Before there was earth or sky or anything green, there was only the abyss of Ginnungagap. This darkness and silence lay between Muspelheim, the land of fire and Niflheim, the land of ice. Frost from Niflheim and the flames of Muspelheim blew towards each other and when they met at Ginnungagap, the fire melted the ice and the drops formed the giant Ymir. Ymir was a hermaphrodite who could reproduce asexually. More giants were born from his sweat.
As the ice continued to melt, a cow, Audhumbla, emerged from it. She nourished Ymir and nourished herself by licking the ice which uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor who married Bestla, the daughter of a giant. Their half-god, half-giant children were Odin (who became chief of the Aesir gods), Vili, and Ve. Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and created the world from his corpse.
The sons of Bor made the sky from Ymir’s skull, and four dwarves corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth. They tossed Ymir’s brains in the sky and they became the clouds. His blood became the oceans, his skin and muscles became the soil, his hair became vegetation, and Bor’s sons placed the sparks and embers that blew out of Muspelheim in Ginnungagap to light the heaven above and the earth beneath. They created the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.
This is the Norse creation myth.
Iceland is a land of legends – a place of extreme geological contrasts, a land of ice and fire. It is home to glaciers and some of the most active volcanoes. Long summer days fade into dark winters. Although reachable with cheap flights from its neighbouring countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the prices in Iceland are enough to deter a lot of tourists. Iceland is expensive. Though the standard of living is high, it remains one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. This isolation and the extreme nature have shaped Icelandic culture through the centuries, creating a resilient nation that values family bonds, tradition, and a strong bond with nature.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to have found a long lost connection – a childhood friend from a summer in Philippines almost 10 years ago. He remembered me and my family quite well and when I asked if he could host me for a couple of nights, he accepted.
Flying to Keflavik on a clear day, it is impossible to miss Mt. Esja (or Esjan as the locals call it). Esjan is actually a mountain range, located 10km north of Reykjavik. Icelanders have a special bond with this mountain, and as a friend said, it is only when they see it that the feeling of ‘home’ finally kicks in.
It was only fitting to spend my first afternoon in Reykjavik hiking up Esjan. There is an extensive network of hiking trails and a bunch of Reykjavíkians go up there everyday. We didn’t get very high up though as the setting sun beat us to it. There was an aurora forecast for that night, and on our descent, we passed by people who were still making their way up.
Around 10pm, we drove to Seltjarnarnes, which, at the western end of Reykjavik is not Reykjavik at all due to some politics. It was so windy and cold. We parked our car by the road and waited for the aurora to be visible, but gave up after half an hour because we were so hungry. We decided to go home and finish the night with Berliner Luft and karaoke, because if there is one thing all Filipinos share no matter where, it is their inherent need to sing.
On my second day we drove the famous tourist route, the Golden Circle. At only 300km and passing through major sites without much walking, you can think of it as a hors d’oeuvre. It is what people who don’t have much time to explore the country will most likely see.
The landscape is incredible. The miles of wasteland will make you feel like you are on a different planet. Sometimes only the vacation homes punctuating the landscape will remind you otherwise.
We drove counterclockwise from the normal route and our first stop was Kerið crater, just one of the volcanic craters in Iceland’s south. There is an oval lake in it and you can walk around the rim and go down and walk the small circle in it. It’s a short stop where you can stretch your legs a bit. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Like a lot of places in Iceland, they now charge an ‘upkeep fee’ (400 ISK, September 2017).
We drove on to Haukadalur, home to the most famous sights in Iceland: the geysers. I have never seen one before and it really was amazing. The biggest geysers are Strokkur and Geysir (where the word ‘geyser’ comes from). The Great Geysir was the first geyser described on a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. Its eruptions have been infrequent. Only 50m away is the smaller Strokkur, which draws the tourist crowds. It is one of the few natural geysers to erupt frequenty (every 5-10 minutes).
Since we were exploring the area, we missed two eruptions but were lucky to have been standing right by it for the big eruption. Everyone went silent when the pool started getting wavier and then a big bubble formed and in a split second shot up. I was so caught up in the moment, looking up at the steam that rose high up until reality started raining down on us onlookers. Some tried to run away. Luckily I had my rain jacket on and all I could do was crouch down to keep my camera dry. I was drenched, and it was a cold day. J and I had a good laugh and decided we had seen enough geysers for the day.
We drove 10km ahead to Gullfoss ‘Golden Falls’, which got its name from the golden hue on its waters during sunset. It is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, hence the crowd. As you first approach the falls, the edge is obscured and it looks as though the river simply vanishes into the earth.
There are short trails for walking where you can learn a bit more about Gullfoss. Back in the 20th century, there were some people who wanted to use the falls to generate electricity. It was indirectly rented by its owners to foreign investors. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one of its owners, though uneducated, sought the help of a lawyer and brought the matter to court. She threatened to throw herself down the waterfall if they didn’t preserve its condition. Eventually, one of her family members sold Gullfoss and the surrounding area to the Icelandic government.
We drove on to Þingvellir National Park, a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian plates diverge 2.5 cm a year. We arrived in what I think is the most beautiful time of the day: just before sunset. Seeing the landscape of Þingvellir basked in golden light was breathtaking. Even J2 who had been to the place countless times could not help take a picture.
A few kilometers away is the Silfra fissure where you can stare in awe at the clarity of glacier water. Overall, the Golden Circle is touristy, but it does cover sights you cannot miss. The most valuable insight I got from this trip is that I would definitely skip the tour bus and explore it at my own pace.
I spent the next two days hiking and exploring more of Iceland’s diverse offerings. I did an easy hike to a hot river where we had to pass a bridge over boiling water, and make our way through the mist to be rewarded with one of the most relaxing hiking bonuses ever.
Since it was not that late yet, we decided to drive further south to Vik where the scenery made for a very exciting roadtrip. We passed by majestic waterfalls and glimpsed distant glaciers. Guest houses, cottages and small wooden churches periodically dotted the landscape. Unfortunately for us, when night completely fell in Vik, there was no cheap place to stay. We briefly contemplated sleeping in the car but the lack of toilet and the fact that I have a pea-sized bladder in that cold and windy night made us drive back to Reykjavik.
It was not for naught as I got to see the Northern Lights and the road was well worth the trip. Returning to Reykjavik meant we were back to mile 0, and so we decided to drive north the next day.
I was up for more hiking and picked Glymurfoss because it was only a 40-minute drive away. J had spent 15 years in Iceland and had not once been to Glymur. We had a change of roles and I guided him through Hvalfjörður. Until 1998, people getting to the town of Borgarnes from Reykjavik had to make a 62-km detour on the fjord. The opening of Hvalfjardargongin tunnel cut travel time by an hour and the Hvalfjörður has become quiet.
The fjord itself is beautiful and the hike up to Glymur was by far the best I had done. There was so much variety of landscape – even rivers to cross. Not counting the part where we got lost on our way down, it was a mighty fun hike.
I spent my last day hunting for kitsch in downtown Reykjavik. The weather had gone absolutely sour, and the rain battered our car as J and J2 drove me back to Keflavik. I had grown quite dear to them in my sojourn. We were strangers when they picked me up only five days before. We said our goodbyes, and I got myself a big bottle of Brennivín for when the winter blues hit.