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The highlights of Icelandic nature in just one day

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Viktória is the “new girl” – here at What’s On and in Iceland. She comes from Hungary, studies Viking Stuff at the University and loves photography, so we’re sending her on ALL the tours to get a fresh perspective on what they’re like. As the old Icelandic saying goes “perceptive is the eye of the visitor.”

Photos by Á Viktória Jávorszky.

The Essential Iceland tour is supposedly just that, everything you need to see in Iceland in one handy tour. They take you to historical sites, you see some geothermal activity, hot and cold (a hot spring and a lava field that’s already cooled down), some caves, and of course, some waterfalls. Since I had already been on several tours by this point, I had already covered about 50% of this tour’s destinations in other trips I’d had. You might think it would be boring, seeing the same places again and again, but think again! As the seasons change, nature changes as well, sometimes drastically. That may be the biggest advantage of staying in Iceland longer than just a few days, you get to witness those changes and see every aspect of the country. Sometimes you may be travelling through an area bursting with vibrant autumn colours, only to revisit it a couple of days later to find everything covered in a blanket of snow and ice.

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The Jeep!

We had to get up early for the pickup as the tour takes a whole day and soon found ourselves standing outside waiting to lay eyes on our vehicle for the day. I was in a sleepy state of mind, watching some minibuses pass by, but I perked right up when I saw the jeep. It was a Defender, my favorite kind of vehicle for driving through the occasionally rough terrain of Icelandic nature. Every one of the tour vehicles has a different kind of atmosphere and while the Defender may not be the most luxurious-looking car available,  it’s my favorite nonetheless. Somehow it feels more in harmony with the terrain that it drives through, a bit rough, a bit mundane, and very, very badass.

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The Hot Spring!

Our driver’s name was Þór, and the first thing he did was tell us we would not be following our itinerary, which started with Þingvellir. There turned out to be a simple reason for the change of plans, winter in Iceland. The days are getting shorter and the drive to Þingvellir takes such a short time that it would still be twilight by the time we got there. Instead of trying to see Þingvellir in the dark we just started at the other end of the schedule and worked our way back. That meant we started with an hour’s drive towards Borgarnes where we stopped briefly to get coffee and food for the day. After a short stop there we got back in the car and drove to Deildartunguhver, the highest-flow hot spring in Europe. The hot spring area turned out to be rather small but all the more active. There were even signs indicating that you shouldn’t get too close if you don’t want to risk getting seriously injured. It was so hot indeed, that even when standing some distance away the steam rising from the springs was still very warm when it reached us. It was a cosy start to our trip because we didn’t even feel the chill of the morning for a few moments.

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The Waterfalls!

Although Deildartunguhver is impressive, there is not much else to see in the area around it (very unusual in Iceland, usually you can’t take a step without seeing at least five natural wonders) so we soon continued our way to Hraunfossar. Like so many words in Icelandic, it sounds impressive and unique but is actually a very simple description of the waterfalls in question. It literally means ‘lava waterfalls’ because the river flows through lava fields, underground, and surfaces only at the waterfalls. Despite the name being so unimaginative, the falls are an impressive sight, one I have wanted to see for a while now. The water comes cascading from underneath the lava field over red cliffs worn smooth by the constant onslaught of water. As if that’s not enough, just a few minutes walk further is the Barnafoss waterfall (meaning Children’s waterfall, but not in a nice way; they have signs there were you can read about the sad origins of the name), a boiling cauldron of white frothing water coming down with awe-inspiring force.

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The Cave!

Going from lava and water to just plain lava, we drove away from the waterfalls towards Víðgelmir, a lava tube in private ownership. The landowner allows tourists to go into the cave but only to the first room as that is the only one that can be visited with relative ease. Relative ease, however, are not the words I would use to describe the five minute walk to the mouth of the cave in sleet and strong wind. By the time we got to the entrance, we were so happy that we were out of the wind and the icy rain that the long and steep steps didn’t bother us at all. After clambering down the steps, what lay ahead of us was even more climbing over the huge chunks of lava stones into the cave. It was actually a lot of fun, although it turns out it’s not the best place to try and take pictures (not due to lack of trying on my part). After descending into the cave, we were warned by Þór that we should not touch the walls of the cave as the crystal-like rock formations can be quite fragile and are irreplaceable. While we were there Þór also told us stories about the place and the volcanic activity in Iceland in general, so our trip down Víðgelmir was informative as well as entertaining.

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The Rainbow!

After running to the car through the rain, we continued our way towards Langjökull but stopped for a lunch break at a very scenic waterfall, Lambárfoss. The wind and rain forced us to stay in the car, which wasn’t ideal, but Iceland didn’t let us down. The rain just meant that we saw some beautifully clear rainbows instead. I hereby officially suggest we rename this place Rainbow Island. Sounds a lot more warm and fuzzy than Iceland, does it not?

Highlights of Icelandic nature

The Glacier!

After our lunch, we drove on to the Langjökull glacier (the long glacier. Because the glacier is long. I told you they were unimaginative). I had been to the glacier before with my Golden circle tour but this time we were at the other end. It was rather cold up there and the glacier was covered in snow. It wasn’t too deep, just enough for me to not fall on my face like the last time I was there. Since it was very cold and very windy we only had a short stop on the glacier before continuing our trip to Þingvellir.

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The National Park!

Þingvellir is THE national park to go to if you visit Iceland. It’s also one of the attractions of the Golden Circle, as well as some other tours, since it’s such a convenient distance from Reykjavík. If you have enough time I recommend you go see Öxarárfoss, a waterfall that requires a detour from the ‘short route’ popular with Golden Circle tours. Otherwise, start at the Silfra fissure, then walk over to the Öxará river. From there you go to the site of the Icelandic Parliament (which by the way is the most ancient parliament in the world, founded in 930). After that, you can walk past the church of Þingvellir and a couple of steps further you can climb some steps to see some very peculiar lava formations which a lot of people miss, along with a great view of the park. From there you can climb up to the top and look over all of the national park and lake Þingvallavatn.

I’ve been there three times now, in different weather and slightly different seasons and every time it has felt like a completely new experience.

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The End!

After a long walk through Þingvellir and its numerous sights, we were on our way home after a long day, exhausted but happy. The day was definitely a success, the destinations were breathtaking and our guide was very good at putting the people in the group at ease. Þór was quick with a joke and the group responded well to it so the day had been filled with laughter. If you have only one day in Iceland and want to make the most of it, this tour is extremely well suited, all of the highlights of what Iceland has to offer in one day.

Photos by Ágnes Viktória Jávorszky

Want to take the Essential Iceland tour yourself?