Iceland: December’s Forlorn Landscape

Bubbling volcanic vats at Geysir in Iceland. Photos by Andy Christian Castillo.
Bubbling volcanic vats at Geysir in Iceland. Photos by Andy Christian Castillo.

By Andy Christian Castillo

A waterfall off the side of the road not far from Geysir in Iceland.
A waterfall off the side of the road not far from Geysir in Iceland.

I don’t know what it is I expected to find in Iceland — the northern lights, breathtaking sunsets, expansive landscapes — but I didn’t find it.

Instead, I discovered fog thick enough to slice with a knife, heavy darkness that stained my heart with depression from the lack of sunlight, nature in its rawest form, and a bleak landscape of rugged valleys speckled with volcanic rock and shrubs. I found an island formed by nature’s fury and seemingly kissed by hell itself.

As our plane descended into Keflavik, the passenger seated next to me described the view outside his window as “ink.” He was right: I’d never encountered an existence so entirely devoid of light quite like I did that weekend, before or since; a darkness so invasive it weighed heavily on my emotions as I drove my Kia rental car toward Reykjavik, rain snapping into the window, taillights reflecting off shimmering pavement.

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I quickly realized that I’d planned my trip during the worst possible weekend for tourism.

However, despite the miserable conditions, Iceland soon fulfilled my craving for adventure and lived up to my expectations. For those wondering whether or not it’s worth the money: give it a chance. Iceland will blow your mind and leave you seeking more adventure for the rest of your life.

A weekend in Iceland

I flew in from Boston on an early Saturday morning in December at around 6 a.m., and returned Monday afternoon. My experience in the country was a blur, but I experienced more during that time than some can experience in a month. In two days, I drove the famous “Golden Circle” and ventured down the coast to Vik.

To some, travel is an unfortunate requirement in order to see new places; for me, it’s a beautiful experience in itself —

Downriver from Gullfoss Falls in Iceland.
Downriver from Gullfoss Falls in Iceland.

the destination is icing on the cake. Over the years, I’ve learned to cover ground at a break-neck pace while on the road.

Once, I traveled through twelve European countries in two weeks; another time, I traveled from coast to coast and back again in the United States in the same amount of time.

Through experiences, I’ve learned to appreciate the journey: now, I don’t just crave majestic vitas and unique new cultures — I crave the feeling of motion and changing scenes; long layovers, overnight train journeys and boring car rides.

I’ve found that it’s during these in-between moments I’m forced to contemplate life’s greatest mysteries and, inevitably, gain a little more insight and wisdom than I had before.

Reykjavik is about a 40 minute car ride from the airport. It’s an industrious city thriving with life and cheered by quant, colorful houses.

In the winter months, Christmas lights emerge everywhere and holiday tunes float through the narrow streets, performed by street musicians — a cheery contrast to the pervasive darkness and foggy gloom.

Supposedly, the northern lights are particularly spectacular and easily seen during the winter months; however, I didn’t see anything but rain and fog while there. It was cold, but not unbearably so (about 45-degrees Fahrenheit give or take a few degrees).

At first, I was disappointed at the miserable weather outlook. Then, however, I pushed aside the depression and decided to enjoy myself regardless: I did just that, and found a unique beauty in Iceland — and its people and wildlife — that comes from its ability to survive and adapt to a brutal climate and geography.

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After reaching the city, I immediately set a course for Vik, stopping at Seljalandsfoss waterfall — a very popular tourist attraction.

Seeking a unique experience

Gorgeous black sand at Reyinsfjara in Iceland.
Gorgeous black sand at Reyinsfjara in Iceland.

Before booking the flight on WOW Airlines ($330 round-trip), I extensively researched photography locations on the island.

In doing so, I found that, at least in recent years, it’s arguably one of the most photographed locations in the world; probably because of its accessibility and breathtaking, unique geography. Because of that, it’s become a sort of photographer’s mecca — a rite of passage for budding travelers.

Many guides I read broke the location down to step-by-step instructions, relating the best gear to use, imperative travel tips (including one, which suggested booking two seats because that’s cheaper than spending extra for luggage), the best time to go, essentially relating exactly how to photograph Iceland. At first, I found myself looking for photographs to replicate. Then, decided I was seeking something else; a unique adventure that produced unique images.

Thus, instead of bringing expensive camera equipment and following the guides, I threw out all the suggestions, bought a $20 fold-up tripod purchased at Staples, and brought a 12-year-old $50 Nikon D70 DSLR home-converted to capture full spectrum light.

The benefit of this streamlined approach revealed itself immediately. I wasn’t tied up with lugging around heavy gear or worrying about the weather’s affect on expensive camera equipment. Instead, I was able to move quickly, thoroughly immersing myself into the environment.

A streamlined approach to travel

By the time I reached Seljalandsfoss falls a few hours later, daylight had turned the fog from black to grey.

Black sand in Iceland. Photos by Andy Christian Castillo.
Black sand in Iceland. Photos by Andy Christian Castillo.

There, water fell l a good 400 feet from cliffs above, hurtling through the mist, exploding into a small pool, and soaking those brave souls — including myself — adventurous enough to venture through the thick mud behind the falls.

That wasn’t the last time I’d be soaked by nature in Iceland: after stopping at Skógafoss, another popular waterfall, and an overlook called Dyrhólaey (it was too foggy to see anything), I arrived at Reynisfjara, a beautiful black sand beach.

The location has gorgeous and unique rock formations that look like legos, carved by time into cliffs that tower above the beach. It was spectacular.

As the light faded into that inky blackness again, I felt the sheer power of nature — waves crashed onto the black sand, a cold wind whipped down from above, and dozens of seagulls circled high around two curious rocks jutting out of the sea about a hundred yards off shore.

I became so engrossed in photographing the scene I didn’t notice the rising tide, which overcame me suddenly and washed my legs in bitter cold saltwater. Instead of depressing my experience, however, the water enhanced the awe-inspiring moment — adding tactile feeling to a holistic invasion of sensation that assaulted my senses.

I returned to the city that night with a few grainy photos and a feeling of exhilaration that can only be found on the boundaries of existence, in that elusive space outside comfort zones, where the only thing that matters is the present.

The “Golden Circle”

A river stretches into the horizon not far from Geysir in Iceland.
A river stretches into the horizon not far from Geysir in Iceland.

After spending the night at Capital-Inn hostel in Reykjavík, I set a course the next day, Sunday, to Gullfoss Falls, the “Golden Circle’s” hallmark attraction.

The “Golden Circle,” as it’s called, is a loop that starts in the city and takes about three or four hours to drive around, which hits a number of popular tourist attractions including þingvellir National Park, where the earth is literally being torn asunder by shifting Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and where ancient civilizations gathered for civil discourse.

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Another place, Geysir, has a lot of geothermal activity including a popular geyser.

Finally, there’s Gullfoss Falls — a series of large waterfalls set in a powerful river so magnificent it’ll take your breath away.

Words don’t do it justice.

Of the three, I found Geysir to be particularly interesting, not because of the geyser itself, rather, because of gorgeous colors that seep into crystal clear, steaming-hot ground-water.

Beauty is where you least expect it

As I usually discover while traveling, my most memorable experiences weren’t anticipated — and came on the side of the road.

While driving the circle, I first chanced upon a gorgeous river snaking away into the horizon. It was a vista I’d imagined in my mind before, and happily captured it on camera.

The second was the most magical little waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life.

It jumped out of heavy fog just off a very narrow two-lane road, set back around a precarious curve. I quickly turned around and pulled my Kia onto the dirt, grabbed my camera and hiked down about five minutes to an overlook above the falls.

That moment, standing on the edge of a cliff, feeling cold mist drift up from the falls with the wind at my back, as water cascaded down a series of steps, is one that’ll stay with me forever.

Gullfoss Falls in Iceland.
Gullfoss Falls in Iceland.

Another time, I emerged over a small rise to find myself standing about 300 feet up overlooking a massive river that’d chiseled through lava rock.

Iceland in the Raw

All in all, I discovered Iceland in its raw form — not as the guidebooks told me it’d be, but as it was to me: cold, rainy, foggy, miserable, beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring.

On Monday morning, before I caught my flight home, I drove to the coast near the airport. Over a small berm, I stood in front of the ocean, alone amidst the darkness, listening to the waves.

Their restlessness seemed to serve as an explanation point on my experience: Iceland will continue to experience the brunt of nature’s wrath, from volcanos and earth-tearing plate shifts to all-consuming darkness and stormy weather, long after I’ve departed this earth.

As I boarded the plane, the sun finally broke through the clouds; a gorgeous, golden wash that enveloped everything, painting the world cheery, just as the fog and darkness had made everything dreary and depressing just hours before.