Visit Iceland before its 32 active volcanoes turn the country into “Magmaland.”

If the frequent flying lava doesn’t fry you, the constant subzero temperatures will crystallize you.
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brown mountain under gray clouds
Photo @Toby Elliott.

Weeks before our trip to Iceland, its Emergency Management folks evacuated residents from the town of Grindavík. What's worse, the Icelandic Meteorological Office closed the famous Blue Lagoon hot-springs. All because government geologists thought the Fagradalsfjall volcano might “go all Pompeii.” Luckily for us—and the townsfolk of Grindavik, I suppose—they were wrong.

Etna, Italy Volcano Eruption January 12th
Etna, Italy Volcano Eruption January 12th, 2011

Try to visit Iceland in between major eruptions.

Hawaiian volcano
The Big Island of Hawaii is also highly volcanic.

The entirely of Iceland's landmass sits above a volcanic hotspot in the North Atlantic fed by streams of hot mantle rising from the Earth's core. So the country's 32 volcanoes average an eruption every couple of years or so, the most recent of which was in 2022. In a word, yikes.

Even if you don't die from fire chunks, volcanoes can still cause a lot of problems. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 spewed huge clouds of ash into the atmosphere that led to widespread airspace closures over for weeks, affecting approximately 10-million very pissed-off travelers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Iceland's most recent eruptions were in February and March of 2024.

We rolled the dice in December of 2023, flying first to Boston, then on to Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, and only major city. By the time we arrived, we were jet-lagged, five-hours off, and facing seven days of near constant night. Our circadian rhythms hadn't just lost the beat, they were playing entirely different songs.

Unlike the capital of Quito, Ecuador, which is surrounded by volcanos, Reykjavík is reasonably far away from the country's many Anger Mountains. Still, it was a bit freaky to be flying toward an island in the North Atlantic which could explode into a firestorm at any minute. Adding to the festivities, I felt a minor earthquake tremor while I was there.

Snowy crack in Iceland
The dividing line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Iceland is on the butt-crack between two tectonic plates.

Walking path in crevace
on one side, to the other.

Compared to 's Big Island—a relatively recent geological formation—the island of Iceland is 32-times older. Its landmass belched from Earth's sulfurous bowels some 16-million years ago. Though its formation seems much more recent judging by the smell.

Positioned on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the two sides of Iceland are slowly moving apart an average of about 1-inch per year, according to the United States Geological Survey. And, as the two plates diverge, piles of lava rise to the surface and cool, creating the ridges you see on the current landscape.

Snowy crack in Iceland
A massive crack in the earth.

Iceland has 30 volcanic systems, 200 volcanoes, and 600+ hot springs. Not surprisingly, this isolated island is one of the most geologically “active” places on the planet. (Note: “Active” is a deceptively benign word used to avoid the more accurate phrase, “highly explosible.”)

Iceland is one of Earth's land-corks preventing its molten magma center from escaping. Yet, people willingly still live here. Frankly, I'm not convinced they teach Geology in any of Iceland's schools.

The perks of living above 32 active volcanoes.

Iceland's Energy Company

For starters, Iceland's instant-on hot and cold water is nothing short of impressive. The hot tap opens a direct line to volcano-superheated water, while the cold tap opens a direct line to the country's freezing freshwater sources. The result is a system that works the way Rogers and Bulfinch always dreamed indoor plumbing could. But the benefits of volcanoes don't end there.

Bore hole

Using their extra volcano heat, Icelanders steam turbines to generate carbon-free electricity. Along with their hydroelectric plants, Iceland is nearly carbon neutral already. Iceland is a leader in electric vehicles, too. In fact, the only fuels used on the island are imported to operate the country's dwindling population of internal combustion vehicles. Soon, gas-powered cars and trucks will be as rare a sight in Iceland as trees.

Where have Iceland's trees all gone?

wooden boat on the shore
Iceland escape vehicle | Photo @D. Chung

Despite being almost carbon nuetral today, Iceland has a long and less-than-ecological past. In fact, early Icelanders—in a fit of peak—cut down all of Iceland's trees to make boats, no doubt, for escaping this giant frozen rock.

And I mean, the early settlers cut them all down. Not just some of them. Their comprehensive tree-scaping of the local tundra even inspired an hilarious Icelandic joke: “If you ever get lost in a forest here, just stand up.” Naturally, new trees have been planted in recent years, but trees don't grow too quickly without sunlight half the year. So, even decades later, the joke still works.

reindeer in the snow
Suspicious reindeer | Photo @A. Thierfeld

Iceland has very few native or delicious species.

snow fox near brown rock
Arctic Fox Photo @Pixabay

Though there are mice, rats, minks, goats, and reindeer on the island, Iceland's only native mammal—and its most dangerous predator—is the Arctic Fox. However, since the country's apex predator is so adorable, tourists never see death approaching until it's too late.

Iceland's many swimming and flying inhabitants—primarily, birds and (but maybe also dragons and sea-monsters)—make up the basis for most of Iceland's traditional cuisine. Yet there is one species that's strictly off limits when it comes to killing and eating. And that's Icelandic horses.

Iceland horse
Once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never return—not that it wants to.

Icelandic horses are famous for their “breeding.”

Icelandic horse
Icelandic horses are “untainted” by other horse species.

The Horses of Iceland are one of the “purest” horse breeds in the world. Isolated on this rugged island in the North-Atlantic since the original Viking settlement, these horses have reproduced without any “genetic input” (i.e., strange) for 1,000 years.

The first settlers of Iceland were limited in the number of livestock they could cram into the overhead compartment of a Viking longboat. So they preselected their best animals for the trip. These horny horses screwed each other—both on the voyage, and when they got to Iceland—because there was no other horses around. And goats just didn't do it for them.

If that sounds like inbreeding, that's only because it is. Icelanders like to call it “selective breeding” to make it sound like something that would happen naturally in someplace like the Galapagos Islands. But that probably just means they killed off any foals that came out looking effed-up.

Of the 250,000+ Icelandic horses registered in the world, only 40% are still stuck in Iceland.

The Icelandic language is older than Iceland.

Church in Iceland valley
There's a church in this photo. See it? Artsy, right?

Much like Iceland's inbred equines, the county's language is pretty homo, too. Homogeneous, that is. When Iceland was first settled by Norsemen (basically Scandinavians), the country's first language was, coincidently enough, “Norse.”

Yet, because the island was nearly 620-miles away, Iceland didn't get the corporate memo when their homeland changed its name to Norway, and started updating their language after contact with German, Danish, and Swedish trading partners.

While today's Norwegian language is a mélange of influences, the Icelandic language hasn't changed in 700 years. So they don't have words for cromulent, rizz, or bussin' yet. Today, the most similar language is spoken by the people of the Faroe Islands. It's said to sound like “an Icelandic person having a stroke.”

How Iceland got its dumb name.

wooden viking boat
Viking Boat | Photo @B. Davoti

I think we can all admit that “Iceland” is a stupid name for a country. Not Boaty McBoatface-stupid, mind you, but it's certainly right up there. It's the type of first-level name a 7-year-old fantasy would invent while playing with dolls–sorry, I mean, action figures.

So how come the name stuck? Legend has it that a guy named Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson sailed to what was previously called Snæland—i.e., Snowland—a far more accurate and, frankly, more appealing name.

a viking sitting on a branch
Depressed Viking | Photo @Valiantsin Konan

But Flóki had a pretty shitty time on this rock-covered country. First, his daughter drowned on the journey over. Then all his livestock starved to death in the first winter. Staring out over a fjord full of icebergs, Flóki decided not to wait around for yet another shoe to drop. So he said “fuck this,” and sailed home.

Once back in Norway, he verbally trashed the wretched place, derisively calling it “Ísland” (nee, “Iceland”) to evoke its bleak, frigid shitiness. But another crew member—one who'd presumably been driven mad by Iceland's frigid weather and sulfurous gases—went around telling everyone just the opposite.

He said that the place was so rich, even the grass dripped with butter. (NOTE: In cold climates of yore, butter remained rigid enough to be used as currency, provided you didn't put any of it in your pockets. Most Icelandic restaurants and stores now accept ApplePay.®)

With that mad man's glowing endorsement and some corroborating TripAdvisor reviews, butter-seeking adventurers sailed to the new land in droves (“droves” were a kind of small Norwegian sailing boat). Upon arrival, however, they were disappointed to learn that butter-grass was not a real thing.

Most of the people who survived the arduous journey immediately got back on their boats and sailed south to the Caribbean where it was warm. But the ones who stayed became known as “Íslendingurs” (i.e., men from Iceland). And, after someone had “I love Iceland” t-shirts printed up, there was no turning back.

Iceland has some pretty questionable traditions.

woman looking out the window
“Oh, gods, did I sleep with my cousin?” Photo by @K. Morgan

The people of Iceland have no surnames, at least not like normal cultures. When a child is born, it gets a “given name.” Yet the child's surname is the father's first name with the addition of its relation to him.

For example, if I were born in Iceland, my name would be Peter Edwardson. My wife's name would be Amy Josephdaughter.

Iceland church
“I may have some sins to confess, Father.”

It was a system that worked just fine as long as no two men had the same first name. Which is to say, it only worked on a small remote island in the North Atlantic. And only for the first few decades after 800 CE.

Clearly, accidental incest is now a very real problem for Icelanders. So much so that a website was built to ensure people weren't fucking their relatives. I'm not sure what the site's called, but I think a good name would be “Hinder.”

Sunset in Iceland
It's always either dusk or dawn in the winter.

Outside of Reykjavík, Iceland gets pretty rugged.

person on white snow field under blue starry sky
“I finished the mission statement!” Photo @Bjørkli

The entire country of Iceland only covers about 40,000 square miles. That's about the size of Ohio, if it had 11.5 million fewer people. While Reykjavík is a painfully charming and fairly cosmopolitan city of 250,000 Icelanders, another 100,000 of them live scattered around the rest of the country.

The city-dwellers live happy lives in the comfort of modern conveniences like electricity and heat, whereas the others doubtlessly live huddled in remote log cabins writing manifestos about the evils of urbanization and daily showering.

Icy road

Getting around Iceland is pretty easy.

parking sign and the seljalandsfoss waterfall in the background
WTF? Photo @V. Rajkovic

It's hard to get lost in Iceland. There's either a road going where you want to go, or you're not going there. Had we gone to Iceland in the summer, we probably would've rented a car, as the roads are dry and smooth. The signage is pretty good, too, but the road names are indecipherable and random collections of letters which are nigh impossible to remember.

By comparison, the roads in winter are icy and treacherous. Not wanting to careen into a crevice, we booked a bunch of day-tours. Traveling with natives also helped us avoid many of Iceland's natural dangers, such as exposure, lava, earthquakes, bad cell reception, going mad from lack of sleep (summer), or too much sleep (winter), and sudden sheep attacks.

Waterfall in iceland
Not quite frozen waterfalls.

There's a lot to do in Iceland during the winter.

You can do pretty much anything you want in Iceland. A surprising number of quasi-ethical activities are legal here and, in a country with such a sparse population, the rest are too hard to police. So if you wanted to hunt man for sport, you could probably get away with it.

man skiing down mountain
Photo by @Pixabay

In the winter, you can go snow-skiing, ice-skating, ice-fishing, or any other ice-related activity (we went “ice-cocktailing”). Provided, of course, that you can finish the activity before the sun goes down. Because, you know…vampires.

Strangely, skiing isn't as ubiquitous as you would expect in a place this cold. In fact, you can only really go skiing in the Blue Mountains. And even there, the resorts have to use snow machines to get any decent powder. Pretty ironic for a place that was once called, “Snow Land.”

icelandic landscape
Iceland has a stark beauty that I wouldn't want to live near.

Summer stuff to do in the land of the midnight sun.

man wearing blue shirt playing golf
Photo by @Jopwell

During the summer, Iceland is a paradise for people who do stuff, regardless of what stuff you like to do. During Iceland's summer, you can do more of that stuff because the sun never goes down, and when it finally does, it's not for long.

Imagine doing your favorite activity—whether it's jogging, mountain climbing, or whaling—at three in the morning. In broad daylight. Yeah, that's why Iceland has twice as many golf courses as it has volcanoes—where else can you play golf 24-hours a day?

black sand beach
Those rock formations on Reynisdrangar beach are petrified trolls according to drunk Icelanders.

Iceland's black sand beach lives up to its name.

black sand beach, iceland
That foreground sign says, “Black Sand Beach.”

In my experience, most beaches in the world that tout “colored sand” have been disappointing. The color is usually faint at best (see Hawaii's Green Sand Beach).

The black sands of Iceland's Reynisdrangar, however, are actually black. Like really black. I'm talking Goth black. Almost VantaBlack®. They are, unfortunately, not sand.

You see, bright red lava turns black after it cools. And once the relentless ocean waves erode it down to the size of tiny pebbles, it can pass for sand. I mean, it's not great sand, but then you aren't going to be laying out on the stuff, are you? Not during the winter, anyway.

rocky outcropping near Reynisdrangar beach
Not sure how this outcropping formed at Reynisdrangar. Trolls, probably?

Located about 100 miles from Iceland's capital city, Reynisdrangar beach makes you feel like you crash-landed a spacecraft on a planet populated by orcs or trolls. It resembles an alternate dimension like the Upside Down, the Spiderverse, or any FOX News programming. Your brain immediately thinks, “Well, this isn't right.” But, in this case, it is.

WARNING: There are no landmasses between and Reynisfjara to reduce the strength or speed of waves. These “sneaker waves” will both surprise you and drag you to a watery grave. So no selfies.

The land of fire, ice, trolls, fairies, and Vikings.

a large troll-looking rock sticking out of the ocean
Photo of troll @T. Bitter.

Iceland is a quixotic country full of stark vistas and otherworldly terrain. It is foreboding and hostile to human life. But, like some common-sense-resistant virus, humans have spread unchecked across this algae-covered ice-cube in the North Atlantic.

beautiful fairy in white dress
Fairie photo @Tú Nguyễn

Survival, for Iceland's citizens, was a constant stuggle. Cut off from the science of Western civilization, stories of trolls and fairies filled the knowledge vacuum to explain the insane world around them. Mythical creatures probably provided real comfort while they waited for the Earth to rip open and engulf them in purifying fire.

Drinking alcohol, you'd think, would provide a similar—if not greater—level of comfort. Yet alcohol's many well-documented benefits have been unavailable to most Icelanders. And not just because of its incredibly high cost everywhere around the island.

iceland's native liquor

For a country as cold, dark, and miserable as Iceland can be, it's pretty remarkable that they are so down on alcohol. Especially after putting up with the Dutch's dickish alcohol regulations which prohibited distillation for almost 400 years. Icelanders finally won their independence from Denmark in 1918, but didn't repeal the Dutch prohibition until 1935.

And even when they did, Iceland's new government created the State Alcohol Company to control production and distribution of alcohol. Incredibly, the company banned beer until 1989. Think about that. Icelanders couldn't drink beer until NBC had aired the 100th episode of Miami Vice! It's no wonder Iceland has so many underage drinkers.

iceland landscape

If you can't take a good photo here, sell your camera.

camera

Most professional landscape photographers plan their shots around “the golden hour.” A time of day is so-called because the sun is low in the sky, giving objects a golden glow and more attractive shadows. The location of Iceland, way up near the Arctic Circle, means that the sun often appears low in the sky.

lush green landscape with waterfall
See? Iceland is more colorful during the summer. Photo @Torten und Törtchen

Whereas the golden hour in most locations lasts about…you know, an hour, in Iceland, it lasts over half the day. So you have lots of time to get a good shot. The only impediment is all the other people in your frame trying to take great photos, too.

We visited Iceland in the winter and found most of its vistas ideal for Black & White photography. In hindsight, most of Iceland's insane landscapes would look even better in Summer. That's when, much like migrating birds, color and saturation return to the island. And one day, in the near future, so will we.

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