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Iceland in winter Day1 Blue Lagoon, Horse Riding, and Pingvellir
 
 
(Click on the images for a larger version.)
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I should explain why Ilaria and I were at the National car rental desk in Keflavķk during winter 2008, getting ready for our drive around the country of Iceland.

We both obtained our PhDs and were to start new postdocs at WashU in St. Louis in the middle of March. Tim Gardner, our boss in Boston, had already left for a new job in San Francisco, so there wasn't much action in our lab.

To smooth the transition between labs, we decided to take a big vacation. I suggested we travel around Costa Rica seeing monkeys, tropical birds, mountains, beaches, cloud forests, and lots of warm sun to escape the Boston winter. Ilaria said that we should instead go to Iceland, which was close to Boston (there is a 4hr daily direct flight) and we'd probably never have another easy opportunity to go there.

Since this photo is in cold, gray Iceland and not sunny, blue Costa Rica, you see who won.
 
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We purposely delayed our trip as much as possible, so we'd have more hours of daylight. During December, Iceland is dark 24/7. When we arrived on this March 1st morning, Iceland sunrise was around 9AM and sunset was around 5PM.

This SUV struck me by its giant tires. I thought the people in this country were even more excessive with their big cars than folks back in Alabama where I grew up, who were always trying to show off their giant SUVs. By the end of the trip, I would see the importance of such large tires and wish I had my own set many times.
 
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We arrived at the car that was to carry us around the country of Iceland. It appears that the parking lot needs a good plowing, but the wind is so strong, and the snow so frequent that there is just snow everywhere. The runways at the airport had a constant stream of giant plows on them, but (to my disbelief) the runways were still covered in ice and snow. I guess they make the runways extra long and space out the planes enough so that a little slipping and sliding doesn't mess things up.
 
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Being a European country, you had to pay a small fortune in extra fees to get an automatic transmission. So we rented a manual. When planning the trip, we could decide whether to get a 4wd SUV or a 2wd car. After experiencing over a week of driving in this country, I can't believe they even allow you to rent cars without 4wd in the winter. We wouldn't have gotten far with 2wd.

Like many Americans, I didn't know how to drive a manual transmission. Ilaria gave me a few lessons on her mom's car in Italy, but I was nervous about driving a manual transmission on this new obstacle of snow and ice.
 
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So Ilaria drove us out of the airport
 
Map of Iceland day 1  1
in Keflavķk
 
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and out into the wonderland of Iceland.
 
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We were instantly awe-struck by the landscape.
 
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All of the tourist websites and brochures about Iceland talk about how the country is formed by fire and ice.

The entire country is full of active and inactive volcanoes whose many eruptions over the years have formed the landmass of Iceland. Unlike every country I've ever lived in where the backdrop of the landscape is brown dirt and gray rocks, Iceland is mostly black. Black lava that has formed giant rocks, that has been crushed by the oceans into black sand, and that has been crushed by humans into black gravel for the blackest gravel and pavement roads you've ever seen.
 
iceland landscape
 
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After a twenty minute drive, we saw steam on the horizon and knew we were approaching the first stop
 
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on our iceland tour.
 
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That steam was from a geothermal power plant
 
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whose naturally hot water
 
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feeds the algae-blue waters
 
Blue Lagoon sign Iceland
of the Blįa Lóniš (Blue Lagoon).
 
Map of Iceland day 1  2
 
Grindavik sign Iceland
We arrived at the Blue Lagoon about 10 minutes before it opened, so we drove to the nearby town of Grindavik.
 
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One recurring theme of the trip was that there are many great spots for making a Suzuki car commercial.
 
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Prior to our trip, Ilaria and I tried to get some feel for the country by renting 101 Reykjavķk (the only film in Iceland that we could find on Netflix).

One thing that struck me in that movie was that many of the houses appeared to be made out of corrugated aluminum, which to me seemed like an inefficient way to insulate a home in such a cold country. But this little town had lots of corrugated aluminum houses too.
 
Grindavik church Iceland
In Grindavik, we saw the first of many
 
Grindavik church Iceland closeup
cute churches scattered across this country. The National Church of Iceland is a branch of the Lutheran religion.
 
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We drove past this little random piece of art in a random wasteland of snow and lava on our way back to the Blue Lagoon.
 
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We walked through the snow and rock lined path to the Blue Lagoon.
 
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Scandanavians are less repressed regarding nudity when compared to their fellow Europeans and much less repressed than Americans (e.g. Scandanavian men and women usually don't cover themselves with towels in public unisex saunas), so we were a little worried that our Lonely Planet Iceland guide's warning that you had to take a naked shower prior to entering the Lagoon meant we had to strip down in front of all of the people in the Lagoon. Thankfully, the lagoon is pretty touristy and separated by sexes. They even have showers with doors if you don't like the "freer" varieties that the natives use.
 
Ilaria Mogno Blue Lagoon
Blue water at 104F (40C) surrounded by snow covered black-lava was like paradise for Ilaria.
 
Ilaria Mogno Blue Lagoon 2
The Blue Lagoon is man-made, but contains many natural elements. The water is naturally heated by the geothermal vents, so even though they create a massive hot pool in the middle of the ice and snow, it is environmentally friendly. Second, the natural chemicals (particularly sulfur) and temperature of the water lead a blue algae to grow all over the bottom of the pool, which gives the pool it's unique color. This algae supposedly has lots of healthy benefits for the skin as a mosturizer and they have bins of it all around the pool so you can rub it on yourself. It does have a nice rubbery texture when you walk on it.
 
Ilaria Mogno Blue Lagoon 3
The lagoon is very large and you can spend hours relaxing in the hot water.
 
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The water temperature changes rapidly from section to section around the pools.
 
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There were a few sections that I found unbearably hot and I couldn't even walk or swim through them. But Ilaria could walk through them just fine.
 
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Overall our first stop on the Iceland trip was a great success. In the summer, I'm sure the lagoon is swarming with tourists, but in March we were two of only a handful of people in the giant Blįa Lóniš.
 
Bonus Iceland
We hadn't eaten since our breakfast on the Iceland Air flight. So we stopped into the first of many Bonus grocery stores that we shopped at on our trip.

scenery in Iceland = amazing

food (particularly lunch meat) available in Iceland grocery stores = not so amazing.
 
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I vowed before we left Boston that I was going to try some of the dried fish that is popular in Iceland.
 
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They certainly have plenty of varieties to choose from. But the stuff was so foul smelling and expensive that I could never build up the confidence to buy some (and I considered buying some in every store I entered).
 
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Having not slept in over 24 hours, the warm, relaxing lagoon was not the best way to stay awake. After the lagoon and a quick lunch, Ilaria and I went to
 
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ride horses for the first time in our lives.
 
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Icelandic horses are shorter and furrier than the horses in the US.
 
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So it was a good way to learn how to ride a horse.
 
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We took the horse riding course at Ķshestar, which seems to be the largest icelandic horse tour company. They have tons of horses, and I'd bet in the summer the place is crowded.
 
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But in the winter time we had the place all to ourselves. It was great to ride a horse for the first time on a cold, windy winter day in Iceland with no sleep for over 24 hours; the experience was a bit surreal, but the fresh air really gave us a boost to keep going.
 
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The main thing I learned from my first riding experiment: horse riding is extremely bumpy. Particularly if you go fast, the horse is all jiggling you around and you fell like your butt is getting smashed onto the saddle over-and-over, and you just wonder when you're going to slide right off onto the ground.

The other thing I learned is that riding a horse is really fun. I think I liked the horse experience more than Ilaria. Our guide's horse had some serious gas, which provided amusement as we walked along the beautiful Iceland scenery. Horse farts are really impressive.
 
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After the horse riding, I was ready to find a place to sleep. But Ilaria wanted to keep going. The only problem was that I still wasn't willing to try driving the manual transmission, particularly because the roads as we drove away from the populous region of Iceland, began to be covered in snowy ice (by the end of the trip, we would consider this a "good" road).
 
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Along the way, we passed a hydroelectric dam.
 
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Iceland gets almost all of its electricity from renewable energy sources. It has the cleanest air and water in the world.
 
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After an hour or two on the road, we arrived at Žingvellir.
 
pingvellir crack plate
Žingvellir is one of only two sites on Earth where the effects of two major tectonic plates drifting apart can be observed. These giant cracks in the Earth form where the plates are pulling apart from each other. When I was a kid, I used to always imagine giant cracks forming (that I invariably imagined myself falling in and landing in the center of the Earth); well I finally got to see such a crack.
 
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Žingvellir is also very important historically for Iceland. In the 930AD, the Alžing parliament was formed here. The government of Iceland would meet here yearly to recite all of the countries laws from memory.
 
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Ilaria and I
 
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played in the snow of the Žingvellir national park.
 
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The snow
 
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was pretty
 
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deep.
 
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We bumped into another tiny cute church.
 
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It was pretty sparse inside.
 
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After a few minutes in the snow,
 
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we were cold and ready to go.
 
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The short-cut smaller road that we hoped to be able to take on the way to hotel was closed for the winter. Though that wasn't stopping these monster trucks from riding on it. We didn't figure our Suzuki was up for the challenge,
 
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so we backtracked about an hour
 
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and as the sun set,
 
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we arrived at the Efstidalur farmhouse where we were to spend the nite.
 
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Farmhouses all around the country of Iceland have rooms available for travelers to stay in. We learned on this trip that as the country's tourism has boomed over the last decade, it has become more profitable to abandon the farm and just run the farmhouse as a hotel. Our first farmhouse was the only real farm of our entire trip. There were cows and other livestock outside our windows.

Ilaria got her first deep snow driving experience going up this drive way that lead to the farmhouse.
 
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As the sun went down,
 
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we moved our stuff into what we thought was our room for the nite. It turned out the host put us in the wrong room and we had to move our stuff into another room in the main house a few minutes later.
 
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I met a new friend at the farm.
 
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Me and this guy did a lot of running in the snow and had a lot of fun playing together.
 
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After Ilaria and I went outside
 
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my new dog friend (and another dog that was less playful with me) guarded our door and looked at the Iceland scenery.

It was great to finally get some sleep after what was a completely novel experience filled day. A hot blue lagoon in the middle of the snow, horse riding for the first time, seeing cracks formed by the separation of tectonic plates, and more snow covered black lava rocks and mountains than I ever knew existed in the world. That nite we also got our first glimpse of the powerful winds that dominate Iceland. And I tried (unsuccessfully) to get a glimpse of the Northern lights.

This was shaping up to be a life changing trip. My brain's conceptual understanding of what "exists" on this planet had greatly expanded and we'd only finished the first day.