In an effort to promote sustainable travel (and get better at it myself), I am featuring destinations and companies that are making an effort in responsible tourism. This guest post is from Ryan Connolly, co-founder of the carbon neutral tour company, Hidden Iceland. (Bio at bottom)
“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” UNESCO World Heritage Site
Iceland’s Tourist “Problem”
It’s fair to say that Iceland has officially been “discovered.” Instagram is filled with the calming waters of the Blue Lagoon, the fluffy haired Icelandic horses, and erupting geysers in the Golden Circle. But these places are consumed by the tourists who are simply ticking the box, getting the perfect picture, and eating well in Reykjavik.
The majority of tourists will not dare travel far enough to need to sleep overnight anywhere other than Reykjavik. This is no bad thing of course. There are certainly worse ways to enjoy a long weekend during your free Icelandair stopover.
If it’s your first time in Iceland then go for it, but please hold off saying Iceland is overcrowded until you have taken the time to venture further, higher, and deeper into the wilderness Iceland has to offer.
Keep reading how to find out how you can get off the beaten path in Iceland and travel sustainably.
Tourist numbers drop in 2019
For the first time in a decade Iceland is seeing a marked drop in tourist numbers. This is partially due to the demise of the WOW Air budget airline, but could also suggest that Iceland is no longer the hot new thing.
As a small business owner of Hidden Iceland we have personally noticed that the peaks and troughs of the warm summer and snowy winter are less visible. The more discerning travelers are opting to research the best moments to travel to Iceland instead of following the crowds.
For example it may surprise you to know that statistically you are more likely to see the northern lights during the shoulder months (September/ October/ March/ April) than in the darkest part of winter.
Carbon Neutral Hidden Iceland combats over-tourism by taking you further afield to places a little less discovered such as the West Fjords, Westman Islands, and the south east of Iceland where the majority of travelers don’t get to. This certainly reduces the tourist numbers around.
Read more about what sustainable travel or eco-travel entails.
Even the ever popular Golden Circle can be enjoyed without overwhelming crowds if you go at the right times of the day. We also keep the tour groups small and have expert guides who are acutely aware of the fragility of the areas they explore.
The Icelandic government is also committed to maintaining its natural and cultural heritage across the country. These areas can, and should, be enjoyed by tourists but not at the detriment of future generations. This is why Iceland has so many protected areas, nature reserves, UNESCO Geoparks and National Parks. And as of July 5th 2019, the Vatnajökull National Park is the third area in Iceland to be inducted onto the World Heritage List ,which covers around 14% of the entire country.
This article will focus on the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland and how best to travel to see them without impacting the environment or adding to the crowds.
Vatnajökull National Park
ice caves, volcanoes, glaciers and icebergs
“A prime locality for exploring the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the land forms left behind when they retreat. The volcanic zones of the property hold endemic groundwater fauna that has survived the ice age…that may replicate conditions on early Earth and the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.” Became a World Heritage Site in 2019
The Vatnajökull National Park is most well known for its city-sized ice cap with multiple glaciers pouring from the edges of the tallest volcano in Iceland, Oræfajökull. This cascading rush of ice is often seen plummeting from the steeper cliffs, or calving into the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, creating bright blue icebergs big enough to sink the Titanic.
In summer you can bask in the midnight sun, explore multiple glaciers, speedboat between icebergs in glacier lagoons, and hike in the surrounding areas. In winter the ice slows down and the rivers of melt water dissipate giving rise to newly formed crystal clear ice caves. These ice caves are formed from the movement of the ice or are carved out by rivers in the summer and only last for a few months before they disappear.
When you add in possible northern lights sightings all across the untouched terrain this area can give you a memory that will last a lifetime.
The area is more than 10 times the size of New York City, so there is plenty of opportunity to discover unseen places. However, to do this you will need to join a guided tour, as hiking on glaciers are unsafe alone.
Having an experienced and passionate guide adds an extra level of understanding that can’t be manufactured from a guidebook. Driving on the narrow roads in potentially bad weather can be tricky too. Not to mention the fact that having a guide with you will keep you from unknowingly affecting the environment along the way.
Hidden Iceland has crafted a 2 day trip that incorporates sleeping in a local farm guest house, spotting the northern lights, hiking on a glacier, discovering newly formed ice caves, and seeing the more popular sites along the south coast of Iceland.
Westman Islands, puffins, whale watching
“Surtsey is a new island formed by volcanic eruptions in 1963-67. It has been legally protected from its birth and provides the world with a pristine natural laboratory.” Became a World Heritage Site in 2008
Rightly so, this brand new island in the south of Iceland is so carefully monitored that you can’t step foot onto the island itself, but rather see it from a vantage point of a zodiac speed boat, or the cliffs of the neighboring island of Heimaey. The new island makes up a set of 15 or so volcanic islands collectively known as the Westman Islands.
Despite the fact that this fresh island only breached from the sea 50 years ago, the local scientists have reported flora growing, a new puffin colony, and the odd seal lazily sleeping on the beach. A true testament to life managing to flourish in even the most inhospitable places.
To visit this area you can either join an organized tour from Reykjavik or book a ferry yourself over to the populated Heimaey on the Westman Islands just north of Surtsey.
If you choose to go it alone make sure to book a car on the ferry too. Although the island is small there is so much to do, so having a car will allow you to explore the southern point where you can get a good glimpse of Surtsey on a clear day, spot some nesting puffins, and maybe see a passing whale if you’re lucky.
You can physically get close to the puffin nesting ground but be mindful that the puffins only venture onto dry land during mating season so stay a respectful distance to avoid disturbing them. I also recommend hiking to the top of Eldfell, the volcano that erupted in 1973 that is still warm on top and gives a great view of the collection of volcanic islands and Surtsey.
Thingvellir National Park
splitting tectonic plates & the birth of a nation
“A rift valley with its high cliffs makes Þingvellir National Park a magnificent natural backdrop for the open air parliamentary assembly (or Alþing) of Iceland, which was held there annually from around 930 AD to 1798.” Became a World Heritage Site in 2004
The Thingvellir National Park is one of the major sites of the popular Golden Circle area of Iceland. It’s only a short 40-minute drive from Reykjavik and yet feels like you are stepping onto another world as you peer into the deep cracks, fissures, and fractures in the ground throughout the national park. The protected status allows this pristine environment to remain untouched in the most part.
Even a short walk inside the rift valley gives you the chance to walk from the birthplace of Iceland’s democratic process, past spots where Game of Thrones scenes were filmed, and up onto the cliff edge that marks the edge of the North American tectonic plate.
The biggest problem this national park has is over-tourism. Because it’s so easy to access from Reykjavik this is a popular spot to visit for short trip travelers. It’s important to stay on the designated trails as the flora in the area is fragile and takes decades to recover from a few too many tourists trampling on it.
We recommend joining small group tours with a passionate guide. They will often have their own favorite walking routes and vantage points to get a unique view without affecting the local area and avoiding the crowds.
Hidden Iceland waits until the very end of the day to explore this area when it is at its quietest. Tranquil walks, or a longer hike, is a great way to end the Golden Circle: Platinum tour that includes bathing in a geothermal hot pool at the Secret Lagoon and having lunch at the Friðheimar tomato farm.
Combine the Experience To See All Three
Icelandic World Heritage Sites
If you hope to see all three of the World Heritage Sites in one short trip you can create a bespoke 4 or 5 day tour with the help of the Hidden Iceland team that will give you the chance to experience them all first hand. A two-day trip to the Vatnajökull National Park to hike on glaciers and gawk at bright blue icebergs can be combined with a day trip onto the Westman Islands to see Surtsey from the cliff tops, and finish on the final day by traveling through the Golden Circle which includes the Thingvellir National Park. Not a bad way to spend a few days in Iceland.
Ryan Connolly is a co-founder of the personalized tour company, Hidden Iceland. Ryan has guided in multiple countries and has stepped foot on all seven continents. This led him to Iceland where he loves to share his stories with travelers. Ryan has been interviewed in Forbes, Conde Nast Traveler, and Travel Pulse. He has also written about many aspects of Iceland including the effects of climate change on the glaciers he explores.