Europe, Iceland, Waterfalls

Finding Myself at 65°N – The Solo Icelandic Winter Adventure Day 2: Silfra Snorkeling, Wintry Waterfalls, and Snowy Streets of Borgarnes

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December 28th – Day 2… because I was still very new to this whole “darkness until midday” concept that is winter in Iceland, my alarm went off at a bright and cheery 6:30am.  I’m use to hotels in the U.S., which are bustling at such an hour, but it was dead quiet at Efstidalur.  I slowly woke up, heading down to the shower room to freshen up after a long day of travel.  I checked weather, I checked roads.  I organized my bags.  I surfed social media, as it was still a decent time back in Wyoming.  I prepaid my parking for Þingvellir online (700ISK).  I felt like I was the only person awake in the whole world.

I had a 10am snorkeling tour to catch at Silfra in Þingvellir, so I suppose I was up for good reason.  Finally 8am rolled around, which meant breakfast time.  I loaded up my arms with all my bags, and said goodbye to my cute little room, still the only one awake in the whole darn building.  Luckily outside I saw other humans that were awake, and I sighed a breathe of relief that I wasn’t the last person left alive.

Breakfast at Efstidalur was an amazing spread of local meats, cheeses, veggies, and homemade breads, jam, and even skyr!  I loaded up a plate with goodies, and grabbed some coffee, and enjoyed looking over into the cowshed to see the ladies get their breakfast.  The homemade skyr was to die for – so so so so amazingly good!  I wanted to steal the whole bowl of it!

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Homemade skyr with jam, local veggies and meats, hverabrauð (“hot spring bread” baked in the ground with geothermic heat), and the ever delicious Icelandic coffee
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The have a good sense of humor at Efstidalur!

By 8:20am I was on the road, headed towards Þingvellir.  My fears of driving Icelandic roads from the first day were gone, and I smiled as I drove along the narrow winding roads towards Laugarvatn and towards the park.  It was still completely dark by time I arrived at Þingvellir.

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The school in Laugarvatn was so pretty in its Christmas colors!

So snorkeling… I hate water.  I do not go into water over five feet deep, and I definitely do not put my face in water while swimming.  My fear of water is so big I cried on the ferry between Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords during my first trip to Iceland.  Yet here I was, signed up for a snorkeling tour of Silfra, a deep fissure between the diverging tectonic plates in Þingvellir (which are drifting apart at about 2cm a year).  YOLO, right?  I organized my gear and stuff my pockets full of some essentials, and headed out to the meeting spot for all the snorkeling tours just down the road from the “P5” parking lot.

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I love everything about this sign!

I booked my snorkeling tour with Tröll Expeditions after also booking a glacier hike tour with them for later in the trip.  I liked their small group sizes, and for the snorkeling they provide free GoPro photos, which not all tours do.  (I was not discounted or compensated to say kind words about Tröll, these are all my own opinions!)  I was immediately greeted by the cheery and awesome Xabi, who got me started on waivers before directing me to use the nearby bathrooms (it’d be a few hours in dry suits, and you definitely cannot pee in them!).  In my group there were several travelers from Hong Kong, and a couple from Las Vegas.  I loved having the couple from Las Vegas with me, as we readily made conversation and took photos of each other.

Xabi led us into the van, where we were given thermal onesies to put on, which would help keep us warm in the 34 degree water, and gave us dry bags to put our belongings in for safe keeping.  I wore thick wool socks, thin synthetic long johns, merino wool leggings, and a merino wool long sleeve baselayer under the onesie they provided.

After getting suited up in the thermal onesie, it was time to squeeze ourselves into our dry suits, which would keep us warm, dry, and afloat in the water.  It was pretty comical trying to get into it, mostly pulling it over my butt and hips.  Once the suits were on waist-high, the guides (who had now expanded to include Sarah and Cordelia) explained how to put our sleeves on without risking getting our onesies wet, and how to pull it over our heads.  I took this as a chance to make a joke about finally beting born since I was a C-section baby, which Sarah and Xabi loved and started repeating to others as they helped them get ready.  Finally we were zipped into the suits.  Next came bits of velcro to secure wrists and necks against invading water, and finally the head coverings.  By now I felt like an awkward bubble person with limited mobility.

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Getting all suited up!

The sun had started to creep up, and the mountains surrounding Þingvellir appeared.  We stood in the light rain, waiting for clearance from park rangers for our group to go (there’s multiple tour companies all vying for the same fissure).  As we waited the guides gave us a bit of history lesson on Þingvellir, and we jiggled around in our awkward suits trying to stay warm (the hardest part were our bare hands, and having no pockets to stick them in).  Xabi gave us tips on how to effectively swim with the flippers, and followed up with a map of the route we take.  He talked a lot about what would happen if you didn’t turn and instead continued out into Þingvallavatn, which is Iceland’s largest natural lake and one they do not allow boats in (a helicopter rescue is what happens, ha!).  Naturally, I then became convinced I’d be the one person that would manage to end up in the lake and started to stress!

Finally masks, snorkels, and flippers were doled out and we began the short walk over to Silfra and the entry platform.  By now we had morphed into a group of eleven, so Sarah and Xabi split us up.  I joined a couple from Switzerland and what appeared to be a father-son pair from the U.S. as the odd woman out with Sarah.  As we waited for our turn, we enthusiastically spit into our masks, which helps keep them from fogging (Sarah would take them down to the water and rinse the spit out before giving them back to us), and then we learned how to apply our flippers.

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Pre-snorkeling group photo! Our first take looked like a police line up, so Sarah encouraged us to look a bit more lively for the second photo!

Finally the time came, and we all trudged down to the platform, where we were instructed to take a drink of the pure glacial water before diving in.  One by one everyone in my group happily jumped in.  Then I froze.  Sarah urged me on but I just stood there shaking my head.  I asked if she could come hold my hand, and she continued to urge me in.  Finally I did what I was instructed, which was to put my face in the water and float on in, and then turn to my back.  Within a half of second of my face being in the water I felt at peace and comfortable, even though the water was well over five feet deep.  Woohoo!  Sarah told me I could stick close to her, but I ensured her that I knew how to swim and that I was okay, it was just the initial entry.  Soon we were on our way and the beautiful, clear sights laid before us.

Silfra blew my mind.  If it was up to me, I’d still be there, floating face down, seeing all the pretty things.  The gentle current urges you along (caused by the underground spring), so no swimming is necessarily needed until the turning point to the lagoon where you have to fight a bit of a current.  I felt so at ease, so comfortable.  I wasn’t even cold – not even my face, which most people complain about (to be fair, I expose my face to much colder temperatures regularly between cycling and skiing in the winter).  I could feel my dry suit leaking on my right arm, but I was all cozy, floating around in bliss, frog kicking when needed to propel myself.  The water in Silfra is insanely pure and clear – some of the clearest in the world – with visibility of over a 100m! The water originates in Langjökull, and is filtered through volcanic rock into an aquifer.  Over the course of 30-100 years the water percolates up into the fissure.

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So Heidi, whatcha up too?  Ohhh nothing much, just snorkeling between the continents!!!

While snorkeling you travel through a couple of named features.  The first is Silfra Hall, which has a cave system with depths of 45 meters, and is first area from the entry platform.  Next up is probably the coolest area, which is Silfra Cathedral.  The Cathedral is 20 meters deep and about 100 meters long.  Upon exiting the Cathedral, one needs to make the left turn to avoid ending up in the lake, and are then in the Silfra Lagoon.  The Lagoon is shallow-ish, but you can see clear across its 120 meter width.  Altogether, Silfra is about 300 meters long, but there are side cracks and caves that can be explored by divers.

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GoPro photos do no justice!
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Another GoPro shot

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Once in the lagoon we had time to just splash around, explore, or get out if you so desired.  I soaked it all up, swimming in little circles, occasionally flipping onto my back so I could admire the Icelandic moss covering the ground surrounding us.  Sadly, eventually, we had to get out the water, and I was giddy with excitement over what just happened – the accomplishment of snorkeling (in water over five feet deep with my face in it!) and just the beauty of it all!

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It is a lot shallower in the lagoon
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Xabi photobombing my “yay I survived!” photo.  And my lips didn’t swell up from the cold like most people’s do… gosh, I really do have Arctic blood!

We scampered back to the basecamp, and began the process of stripping out of our dry suits.  I discovered that indeed my entire right arm got wet despite the dry suit, which the guides were very apologetic for.  I assured them that out of everyone, I was the right person to have this happen to as I was never cold, except for my right thumb.  Once out of the dry suits, it was time to go into the van to get out of the onesies and back into whatever clothing one chose.  By now it had started raining hard, but there was still hot chocolate and cookies awaiting us.  I thanked Sarah for the awesome time and apologized for my hesitation with entering.  I had talked with Cordelia on a Facebook travel group about a week before my trip, so I introduced myself and chatted with her for awhile, and even asked how many people end up in the lake (it’s super super super rare… like no one does… not even I!).  She wished me luck and I set out for the car to grab rain gear before exploring further.

So Silfra snorkeling?  I will say it is definitely worth every penny while visiting Iceland!  I’ve always been one to scoff at the touristy things of Iceland (I’ve never been to the Blue Lagoon…), but this was well worth it, and is definitely not a cheesy tourist thing.  There is talk that snorkeling and diving at Silfra will have to cease as it violates the conditions of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I’m happy I jumped on doing it, even if it was dark and rainy.  (Sadly, my GoPro footage was completely dark for any in-water scenes.  So fortunate my tour provided some photos!  But that is a downside to a pre-sunrise winter Silfra tour.)

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Þingvallavatn on my walk back to my car

I honestly love Þingvellir.  The geology, the history, and just the overall scenery.  The surrounding lake and mountains make it so picturesque, and then there’s the luscious moss and continents splitting apart.  I mean, what’s not to love?  There’s even an adorable church!  With rain gear on and a RainSleeve over my camera, I took a beeline to Þingvallakirkja and Þingvallabær, eager for photos without the hoards of tourists like my previous trip.  Thanks to the heavy rain, I had it all to myself (which also meant my lens got wet quickly… I guess there’s always a trade off!).

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Looking towards Lögberg, or “law rock,” which was the assembly site of the world’s first parliament, Alþing
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Þingvallakirkja. The current church was built in 1859
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Þingvallakirkja – This shot took a fraction of the time to take compared to my visit during the busier months where I had to wait for people to get out of my way! I really liked how the church was lit up inside.

I debated visiting Öxarárfoss, but due to the rain and wanting to chase to brand-new-to-me water (and the ever present “thou shall not have a lot of daylight”), I decided to skip a repeat visit, and instead head up to the visitor’s center to take some shots from the overlook.  As I reached the overlook, the sun was trying to bust through the rain clouds, creating a golden glow in the southern sky.  I rushed through the visitor’s center (I read somewhere online that they have a visitor’s stamp much like the U.S. national parks do, but I couldn’t easily spot anything like that), and out to the overlook.  I also walked a little ways down Almannagjá.  A short, but sweet trip to Þingvellir… I’m sure I’ll be back!

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Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake. The lake is formed in the rift between the Eurasian and North American plates. The sun was making a small appearance, which immensely warmed my heart!
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Another view of Þingvallavatn and surrounding area
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Þingvallakirkja and Þingvallabær seen from the overlook near the visitor’s center (darn water spots on my lens!)
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Almannagjá, which marks the edge of the North American continental plate

I headed down Road 36, setting my sights on þórufoss.  This waterfall, though in Game of Thrones and getting more attention, is still a more rarely visited site on the Golden Circle, and sits a bit up Road 48 (which connects down to Hvalfjörður and Road 47 eventually – the road that goes to Glymur).  As I drove up Mosfellsheiði, the rain started turning to snow and I realized I’d finally have to drive in some wintry conditions in Iceland.  As the landscape turned black and white, I giggled, happy to have finally found winter. þórufoss was sitting in a winter wonderland… and mud.

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Little yellow house on Road 48
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If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes… or just drive a few miles!

It was sooooo muddy under all that wet snow that instantly my blue hiking boots were turned brown as I trampled around taking some photos.  I decided to descend down the snowy hill the level of the Laxá í Kjós river, and discovered the river had frozen over which allowed you to walk pretty close to the roaring falls.

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þórufoss on the Laxá í Kjós river
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Laxá í Kjós river
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A black and white world at þórufoss
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This is a color photo, I swear!

After some photos and catching snowflakes on my tongue, I decided this was as good of a spot as any to make some lunch, since by now I was quite hungry.  I fixed myself up a nice picnic spread under the rear hatch of the Dacia, making a ham and swiss sandwich, complimented by paprika Lays and my precious sweet gherkins I eat by the jar in Iceland.  Oh, and can’t forget the Appelsín to wash it all down!

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An Icelandic picnic

Damn.  Today is a good day.

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Descending Road 36 towards the Ring Road

Sunset taunting me with every ticking of the second hand, I headed back to Road 36, which would take me down to the Ring Road outside of Mosfellsbær, which is a suburb of Reykjavík.  The snow turned back into rain, and I prepared myself for the heavier traffic and roundabouts.  In the distractions that is the beauty of Iceland, I forgot all about the Hvalfjarðargöng – the tunnel that goes under Hvalfjörður (as in goes under the ocean technically).  Before I even knew it, there I was, driving into its depths.

OK, so my fear of water extends to bridges and tunnels.  I’ve had many panic attacks trying to drive out of New Jersey because of the bridges it involves.  One of the bravest things I’ve done was ride a bike across the I-90 Floating Bridge outside of Seattle, but I was utterly scared while doing it.  Yet… I didn’t care I was under the ocean in Iceland?  Who am I, and where did Heidi go?!  For all 5770 glorious meters (3.5 miles) of the Hvalfjarðargöng I was calm, and happy I could turn the windshield wipers off (and happy the tunnel is toll-free as of September 2018, saving me some money).

What a day for conquering fears of water!

My destination was set to Guðlaug, a fairly new geothermal hot pot on the shore in Akranes that is also free.  But by the time I arrived in Akranes and got lost in yet another apartment building parking lot, I parked the car and hesitated about going.  It was rainy, it was getting dark, and suddenly I was super shy about going to a local hot pot.  Deciding I didn’t want to get wetter (my hair was still soaked from snorkeling), I opted instead to visit the lighthouses of Akranes, which I knew I probably wouldn’t see in a few days when I’d stay in the town overnight.

Akranes is often avoided by tourists, since it you have to turn off the Ring Road to reach it.  The town has an industrial feel, which some people suggest is not pretty, but I suppose I’m one to find beauty in the unusual.  But there are things to see and do, such as the twin lighthouses and a golden sand beach.  I followed the map instructions out to a small parking lot on the spit of land the lighthouses are found. Akranesviti, the larger and newer lighthouse, loomed in front of me.  I feel like a lot of the lighthouses I’ve seen in Iceland are small and orange, so I always appreciate seeing something different.  The smaller, older lighthouse sits on a spit of rocks and seaweed.  It was built in 1917 and is one of Iceland’s oldest concrete lighthouses.  It was decommissioned in the 1940s when Akranesviti was built.  I braved the winds and rain, and walked out to the old one, the solitary visitor on this blustery evening.

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Akrafjall
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Akranesviti
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There were several displays of painted rocks near Akranesviti.
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The old Akranes lighthouse, built in 1917
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As the skies darkened, the temperatures decreased.
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A view of Akranes
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Hafmeyjan memorial sculpture

You can visit the inside of Akranesviti, which I didn’t realize (the small visitor’s center was open when I arrived).  However, even without being on top of the lighthouse you get a nice view of Akranes, Akrafjall (the mountain by the town), the ocean,  and shoreline.

Adventuring in Akranes complete, I hopped back in the car, first stopping for my first fill up of the trip.  Pulling into the gas station I realized I didn’t know what side the gas door was on, and naturally my first guess was wrong so I had to get back in and pull back around.  Yay tourist in a white Dacia (because nothing screams tourist like a white Dacia in Iceland)!  Other than that, the fueling went well, unlike my first trip to Iceland, and I was on my way, headed north towards Borgarnes.  I drive the speed limit in Iceland, but I got a scare as a car came up on me fast, and then flipped on their police lights!  My heart skipped a beat, but the police car came around me, and sped down the road.  Whew!  I only saw one police car in Iceland during my last trip, so I was kind of shocked at this.  I couldn’t imagine being pulled over – I honestly have no idea what I would expect in that circumstance!

As I rejoined the Ring Road, the rain turned snow, and the roads deteriorated.  Not terrifying, but definitely not smooth sailing.  A few kilometers outside of Borgarnes traffic started backing up behind someone driving extremely slow, so it was slow going coming into Borgarnes, which was a downright winter wonderland!  Deep snow covered the roads, and it was like I rapidly changed seasons from the rain in Akranes.  I quickly found my accommodation for the night, Egils Guesthouse, and took to hauling my items through the snow.

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Egils Guesthouse was definitely one of my favorites of the trip, and I really wish I could’ve spent more than one night (Borgarnes is also quite lovely!). The house, also called Kaupangur, was built in 1876 and was the first family house built in Borgarnes.   had a comfy room with a view of the fjord, and the option of two shared bathrooms to use.  There was also a small kitchen.  Soon after my arrival a couple from Switzerland (via Hong Kong) showed up, and it was great chatting with them throughout the evening about travel plans and adventures.

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My cozy room with ocean view!
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Well… this is unfortunate. Why wouldn’t you want to let a cat in?! Cats are the best!

After settling in and changing clothes, I bundled up again to walk down to the water to take a look around, though it was super dark by now.  I loved tromping through the thick, wet snow, maybe a bit overly excited about the winter weather.  I decided to eat dinner at the Settlement Museum’s restaurant, which is right next door to the guesthouse.  I opted for the lasagna made from local beef.  Amazing fresh bread was served with my meal, which I gobbled up (perks of solo travel – I don’t have to share the bread!).

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Blurry photo of my delicious dinner at the Settlement Center

After dinner I didn’t feel like heading right back indoors, so I walked around the back of the guesthouse and found a little dock-like area along the shore to walk on.  I noticed that the sky was clear, and I briefly considered hunting the aurora, but also noticed how cold I was.  I eventually wandered inside, and jumped in my cozy bed.  Tomorrow meant Snæfellsnes, and I was excited!

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Nighttime view of Borgarnes

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