Katla: In a cathedral of ice
VBefore a trip to the ice in Iceland, there is a trip in an off-road jeep or bus. Because the volcanoes, glaciers and ice caves cannot be reached directly from the Ring Road, the 1339-kilometer road around the island. It often goes over gravel roads with deep potholes, thick boulders and tight curves. That’s how it is on this summer’s day, on the way into an ice cave of the 1512 meter high glaciated Katla volcano.
After tour guide Andreas Jacobsen left the ring road near the village of Vík, the route leads through a bizarre lunar landscape. Coarse black sand and crushed lava on the bottom. Katla is an active volcano, last erupting in 1918. This normally takes place every 60 years. “We wait for a new eruption almost every day,” says Jacobsen with a smile. Icelanders are used to living with the forces of nature.
Then he hands out helmets and spikes. First it goes past tall grey-black heaps of volcanic ash and ice, then around a pyramid-like lava cone, then into the ice cave – a gigantic cathedral of nature in which people seem tiny.
Inside it is suddenly cool, only a few degrees above zero. A loud roar can be heard in the distance. Is there even a waterfall in the cave? “Of course not,” says Jacobsen. The noise comes from the meltwater that drips from the turquoise-blue ceiling, collects in the cave and finally flows as a rushing stream towards the cave entrance.
The path through the dim cave, which constantly changes direction and height, requires a lot of concentration. The meltwater stream meanders through the cave, you have to cross it again and again on narrow, sometimes mossy, slippery wooden boards. Only one rope serves as a hold. It is best to find a stable place to admire the walls formed by wind and water and the diffusely glowing ice sheet. Depending on the density and thickness of the ice, the color spectrum ranges from white to gray and matt black to fascinating shades of blue.
On the other side of the cave, ice mounds of different sizes stand side by side, like sculptures in black and white. Some of them are riddled with veins of ash, others are completely dusted with volcanic dust. “There’s also volcanic ash on it from the last big eruption of Eyjafjallajökull,” says Jacobsen. The gigantic ash cloud from the erupting volcano paralyzed large parts of air traffic in the northern hemisphere for weeks in 2010.
Finally, the guide leads his group to an inconspicuous hole through which water flows down. “This will be the entrance to the next ice cave,” he says. The hole is currently only about a meter in diameter. “But it’s growing day by day,” says Jacobsen. The water, together with the wind that blows through the cave itself, forms bizarre new works of art in the ice.
Jökulsárlón: Paddling in the glacier lagoon
If you want to see icebergs in action, head to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon 300 kilometers east of Vík. Whenever Iceland’s largest glacier calves, the mighty Vatnajökull, the broken pieces fall as icebergs into the huge, ice-cold lake in the country, which is 284 meters deep.
Tour guide Tryggvi Valur Tryggvason glides calmly in his red kayak through the water, which appears blue-grey under the thick clouds. His group of paddlers has been joined by two curious seals, who keep poking their heads out of the cold water.
The beauty of icebergs can be treacherous. “We only see about 10 percent of the ice above water,” says Tryggvason. Although the kayak has little draft, the risk of bottoming out is low. But the icebergs have a life of their own. “Depending on the position of the sun and how they melt, they can tip. You’d rather not be near that – and certainly not underneath it.” In the best-case scenario, the mass of icebergs triggers strong waves. Therefore, guided tours are recommended.
In addition to the zodiacs, large motorized rubber boats, and the hybrid boats that can also go on land, the kayakers in the lagoon look very relaxed. Tryggvason drives at a reasonable distance between the icebergs, which are up to 15 meters high and shimmer in a wide variety of colours. Some chunks of ice are pure white and streaked with black volcanic ash, others are crystal clear. If they are intensely turquoise, there is a lot of oxygen in the ice.
The life cycle of the ice is also fascinating. Once the mountains have melted into small chunks of ice, they happily sway back and forth between the large ice floes. Or they drift towards the open Atlantic, where they often land again and pile up on the black basalt beach. This natural phenomenon is called Diamond Beach in Iceland. Because when the sun shines through the clouds and hits the ice, it sparkles like a thousand jewels.
Silfra: diving between tectonic plates
A place that is difficult to reach offers a cooling that is unique in the world: the Silfra fissure. That’s the name of one of Iceland’s most bizarre natural attractions, a glacial meltwater-filled fault in Thingvellir National Park.
The special feature of this natural pool, which is several kilometers long, is that it lies between the North American and the Eurasian plates, so it forms the natural border between two continents. Because the tectonic plates are drifting apart, the gap is about seven millimeters wider every year.
Visitors who don’t mind the cold can snorkel and dive in the Silfra fissure. Meltwater from the nearby Langjökull glacier has been pouring in since it opened after an earthquake in 1789. The water temperature ranges between two and four degrees Celsius all year round, so visitors will need thick wetsuits, gloves and a hat.
But what don’t you do to dive into the interface between America and Europe for once in your life. By the way, the water in which you snorkel is of the best quality. It took decades to make its way from the glacier through the rock into the fissure, so it’s perfectly filtered and so clear that nothing obscures the view at all three dive sites.
Vatnajökull: Hiking on Europe’s largest glacier
Vatnajökull is a giant: Iceland’s largest glacier covers eight percent of the country’s surface. Richard Bell carefully steers the off-road van along the track that winds its way from the ring road through the volcanic landscape, pothole after pothole, curve after curve.
All the way that Bell travels from the main road was covered by glacial ice a good 100 years ago. Kilometer after kilometer it has already melted. Today it’s still a good 45 minutes’ drive before you reach the edge of the eternal ice.
First it goes over hills and boulders, then over a rickety bridge and a river of meltwater. After two kilometers the hikers are on the ice.
Everyone has already received crampons, but they are not put on yet – the glacier is flat here and the ice lies on top of one another as if in small shards. The icy wind whistles. After all, the sun is shining from the blue sky, but it’s not enough for more than six or seven degrees even in midsummer. If you have gloves with you, you have a clear advantage.
Richard Bell, who came to Iceland from New Zealand many years ago, demonstrates how to use the spikes to move up and down the glacier slowly and safely. The ice is getting thicker and harder – and slippery where it has melted into puddles.
First of all, it goes down into a kind of ice canyon. Luckily there are ropes attached there that make it easier to descend and later ascend in the steeper passages.
After everyone has mastered this gigantic ice hole, it goes up to the volcano that slumbers under the glacier. Some of the ice that formed here more than 2,500 years ago is up to 1,000 meters thick. Further up, the ground becomes smoother. To the west is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon with its turquoise waters glowing turquoise in the sunshine and the huge icebergs floating on it – a breathtaking sight.
Eventually, the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, fed by the melting icebergs, is likely to change shape and size. Richard Bell estimates that this will take a few more decades. So if you want to experience Iceland’s icy beauty, you still have time.
Reykjavík: Liquorice ice cream at Iceland’s only ice cream factory
Gylfi Valdimarsson is probably one of the coolest Icelanders out there. The trained chef actually wanted to open a restaurant after his years of travel. But he came up with another idea: ice cream. He trained in manufacturing in New York, then looked for a suitable business for his ice cream shop called “Valdis” in his homeland. He found what he was looking for in the area around Reykjavík Harbour. Today, visitors can take a look at the delicacies through the large windows of the ice cream parlor.
Valdimarsson obtains milk, powdered milk and cream from Icelandic farmers, but things get more difficult with the other ingredients. The fruit for the fruit sorbets has to be imported just like the cocoa powder for the chocolate ice cream. The raw material for the liquorice ice cream comes from Denmark. “It’s one of our perennial favorites,” says Gylfi Valdimarsson.
Ice cream with bits of biscuit and peanuts is also popular at “Valdis”. From time to time he also has unusual items on offer, such as bacon ice cream with pieces of bacon or curry ice cream with coconut and chili.
The opening hours of the shop at the harbor show that Icelanders like the restaurateur’s ice cream. It is open every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for the country’s most important public holidays. The “Frakkastígur” branch in a side street off Reykjavík’s shopping street is even open 365 days a year. It’s amazing how great the need for cooling is in a city whose daily average annual temperature is just 7.5 degrees Celsius.
Tips and information:
Getting there: For example with Icelandair daily non-stop from Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt/Main and Munich to Reykjavík. Eurowings flies to Reykjavík from Düsseldorf in the summer.
Accommodation: The largest hotel in the country is practical, the “Fosshotel Reykjavík”, double rooms from 159 euros (islandshotel.is). The organic boutique hotel “Eyja Guldsmeden” is centrally located in the city, double rooms from 169 euros (guldsmedenhotels.com/eyja). The Hotel Rangá is conveniently located on the way to the south. Built like a Canadian log cabin, it is completely free in nature, except for the height of summer, guests can even see the Northern Lights at any time of the year. The double room costs from 325 euros (hotelranga.is).
Icy Tours: All outdoor tours are weather dependent and may be canceled at short notice; Transfers are available from Reykjavík (www.visiticeland.com).
Hiking in the Ice Cave: Tours in the various caves of the glaciated volcano Katla are offered all year round. The tour lasts about three hours from Vík and costs from 160 euros per person (southadventure.is and adventures.is).
Glacier lagoon adventure: You can paddle a kayak on the glacier lagoon from May to September. The outfitters provide warm, waterproof suits and neoprene shoes. It’s a good idea to wear tight clothing underneath, such as leggings and a long-sleeved shirt. A tour lasts an hour and a half and costs from 90 euros per person (icelandadventuretours.is and iceguide.is).
Snorkeling and diving in Silfra: All providers have a changing facility in the car park in Thingvellir National Park, where you can put on the wetsuit provided. It is best to wear long, warm underwear and thick socks underneath. People who wear glasses switch to contact lenses. The tour lasts about two and a half hours and costs from 135 euros per person (dive.is and adventurevikings.is).
Hiking on Vatnajökull: You will be taken to the glacier, and the organizers will also provide you with spikes and a helmet. You should bring good hiking shoes that are at least ankle-high. Tours take place between May and September, last around four hours and cost from €100 per person (glacieradventure.is and heyiceland.is).
Further information: south.is
Participation in the trip was supported by Visit Iceland. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.com/de/Werte/downloads.