I had just landed in Iceland. Because I was eight hours ahead of Pacific Time (Los Angeles), I decided to hang out at Reykjavík Harbor for several hours and go to bed around midnight Iceland time. I was met by two cute Japanese girls who were collecting funds for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), specifically to save the whales. At that time (2013), Iceland was one of two countries which hunted whales for food. The other was Japan.
In the U.S., only Native Americans are allowed to hunt whales, and the average number of kills is 300-500 Belugas and 40-70 Bowhead a year.
I was happy to contribute to the protection of the whales. And while I was in Iceland, I did not eat any whale meat, though I saw it in several markets.
Fortunately, I was able to keep my eyes open until 8 AM Los Angeles time and did not suffer from jet lag in the subsequent days. Flying back to California was, alas, a different story.
In 2001 when I traveled to Iceland, I purchased a bus ticket for one-way travel along the famous ring road that manages to hit most of the top sights on the volcanic island. I started by taking a bus to Akureyri through the center of Iceland through what is known as the Kjölur Route. From there, I traveled by bus along to Ring Road to Lake Mývatn, Egilsstaðir, Höfn, Kirjubærclaustur, Hvollsvöllur, Selfoss, and on into Reykjavík.
The majority of the population of Iceland lives along the Ring Road. There are no cities in the whole country that are not either on or close to the coast. As for the unpopulated interior, there are only two roads, the Kjölur Route and the Sprengisandur Route, and no towns of any size. In fact, no towns at all.
The Bus to Akureyri Along the Kjölur Route
When I returned to Iceland in 2013, I spent some time in the Northwest in Isafjordur, as I had skipped the entire Westfjords area on my previous visit.
When you get out of the city, Iceland is a country of waterfalls, rainbows, volcanoes, and geysirs. From one point of view, much of it is a wasteland; but, if so, it is a beautiful one.
Icelandic Writer of Sagas Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)
One of the least-known great writers of the Middle Ages was an Icelander, Snorri Sturluson. When I was in Iceland in 2013, I visited Reykholt, where he was assassinated by thugs hired by Haakon IV, King of Norway. There is a museum on the site dedicated to his life and work.
He is known for having authored the Prose Edda, the Heimskringla (a history of Norwegian kings), and possibly Egils Saga, one of the greatest of the Icelandic family sagas. There are other great Icelandic sagas, but Snorri is the only writer of sagas whose name has come down to us.
There wasn’t much competition in the literature of the time. The Arthurian legends were just getting started with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (ca 1136). Around the same time, little Iceland had a fully developed literature which told the stories of actual families who settled there and how they resolved disputes. Geoffrey’s book about Arthur, on the other hand, was mostly made out of whole cloth and is considered unreliable as history. The Icelandic sagas are mostly about real people.
Below is the pool at Snorri’s house in Reykholt where he was murdered on September 22, 1241:
Spegazzini Glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park (2011)
As the Earth continues to heat up, I can foresee that more and more tourists will try to see fewer and fewer glaciers. Martine and I have been atop Canada’s Athabasca Glacier in Alberta and in Southern Argentina we have visited the Perito Moreno, Spegazzini, and Upsala Glaciers. By myself, I have ridden a Ski-Doo on Iceland’s giant Vatnajökull Glacier. I hope I can rustle up enough cash to go with Martine to visit the most spectacular glaciers in the U.S., all of which are in Alaska.
It is amazing to think that, at one time, glaciers covered much of the lower forty-eight states and most of Canada, as shown in the following map:
It is possible that in the lives of your children, or of your children’s children, the glaciers will no longer be around. Not only that, but parts of the U.S. coast will be under water, particularly Florida. And as the ocean levels continue to rise, I would not be surprised that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world will disappear under water.
I remember my visit to Iceland in 2001. I stayed at a hotel on the edges of Skaftafell National Park. I walked on a trail as close as I could get to Skaftafell Glacier. As I neared the front edge of the glacier, I saw numerous pools of water and heard a groaning sound as the glacier pushed forward millimeter by millimeter. It was an awe-inspiring experience.
It’s not the largest European capital, but Reykjavík is to my mind one of the most interesting. Within hailing distance of the Arctic Circle, it can have some of the worst weather imaginable. Yet it is relatively small (about 131,000 souls) and is walkable—if it’s not too windy and wet. You can feed the sea birds by the Tjörn, the municipal pond, but they could just as easily attack you for the goodies you are doling out. The people are friendly, but it seems everyone in town gets shitfaced drunk on the weekend.
There is an air of mystery about the city, which is one reason why the mysteries of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, among others, are so popular.
I have been to Iceland twice, once in 2001 and once in 2013. Both times I fell in love with the city and wished I could stay longer. My first day in 2013 was my favorite. It was near the summer solstice, when it does not get dark until the middle of the night, and then only for a short while. Even after my long flight, I fought jet lag by forcing me to stay up until 7:00 AM Los Angeles time. I even took an evening ghost tour through the local cemetery with the sun still up past 10:00 PM Iceland time.
As I walked the streets of the city, I noticed that many of the buildings had walls of thick corrugated steel, frequently brightly colored. The stucco and chicken wire constructions that protect L.A. from earthquake damage would be blown to bits by the Arctic storms. I ran into one in Myvátn where the rain was blown horizontally through every micro-opening in my parka. And all I was trying to do was to get to the grocery store across the street.
I don’t know if I will ever get to Reykjavík again in this life, but in a way it has never left my dreams. As Edward Gorey once said: “I have fantasies of going to Iceland, never to return.”
I’ve been to Iceland twice—in 2001 and 2013—and I hope to go again. People don’t have any concept of what the country is like. One hears the old chestnut that “Iceland should be called Greenland and vice versa.” With global warming, I suspect that both countries will in future be free of most ice. Below are a few highlights if you are thinking of visiting my favorite country in Europe:
Fish is always the cheapest and most interesting thing on the menu, and you’re never far from the ship that brought it to port.
If You Don’t Like Fish, don’t worry. Icelanders eat tons of hamburgers, hot dogs (which they call pylsur), and pizza.
The Interior of the Country is a picturesque and mostly uninhabited wasteland.
Icelandic Sagas from the 12-13th centuries A.D. are the best things to read, followed by the novels of 1955 Nobel prizewinner Halldor Laxness.
Islands off the coast of Iceland make great destinations, particularly Heimaey and Flatey. The first had a famous volcanic eruption in the 1970s, and the second was the site of a medieval monastery.
English is the Second Language of most Icelanders under the age of 70, so communication is no problem.
Iceland Is Expensive, particularly if you want to rent a car. Not to worry, there’s good long distance buses.
Waterfalls and Rainbows are everywhere, making it the most scenic country in Europe—if it can be said to be part of Europe.
Volcanoes are all over the place, and many of them are active. Don’t be surprised if you see one erupting during your trip.
Reykjavík contains half the population of Iceland, yet it’s small and quite walkable (if the weather isn’t foul).
The Westfjords are a bit out of the way, but shouldn’t be missed. Great hiking and incredible coastline views.
Northern Lights can be seen in the winter, but you can’t be 100% sure of a sighting.
On both of my trips to Iceland (in 2001 and 2013), I stopped by the glacial lagoon at Jökulárlón to see the strangely-shaped and colored little icebergs. The second time, I even took a boat ride around the lagoon.
The lagoon is a must-see on the road between Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, neither of which could be correctly pronounced by visiting tourists. It is an outlet to the biggest glacier in Europe, Vatnajókull, which occupies approximately 8% of the total land area of Iceland.
Fanciful Shapes Abound, Like This Duck
Never mind that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much at Jökulárlón, the sight of all those odd ice shapes tinted electric blue catches and holds your attention. All the buses in South Iceland make a point of stopping there for a half hour on their way either east or west.
I even had a taste of glacial ice from our guide, who fractured a pane of ice and passed it around among the tourists. It was delicious, having been frozen for millennia.
Although the Vatnajókull glacier is, like most glaciers, receding, it still occupies a large chunk of real estate. While I was staying at Hófn, I even played around on the glacier’s surface on a Ski-Doo snowmobile.
Atop the Glacier
I have been atop two glaciers in my lifetime, Vatnajókull and the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Something tells me that this is an activity that future generations will not be able to enjoy.
Vikings: They Did a Lot More Than Loot and Pillage
They were the bad boys of early Medieval Europe. From the pulpits of all of Europe and even farther came the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”—“From the fury of the Norsemen, O Lord deliver us.” Sailing out of Scandinavia, they occupied large parts of Britain, Ireland, France (surely you’ve heard of Normandy), Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They formed an elite regiment in Constantinople, where they were called the Varangian Guard.
They just happened to be the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas some half a millennium before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They had a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which they abandoned only after constant warfare with the Skrælings (Indians).
We call them Vikings, but for them the word was a verb, not a noun. Most of the dread Norsemen raiders were farmers who would “go viking” when their short growing season was over. They were, in effect, part time terrorists.
Also, they just happened to create a great literature in the sagas, particularly those created in Iceland in the 13th century. They included such works as:
Njúls Saga,, the greatest of them all, about revenge that gets out of hand
Egils Saga, about the bard Egil Skallagrímsson
Laxdæla Saga, with its female heroine Guðrun
Eyrbiggja Saga, with its berserkers (yes, they actually existed)
Grettirs Saga, about a famous outlaw warrior
These were probably the best works of literature to come out of Europe in the period in which they were written. They are all available in excellent translations from Penguin Books.
Incidentally, as a French woman of Norman heritage, my Martine is herself a Viking.
When one takes an international flight to Iceland, one usually lands at Keflavík Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula. From there, it is a From there it is 30 miles (50 km) to Reykjavík. Those 30 miles contain some of the most desolate volcanic badlands that I have ever seen. It is south of that road, on the way to Grindavík that a fissure in the earth started belching out lava on March 19, 2021. It is still going strong, and it looks like it will destroy the road to Grindavík, forcing the locals to take a more roundabout route to the capital.
The area of the eruption is part of the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a scene of active rifting between two major tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. The boundary between these two plates cuts north/south right through the west of Iceland. This is the first eruption on the Peninsula in over 800 years. You can read about the eruption at Hit Iceland and Wikipedia.
The Desolate Reykjanes Peninsula Terrain Seen from the Airport Bus to Reykjavík
I took the above picture from my bus to Reykjavík in June 2013. It amazed me on both my trips to Iceland that the road to the capital was so desolate, so uninhabited, for so many miles. At places, one could see geyser activity marked with little steam clouds. I can only speculate that the Icelanders knew this place was going to blow at some point, so they decided to stay away in droves.
Now, of course, tourists are flocking to the scene of the eruption, but they are warned that things can get ugly fast. In 1783, there was a major eruption along a 27 km fissure called Laki, killing some 9,000 Icelanders with the lava and poison gases associated with the event. You can read about it on the Scientific American website.
No one knows how long the eruption at Geldingadalir will continue, and how much the Peninsula will change as the result of the massive amounts of lava being pumped out.
I still have places to see. Even though I have been to Iceland, Argentina, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico several times each, I have missed a number of destinations. These are just some of them.
Iceland’s Far Northeast
I have been to Egilsstaðir where I had to change buses on my way to Höfn and Hornstrandir, but I have never seen Iceland’s wild northeast coast between Seydisfjorður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. As my brother once told me, I am drawn to wild and desolate places—probably because I have lived most of my life in the United States’s second largest city.
This is one trip for which I would have to rent a car, as public transit here is mostly potty. And I would have to be prepared for bad weather at any time of the year. But with a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think I can hack it.
Southeastern Campeche State
Look at All the Maya Ruins Along Route 186 in Campeche
Back in the heyday of the Maya from around AD 600-800, the southeast of the State of Campeche was where it was happening. Particularly important was Calakmul, which was a major competitor to Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén region. The only town of any size in the area is Xpuhil. Ruins include Balamkú, Chicanna, El Ramonal, La Muñeca, Hormiguero, Xpujil, and Rio Bec.
This is one trip where I would have to hire a guide with a car. The accommodations and dining are probably acceptable, but not great. And I would need to apply large amounts of DEET insect repellent, as this area is jungle and thinly inhabited now.
Argentina’s Patagonian Coast
The South South Atlantic
I am intrigued by this wild coast and would love to visit Rio Gallegos, Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, and Comodoro Rivadavia, the port from which Argentina launched its attack on the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they insist on calling it to this day.
The extreme South Atlantic coast of the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are very much unfinished business. In 2006 in broke my shoulder in Ushuaia, which forced me to cancel my ride via a TecniAustral bus to Rio Gallegos, from which I planned to work my way north back to Buenos Aires. But, as the pain was too much to bear, I had to fly back to the United States and get better.
In 2011, Martine and I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, and thereupon on to Trelew and Buenos Aires. I’d love to do it by bus, at least as far as Comodoro, from where I could fly the rest of the way.
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