Viewing: Iceland

Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

Since Marlon and I started our Iceland trip with a hot soak, it seemed only appropriate to end it with another one. For our last hurrah in Iceland, we splurged on a trip to the famous Blue Lagoon. Being just 20 minutes from the airport made it the perfect thing to do before catching our flight home.

Blue Lagoon entrance

What most travelers say about the Blue Lagoon is that it’s a) touristy, but also that it’s b) something you must do anyway. I would agree. For €40 per head just to soak in the geothermal pools, it’s not cheap. (Treatments at its award-winning medical spa go up to €160 per head. Ouch.)

However, the genius of the Blue Lagoon is that floating around in 37-39℃ water relaxes you and wipes your memory clean in record time; pretty soon you forget about what you paid for and you can hardly work up enough willpower to get stressed about… how much was it again?

Blue Lagoon view

If you go in on the basic package like we did—a soak, a locker and a towel—there’s still plenty to keep you occupied. For starters, finding a corner of the pool with just the right temperature and not so many people will take some doing. We spent quite a bit of time swimming away from people with very loud voices (hulaan n’yo kung saang bansa sila galing) to maximize the whole relaxation experience. There’s also a waterfall, steam bath and sauna if you want to change things up a bit.

Since your body is submerged in therapeutic waters, your face should enjoy a bit of therapy too. This is the reason for the boxes of silica mud distributed around the pool. Just scoop some up and slather it on your face for some natural deep cleansing and exfoliation.

Marlon and his silica mask

After about 10-15 minutes, the mud hardens and cracks. Then you know it’s time to wash it off.

Silica mud mask Blue Lagoon

After showering and dressing, we had lunch at the Blue Lagoon’s Lava Restaurant, which serves a la carte meals and a light seafood and sushi buffet.

Blue Lagoon Lava restaurant

Then it was a quick visit to the view deck for some pictures. I was surprised to find a Blue Lagoon employee stationed at the view deck, whose sole duty seemed to be to make pleasant conversation with guests and take their pictures. How thoughtful!

Marlon and I at the Blue Lagoon

All in all, we spent about three hours at the Blue Lagoon—just enough time to turn us into legless blobs very relaxed travelers who practically drifted into the plane. Definitely a great way to end a fantastic trip!


Walking around Reykjavik, especially on its main shopping street of Laugavegur, it’s impossible to miss the arresting white monolith that thrusts into the sky like a gleaming dagger. This is Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.

Hallgrimskirkja front

In stark contrast to downtown Reykjavik, where most buildings are colorful, blocky and low to the ground, Hallgrimskirkja seizes attention with its modern starkness, expansive arms and defiant height. Designed in 1937, completed in 1986 and refurbished in 2009, it is timeless—something out of a fantasy or science fiction novel. It could be Tolkien’s Isengard, or maybe the church where a chubby little Kryptonian could have been christened Kal-el.

Leif Ericsson statue at Hallgrimskirkja

In front stands a statue of Leif Ericson, the Icelandic explorer who was the first European to land in North America. Leif’s father, Erik the Red, was a Viking outlaw who was exiled from both Norway and Iceland, and eventually discovered Greenland.

Hallgrimskirkja up close

Behind its imposing facade, Hallgrimskirkja is all serenity and simplicity.

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Reykjavik: Color me charmed

Iceland is a small island with a small population: exactly 320,044 people as of June 30, 2012, in fact.

Icelandic population

A running count of the population at the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavik

So it makes sense that Reykjavik, its biggest city, is a capital with a charming, small-town feel—kind of like Amsterdam (pop. 800,000). Although two-thirds of the Icelandic population lives in and around Reykjavik, many head to the countryside during the summer to work in tourism. (One such Reykjavik resident was our Zodiac boat captain, whom you met in a previous post.)

Still, Reykjavik felt far from empty during our visit. That’s because this city is packed—with style, creativity, and color. Just check out these houses in downtown Reykjavik!

Neon house Reykjavik

Neon. Love!

One striking similarity I found between Reykjavik and Manila: the use of corrugated iron (a.k.a. GI or galvanized iron) sheets as a building material.

Turquoise and green Reykjavik

In Reykjavik, the choice is dictated by the harsh weather; back home it’s simply a matter of economics… which makes our GI homes look totally third world quite different. How I wish Manila could pull off this look!

Bright blue house Reykjavik

That similarity aside, the pristine white trim, clean lines and enamel house numbers give Reykjavik homes that distinct Scandinavian vibe.

House and numbers

In addition to the houses, much of the color in downtown Reykjavik comes from street art, which is everywhere.

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Iceland: Fun with glaciers (Part 2)

Allow me to continue with my list of fun things you can do with glaciers in Iceland. So far, we’ve covered walking on, drinking from, and finding wildlife on a glacier. Here’s a couple of things you can do with a glacier’s many smaller offspring: those glistening, floating chunks of fun called icebergs.

4) Drift among them. When the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull receded from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, it left behind a lagoon known as Jökulsárlón, now the deepest lake in Iceland. (You may recognize it from A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider or Batman Begins.) Floating in this lagoon are chunks of ice that have broken off the glacier, and you can take a boat cruise to find yourself bobbing alongside them.

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Marlon and I chose to take an hour-long Zodiac boat tour, which includes floatation suits and life jackets. The smaller size of the boat allows a more intimate group, and enables you to weave in and out of the icebergs more easily.

Jokulsarlon_Zodiac boat

That way, you enjoy a chance to get up close and personal to some truly impressive creations of nature.

Jokulsarlon boat cruise captain

Uh, I meant the icebergs.

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Iceland: Fun with glaciers (Part 1)

A little over 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and it’s impossible to miss them. Sticking their tongues out at us from various vantage points on the Ring road (they really are called glacier tongues, by the way), glaciers beckoned with the promise of fun, adventure and great photos.


It was my first time to ever see a glacier, so I could hardly resist its call. As I soon discovered, there are many fun things you can do with glaciers in Iceland, such as:

1) Walk on a glacier.  As a decidedly non-athletic person of a nationality that hates walking, this to me is the pinnacle of all the things I could conceivably do involving a glacier. Skaftafell, the gateway to the Vatnajökull National Park, seemed like the perfect place to give glacier walking a try. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier outside of the polar regions, but that wasn’t very relevant to me; I mean, I wasn’t about to walk the entire thing. Instead, Marlon and I signed up for a 2.5-hour easy glacier hike with Glacier Guides—a 1-2 out of 5 on the difficulty scale, which seemed just about my speed.

For 6,900 ISK (47.50 EUR or 58 USD), Glacier Guides outfitted us with an ice pick, hiking shoes (because mine were not very sensible)…

Glacier walk_pick and shoes

… and crampons, metal contraptions that you step into and strap onto your feet for traction on the ice.

Glacier walk_crampons

Our Icelandic guide Jon (which must be the most common name in Iceland) took us in this big yellow bus…

Glacier walk_bus

… to a point where we started a 20-minute hike over sandy, shifting and rocky terrain towards the Faljökull glacier. I felt like such a wuss, because I fell several times during the hike, not to mention huffed and puffed so hard on my short legs that I felt like I was going to die. This was really not a good look, especially when everyone else seemed to be taking to this terrain like young mountain goats.

Glacier walk_hike to the glacier

The only thing that kept me going was how embarrassing it would be to bow out of the glacier walk… before the glacier walk actually started! It later turned out that there was a very good reason I struggled with this hike, which I will share later on.

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On the road in Iceland

Driving in Iceland is an experience in itself. Although Marlon and I kept pretty much to the Ring road (which encircles the entire island), the drive was no less stunning as the destinations themselves. Iceland’s weather and scenery changed so frequently, it seemed we would find ourselves in a different country (even a different planet) in a matter of miles and minutes.

Take, for example, our first fifteen minutes out of Reykjavik: a bleak, driving rain…

Out of Reykjavik

… which, in another fifteen minutes (before I had time to get thoroughly dismayed), gave way to green pastures dappled with sun, dotted with yellow flowers, and populated by some of Iceland’s most famed inhabitants.

Icelandic horse2

Oh, hai.

Icelandic horses are fascinating creatures: brought to Iceland by the first settlers in the 9th-10th centuries, they’ve seen little inter-breeding and are the only breed of horse on the island. No other horse is allowed to enter the country and once a horse leaves, it can never come back (sniff). They look small, graceful and gentle but are reputed to be long-lived and sturdy (to withstand these ever-changing conditions, they must be!).

Icelandic horse

We saw many, many Icelandic horses on the road. I especially loved it when they would stop to look at us when we got out of the car to take their photos, and when they would walk right alongside the car while being led back to their farms after a day of riding or grazing.

The other equally abundant form of wildlife on the road in Iceland?

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Iceland: Sun, sea & black sand

It was overcast and chilly on the first two days of our Iceland road trip. When the sun finally broke through, it transformed everything—it almost seemed like we were in a different country! The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as we found ourselves at the southern coast, near the headlands of Dyrholaey.

It was a day at the seaside unlike any I’d ever had, with crashing waves pounding at black, volcanic rocks…

Sea near Dyrholaey

… that would, over thousands of years, turn into miles and miles of this fine black sand.

Reynisfjara black sand beach

Iceland often seemed like it was so many different countries in one, and it wasn’t just because of the sunshine. If you looked back from the volcanic beach landscape, you would see these mountains carpeted with green and yellow. Yo-de-ley-hee-ho!

Inland from Reynisfjara

The coast near Dyrholaey and Vik is also known for being home to one of Iceland’s most famous critters: the puffin.

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Chasing waterfalls in Iceland

Waterfalls are everywhere in Iceland. I lost count of how many we saw while driving on the Ring road, which encircles the entire island. Every now and then we would see mist rising out of a crevice in a hill, or a fine spray of lacy droplets cascading from a source concealed by low, gray clouds. If Marlon and I had stopped for all of them (as we were tempted to do!) we might have never gotten back to Reykjavik after just four days.

We did get down and out of the car for the big ones, though. Seljalandsfoss was one of them.


The unique thing about this foss (Icelandic for waterfall) is the footpath that takes you behind the water.

Seljalandsfoss behind the falls

Warning: you will be soaked…

Seljalandsfoss leaving the footpath

… but you will also leave happy, and with some great pictures (if you’ve planned ahead to protect your camera). Really, to stay dry is to miss the point!

Seljalandsfoss-Marlon and I

Just a few minutes away is Skogafoss, one of the largest falls in Iceland.

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Iceland: The Golden Circle

Iceland’s most-visited sights are known collectively as the Golden Circle, a loop of three popular natural landmarks within 45 minutes to an hour’s drive out of Reykjavik. The Golden Circle was our first drive out of the capital, on our first day, and it was a great teaser of what to expect for the rest of our four days on the road.

Our first stop, however, technically wasn’t on the Golden Circle, but on the way and worth a quick look. Kerið is a crater that was formed by the inward collapse of an underground magma chamber (magma! Flashback to third-grade science!). More notably, Kerið is the venue of a yearly concert by Bjork, where she performs on rafts set afloat on the lake. Awesomeness.


Our next stop was the Þingvellir National Park, the site where the first Icelandic Parliament, or Alþingi, was founded in 930.

Thingvellir and the Icelandic flag

Þingvellir is big—we didn’t cover all of it, but pretty much decided to park the car at a random spot and walk from there. Most of what we saw was a massive wall of rock that stretched far longer than what we could see.


Part of this wall included the Lögberg, or Law Rock, the main gathering place of early Icelandic parliament, chosen because all the chieftains could reach it by some overland route or another. This natural formation of rock also looks seriously impressive, like a place of power should. From Lögberg, the view of the surrounding landscape made it all too easy to picture these powerful chieftains of old coming from all over Iceland, riding across the landscape to converge at the rock… like the Riders of Rohan galloping across the plains in Lord of the Rings. Goosebumps.

View from Thingvellir

Another spot that lent itself to powerful imagery was a waterfall and pool called Drekkingarhylur, where the Law Council carried out ritual executions by drowning… particularly of women. Eighteen women were known to have been executed here from 1618 to 1749.

Drekkingarhylur, the drowning pool

Of course, if you want plain and simple natural beauty without the history, there’s lots of that too—from long scenic walks…

Thingvellir walk

… to the first of many waterfalls dotting the Icelandic countryside.

Waterfall at Thingvellir

Þingvellir is also famous for being the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet… and are drifting apart ever so slowly. Parts of the ridge are sectioned off, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where continents are being torn apart. However, the many cracks and fissures in the earth are clear evidence of Mother Nature doing some heavy pushing and pulling.

Fissures at Thingvellir

From Þingvellir, it was on to Geysir, the first geyser ever recorded in printed material (and the source of the word “geyser”).

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Hot pot, Iceland style

I’m back! I’m sorry to have left everyone waiting for so long. Iceland and Kleine Fabriek (and a Madonna concert sandwiched in between!) left me far more exhausted than I expected. I took the week to unplug and rest, and it was good for me… it was what my body needed. But now I’m back with lots of Iceland stories and lots of good things to share. Your patience will be rewarded!

Before I left for Iceland, the weather forecast for Reykjavik seriously freaked me out.: 8℃ to 16℃ (colder than already-chilly Amsterdam) and raining all week. I was so not in the mood for cold and rain that I dragged Marlon into a long discussion of the pros and cons of canceling our trip and booking a last-minute escape to sunny Croatia.

In the end, we decided to go anyway, and I decided to calm myself by (over)packing for crappy weather. Among the contents of my suitcase: an umbrella, Timberland combat boots (my only “sensible”, quasi-outdoor shoes), Uniqlo Heattech tops, two wool sweaters, several pairs of wool socks, two wool scarves, a knit headband, fleece leggings, a raincoat and a wool peacoat. So, which of these many garments did I actually end up using within hours of my arrival in Reykjavik?

None of the above. The answer is… my bathing suit!

With an evening arrival in Reykjavik, Marlon and I had just about enough time and energy to check into our apartment, have dinner, and do one other thing. When we found out that Laugardalslaug, the largest geothermal swimming pool in Iceland, was just a 10-minute walk from our apartment, it became clear what that “one other thing” had to be.

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