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Dreams of Lava & Ice in the Icelandic Highlands

Iceland is prolific in place-names which are difficult to pronounce, recall and, of course, spell. Landmannalaugar is one of these but, once you have travelled to this oasis nestling in multi-coloured mountains, where spouting thermal springs, sulphurous vapours and fumaroles melt the ice, this musical, fifteen-letter name becomes a simple word you will never forget. On the contrary – each time you utter it, hear it or read it, you will be transported to that natural paradise which has irremediably become part of your very existence.

Landscapes From Another Planet

Here, in this remote spot, which can only be reached in a 4x4 vehicle – in summer, several 4x4 buses ply the route daily from Hella – begins one of the most popular and spectacular hiking trails in the country and, indeed, on the planet.

Officially, it is known as Laugavegur, which translates roughly to “thermal waters route”. It is usually negotiated from north to south for a distance of 56 km as far as Þórsmörk. The hike then continues another 26 km from there to Skógar along a trail known as Fimmvörðuháls. Along this route, which takes from 4 to 6 days, endless scenic surprises await the traveller, from rhyolite mountains with indescribable colours to fields of fumaroles, glaciers and waterfalls, and deserts of lava and active volcanoes.

Accessible Stages

Laugavegur is the most popular stretch of the trail and is divided into four accessible stages of from 12 to 15 km, with stopovers at Hrafntinnusker, Álftavatn, Emstrur and Þórsmörk. Experienced walkers can complete two stages in one go as there are few slopes and the daylight hours are particularly long in the northern summer. Þórsmörk has a station for 4x4 buses so you can take one back to Hella.

Continuing along the Fimmvörðuháls trail from the Þórsmörk valley, the slope becomes steeper and some areas are more exposed and windswept. This stretch can be divided into two spectacular stages with a stopover at the Fimmvörðuháls shelter. This stage is probably one of the most amazing ones in trekking. It takes you past the Mýrdallsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers, and across a lava field that emerged during the famous 2010 eruption – which grounded so many flights – culminating in a long descent on which you can admire a total of 24 spectacular waterfalls, with the legendary Skógafoss as the final flourish.

Practical Guide

Dates: Open from June to September.

Difficulty: In good weather, the route is easy as far as Þórsmörk, and moderate up to Skógar.

Weather: Weather conditions in the Icelandic Highlands can change drastically in a few hours, even in summer. You should keep checking the weather report at shelters and abide by warnings issued by rangers and the shelter managers.

Navigation: The route is signposted in early summer with yellow stakes placed every few metres. In the event of being overtaken by fog or bad weather, it is useful to have GPS with route tracking. However, bear in mind that the route can vary slightly from year to year, particularly at river crossings.

Gear: Essential to have mountain footwear and warm clothing.

Food: There are no restaurants or grocery stores anywhere along the trail, and they do not serve food in the emergency shelters. However, you can pay for camping or an overnight with a credit card. Thus, you have to be self-sufficient and stock up with all the food you are going to need during the hike (reckon on a minimum of 1 kg per person per day).

A Roof Over Your Head: You need to book in advance to sleep at the shelters along the route. For certain summer dates, this requires booking several months ahead and the trekking agencies usually hog most of the available places.

Camping: There are camping areas around the shelters and they are always pay sites. You don’t need to book ahead, however. Some have showers and rubbish collection. Others only have drinking water and toilets. It is advisable to take a light tent that can withstand strong winds.

Rivers: Avoid crossing rivers at their narrowest point, as that is where they are deepest. You should wear tightly-fitting waterproof sandals to prevent them being ripped off by the current.

Guided Treks: If you prefer to travel light – without having to carry food or camping equipment – want to ensure a reservation in the shelters along the way and enjoy the company of a guide, the specialised agency Tierras Polares covers the whole route in July and August in the course of an 8-day trip, of which six days are spent trekking. Prices from €1,595.

Day Tour All Year Around: You can also visit Landmannalaugar on a Super Jeep Tour. The super jeep is a 4x4 vehicle with oversize tyres which can take you into the Highlands any time of the year, and pick-up is at your hotel in Reykjavik. Price per person: ISK 35,000 (€250).

Venture into the wonderland of the Icelandic Highlands – book your Vueling to Reykjavik here.

Text and photos by Sergio Fernández Tolosa & Amelia Herrero Becker (Con un par de ruedas)


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Reykjavik A Great Small City I

This, the first part of the post focuses on the rich music scene in the Icelandic capital. As we shall see, it is an enchanting, visitor-friendly city, full of contrasts.

To some extent, if you’ve only seen Reykjavik, you haven’t really seen Iceland. What you have seen, though, is its openness to the world, its warmer, more friendly side, making you feel comfortable despite being thousands of kilometres from home. For, once you leave the welcoming streets in Reykjavik’s city centre, the distances between built-up areas grow exponentially, with population centres distributed like in the United States. Reykjavik itself is the largest city on the island, with a population of 130,000 inhabitants – 215,000 if you include its surrounding areas. Once you leave the limits of Reykjavik, nature rules, but that is another story we will deal with some other time.

While the freezing winter temperatures preclude the sort of sightseeing we Mediterraneans are fond of, a visit to Reykjavik in spring, summer and early autumn can be a fantastic experience. In early October, temperatures in the city are still bearable for Spanish tourists, ranging from a minimum of two degrees to a maximum of ten. Well, that’s cold, but not untowardly so. With that in mind, and given the scarce sunlight hours, you will feel like walking up and down the street and peeking into the shop windows ranged one after the other in the city centre. Craft stores, fashion stores and boutiques with a huge variety of apparel. Those selling jerseys with colourful, handmade patterns come highly recommended. Then there are the restaurants, musical bars, art galleries and even record shops, making downtown Reykjavik a large business emporium, although worlds apart from the crowding of the large European city centres. Here, everything is carefully thought out, but endearingly so – shops all have their own personality and service is warm and friendly. You won’t be overwhelmed by ghetto-blasting piped music, endless queues or intrusive, frenzied marketing campaigns.

When you’re ready to grab a bite, your options range from strong-tasting local fare to Italian-style pizzas, like those served up at Primo Ristorante, while appetising Nordic- and Slavic-style soups are also much in vogue – be sure to visit Svarta Kaffi, at Laugavegur 54, where the soup is served in bread. Also worth trying are the hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvagata 1), a street stall where, according to George Clinton, they make the best hot dogs in the world. And, don’t worry about the service. Apart from the fact that you can come across people of various nationalities – among them, quite a few Spaniards – Icelanders are friendly yet discreet people. And, don’t be surprised if the waiters or waitresses seem very young by Spanish standards. While work may be considered ennobling, in Iceland they appear to have learned this earlier than in other European countries.

For those who don’t fancy walking about, Reykjavik has several bus lines covering the city centre and surrounding areas.

A trip to Iceland could start in the streets of Reykjavik and then strike out necessarily across the island, one of the most beautiful in the world for those seeking tranquility, a magical atmosphere and nature in the raw. In the city, buildings are painted in various colours, so you can come across one with blue walls adjoining another in stately white, tainted by the passage of time. In the wild, the white of snow and ice, the bright green of the vegetation, volcanic greys and browns and the one thousand and one hues of freely flowing waters combine to create a colour palette which underscores the majesty of this land’s natural surroundings, which Icelanders have long protected, a sentiment deep-seated in their hearts.

While your first port of call may be the city, you should also consider taking the chance to venture out into Iceland’s wild, free interior. To go no further, Reykjavik harbour provides numerous options of three- to five-hour boat rides to go whale-spotting. The idea is to observe various types of whales swimming freely in the cold Arctic waters; whales of different sizes, as well as an amazing variety of dolphins. But, don’t get your hopes up too fast – the animals aren’t just out there waiting for you to come along. It’s up to the gods of the sea whether you will be lucky enough to spot them, or whether your trip will be successful. Indeed, you are more likely to get the desired results by going on an outing to the areas where those “little Atlantic friars” the puffins live and nest. Some eight to ten million puffins are believed to inhabit the territory.

But, there is a lot more to do in a city like Reykjavik. From there you can watch the fantastic northern lights and, if you are lucky, you will coincide with one of the few occasions when the city lights are switched off to enhance everyone’s viewing experience of this natural wonder. You could also visit Hallgrímskirkja Church – with grey tones on the outside, and striking forms and interior spaces – or have a dip in the warm waters of any number of thermal baths, both in the city and outside it.

Our next post will focus on one of the most prolific and interesting music scenes on the planet. Fire up and discover the world’s northernmost capital – check out our flights here.

Text by Joan S. Luna (Mondo Sonoro)

Images by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS

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Reykjavik A Great Small City II

Our main reason for visiting Iceland’s capital was to uncover the city’s musical melting pot. Reykjavik has continued to churn out musical icons ever since the initial boom in the early 1980s, as reflected in the documentary and double LP, “Rokk í Reykjavík”, featuring such Icelandic bands as Baraflokkurinn and Tappi Tíkarrass – the latter was Björk’s first serious music project. When talking of Iceland, the first thing that springs to mind are the two most popular names on the international scene – Sigur Rós, and the aforementioned Björk. However, there is an amazingly long list of artists distributed across the length and breadth of the land, as well as countless bands, soloists and collectives that often share their members, regardless of each group’s musical style.

All of these have at some time performed in Húrra, Reykjavik’s leading concert hall, previously known as Harlem. When we were there, we were impressed by the varied setlists scheduled for the following days – an extreme metal festival, a reggae group (Hjálmar, very popular in Iceland)  and a tribute group to the Sex Pistols which hails from the continent. Húrra really acts as a downtown music hub, covering all the musical genres. For starters, it is one of the customary venues for the popular music festival, Icelandic Airwaves, which is held at the beginning of November at various settings in the city, including the marvellous Harpa, a musical and cultural activities centre which has fairly galvanised the local scene in the last few years.

Needless to say, we had to finish off the night with a beer. There are myriad Icelandic brands, including the ubiquitous Viking, in addition to some imported varieties. We ended up at Kaffibarinn, also known as KB, owing to the fact that Damon Albarn from Blur is one of its proprietors. The downstairs hall is comfortable, cosy and features a good, ongoing soundtrack, principally pop and electronic. But, remember not to bother the DJ – not for nothing is there a metal plaque near the crockery which reads, “No requests accepted”. If you want to smoke, which is not allowed inside the premises, they have an open-air interior patio where you can smoke and still keep up a conversation with friends and acquaintances. But, at midnight, everything changes and the upstairs area at KB becomes a dance club which operates until the early hours.

The local scene is clearly both extensive and surprising. Apart from groups with a proven track record, notably Of Monster And Men, Sólstafir, Amina, FM Belfast and Sin Fang, it is the new generation that is shaking the very foundations of the city. We could start with Retro Stefson, a pop group which has been migrating toward electronic and has recently shot to the number one slot in Iceland thanks to their new single, Skin, a preview of their upcoming album, Scandinavian Pain. In fact, it was their vocalist and guitarist, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson, who acted to some extent as our host during our fleeting visit. After inviting us to see his new studio, which is bound to become one of the most active in the city, he took us to have a coffee in Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, a hipster gastro hotel where he introduced us to two of Iceland’s best known rap stars, the upcoming talent, Gísli Pálmi, and the veteran Emmsjé Gauti, the author of a single called precisely Reykjavik. He talked to us about the female collective Reykjavíkurdætur, currently on a meteoric roll, and remarked how one of the leading lights of Iceland’s parliament, Óttarr Proppé, has played in various bands, among them HAM, which was very popular in the early nineties. He also revealed that his favourites included the very young singer (aged sixteen) from R&B and trap music, Aron Can, and the pop singer, Sturla Atlas. Truth be told, Manuel – of Portuguese and Angolan extraction – is also the brother ofLogi Pedro,one of the most celebrated hip hop producers in Iceland and the composer of much of the bass and rhythms for some of the aforementioned artists.

When it came to discovering new artists, we were also lucky enough to have the assistance of the writer, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, who goes under the stage nameSjónand who collaborates closely with Björk. He recommended the DJ, Flugvél Og Geimskip, and the trap duo, Úlfur Úlfur, whose popularity is on the up and up and who feature among Iceland’s best known current stars.

We could go on about contemporary figures well worth watching, including Sin Fang, who has just worked with Jónsi of Sigur Rós on the latter’s new album. Then there is the electropop group, Gangly, and Alex Somers, the hyperactive writer of American soundtracks who resides in the city and who, together with his boyfriend, the aforementioned Jónsi, recorded under the name Riceboy Sleeps.

And, of course, a must-visit is to the best record shop in town, Smekkleysa, associated with the Bad Taste label (which is what “Smekkleysa” means in Icelandic), and originally related to members of The Sugarcubes. In short, this venue is the basic driving force behind the burgeoning Icelandic scene, due largely to its promotion of such internationally acclaimed projects as Fufanu, Gus Gus, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Minus, Mugison, Múm and Sigur Rós itself.

You will be dazzled by the huge variety of musical offerings to be had in Reykjavik. Don’t pass up the chance to venture into the city’s music scene – check out our flights here.

Text by Joan S. Luna (Mondo Sonoro)

Images by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS


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The West Fjords the Remotest Most Unspoilt Iceland

Low light, wistful dusks, endless fjords, fishing villages accessible only by dirt track, thermal pools with views of the sea and, above all, tranquility – oceans of tranquility. All of this awaits travellers to Westfjords, Iceland’s loneliest, most unspoiled region. A few days spent exploring its secluded confines is the closest thing to what it must have been like until quite recently to travel around the now very popular Ring Road. We tell you how to reach this remote, captivating paradise and, once there, what to see.

1. Ísafjörður – the Old Fishing Capital
While it is the largest settlement in the Westfjords, Ísafjörður has just 2,600 inhabitants. However, in these latitudes, a census of this size is regarded as a veritable crowd of people.

The atmosphere is surprisingly lively in the quaint town centre, which features a considerable number of timber houses built in the 18th century. There are some good restaurants – fish and seafood are the local speciality – and pleasant cafés which, with the heating always up full blast, are a magnet for visitors seeking to take shelter from the invariably harsh weather outside. The Westfjords Maritime Museum is worth visiting as it is full of relics from the whaling era. It also provides valuable insights into the origins and the heyday of this isolated fishing port.

By land, sea and air: daily flights from Reykjavik have turned Ísafjörður into the quickest and most convenient port of entry to the Westfjords. It is also the point of departure for ships sailing to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.

2. Snæfellsnes – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Those opting to instead make the journey to the far north overland from Reykjavik are advised to take a slight detour to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The scenic road runs around the perimeter of the whole peninsula and looming overhead is a spectacular volcano covered in glaciers which inspired Jules Verne for his novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Although the wind is usually rather gusty, the journey is rewarding as it is studded with breathtaking scenery, including lofty cliffs, rivers of lava and peach-coloured sandy beaches. One highly recommendable hike – wind permitting – is the coastal trail linking Arnarstapi to Hellnar. The 5 km route takes you past spectacular basalt formations, sea caves with blowholes weathered by the waves and natural rock arches.

3. Puffins on the Látrabjarg Cliffs
The Látrabjarg cliffs, marking the westernmost point in Europe – and probably one of the windiest, too – afford close-up sightings of the highly photogenic puffins, those flashy birds with colourful beaks that nest alongside other species on the impregnable crags, which rise to over 400 metres above the ocean.

Despite being endearing creatures, visitors should know that the locals once used to feed on puffin eggs and meat. In fact, puffin is still a select dish in some restaurants. The method used to catch these birds involves laying nets and abseiling down the cliff faces. Interestingly, the courage and skills of puffing hunters were put to good use when in 1947 a British vessel sank off these shores and all crew members were rescued and hauled one by one up the cliff faces.

Reaching Látrabjarg entails driving along one particular 50-kilometre stretch of dirt road (only on the outbound journey). Some 5 km before the lighthouse marking “Europe’s land’s end” is a rudimentary campsite suitable for camper vans or for pitching tents – there is a toilet and drinking water, but no showers or hot water.

The road takes you past Hnjótur, where there is a café and an interesting museum with a hotchpotch of items, including an aircraft from the United States Navy.

4. Thermal Pools at Reykjafjarðarlaug
Thermal pools are always a gift of nature but, in an environment like Westfjords, it becomes more of a genuine gift of the gods. One of the best warm pools – although not the only one – was built by a group of volunteers in 1975 opposite the Reykjafjörður fjord, just 50 metres off the dust road running between Bíldudalur and Hrafnseyri. The source of the spring lies a few metres upstream and wells up at 52°C, but the pool is kept at 38°C. Sadly, this is the way it was before, as in 2016 we found it closed. We hope it will reopen in 2017.

5. Dynjandi Waterfall
The Dynjandi waterfall (also known as Fjallfoss), which tumbles 100 metres in the shape of a beautiful staircase, is undoubtedly the most spectacular falls in Westfjords. It is reached by untarred mountain road and a simple camping area has been adapted for tents and camper vans. With its west-facing orientation, the best time of day to take your snaps is at dusk.

6. Seals and Jams at Litlibær
Some 70 km east of Ísafjörður in the direction of the Reykjanes thermal peninsula lives a colony of seals which is visible from the main road. To get an idea of how trusting the locals are, a farmer from the area leaves out some binoculars for anyone wishing to observe the seals in more detail, as well as a few jars of homemade jam and a piggy bank to pay the 6 euros for each jar they may want to buy.

7. Kayak Rides
In the next fjord, called Mjóifjörður (it’s easy to lose count of them), the newly paved Route 61 saves modern travellers from having to take the previous, roundabout way to the bottom of the estuary along the old 633 dirt road. Located in a remote spot is Heydalur, a country hotel with hot pools where they organise kayak outings that start at the site of the seal colony in the mouth of the fjord. Whales can also sometimes be spotted during the excursion, which lasts 5 hours.

8. Expedition to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
No one lives there, apart from the forest wardens, birds and Arctic foxes. This is the most isolated and unspoilt spot in Iceland and can only be reached by boat. Beyond the Hesteyri harbour – where you can sleep the night at the old doctor’s house, built in 1901 and with a capacity of 16 – there are no shops, restaurants or hotels. You will only find rudimentary camping grounds. Hence, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is the preserve of fauna and flora enthusiasts used to open-air living and the whims of Arctic weather. Some agencies organise guided hiking excursions lasting 4 or 5 days.

Text by Sergio Fernández Tolosa & Amelia Herrero Becker from Con un par de ruedas

Images by Con un par de ruedas

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