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Return to Iceland – what has changed in five years?

Iceland, or the island of fire and ice, is a 103,000km² island in the North Atlantic. It became famous in 2010 by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which resulted in an unprecedented disruption of air transport throughout Europe. At the European Football Championship 2016, the Icelandic national team was a sensation, with their fighting spirit and passion – and the fans with their long-lasting “hooo” calls. I have personally been captivated by Iceland ever since 2009, when I lived and studied there for half a year. I travelled seven more times to this country to which I lost my heart – probably forever.

This year I flew to the island in late May for eight days. Under the motto “back to the roots,” I toured the South, which I had last seen five years ago. I spent the first two days in Reykjavík. Reykjavík is relatively small for a capital, but the approximately 120,000 residents make the city so special. I love the countless small, colorful houses, the culture and the art. The city is bursting with festivals, live music and small, private shops – more than you’ll find anywhere else. If you only have a short time in Reykjavík, you should definitely see Hallgrímskirkja (the largest church in Iceland and landmark of Reykjavik), Harpa (the Opera House) and the Tjörnin (the most famous lake in Reykjavík) as well as go shopping on Laugavegur.


Two days after our arrival, we slowly headed south. The south of Iceland is very diverse and offers many natural attractions in a small area. We started our tour with a trip to the Golden Circle, which encompasses three attractions: Thingvellir, Gullfoss and the Geysir. Thingvellir is a national park about 23km east of the capital, in which the tectonic plate boundary is impressively visible. Visitors can move back and forth between the Eurasian and the American plate. The waterfall Gullfoss is the most visited waterfall in the country. The water plunges down 32 meters via two cascades. The Geysir, which is the namesake for geothermal springs of this kind around the world, was once the most famous attraction in Iceland and captivates visitors with a high fountain up to 80 meters. Due to many different factors, an eruption is a rare marvel. Just a few meters away is the Strokkur geyser; with its 25 to 35m high fountain, it is a good substitute because it erupts about every ten minutes.

Geysir Strokkur

At this point I would like to comment briefly on the subject of tourism: Iceland is visited each year by more and more tourists, and the rapid increase in the number of visitors shows no signs of stopping. As Iceland is not necessarily the safest destination, a lot has changed in recent years in order to protect both the tourists as well as nature. Barriers, grids against soil erosion, warning and information signs and even the blocking of entire areas were introduced. Five years ago, the south of Iceland was still much more natural and less protected than it is today. On the one hand I am happy to have experienced Iceland still in its relatively natural state, on the other hand, it is important to take measures to protect the nature.

Valley of Reykjadalur, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss

One of my personal highlights in the south is the Valley of Reykjadalur. After an hour-long, exhausting ascent, you reach a natural warm river where you can swim. At the top, the temperature is about 45 degrees. The further down you get in, the colder it gets. After a long swim, we went further south and reached the Seljalandsfoss (bridal veil waterfall). You can take a small path around the entire falls, but hiking boots and rain jackets are recommended. The Skógafoss is another impressive waterfall, which can be viewed from the top after a steep climb. The Sólheimajökull is a glacier that ends in a small lagoon. Here I found the change particularly striking. The lagoon has grown to an alarming size, the glacier tongue has shrunk. For me, this place was nearly unrecognizable and represents a cautionary example of climate change. Close to the town of Vík í Mýrdal lies the 115m towering peninsula Dyrhólaey, with a big stone arch at the end. A few meters away is the beach Reynisfjara, which attracts many tourists with its numerous basalt columns. Another highlight is the canyon Fjadrargljufur. It is about 2km long and up to 100m high at the highest points. A look out over the precipice will definitely give you goosebumps. Further to the east, the Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsárlón await travellers. The National Park offers numerous hiking trails that lead to, among other sights, old farmhouses, a waterfall and a glacier. The Jökulsárlón is definitely worth a visit with its floating icebergs; at 18km² it is the biggest glacier in Iceland.

Sólheimajökull, Dyrhólaey, Vatnajökull-Nationalpark

The south of Iceland fascinates me again and again, although this time I was very surprised by the barriers and prohibition signs. Surely this makes sense, even if every traveller should be aware of some of these things. Many attractions are located on private property and the owners need to pay for a portion of the maintenance and repair work. Unfortunately, natural swimming holes have already been closed, as these have not been treated with sufficient respect. This often results in garbage lying around. The sensitive flora and fauna in Iceland also need to be protected, because there are people who repeatedly wander off the paths. Often my heart is very heavy when I see tourists who have no consideration. I can only hope for the future that Iceland can find a balance between the natural environment and managing the tourists. This island is definitely worth a visit. If you have not travelled to the country before, I can strongly encourage you to venture a trip to the far north as well.


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