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Húsavík to Mývatn

Literally the land of fire and ice.

We left Hraunbrun with a recommendation from our host to stop at Ásbyrgi Canyon, part of the Vatnajökull National Park, as we traveled back to Road 1. This lush canyon was formed thousands of years ago after a volcanic eruption melted a glacier and anything not nailed down (so everything) was washed away. The entrance to the canyon is right off Road 85 just before Road 864 that cuts south back to Road 1.

However, our little traveling group thought the Icelandic legend of Ásbyrgi’s formation more likely. Folklore says the canyon was formed when Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse (because four-legged horses aren’t good enough for gods), accidentally stepped on the land…and it is sorta shaped like a horseshoe.

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The canyon is also the capital city of the “hidden people” or huldufólk. They live in the crevices and cracks of the cliff walls. Over the years people have reported seeing the homes, public buildings, and concert halls belonging to these Icelandic elves. So…yeah…elves.

Though after a few moments standing at Botnstjörn lake, I can see how there might be concert halls amongst the moss and stones. On the day we visited, a morning rainstorm had left everything in a saturated state, sparkling and overly green. Aside from the sounds of dripping water, the canyon was quiet and still. No wind. No road noise. Nothing. Even the waterfowl were calm in their search for food and the fulmar (think seagulls) flying above made no cries. If I had to choose a place on our trip that might be laden with magic, it would be Ásbyrgi.

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After our walk in the canyon and a stop at the visitor center, we filled up on petrol and sandwiches then headed forward. In order to reach Road 1, we had to take another gravel road. The good part, the Jimney handled it without falling apart. The better part, Dettifoss waited for us down the way.

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Heading south on Road 864 and against the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the first waterfall you can see is Hafragilsfoss.

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As far as views, Hafragilsfoss was my favorite. We arrived with an overcast sky, but the sun wasn’t far behind. (I like to think it was our good-natured Florida style and the sun was trying to keep up, but we had sunny weather and clearing skies for many parts of our trip and according to the locals, this was a strange occurrence.) Nicole and I wandered down the path for a wider view of Hafragilsfoss. As we watched, the sun emerged and the landscape changed drastically…and it was amazing.

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A little farther upriver sits (or rather falls) Dettifoss. In terms of volume, this is the largest waterfall in Iceland. It might also be the most powerful in Europe. It’s impressive and majestic. But I loved the waterfall that sits even further up the river.

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There is a path that begins at Dettifoss and continues along the river and further south. It’s not strenuous by any means, but less than a quarter of the tourists stopping for Dettifoss continued onward. I can’t imagine being so close to Selfoss and not seeing it. In my view, Selfoss is the sexiest of the waterfalls along this stretch.

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We saw these falls all from the east side of the river. I think the west side allows for closer views of Dettifoss and (with some hiking) Hafragilsfoss. I think either side is amazing. If you have time for both, do it. If not, you won’t be disappointed with east or west.

This is also where we met Mike, the ginger Canadian. That’s a side note for Katie.

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I learned later that the route around Húsavík and Lake Mývatn is sometimes called the Diamond Circle. The main stops are Húsavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon, Lake Mývatn, and Dettifoss. So, kudos to us. We did the Golden Circle, the Diamond Circle, and god only knows what other circles…there are too many circles.

Several kilometers later, we reached Road 1 again. Heading west (and backtracking slightly) we reached Mývatn. Well, actually we reached Námafjall and Hverir first. I had heard of Hverir but hadn’t thought too much of it until we saw the clouds of steam rising before the mountain pass to Mývatn. Námafjall is the mountain that rises above Hverir, a hot-spring area with steam fumaroles and bubbling mud pots.

If you’ve ever seen Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, you’ll remember the Bog of Eternal Stench. THIS IS IT. THIS PLACE SMELLS TERRIBLE. IT IS LITERALLY THE BOG OF ETERNAL STENCH. It was like rotten eggs had been left in a veterinary clinic that hadn’t been cleaned in years and then a group of people farted at the same time in that building. From this point on, the poor Jimny’s interior never recovered as far as smell.

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There was also a film crew. Just a side note.

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That evening in Mývatn, we grabbed pizza at a place called “Daddi’s Pizza” and checked in at the Dimmuborgir Guesthouse run by a really generous and hospitable family. Lacey stayed back to finish some school work while Nicole and I headed out to visit Grjótagjá. At one point, people could bathe in the water of this cave, but after the more recent volcanic activity in the area, the water temperature rose to be far too hot for swimming. Nicole and I sat for a while, dipping our feet in and out…but that was all we could tolerate.

By the way, I learned later (thanks Wikipedia) that Grjótagjá was used as a location for filming the fifth episode of the third season of Game of Thrones, called “Kissed by Fire”.

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That evening, we did get a chance to sit in some warm water. Helski, the son of the owner of the guesthouse was sitting in their newly built hot tub/bath. It was basically a large concrete tub at the end of the deck and overlooked the Lake Mývatn. We watched the sunset, talked about Iceland and America. Later on, two Brits joined us. One was a photographer for heavy metal bands…he did album covers. Not sure what that means.

In the morning, we had the best breakfast of any of the guesthouses we stayed at. There was home-smoked lamb and trout, meat and cheese, homemade bread, orange juice, strong coffee, and more. I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through the area. The meats are delicious and all smoked on-site. There was even a waffle maker and no extra charge for using it.

We set off after breakfast to see more of the area before we stopped at the Nature Baths.

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And so we came to Krafla and the Leirhnjúkur lava fields. It’s like an unworldly scene from some 70’s science fiction movie.

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We followed up our walk through the fields with several hours of lounging in the Mývatn Nature Baths. Think of this as the teaser for our final stop of the trip at the Blue Lagoon. But that’s for later. If you’re in this area of Iceland, the baths are worth a visit. It’s not as expensive as the Blue Lagoon but it is smaller. However, the view from the pools overlooks the lake and is rather epic. The water is warm and best of all, the minerals in it are reported to be good for the skin and body. I hope that’s true…because we were there for a few hours.

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The late afternoon saw us heading further on to the eastern fjords and the town of Seyðisfjörður. We reached the AirBNB thereafter a lovely steep drive over and down the mountain that tested the Jimny’s limits. Perhaps the little Suzuki is more durable than I assume…but it felt like a real struggle for our small 4×4. The Defender could have done it, no problem, but I guess the Jimny makes the story a little more dramatic, right?

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Travel Notes:

  • Conversations with Locals: From our interactions, I learned that the people of Iceland are very proud but also generous. They are also very sarcastic and witty. Be prepared, for if you prove to be friendly, they will make fun of you. Sarcasm might be their love language.
  • Reusable Bags: Bring at least one reusable shopping bag. You have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery.
  • Be Spontaneous: When there’s a whale tour in 15 minutes, just do it.
  • Petrol/Gas: Make a point of filling up your vehicle’s tank before leaving any “major” cities. There is no guarantee of stations outside of the towns and you could face over a 100km before an opportunity to refuel arrives.
  • What to Wear (During the Summer): Rain jackets and windbreakers are a must. Dress in layers as the weather will shift from sunny and calm to chilly and drizzling, to windy and rainy with no warning.
  • Umbrellas: Not needed. Instead choose a high-quality rain jacket with hood and zipper pockets.
  • Driving: The roads can be treacherous between unpaved sections and steep inclines and declines. Choose a 4×4 for your rental vehicle. (If it’s in your budget, go big and get the Defender.) Also, keep your lights on at all times. It’s the law. And don’t stop in the road to take pictures. Wait for a space to pull off the road before you get snap-happy. Don’t fear the gravel roads. Speed is your friend. Keep both hands on the wheel, but aim for 40-60km/h. Try it and you’ll believe me. Keep your eyes peeled for awesome sites and sheep crossing the road.
  • Food: It’s expensive to eat here. A good budget option is to pack your lunches. Stop at groceries and buy supplies before heading out in the morning. Bring snacks as well, along with extra water. Hiking will leave you hungry and dehydrated…and in general, it’ll be miles (kilometers) before you reach a place to eat.