TravelPhoto Essay

Journey Through Iceland's Geothermal Mecca

Explore a surreal landscape shaped by volcanoes, wind, water, and ice with National Geographic Explorer Andrés Ruzo.

Photograph by Parker Young
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National Geographic Explorer Andrés Ruzo climbs the Sólheimajökull glacier, located in southern Iceland between the Katla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes.
Photograph by Parker Young

Coors Light is on a mission to help restless spirits like National Geographic Explorer Andrés Ruzo make their mark on the world. For Ruzo, who primarily works in Latin America, making his mark in Iceland requires venturing far outside his hot, tropical comfort zone to a wild and wintry place he’s only dreamed about. In the second of four photo essays, explore with Ruzo, as for the first time, he encounters Iceland’s otherworldly backdrop and raw, untamed nature.

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Snowy peaks form a stunning backdrop for Ruzo’s hike along the Reykjanes Peninsula.

First Impressions

Iceland is the farthest north, latitude-wise, I’ve been. Generally, I work in tropical places, so I quite literally traveled from hot to cold. Even packing for the trip was different—the added weight in our luggage of coats and winter gear was a new experience for me. From the moment Sofía and I stepped off the plane, Iceland felt both surprisingly familiar and, simultaneously, like system overload.

In Viking times, travelers relied on cairns, stones piled into markers, to find their way across Iceland’s black sand beaches, moonscape lava fields, and moss-covered expanses. Today, the ancient Viking cairns are dwarfed by columns of steam rising from geothermal plants. The shapes, colors, and shades of the boulders, mosses, distant table mountains, and vibrantly colored hot springs and fumaroles only add to the feel of being in a place right out of the pages of a fairy tale.

As a geologist, you are trained to read the rocks and landscape. Iceland is so raw and exposed—almost unfinished—that just being there felt surreal. There was no jungle limiting my view of the rocks, and every formation seemed to be shouting its volcanic story.

Seeing hardly any trees during fieldwork caught me off guard. It left me feeling exposed. I kept thinking, where are the trees? Though some consider jungles claustrophobic, I find the foliage to be nature’s motherly blanket, shielding you from the sun, wind, and rain.

The lack of trees also brought a deeper problem: no sticks. A good walking stick is my number one fieldwork tool because you can use it for support, protection, and, of course, to ensure that you don’t fall into a scalding geothermal system. Iceland taught me that I had taken sticks, and the ability to find them anywhere, for granted. In Iceland, I had to make due with a borrowed broom stick.

Finding Home Away From Home

Iceland was one new experience after another, and it was pleasantly overwhelming. I slowly became accustomed to listening to the sounds of the country, seeing high-latitude landscapes, and sleeping during only three hours per day of darkness.

Many aspects of Iceland felt foreign, but one thing made me feel right at home—the geothermal systems. Seeing the Reykjadalur Valley’s boiling river system was like meeting part of my extended family for the first time. The hot springs, the bubbling ground, the rising steam, and even the rotten-eggs smell of hydrogen sulfide— a poisonous volcanic gas—were comforting, familiar friends to me.

The geologic setting was different than I am used to, and the landscape was definitely more tundra than rainforest, but there were similarities to the Boiling River of the Amazon. The geothermal processes, shapes, textures, sounds, and interactions between rock and water—all stood as testament to nature playing by the same rules as it creates and shapes our entire planet. The world takes the same pieces and rearranges them in an infinite array. It was fascinating to see how those similar elements, those geothermal puzzle pieces that I felt very comfortable with in the Amazon, had been rearranged into a foreign paradigm.

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Water carved the rocky path and narrow crevice hikers follow into one of Thórsmörk’s hidden valleys.

 

Reveling in the Raw Power

Exploring one of Thórsmörk’s many “hidden valleys” in southern Iceland meant hiking through a narrow crevice canyon, dimly lit by only the slightest bit of sun shining down from high above us. The small, but powerful stream of cold water that had forcefully cut its way through the rock to form the canyon was our access into the valley. We wore thick rubber waders up to our chest, and, at times, found ourselves waist deep in water. The entire time, we fought the formidable current of this little stream, a reminder of water’s enormous erosive power.

Everywhere in Iceland was like that: a reminder of the raw destructive power of nature—the wind, the snow, the ice, the water—cutting through things, eroding features away, and sandblasting the surrounding landscape. But, simultaneously, everything we saw spoke to the monumental volcanic forces that created, and continue to grow, this island nation. Iceland itself is a battleground of nature’s creativity and destruction. That this island exists is a roughly 26-million-year story of volcanic growth that just refuses to give in to the erosion.

Hiking through the crevice canyon was much like walking into the front lines of this battle of geologic proportions. When we finally emerged into the hidden valley beyond the canyon, the breathtaking beauty of the place made me doubt the entire comparison to a “geologic battle”—it was just too beautiful. The landscape itself seemed like a work of art, spectacularly carved by erosion’s expert hand.

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Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city, is an ideal launching pad for excursions to Iceland’s iconic sites, like the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and southwest Iceland's Golden Circle: Gullfoss waterfall, the Great Geysir geothermal area, and Thingvellir National Park.

Roaming Around Reykjavík

Geothermal energy fully saturates every aspect of Iceland, so much so that when you turn on the tap in some places, you get hot water directly from the earth. Steam plumes are a surprisingly common sight in the country, from hot springs, pools, fumaroles, and even geothermal power plants. I absolutely love that Iceland’s capital city got its name from the steam plumes its founders saw rising from around the bay—Reykjavík means “steamy bay.” The name captures the essence of life in Iceland, and, since arriving in the country, I was impressed with how many regular Icelanders told me that life there would not be possible without geothermal.

Even the very shape of Reykjavík’s most iconic building, the Hallgrímskirkja Church, has a geothermal connection. Though it looks like something out of Star Wars— it was inspired by a specific feature of Iceland’s native volcanic landscape: columnar basalts. These spectacular formations occur when lava cools to form evenly-spaced prismatic columns that seem almost too perfect to be natural.

Especially as a geologist, I was both impressed and inspired by how Iceland’s environment and culture are so seamlessly intertwined. You can even hear echoes of the landscape inspiring the sounds of Reykjavík’s thriving music scene. From the architecture and the geothermal systems to the unexpected, but still totally fitting, “Icelandic” street foods such as lamb hot dogs and late-night ice cream, Reykjavík was a unique travel experience. I can’t compare it to anywhere else in the world, because the city is a place unto itself.

Retracing Geologic Roots

For geoscientists, like me, there are certain “geologic pilgrimages” you have to make in your lifetime. Some of these places are stunning, unique features and formations, while others are special places that have defined and shaped our modern understanding of the Earth. The Great Geysir, in southwestern Iceland, is one of these must-see pilgrimage sites. This was the first geyser to be properly documented and introduced to modern science, and by doing so, it introduced the world to a new scientific term—the word “geyser,” from the old Norse “to gush.” Now every geyser in the world, from Yellowstone to New Zealand, forever carries a piece of the Great Geysir’s name—geologically we call this is a “type site.”

The Great Geysir is mainly dormant now, however, it is still in an active geothermal area where its neighbor the Strokkur Geyser puts on a spectacular show. Roughly every ten minutes, Strokkur spews a steaming blast of hot water that can reach 100-feet high. One of the eruptions we saw ended up drenching a large group of onlookers, even though we were all well behind the safety ropes. It definitely caught us by surprise—but everyone loved it. It felt like a geothermal amusement park, in the very best sense.

Especially as a geothermal scientist and educator working to connect people to geothermal systems, seeing the smiles, awe, and sheer joy on the faces of visitors was nothing short of heartwarming. Nature is our best teacher, travel is our best guide, and to experience is to connect. We need to explore our world.

Reaching New Heights

I promised myself I would not leave Iceland without setting foot on a glacier. To prepare, I called friends who are glaciologists and glacier guides. To my surprise, the most common tip I heard was: “put sunscreen in your nose.” Apparently, the insides of your nostrils can get sunburned from the sun reflecting off the ice—everyone agreed that is a miserable experience. When we reached Sólheimajökull (literally, the “Sun home glacier”), the name itself seemed like a warning to wear sunscreen.

Climbing onto the glacier was an experience in itself—again, most of my fieldwork is in tropical rainforests. I am used to wearing board shorts and sandals. Suiting up for the cold, lashing sharp crampons to my heavy boots, and wielding an ice pick to avoid slipping was not my normal occupational outfit.

Beyond that, I am used to large flowing rivers of water, not huge frozen ones. Though I had seen glaciers in the Peruvian Andes, it was always from afar, and they seemed smaller and steeper than this vast, flat landscape of ice. I’d never seen that much ice before, it was easier for me to think of it as “rock” made of water.

Many friends had recommended ice climbing as one of the best ways to experience a glacier—and they were right. Dangling high above a glacial crevasse, hugging a cold cliff of solid ice, or slowly ice-picking your way up to the sound of crunching ice is a full-on sensory experience.

P.S.: the sunscreen trick worked and the inside of my nose did not get sunburned.

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Ruzo prepares to gets doused by the spray of southwestern Iceland’s stunning Skógafoss Waterfall, which roughly reaches 100 feet wide and boasts a 203-foot vertical drop.

Water, Water, Everywhere

Whoever built Iceland’s Ring Road, the 830-mile main highway circling the country, did a great job of maximizing scenic views—either that or the entire country is just ridiculously photogenic.

While traveling the southwestern Ring Road, the number of waterfalls easily seen from the road came as an unexpected, but perfectly fitting surprise in this epic landscape. There seemed to be a gorgeous waterfall at every other stop along the roadway, which highlighted Iceland’s raw and active geologic nature. The country’s landscape is constantly being eroded, reworked, and redeposited. The waterfalls themselves are geologic phenomenon that can result from a change in rock types, from glaciers melting away, or from faulting or other structural changes that have reworked the land.

As we drove, waterfalls occasionally served as grim warnings of one of Iceland’s most dangerous roadway hazards: the wind. Iceland’s winds are notorious. Stones and other debris can be blown at cars, and small vehicles have been blown off the road. This is such a serious issue that even on our flight in, Iceland Air played a short video warning car-renters to be wary of the wind. These winds would jolt our car—and more spectacularly blow the waterfalls off course. Sometimes the gusts blew so violently that the waterfalls never made it to the ground. We saw huge torrents of water spray sideways, turning the water into a fine mist shot entirely into the sky.

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Ruzo’s first helicopter ride does not disappoint, delivering sweeping views of Iceland’s interior and providing easy access to remote sites unreachable on foot or by car.

Sky-high Views

Iceland is best seen by helicopter. There are few roads in the country’s vast interior, and, as it was getting into the Icelandic summer, swollen rivers from recent melts had made many of those roads inaccessible. The weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable, and it did not take long for us to realize how important of a phrase “weather permitting” is in the country.

We made it to the heliport early in the morning, eager to get a bird’s-eye view of the black sand beaches, glaciers, and, of course, Eyjafjallajökull, the infamous volcano that erupted and shut down much of Europe’s airspace in 2010. “We’ll see what the weather permits,” the pilot advised as he started the rotors. “Everything here is ruled by the weather.”

I’d never flown in a helicopter, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I quickly learned that it is the closest thing I have experienced to complete freedom of movement. “Just point to anywhere you want to go, and we go,” the pilot said as we hovered above Reykjavík. I pointed toward Eyjafjallajökull. Iceland from the ground is beautiful, but it was unbelievably majestic from the air. The views from the helicopter let me see the landscape on a larger, more geologic scale. The only thing that could hold us back was the weather.

Our pilot constantly watched to keep us a step ahead of the incoming clouds, but as we approached Eyjafjallajökull, the cloud layer dropped, making ascent above the volcano impossible. We adapted and headed for a glacier on the Katla Volcano, a place only accessible by helicopter. We landed in a place so beautiful that any description I can give of it would not do it justice.

As we explored these new surroundings, the weather followed us into the valley, blanketing everything in a thick layer of fog. “Well,” the pilot said, “we could be here all day, or we could be here all week. Nature, she is in charge.”

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Andrés and Sofía stay relatively warm and dry inside a lava tube during one of Iceland’s frequent pop-up storms.

Seeking Shelter Underground

We quickly learned that visiting Iceland is about adapting to the weather. One day while exploring the mossy lava fields, we were suddenly hit by strong winds, freezing rain, and sleet. We needed to find shelter, fast, and the nearest spot was a lava tube, an underground volcanic lava cave. It was a true fire-and-ice moment—escaping the wild, wintry conditions in a passageway created by molten rock some 2,000 years ago. I’d explored lava tubes in Nicaragua and Hawaii, and what immediately caught my attention about this one was that Iceland’s lack of trees is even more clearly visible underground—this was the first lava tube I’d seen where there were no large root systems that snuck into the lava caves.

Lava tubes start to form when a channel of flowing lava melts a trough into the rock beneath it. Eventually the lava melts down deep enough to where the top of the trough begins to cool down and close, much the same as what happens when a river freezes over. As the lava continues flowing, the tubes become bigger and rounder—lava tubes can go on for tens of miles and big ones can be large enough to drive a car through.

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