just opened being blocked from four days, there was no one around.
If you were to ask me why Why we chose to drive around the crazy parts of North Iceland, a dangerous journey of about 800kms to reach western Iceland? It was mainly to visit the Majestic Hvítserkur.
Hvítserkur, otherwise known as the Troll of Northwest Iceland, is a 15 m tall basalt rock stack protruding from Húnaflói Bay. It resembles an elephant who is drinking water from the bay. The roads leading to this rock formation were closed due to heavy ice formation. We put on our gaiters and chose to climb down the rocks slope. To our surprise, there was no one here!
The pictures don’t do justice. A natural rock structure, protruding out from ocean. This was unimaginable.
Driving towards the western Snæfellsnes peninsula, we visited the famous Black church of Buðir. A church painted black in color standing alone with nothing around it but mountains.
The weather in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula region was quite normal compared to what we witnessed in the past week. Although because of the bad weather in other parts of the country, the skies were dull and grey for most of the day.
We finally reached Mount Kirkjufell or 'Church Mountain’. It is often called the most photographed mountain in Iceland, due to its dramatic formation and perfect coastal location.
Returning back to civilization#
In case you didn’t notice, we had covered almost 8 days without any mention of civilization and the normal city life. There were no architectural wonders to be in awe of, no feat of modern science to marvel for. It was purely pristine nature, untouched.
After covering the ring road and driving close to 2800kms, we reached back to capital city of Reykjavík on Christmas eve. The complete city was bathed with Christmas decorations. Local Icelanders in Reykjavik gathered together on Christmas eve at the Hallgrimskirkja church for the service. We sat in the church before the service to enjoyed the lovely organ music playing Christmas carols.
Northern Lights 🌌#
One of the prime reasons to visit Iceland was to witness the auroras dance in a place of such incredible natural beauty.
Every night in Iceland was an aurora chase - driving into the darkest of corners at 2 am 😅 Watching a beautiful aurora shower depends on a lot of factors. Clear skies and darkness being the main factors. Unfortunately on our trip to Iceland, the weather was pretty rough for the entire span of 10 days. We spent the day planning the best location to see the lights based on the predicted cloud cover, light pollution, and chances of snow. Fortunately, we were able to see the spectacular lights dancing through the clouds! Thrice!!
The nights were so windy that it was almost impossible to keep the camera still on the tripod. Poor guy fell twice which resulted in a broken LCD corner - a memorable memento. Although the resulting pictures are blurry, the memories are still crystal sharp.
That’s it! If you have made so far in this photo essay, thanks a lot! This was my first attempt in writing one and I could relive every moment.
I will leave you with some interesting quirks about Iceland.
- Iceland is much greener compared to neighbor Greenland.
- Iceland is also called Land of Fire and Ice.
- Iceland provides 87% of its demand for hot water and heat with geothermal energy. Every place we stayed in was centrally heated with running hot water 24x7.
- You can witness the Midnight Sun in summer months.