Tourists who come to Iceland for culture, rather than nature, are likely to miss Lake Mývatn. Less than two hours’ drive from Akureyri, there are no towns of notable size right on the lake. While this may be perplexing at first, given Mývatn’s considerable beauty as well as its annual tourist draw, it is explained by the fact that it is illegal to build homes adjacent to her shores. Avid birdwatchers will know the lake for the plentiful bird species that live around her waters – Mývatn is, in fact, Europe’s largest bird sanctuary. But even if birds aren’t your thing, a wealth of natural beauty, as well as geological and man-made history, are to be found within only a few kilometres of Lake Mývatn.
Our trip began with an early morning flight from Reykjavík to “the capital of the North,” Akureyri. There we immediately boarded our homebase for the day – a minibus. Our tour was small, composed of myself, our cameraman, a pair of newlyweds from Northern Ireland, a young man from Japan, and our driver and guide, Ragnheiður Ragnarsdóttir. A native of the Akureyri area, Ragnarsdóttir began the day by taking us on a brief driving tour of the city. We were informed that Akureyri is home to the 30-time national hockey champs (in a nation with four competing teams, but still impressive) as well as the Iceland’s winter sports association (the local ski area is capable of carrying over 3,000 people per hour up its slopes in wintertime).
On leaving Akureyri our first stop is Goðafoss, a double waterfall named for the pagan idols Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw into it after deciding at Alþingi that Iceland should convert to Christianity a millennium ago. Not as large as Gullfoss in the southwest, Goðafoss offers up clear aquamarine waters in contrast to Gullfoss’s opaque glacial runoff. Though the Grapevine’s acrophobic cameraman did not seem enthusiastic about the various vantage points of the river fed by Goðafoss on the short cliffside walk, I very much enjoyed taking the misty trail to the nearby restaurant, which was our next departure point.
From Goðafoss we drove on, to our first glimpse of Mývatn. The lake is named for the plentiful black flies that swarm near its waters and feed the multitudinous birds who make it their home. Luckily, this was a clear, damp day, and there were no flies to be seen. A light drizzle accompanied my fellow tourists and me on our next nature walk around the pseudo craters that litter Mývatn’s shores and islands.
Pseudo craters can be concentric, with up to four or even more craters sitting one within the next. They differ from other volcanic craters in that nothing is blown out of the vents, but on releasing steam from the ground they collapse inward on themselves. The craters here are grassy and home to a number of sheep (which Ragnarsdóttir encouraged me to chase on hearing how much I have wanted to pet them – I was mercifully stopped by my co-worker who informed me their speed defies the size of their legs). Despite the pastoral setting found on many of Mývatn’s edges, evidence of recent volcanic activity is all around, looming sepulchral in the background. Hverfjall, an enormous, black volcanic crater would dominate the horizon for much of the day’s journey.
Following this walk we took a lunch break in Reykjahlíð, a place in legendary for the volcanic activity that came in 1729. The tale goes that as the lava flowed towards the town, its people came together in the church and prayed that the lava would not overtake it. After praying for hours, and finding themselves still alive, the townspeople vented outside where they saw that lava had bypassed the church building on not one, but both sides. Regardless of your religious persuasions, it is a startling sight. Reykjahlíð is also where we took our lunch break at the local hotel. They served my companion and me, respectively, French fries and their special of traditional Icelandic lamb soup.
Getting back on the road we headed to Dimmuborgir, a word that translates to English as “dark castles.” As with many locations in Iceland, the geology here has a mythology to accompany it. The story is that there was once a lonely troll whose friends paid him a visit to cheer him up. The trolls danced and partied all night, unfortunately all the way until sunrise, which of course turned them to stone, thus explaining the fantastic rock formations seen here. I don’t know about trolls, but I definitely saw a formation that looked exactly like a sheep. Ragnarsdóttir informed us that later on, “people called scientists came” to refute the original troll/sunlight explanation, but I would recommend going to Dimmuborgir with a sense of humour and imagination to get the full experience.
Now heading further away from Mývatn, we drove to Grjótagjá. Natural bathing caves at Grjótagjá are set in a chasm ripped into the earth by volcanic activity and were long used by locals until an eruption in 1975 made the waters too hot to bear. They are slowly cooling down again, but even without using the caves for a bath, it is worth the climb down into the natural caverns to get a look at the steaming blue waters. The caves are just off the roadside, but totally invisible to those unaware of their existence.
From Grjótagjá we move on to Hverarönd. Bubbling mud pits and abandoned sulphur boreholes make Hverarönd, as Ragnarsdóttir put it, a “warm and smelly” tourist attraction. The bubbling mud – a few dark grey, pulsating pools that can reach 400°C – which lie throughout the area, are best characterised by my companion’s remark, “So this is where the black paint is made.” As for the boreholes, Germans originally drilled them for sulphur before leaving Iceland at the outbreak of WWII. In an example of “Scandinavian cooperation,” as Ragnarsdóttir told us, after the war, Danes took over sulphur excavation which they “exported from Iceland to make gun powder, and sold it to Norway, and the Norwegians used to shoot the Swedish.”
Following what was, indeed, a smelly though interesting walk, we hopped back in the minibus and drove up past the Krafla power plant. The plant has been operational, despite some setbacks because of volcanic activity, since 1977. The borehole stations, red “space igloos” as my companion called, along with the plant and traversing pipelines make Krafla an interesting man-made alteration to the natural landscape.
Leaving Krafla we made our final stop at the “other Blue Lagoon,” the Mývatn Nature Baths. Similar in almost every respect to its Reykjanes area comparison, the Nature Bath is smaller, less crowded, and feels altogether a lot more like a lagoon than a tourist attraction. Like its counterpart, both locations are famous for their beneficial effects on various skin conditions, psoriasis sufferers in particular claim the mineral-filled waters alleviate their symptoms. Suits and towels are available for bathers who happen by the Nature Baths on their tours of the Mývatn area.
After our soak, my five companions and I again loaded ourselves back into the minibus and drove off at record speeds to Akureyri where we would catch our evening flight. Landing in Reykjavík, I reflect that the scope of the geography available to Iceland’s tourists in the span of a day is almost incomprehensible. Returning to the capital only 12 hours after leaving her behind makes a journey into wild nature, as well as a tour of metropolitan nightlife, easily attainable in 24 hours. Oh, Iceland.
The best way to get to mývatn:
Air iceland offers day-trips from Reykjavík to Mývatn
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air Iceland provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.