Monday, September 12, 2011

The Golden Circle

For our second day in Iceland, we embarked on the famous "Golden Circle" tour. This is the most popular day-long tour in Iceland and one almost every tourist who comes here goes on it.

But before we get to that...

Some notes on Reykjavik (pronounced rake-ya-vek) and Iceland in general. First, everyone here speaks English. Education through the college level is free so the country has 99.98% literacy rate and 60% hold university degrees. That means there are about 2 people in the country who can't read. Heh. The average Icelander graduates college able to speak 4 languages and English is taught to everyone in school from the age of 10 (the other languages they learn are Norwegian (or another Scandinavian language and usually German, plus Icelandic of course). The popularity of English makes it very easy to visit here; if you have a question you can just ask anyone, and all menus and stores have English translations. There are even more English books in the shops than Icelandic!

Second, the people here are very nice and also very good looking. They make them tall and gorgeous here and the kids have the blondest hair I have ever seen!
Third, the food is not as bad as you've heard. While restaurants bill fare such as puffin, whale, and putrefied shark (don't ask) as "traditional" Icelandic fare, it's more of a scam to get tourists in. As our tour guide put it, "you don't see Icelanders sitting down to that at dinner." They're traditional in that they were eaten a long time ago, when Iceland was almost a third world country, but these days, the food is as various as it is in the US. People here are crazy about Thai, Italian, and steakhouses, and the food is generally hearty with a lot of seafood (fishing is the number one industry here). For example, at lunch yesterday we had a typical Icelandic meal of delicious lamb stew with veggies and some rolls. The stew was yummy and hit the spot on a chilly (summer) day.

Ok, so back to the tour. After a quick stop at the bakery across the street from our apartment for some breakfast, we were picked up by the mini-bus (which seats about 18 people) and met our driven Odinn. He was about our age, very knowledgeable, and didn't mind my asking questions and us cracking jokes the entire time. In fact, if we come back, we'll probably get him to give us some private tours. After driving around the city and grabbing our other tour members (we had a full bus) we headed out into the countryside.

As I described previously, the land around the city and airport is basically all lava fields--covered in dense, porous black rock. But once we went further north, we drove through the highlands which reminded me a lot of Scotland. Green and brown mountains jut into the sky, but after about 30 minutes they gave way to the lowlands, where all of Iceland's farms are located.

Thousands of years ago, the lowlands were actually the ocean floor and there's a clear break from the highlands and the lowlands where you can see where the ancient coast was.
Iceland is the largest volcanic island in the world and has over 200 volcanoes, 10 of which are characterized as very active. It's also located on the continental divide between North America and Eurasia so it has a lot of seismic activity. Apparently every 100 years or so they experience an earthquake measuring about 9 on the Richter scale. But all the structures in the country are built to specifically withstand such a quake, and during the most recent earthquake the only injury was a broken toe.

In this picture you can really see the transition from the highlands to the lowlands, and can also see how the highlands were once the coastal cliffs!

The country is powered with geothermal power, where they drill into pockets of pressurized steam down deep in the earth. One geothermal station produces enough electricity to power the entire country and is so automated it only requires two people to run it. Based on this information I have decided Iceland is the perfect place to wait out the zombie apocalypse. It also experiences 21 hours of sunlight in the summer (it finally got dark here around 11 at night) and all the food is organic, free-range, and has no preservatives. It may be a bit more expensive, but it is yummy!

Our first stop on the tour was a volcanic crater, Kerid. It has a lake at the bottom and is actually an implosion crater, formed when the volcano expelled its magma and then collapsed as the empty chamber could not support the weight of the cone. It's quite impressive and has been the site of several concerts utilizing a floating stage on the lake at the bottom.

Just take a few steps back...a few more...a few more...oops, too far!

After the crater and a quick pit stop, we traveled to a waterfall whose name I cannot remember or even hope to spell or pronounce. While not as large as the second waterfall on the tour, this one was still lovely and has the first salmon steps built in Iceland. The river didn't have any natural salmon, but it was stocked for sports fishermen and salmon steps were built to help the salmon get up the falls to spawn.

Salmon steps! For the lazy-ass salmon who can't be bothered to swim up the waterfall. Honestly. What is the world coming to?

Once we had experienced a warm-up waterfall, we were ready for the real thing. The Gulfoss waterfall (translated to Golden Falls) is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland and is stunning. The falls have two main levels and the water falls into a crevice where it then winds its way down a canyon. If I remember our guide correctly, the falls, crevice, and canyon were formed during 5 days when a glacier quickly melted and then flooded the area; basically, the freezing water carved through the rock like a hot knife through butter. It's called the Golden Falls because when the sun hits the water at just the right angle the minerals in the water reflect and turn gold.

Soaking in the nature...

Our next stop (we had a lot of them, huh?) was to the spouting geysers! The largest is called Geysir and was actually the first geyser known to the western world. Turns out all the others are named after it. But it doesn't spout that often, so the real highlight is the geyser Strokkur which spouts every 3-7 minutes. This ended up being a lot more impressive than we were expecting, and Chris has said it was his favorite thing about Iceland. Right before the geyser pops, the water level starts to surge, more steam erupts, and a beautiful blue bubble appears which than spouts water up about 50 feet. Also around the geysers are bubbling pools and steam vents. All very cool in a geothermal kind of way.

Waiting for the geyser to pop...


Out last stop was at Thingvellir National Park which houses the continental divide between North America and Eurasia. Cliffs jut up on either side of a valley where the tectonic plates overlap. It also happens to the be the sight of the first parliament, where medieval clan leaders from Iceland would gather once a year to agree on common laws, hold their courts of justice, and deal out punishment. The cliff backdrop acted as a kind of amphitheater allowing for natural amplification of voices.

The continental divide; one side North America and one side Eurasia

Looking out over the National Park

From there it was back on the bus and back to Reykjavik! We got dropped off right outside our apartment and after a little time to drop off our stuff we walked to dinner at a place called Harry's, rated the number one restaurant in Reykjavik on the Trip Advisor website. It was pretty good, an Asian fusion place, with the main thing in its favor is that it was reasonably priced. Food in Iceland is very expensive, so finding a meal for under $20 (about 2500 kronar) is a pretty big accomplishment.

Coming up next: our Southern Spectacular tour in a super jeep where we go off-roading, touch a glacier, and see more waterfalls!

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