Authentic travel in Iceland is a big deal; this country isn’t chock full of theme parks, flashing neon lights, giant malls, or other markers of a heavily touristic destination. Instead, traveling to Iceland feels more “back to basics” than most. People come here for the outdoor adventure opportunities such as challenging hikes, rough campgrounds, riding on galloping Icelandic horses, and feeling as if we are living close to nature as it was and always has been. Furthermore, authentic travel in Iceland isn’t complete without visits to some of its natural hot springs. After all, they play an important part in Iceland’s history.
The Blue Lagoon is the biggest tourist attraction in Iceland, and it’s the only place in the country where I saw lines formed like they are in Disneyland. Literally, the only theme-park-like part of the entire country! We had a moderate amount of fun there, but to be honest it felt absolutely antithetical to what Iceland stood for, for us anyway. The Blue Lagoon isn’t a natural hot spring, it is actually run-off from the hydroelectric plant right next to it. With all the hot springs in Iceland that are natural and bubbling right up from the depths of the earth (or so it seems), it felt silly to spend much time in this man-made side effect of a power plant. The main building’s gift shop is quite a shock as well; the prices for the facial scrubs, masks and so on would be right at home on 5th Avenue. One benefit, admittedly, is that the artificial nature of the Blue Lagoon meant that there was no strong smell of sulfur. Those real hot springs can be reminiscent of boiled eggs at times.
Iceland’s natural hot springs abound. One is in the small town of Fludir in the Golden Circle. The Secret Lagoon, which is the second most popular lagoon with tourists, is heated from natural thermal vents and hot springs; it’s natural and more authentic than The Blue Lagoon. The water’s temperature is constantly around 100-104 degrees Fahrenheit (38-40 Celsius) so even in the summer steam rises from the water. There are bathrooms and small changing areas for men and women to get into their bathing suits, take a shower, and splash right in. I also enjoyed the walking path around the Secret Lagoon, which takes us through muddy areas around geothermal hot spots. When seen from more than a few yards away, the tall grasses obscure the rivulets so that all we see is steam coming from the ground and occasional small geysers.
Fun fact, The Secret Lagoon in Fludir has one of the two oldest teaching swimming pools in all of Iceland, and the other is also in Fludir. The oldest one, Hveraholmi, started operating in 1908 and the younger one, in Fludir’s village, started in 1945. The swimming pool in Hveraholmi was first built in 1891, and both were created from the hot springs to help teach Icelanders how to swim. The excess hot water from the natural springs heats all of Fludir’s residences and provides hot water for greenhouses as well.
Landmannalaugar is my favorite of the natural hot springs we saw during our authentic travel in Iceland. And it was so cold and miserable when we went there, none of us even got in the water! That didn’t stop some hardy Germans and other Nordic types we saw though; I worked hard to get a photo at an angle that hid their nudity. Being cold and miserable is part of authentic travel in Iceland, so we did our best to appreciate it — though we did splurge on some gift shop hats and gloves…remember, this was July: we were unprepared. Lots of backpackers and campers stay in Landmannalaugar, and their tents were flapping in the wind as we walked by to the changing-slash-picnic area.
It’s chillier in Landmannalaugar than some areas in the southern half of Iceland because it’s up in the Highlands of Iceland, in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Now, to get to Landmannalaugar, we need a four wheel drive vehicle; either be sure to specify 4WD when renting at the airport, or hire a driver. Some people ride horses there, but it’s a long way by horse, and again, the weather is often windy and cold in the Highlands of Iceland.
It’s worth the trip. The landscape of Landmannalaugar and the Highlands is stunning. The rivers coming down from icy knolls and hills, the lava fields, the hardy little flowers all look like something out of Middle Earth (indeed, the Lord of the Rings trilogy could have been filmed here if Iceland had the infrastructure).
Landmannalaugar translates to “the people’s pools,” and yup, travelers of a certain sort absolutely take advantage of the clothing-optional aspect of the natural hot springs here. Walking around the rivulets and springs, occasionally stepping off the pathways and sinking our feet into the mud, and hiking just out of sight of the huts and picnic area felt terrific. Supposedly, Landmannalaugar is Iceland’s peak place to see the northern lights, though we left before sundown. Sundown, by the way, is around 10:30 at night in the summertime, so more precisely we left in the late afternoon. Travelers who wish to see the northern lights in Iceland should come to Landmannalaugar in September.
Snorri’s Pool is interesting from a historical standpoint, but people aren’t allowed to soak in it anymore. In the small town of Reykholt, this geothermal pool once belonged to the famous, real-life Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). He has taken on almost mythological status in Iceland, and is responsible either personally or tangentially for much of the great literature and Norse mythology of Iceland. He lived here, on his farmland in Reykholt, and used an underground tunnel that connected his house to the natural hot spring’s pool.
If Snorri’s name sounds somewhat dwarvish to you, it’s no surprise. JRR Tolkien was inspired by Norse mythology when he created Middle Earth — Midgard is a level below Asgard in Norse mythology, and elves, dwarves, and and other fantastical species were first conceived as living one of its Nine Worlds.
Deildartunguhver thermal springs is really hot; the water temperature is around 212 Fahrenheit! The steam hits us in the face and cools right away (this being Iceland and all) and then immediately, our faces have billowing steam around then again. This constant flow of very hot hot water and the mini-geysers spurting up from the earth are absolutely, and for very obvious reasons, off limits for bathers.
The hot water from Deildartunguhver heats the homes and provides hot water through distribution pipes to Akron’s, Borgarnes and Hvanneyri; one of Iceland’s biggest assets for residents is the abundance of free heating and hot water from its natural hot springs.
Clearly, authentic travel in Iceland ought include visits to some of its amazing natural hot springs. The Blue Lagoon is worth a stop, I suppose, but hiking rugged terrain to see hot steam rise from cracks in the earth, while feeling the cold Icelandic air on our faces, can bring out the Viking in all of us. Well, taking a bath in the natural hot springs pools like Landmannalaugar would truly bring out our inner tough guy, but honestly, I’m not that much of a Viking. Authentic travel in Iceland taught me that much. When we travel to Iceland, we can learn as much about ourselves as we do this amazing, almost fantastical country.