June 21, 2013

Land of Fire and Ice – Reykjavic, Iceland

This island of volcanoes and glaciers struck me as different from the beginning, so I went over the list of countries we’d already been to and confirmed it was the smallest country by population we had ever visited (not counting Monaco, Vatican City or any territories). Also more than half of Icelanders believe in elves – that’s different. Of the ~300k total residents, 2/3rds live in the Reykjavik area, and at times it does appear everyone at least vaguely knows each other.

Iceland Landscape

Iceland is one of the most expensive countries we visit on this trip along with Norway, Denmark and Japan. $100 a night gets you a single room with shared bath. The land of ice sounds cold, no? Combine that with shared bath and you’d think hot water would run out early in the morning and late risers would be forced to bathe in freezing glacier water. It’s actually the opposite. Cold water runs out before hot water in Iceland thanks to their thermal springs. Because of this hot water from the tap smells of sulfur so brushing your teeth or taking a shower smells the same as eating a cold boiled egg at a budget motel’s breakfast buffet (totally safe though). We smelled the same sulfur at the geysers of Yellowstone a few weeks back. 25% of electricity produced in Iceland is geothermal (the rest being hydro so 99% of generation is from renewables), but gas is expensive at ~USD9/gallon, like most island states.

Iceland outside

Reyjavik feels more  like a really big town than a city. The nightlife that Reyjavik is famous for in actuality comprises of only a handful of pubs/clubs, fewer than in Clarendon (an area in Arlington, VA). The party scene is lively, with the revelers both younger and drunker than most Americans are used to seeing. Far from being a crime, public intoxication is a national pastime here so guys peeing or puking in a corner and drunk girls teetering precariously atop their high heels as they stumble from bar to bar are common sights. Police presence is virtually nil which is both good and bad. On the one hand, you can have a good time without risking waking up in prison. On the other hand, if you get in a fight and are outnumbered, you better be a fast runner or you will definitely wake up in a hospital. I saw a fight break out where one guy took some serious blows before bolting into a bar where the bouncers blocked his pursuing attackers.

I did get shoulder slammed by a guy trying to pick a fight in Kaffibarinn, one of the trendier clubs, but given the size and solidness of his shoulder, I walked away without a second thought. No idea why he picked on me. But assholes exist everywhere and the Reykjavik bar crowd is very friendly. There are lots of foreigners speaking English and while the locals converse in Icelandic, they all speak English as well and on several occasions started conversations with us out of the blue. Since Iceland’s population is small and 95% ethnic Icelandic, genetic diversity if low, and while “soft” inbreeding can result in ugly people, luckily in Iceland it has not. So for the single folks out there, particularly those with an affinity for blondes, Icelanders are attractive, big partiers and friendly to foreigners.

Iceland Nightlife

One caution on partying – buy your booze at duty free as you enter the country because alcohol is expensive, and outside of bars is only available at a few stores which close at 6pm. The locals pre-party at home and only hit the bars around 1am. Lastly it must be noted that party nights are Friday, Saturday and that’s it! All other days are dead because as stated earlier, Icelanders have ritualized their party schedule this way.

Unfortunately we didn’t see much of Iceland’s natural beauty because it’s cost prohibitive for us at the moment – Iceland’s an expensive country and we’ve got to make our money last 16 months. I can see us returning later on a separate trip to see the rest of the Island and the Western fjords in particular which are spectacular.

The one trip I did take outside Reykjavik was to SCUBA dive in Silfra which is a glacier lake with a crack that divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This crack widens by 2 cm each year and is wide enough to swim down into up to a depth of 22 meters. The water is supposed to be the clearest in the world, offering visibility of up to 100m. It’s clarity comes from the fact that the water travels through porous volcanic rock for between 30 and 100 years from the glacier to the lake and this does an amazing job of filtering it. Water temperature when I went was 2 degrees Celsius. Because of how cold it is, divers have to wear a dry suit with two layers of insulation underneath, gloves, hood and since the dry suit increases buoyancy, you need more weights than you normally would. Lastly, if you’re not dry suit certified, you also need a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) which is redundant extra weight since you can control buoyancy with the dry suit. In the end, my gear weighed about 35 kilos but more than the weight, all the layers of stuff I was wearing reduced my range of motion and the thick gloves made operating my camera difficult. My dry suit seals held up great as did most people’s but three divers in my group aborted their dives due to water leaking into their dry suits. In the end it was cool to be between continents but not worth all the trouble and cost (roughly $300), plus there are virtually no fish in there. I saw one brown fish maybe 2 inches long, but I don’t think anyone else saw fish.


One bonus of doing the dive was getting to see the Icelandic landscape outside Reykjavik. It is lots of green gently rolling hills with pretty waterfalls and small lakes here and there, but no trees. I don’t mean hardly any trees. I really mean not one single tree anywhere, which was weird. I climbed a hill near the dive site and my foot sank ~5 inches into its soft surface with every step because it was covered with a thick layer of moss. This surprised me but it makes sense since volcanic ash is incredibly fertile. I remember seeing similar hills on the Big Island of Hawaii, although I never attempted climbing one.

On our last day we saw a massive celebration in Reykjavik to commemorate their national day, June 17, on which they won independence from Denmark in 1944. Check out our photos from Iceland here. It’s an interesting country but now it’s off to Norway!