Day 5, July 10:
Our last night spent under the sun.
We fly home around 8:30 tonight and have the morning and afternoon to log in the last few hundred kilometres of our rental. Since we’re already in the area, we decide to spend our final hours following the pack for Iceland’s most popular tour: The Golden Circle. Self-guided of course.
After bypassing it twice, we finally choose to explore Reykjavik for the afternoon. As a retirement gift, my mom received over $250 from her friends to buy something special. She hopes that today she’ll at last use this money for a woolly sweater.
Having toured Iceland previously back in 2014, I confined myself only to Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. I’m curious to see what has changed and what hasn’t the second time around.
After eating breakfast, we head towards the first stop – Geysir. It’s the most popular hot spring and thermal area in the country beneath the summit of Bjarnarfell.
The park is dotted with pools of various colours and mineral mounds. The ground below has been rumbling for thousands of years, shifting according to periods of geological outbursts.
As we stay to the footpath, the basins emit tiny bubbles, like a simmering cooking pot. Steam trickles out, blending with the grey clouds above. The park reminds me of the “badlands” from a fantasy movie set. The hero cautiously sets foot into enemy territory, awaiting the evil sorcerer to rise from the smoke below.
Out of all the geysers, the two most well-known are Geysir and Strokkur. The strikingly big and bright blue one is Geysir. It used to be active in its heyday, although the 2008 earthquake may have set things in motion. When something strong enough sets Geysir off, it shoots as high as 70-80m.
The feistier of the two is Strokkur, also known as the Churn. Every 4-5 minutes, this pool boils over and shoots up a spout as high as 30m. I get my phone ready and recording in anticipation of capturing the explosive moment. Before Strokkur erupts, you can see a dome forming in the water, signifying what’s coming next. So how does this eruptive phenomenon occur?
I read that active geysers come from a heat source – likely magma – near the earth’s surface. The heat from the rocks would boil the water. Meltwater from surrounding glaciers also seeps through lava rock, traveling underground. There’s also a reservoir for flowing water to gather, with a vent above for water to escape. My mom explains that the bursts of water result from trapped gases below finally being released. It’s like opening a bottle of pop and hearing the fizz coming out.
After watching Strokkur erupt about four times, we slowly walk back to the car, taking pictures of smaller basins around us. There are Blesi’s twin pools, one completely opaque blue – just like the nature baths, we basked in two days prior. The other two, Fata and Litli Geysir, will occasionally make a slight splash. Streaks of yellow, brown and copper on the ground encircle the steaming bodies of water.
While they appear enticing to touch – contact would be overstimulating – literally. A sign on the pathway warns tourists of average water temperatures hotter than the boiling point at about 125° C. A quick dip of the hand will result in severe scalding.
And if that message alone isn’t clear enough, the sign also reads: “The nearest hospital is 60 km away.”
To keep on schedule, my mom and I continue to Gullfoss about a 10-minute drive east of Geysir. Here, the wind picks up considerably. It’s time to bust out the hat and both my warm and waterproof jackets.
The power of the falls intensifies with each descending step. The thundering sound of waves pounds into my eardrums. I remember feeling the same sensations when I stood here five years ago. This time around it’s gustier and cloudier, enhancing Gullfoss’ terrifying beauty. When my mom and I reach the bottom to take pictures, we’re nearly blown backward, our lenses filling with dew, our hands and faces caked with cold mist.
This must be what Niagara Falls’ Maid of the Mist is like. I’ve never done it, despite living two hours away. Instead, I get to experience something more mesmerizing in a distant country – five hours away on a plane.
The name Gullfoss likely comes from its golden tint from the evening sun shining onto the water. Another theory is when a farmer named Gýgur had plenty of gold and couldn’t bear the thought someone else possessing it once he died. Therefore, he put the gold in a coffer and threw it into the waterfall (hence, “Golden Falls”).
Gullfoss would not look the way it currently does, had it not been for a woman named Sigríður Tómasdóttir. The daughter of an estate owner, she fought to prevent the construction of a proposed hydroelectric dam in the 1920s. Although the project was approved, public sentiment inspired by Sigríður was so strong that it was never built. Gullfoss was dedicated to the Icelandic Nature Conservation Council, and Sigríður is often considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.
Around noon, we check out the gift shop before heading to Reykjavik. My mom hopes that here she could succeed in tasting some delicious Icelandic milk chocolate. Sadly, like the hot dogs, she encounters disappointment. In fact, the bar is too waxy to even consume.
While on the road my Icelandic road trip playlist comes to a near end – overplaying all the Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men. I end it with a bang and blast Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song.
About an hour later, the traffic picks up as we enter through Reykjavik’s outskirts. My mom points out – something I hadn’t noticed until now – that this is the first traffic light we’ve encountered in Iceland. Otherwise, there are roundabouts at every kilometre to control traffic. Us North American suburbanites are also curious by the absence of stop signs here.
In order to find the city centre, we save the city’s legendary church, Hallgrímskirkja as our destination. Designed by our friend Guðjón Samúelsson – whose work we saw in Akureyri – the structure is inspired by the shapes of lava after it cools to rock.
We have about four hours to explore the city before heading to the airport. I notice how the city is even more bustling than during my previous visit. Unsurprisingly, the demographic now gravitates to more tourists than locals. More often I hear similar and different accents and languages from a myriad of places. Here, I see first-hand how Iceland’s tourism has exploded faster than a volcano.
We stop first into a tiny store of the Handknitting Association of Iceland – the place to go for woolly sweaters. After half an hour of trying on sweaters, piling the no’s on a stool and me holding our jackets and cameras, my mom settles on two favourites. However, she throws caution to the wind and needs a bit of time to think it over. I consider trying one myself, despite the hefty cost. However, I’m deterred from its scratchy sensation and my available luggage space.
Instead, I lean towards a more essential souvenir I often get from my travels – coffee. After a warm fish stew for lunch, I stop and grab my much-needed beans from the corner café called Reykjavik Roasters. My mom snaps a picture of me in this significant moment as I exit the café with coffee in tow.
As we stroll towards the waterfront, I notice some similar sights. There’s the same Icelandic café where I had my first meal beside the church. The same mini pine trees align the main drag, wondering if the hostel I stayed in still exists.
I’m especially amused to pass by one restaurant in particular. The place stood out to me because its specialty is just beer and soup in a bread bowl. That’s all you need during those cold, dark nights.
Construction appears to overtake the city’s waterfront. It makes veering onto main roads while finding the boardwalk especially tricky. Perhaps I didn’t pay attention last time, but today I notice the imposing presence of high-rise condos in this area.
Imagine having a balcony on the top floor, facing the mountains in the distance. Although my balcony has a stunning view of the CN Tower, I’m still envious. I figured this would come at a much higher price.
We snap pictures of Reykjavik’s Viking ship sculpture – much like the one in Akureyri only bigger, and busier. I wait until groups of children finish climbing the sails before getting a shot of it alone.
By this point it is 3:30 and we have one hour left to walk back, including one final stop at the knitting shop. On the way, we admire the vibrant and inventive wall art on the side of shops and buildings. It was one of many things we missed out on seeing time-wise, including the infamous Phallological Museum.
Somehow, my mom finds the two sweaters she tried on before – and moment of truth. After much deliberation, she brings her selection to the counter. I follow in tow, with a smaller woolly souvenir – a pair of gloves. We exit the shop with our purchases, and it’s time to make our way to the airport.
It’s a straightforward hour drive south to Keflavik in rush hour period (equivalent to a steady flow of traffic here instead of gridlock). In a stressful moment, we nearly miss a left turn but stay on track to return the vehicle on time.
During our drive, I look out the window towards the coast, seeing the ocean we’ll be flying over, heading home. I notice the cottages and villages along the water and imagined what it’d be like to live there too. When you’re attached to a distant place, you feel inclined to picture a life there, should the future acquiesce such imagination. I know I’m not ready to go back home, and momentarily wish I could stay forever. Bring our loved ones here to be with us instead. Move to a small town in the fjords and drive around the country together.
I know I will miss the enthralling mountains and waterfalls, and all of Iceland’s most curious natural oddities: geysers, hot water, cold water, and midnight suns. It will be hard to leave the fresh chilly air and go back to stuffy summer heat. The cacophonous sounds of the city – car horns, subway rails, loud voices – will be unwelcome compared to the serenity of birds and sheep calling, and waves crashing on the harbour.
I’ll even miss the dinky white car we drove in for over 1000 km in five days (although I can’t quite say the same for my mom).
We drop off the car in time and take the shuttle back to the airport. After clearing security we buy some take-home Einstöks from the duty-free and enjoy one last pint on Icelandic soil. Not realizing it was another 20-minute walk to our gate, we make a run for it and make it right when boarding begins.
As I take one last look through the plane’s window upon takeoff, I focus on the benefits of returning home to ease the pain of departure. After five days, nightfall returns, illuminated by city lights. The humidity hits us like a brick wall upon leaving the airport. It’s Toronto all over again and not Iceland. But it welcomes us back with open and very warm arms.
Despite my constant urge for adventure on the road and longing to escape, I’ll always be firmly rooted in the comforts of home.