Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is the youngest country geologically speaking. It began forming about 25 million years ago via a series of volcanic eruptions on the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is small in the geological timescale given the oldest rock on earth is known to be more than 4 billion years old!
Interestingly, it is the only country in the Arctic with no indigenous peoples. Of the more than 40 Arctic Indigenous Peoples, the Inuit are the most widespread. They occupy areas in Russia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, but there are no evidences of the Inuits or other indigenous groups settling in Iceland (arctic-council.org).
Iceland’s inhabitants mostly come from northern Europe. It has an extremely homogenous population that are mostly descendants of the Celts and Scandinavians. However, recent years have seen an increase in the immigrant population from about 1.7% in 1994 to nearly 15% in 2022. This rise in the immigrant population is primarily driven by job shortage due to increased economic activity in the country. Filipinos are the third largest major group of immigrants to Iceland following the Poles and Lithuanians. Overall, this country has a very low population of about 350,000, roughly 60% of which resides in or nearby the capital, Reykjavik (statice.is).
About 80% of Iceland is uninhabited, which makes it an incredible island for exploring natural wonders. Hopefully, we humans will let it stay this way for many more years to come. We’ve already ruined a significant portion of our planet’s forests and oceans, and it is our responsibility to conserve as much as possible of our remaining natural resources.
My husband and I went on the 7-day Highlights of the Ring Road tour in Iceland by Nordic Visitor the first week of July. If you’re not aiming for the northern lights, July is definitely the best month to go. This is summer in Iceland, with a temperature averaging 55 F (13 C). We highly recommend this trip as long as you are ready for a fast-paced adventure with new people. There were 12 other people with us on the tour; three were from Australia, and the rest were from different parts of the US. We were all ready for the week-long adventure and enjoyed hearing about local life, folk tales, culture, and history from our tour guide, of course in addition to the geographical wonders. There is plenty to see in this country, and every stop we made was a breath-taking view. Here are the three major things that I loved the most about Iceland:
1. You get to experience completely different kinds of terrain in one place!
When I first looked at our itinerary, there were quite a few stops to view waterfalls, and I was concerned I may get tired of seeing so many. It turned out they were all very different from each other, and I enjoyed seeing them all! It’s astonishing how you don’t have to travel too far to experience a completely different landscape in Iceland, from farmland to glaciers to volcanic craters. It was like visiting geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, volcanic craters in Hawaii, and glaciers in Alaska, but all in one island!
Photo from left to right: Meg and Mark in Mt. Haleakalā in Maui, HI; Happy and Silly the Elephants in Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, AK; Silly watching the Beehive Geyser erupt in Yellowstone National Park, WY. All in three geographically isolated islands in the US.
Below you will see photos of the different terrain we’ve experienced in Iceland.
Rocky mountains are everywhere in Iceland! We made our first tour stop at Þingvellir National Park, the parliament site of Iceland from year 930 through 1798 before it moved to a building in Reykjavík. The tall rocky background reminded us of Mordor from Lord of the Rings.
Iceland has over 200 named waterfalls and an estimated of 10,000 total waterfalls. My favorite of those we visited is called Svartifoss, meaning "black falls" in Icelandic (lower right most in the photo gallery above). It is a beautiful waterfall that cascades over a dark basalt cliff. You'll need to hike for about 30 minutes from the Skaftafell National Park Visitor Center to get to this site. It was worth the hike for me and Mark, even though it was a challenge for us! We stopped for a water break and drank from the clear stream coming from the glacial water.
This country would not exist without volcanic activity. One of the locals showed us photos and videos of a volcanic eruption near the Reykjavik airport just a few months ago. It seems scary to be close to a lava flow but the photos certainly look impressive. The landscape is constantly evolving, and we were in awe of the lava fields in Myvatn area in northern Iceland, with arches created by lava flows 2300 years ago. We also hiked around volcanic craters and entered a lava cave with water that used to be suitable for bathing, until it got just a bit too hot a few years ago. Now, at least you can still dip your hand in briefly!
Geysers (spelled geysirs in Icelandic, from the old Norse geysa meaning "to gush") and hot springs
Strokkur Geyser in southwestern Iceland, part of the Golden Circle, is one of the most famous geysers in Iceland that erupts roughly every 10 minutes. I captured this geyser in action on our stop there and you can see how high the water shoots up.
The amphibious boat tour onto the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is an unforgettable experience. We learned about its formation around 1935 due to the increasing temperature and melting of ice caps, and got to hold ice that has been frozen for centuries. We also learned that the darker icebergs in the area contain volcanic ash.
Black sand beaches
It was at this stunning Reynisfjara beach (top three and bottom left pictures) where I lost my sunglasses - they were blown away by the strong wind! Fortunately, they were cheap. The volcanic sand, smooth pebbles, and astounding rock formation sets this beach apart from any other beach in the world. Another popular beach is the Diamond beach (lower middle and right photos) which takes its name from the glittering fragments of icebergs in the volcanic sand. Larger chunks wash ashore, and when the tide recedes, they are left behind looking like large abstract sculptures.
The green landscape of Iceland is turning purple (see left image) because of the invasive flowering plant, Alaskan lupine or purple nootka. While they look beautiful, this species has been impacting Iceland's biodiversity, impeding the growth of mosses and other native plants. The middle photo shows me and Mark on a colorful bouncy trampoline set up in an open field where children play. We saw this same style of public trampoline in a few playgrounds across Iceland. Another lovely sight in fields throughout the country is the prevalence of grazing sheep and horses.
Aside from the natural scenery, the city streets and buildings in major cities in Iceland are also noteworthy. We stepped into the famous Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (upper right) which is the only penis museum in the world, with over 200 specimens. One of the tour stops was at the town of Akureyri, capital of the north (lower middle and right photos) where we got to visit a local art museum and the Hof Cultural Center (lower middle photo).
Iceland also boasts beautiful lagoons, most notably the Blue Lagoon and Sky Lagoon. A perfect way to end a tiring journey! We picked the Sky Lagoon as our tour finale and absolutely loved the experience.
The water temperature in this geothermal spa was around 100 F (40 C) and there were plenty of spots to enjoy a drink or two from the swim-up bar and relax. This lagoon features an infinity pool that overlooks the north Atlantic sea. It was such dramatic scenery and I felt even tinier with the vast ocean, tall rocks, and high clear sky surrounding us. We opted for the full 7-step Icelandic spa ritual. It began with relaxing in the lagoon, and then a brief cold plunge, followed by a dry sauna and a cooling fog-mist. We then applied a sea-salt based body scrub, which dissolved in the steam room! Finally, after a quick shower, we headed back to the lagoon. I must admit the dry sauna at 170 F and steam room at 95% humidity were perhaps a bit too much for us, so we only stayed there for a brief time. If we stayed any longer, we might have ended up cooked medium-rare! Coming out, we felt those conditions were quite enough to eliminate numerous toxins and bad microbes from our bodies. It was overall a rejuvenating experience!
2. You get to meet one of nature’s cutest birds!
I have always found puffins to be one of the cutest birds. They even kiss their mates in a unique way! When we first arrived in Reykjavik, my husband and I decided not to buy a stuffed puffin until we get to see a real one in person. I wasn’t feeling very hopeful about this after missing out on seeing moose in both Michigan and Alaska. But with our local tour guide who knew exactly where to spot puffins, we were able to meet them on the third day of our tour!
Being geologically so young, the fauna diversity in Iceland is very low. The only native mammal in this country is the Arctic fox, which is not easy to spot. Iceland’s wildlife mostly consists of farm animals brought by early settlers, as well as birds and marine animals who migrated themselves. Fortunately for puffin fans, this includes about 60% of the world’s puffin population! We heard some locals describe them as tiny penguins due to their coloration. They are not close relatives of penguins, and unlike penguins, puffins can fly! We were impressed to see them quickly take off from the cliff and speed out to sea, wings flapping. These birds can be found in coastal cliffs or offshore islands where they breed and nest in burrows or rock crevices.
Another interesting bird species we saw on the tour is the Arctic Tern (above right photo), famous for being the longest migrating animal in the world. They travel from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica annually with a roundtrip distance of more than 40,000 miles. They are small birds but can get very ornery if you get closer to them, especially during their breeding season in the summer time. Our tour guide told us how, as a young boy, him and his friends would slowly approach their area, and wait for the birds to swoop down at them! The trick is to hold a stick over your head - Arctic Terns generally aim for the highest point of an invader.
3. The eco-friendly and sustainability aspect of the country.
Last but not least, I loved the energy efficiency and sustainability of Iceland! Owing to its rich water and geothermal resources, it is almost 100% fully powered by renewable energy (73% hydropower and 27% geothermal power). Luckily, these are resources that one cannot extract and exploit in the global market!
Above photos show hydropower and geothermal power facilities in Iceland.
We’ve seen several electric charging stations throughout our trip, and we noticed all of the taxis we rode in were electric vehicles. Another sustainable feature of the city is the green roofs that you can find in many farm houses and on one of the hotels we stayed at, the Magma Hotel in South Iceland (middle and right photos). These green roofs provide natural insulation and serves as a sustainable rain drainage solution.
In terms of food, we saw several greenhouses where locals grow produce. I certainly enjoyed the fresh tomatoes and potatoes served during our tour. One more thing you will notice driving through Iceland: domestic sheep, horses, and cows roam across the hills and graze freely! They don’t really have any competition for grazing, and the farmers round them up when needed. No wonder the dairy products we had there also tasted great! The butter served with bread and jelly, the Skyr Icelandic yogurt, the ice cream (always a favorite among locals, and we enjoyed one with licorice chocolate), and the cheese were all world-class. Happy livestock yields tasty food, for sure. For fishes, the most popular to try in Iceland are char, trout, and cod.
Iceland being a land of ice and fire will not be able to sustain itself ecologically and economically without the ice. At the current rate of global warming that we are experiencing, some researchers predict that Iceland’s glaciers will completely disappear by 2300 (earthsky.org). We are fortunate to be in this period where we still get to enjoy the beauty of nature. However, we should also keep in mind that whatever actions we choose to take now can have a dramatic impact to our future generations. It is never too late to make a positive difference!