There are few reasons, in my opinion, to get out of bed early. The rare occasion of catching a flight is one of them. And so when I was asked to go on a day trip to Lake Mývatn in the north-east of the country – a place that after more than a year of living in Iceland, I still hadn’t visited – I accepted with little hesitation.
With only a day at our disposal, we made the almost 500 km journey from Reykjavík to the capital of the north, Akureyri, by plane where we were met by our friendly guide, Sigurður Óskarsson. From the airport we were driven over the highlands, stopping occasionally to take in the view of the town below. As we travelled over the side of the mountain we were greeted with snow and the reality that we probably hadn’t chosen the best day to explore the north.
But our optimistic guide was quick to assure us that the region simply has different things to offer during the different seasons, and presumably in different weather conditions. “It depends on how you want to experience the area,” he told us. What he meant was that although we may have missed the bright, sunny weather and the abundant birdlife characteristic of the summer, and the autumn colours, visiting in the winter also has its charms – namely the absence of the dozens of tour buses that must compete for parking spots during the warmer seasons. The empty roads, our guide told us, meant that we would have time to visit additional places along the way, plus we would be able to enjoy them without the crowds. In fact, our small group of five, plus the guide and driver, did not run into a single other person along the way. After taking a short tour of Goðafoss, ‘Waterfall of the Gods,’ and after an hour on the road, we arrived at Lake Mývatn. Located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the 37 km² lake was created more than 2000 years ago by a large volcanic eruption. When the glowing lava flowed into the lake (what is now Mývatn), the water-logged sediment got trapped underneath it. Steam and gas explosions tore the lava into small pieces, creating groups of what are known as pseudo craters, which characterise the shoreline and islands of the lake. The area is a protected conservation site and has the most pseudo craters in the world. These oddly shaped and coloured (green, brown, black and yellow) hills at Skútusdaðir, on the southern edge of the lake, were our first glimpse of many strange geological formations in the area.
Because of Mývatn’s shallow depths, sunlight is able to penetrate into the waters, helping life to thrive in the area. Laxá, Mývatn’s only outpouring river, is apparently the best, and also the most expensive (the price can be up to 2,500 euros/212,000 ISK a day) salmon-fishing spot in the country. In the warmer months, the region is rich in birdlife. But, at this time of year the waters are quiet. And, thankfully, the skies are too. Our guide told us about the thick clouds of midges (flies), after which the lake is named, which exist during the summer. Sometimes they number so many, that the road ahead can barely be seen, our guide informs us. Predictably, the upside of such cool temperatures as on that day was the absence of flies and other insects.
Standing in the hypothermia-inducing winds for 20 minutes made us appreciate our lunch of warm cauliflower soup at the local hotel all the more. It was then onto Dimmuborgir with its forest of rock pillars and crags. The area was created as a result of the same volcanic eruption which formed Mývatn. Although legend has it that the rock formations are in fact a drunken party of trolls which were turned to stone by the morning sunlight. The guide was keen to point out the two “trolls” embracing.
Later we stopped at the cave of Grjótagjá where locals and tourists alike have been known to bathe in the 35-40ºC waters, and at Víti or ‘Hell’ crater-lake. The bright blue water against the deep, brown crater walls are yet another example of the stunning geological sites in the area. On the way to Námaskarð, the highlight of the day, we passed the Krafla Geothermal Power Plant, where bore holes as deep as 3000 metres have been drilled in order to harness the natural energy below.
The mud flats of Námaskarð consist of pastel-coloured steam vents and bubbling mud pits and were by far the most spectacular destination on the trip. The icy winds prevented us from spending too long admiring the strange colours – varying shades of blue, brown, purple, white and yellow (even fluorescent yellow) – though some of the group warmed up by engulfing themselves in the steam rising from the muddy ground. The ground is so warm that the locals bake their bread by placing the dough mixture in the ground nearby where it cooks in the natural heat.
Our final stop was a much needed visit to the warm waters of the Mývatn Nature Baths, the North’s answer to Reykjavík’s Blue Lagoon. Much like the Blue Lagoon, the place consists of steam baths, hotpots and a natural bath pool of bluish geothermal water, rich in minerals and silicates. The difference is that, at least at this time of year, you can potentially have the whole place to yourself. We shared the pools with only two others, a far cry from the overcrowded waters of the Blue Lagoon. Though, on the other hand, the waters were noticeably cooler.
All in all, our extensive nine-hour guided trip of the Mývatn area was a great way to spend some time in this part of the country. Especially knowing that it was just that – a daytrip where you can experience such varied landscape over such short distances. I expected the lake itself to be the most spectacular site of the trip, but the diverse and wonderful geological sights that surround Mývatn are the highlights which, in many people’s minds, earn Mývatn the title of being the most beautiful area in the country.
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