Iceland 2021, day 3: snorkeling Silfra and driving the Golden Circle

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2)

In 2017, I got to see part of the Golden Circle but this version was going to be different. As a refresher, the “Golden Circle” route has 3 primary attractions: Thingvellir (I’m using the Anglicized spelling because I don’t know how to make a “Þ” except by copy/paste), Geysir, and Gullfoss. I’d skipped Thingvellir on my previous visit, but was determined to see it this time, especially because we had a special treat in mind: snorkeling!

Yes, you read that right. Snorkeling… in Iceland… in water at about 34 degrees…. between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. This article sums up some of the unique points of this location for scuba diving, most of which apply for snorkeling. The tour companies that highlight this make it sound like you’re actually diving right in between the plates, but the actual gap is several kilometers– you can see a visible ring, sort of like a bathtub ring, around the surrounding hills that shows the plate boundaries. With that said, this was still a remarkable experience.

Dive.is and Arctic Adventures are the two primary vendors offering tours there, although there are several others. We chose Arctic because the schedule fit our needs better, but I suspect they’re very close to identical. before we could snorkel, of course, we had to get to the park, which was about a 30-minute drive. We got there early enough to walk around a bit. The park itself is a giant open space, featuring the largest lake in Iceland, camping sites, and a generous network of trails. Our instructions said to go to the P5 parking lot, where we found a small trailhead and bathroom shed, plus a whole bunch of very territorial ducks.

Some of the trails are paved, others are wooden boardwalks.
This flagpole marks the site of the first democratic parliament in the entire world, probably the thing for which Thingvellir is best known (and the reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Random waterfall at Thingvellir

We walked around for half an hour or so, then walked back up the road to the planned meeting place. As we walked, we passed what looked like a small creek; I jokingly said “heh, watch, that’ll be where we dive.” When we got to the parking lot, we found it filled with several excursion vans and a bunch of people half-dressed in dive gear, so we knew we were in the right place.

The handbook that the tour operator provides says you should wear a thin thermal base layer, including socks; it also cautions that your hands, face, and hair will get wet. I’d never worn a dry suit before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. They had us dress in heavy insulated coveralls, then pull the dry suit on over it. The dry suit has attached boots, and it zips closed across the backs of your shoulders. Water can only potentially get in in two places: your wrists and your neck. Our guide, Halli, added rubber strips around our wrists and a sort of choker around the collar to keep water out, then we put on the provided neoprene balaclavas. By the time we were fully dressed the only really exposed skin was around the lips and chin. “Dry suits” now join “Crocs” and “swim caps” on my short list of “things that are never, ever sexy.”

After everyone was dressed, we walked across the road and… right back to the creek I’d seen earlier. Sure enough, that’s where we would start our dive. There’s a platform there with steps that lead down into the water; the first section is very shallow, so the procedure is to enter the water and immediately roll onto your back. Halli made the good point that the air is warmer than the water– so the more you keep your hands out of the water, the more comfortable you’ll be.

The clarity of the water and the colors of the surrounding rocks are phenomenal

We were in the water for a total of about 30 minutes. That was just long enough to see some amazing sights while not being completely immobilized by the cold. There isn’t a lot of marine life, but there are some amazingly vivid green grasses, not to mention a rainbow of colors in the rocks themselves. The water is indescribably clear. I was glad that I didn’t take a camera with me because a) with lobster-claw gloves I wouldn’t have been able to operate it and b) it was freeing to be able to just look around without worrying about photo composition and so on.

Neither Erica nor I had any problems with mask or snorkel leaks, but I got water inside my dry suit up to my left elbow, and my hands were frozen by the time we got out to the point that I couldn’t button my trousers when getting dressed again. Thankfully they provide hot chocolate (and bonus cookies!), and once dressed you warm up pretty quickly.

Next up was Gullfoss. The road there leads right past Geysir, but because we were hungry (you might be sensing a theme here), we wanted to grab lunch at the Gullfoss restaurant. They’re known for their all-you-can-eat meat soup, although, times being what they are, now you only get two refills. Still a bargain, though, especially when you’re already chilly. Soup, bread, and drinks for two, plus one dessert, was about $45. Once fortified, we went out to go see the falls. The restaurant/gift shop overlooks the falls, so you walk down a trail to join the trail abutting the falls, then go to the left across the headlands. Walk far enough and you’ll come to a set of steps that let you descend to a rock on the far side of the falls.

The view from the trail approaching the falls
A view from closer to the top (note the little tiny people on the trail for scale)

We’d planned to stop at Geysir on the way back, so we did, but it was a little disappointing. Geysir itself seems to have gone dormant (and there’s a sign to that effect). Strokkur, another geyser in the same complex, erupted a few times while we were there, but it was mostly an opportunity for us to walk around looking at the mineralized water and doing a bit of people-watching. I’d previously learned that, unless you are both very skilled and quite lucky, photographing geysers is a good way to spend a lot of time waiting tensely and then being disappointed with the outcome, so I didn’t bother.

On that note: compared to my 2017 visit, it’s clear that tourist traffic is way down. While there were almost always other people nearby, at no point before Geysir did we really feel crowded: the airport was nearly empty when we arrived, restaurants weren’t full, there wasn’t a lot of traffic on highway 1, and the major tourist sites weren’t crowded. Friday and Saturday nights downtown were busy by comparison, but during the day the area around Laugavegur where we were staying was empty too. Our hotel wasn’t full. However, because of Geysir’s layout (and because leaving the path means stepping into nearly-boiling water, which tends to keep people from wandering), the crowd looked bigger than any of the other places we had been before.

Kerid crater wasn’t on my original list, but Erica had read about it and it wasn’t far from Geysir, so we drove over to see it. It was a real highlight- it’s beautiful, and I’d never seen a “real” crater (apart from flying over Mount Hood) before so it was a good stop. As with most of the other places we stopped, there was really no infrastructure besides a small parking lot (about US$4 to park). There are two trails: one goes around the upper perimeter of the crater, and the other (which is reached by a set of steps inside the crater) leads to a trail that circles the lake. The contrast of the red, brown, and black shades of earth, the blue-green of the water, and the various greens of vegetation is really eye-catching.

As with most of the other attractions we visited, anyone in even moderate physical condition could easily do the Kerid crater hike– I think the total distance around the top and bottom together was a little less than a mile, and the steps into the crater bottom are widely enough spaced that they were easy to navigate.

For dinner, we went back into town and went to Lebowski Bar, an American-style sports bar analogue with a great mixed drink menu and a “The Big Lebowski” theme. One appetizer, two burgers, one beer, and two mixed drinks set us back about $85. The food was good, though, and service was faster and more attentive than any other place we visited on the entire trip. After our meal, we went walking around downtown and ended up stopping up at the Laundromat for a nightcap. All in all, it was a great day and I loved the flexibility of being able to move around instead of being tied to a bus-tour itinerary.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Iceland 2021, day 3: snorkeling Silfra and driving the Golden Circle

  1. Pingback: Iceland 2021 day 4: up north to Langjökull | Paul's Down-Home Page

  2. Pingback: Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon | Paul's Down-Home Page

  3. Pingback: Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon | Paul's Down-Home Page

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