When visiting Iceland, there are many “must do” activities: explore Þingvellir National Park, hike a glacier, catch the Northern Lights, marvel at the waterfalls, learn to pronounce the names of the volcanoes (Eyjafjallajökull, anyone?)…the list goes on. Personally, I had two major experiences to cross off my list: snorkel between two continents and go caving; I was able to achieve them both with the Black and Blue Tour, a day tour that departs from Reykjavik.
Our guide for the day, Gilli, picked me up from my hostel. After my four fellow adventurers climbed into the van, we headed for Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Silfra fissure. It’s about an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, but the scenery en route captivated us as Gilli gave us an overview of the day’s activities and a head’s up of what to expect when we reached Silfra.
Located within viewing distance of the Lögberg (law rock) of the Alþingi (assembly), the seat of Iceland’s parliament, Silfra is a rift caused by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly moving apart. It’s a beautiful landscape with gorse-covered ground leading up to cliffs in one direction and snow-capped mountains in another.
We pull into the parking lot that serves as the staging area for our snorkeling adventure and Gilli and Sarah, our dive master, go through the steps to don our dry suits and cover safety steps for the snorkeling itself. Why are we wearing a dry suit as opposed to a wet suit used for snorkeling and diving in other areas? Well, the water in the fissure is melting water from a glacier about 50 km away and is COLD: 36° F – 39° F (2°C – 4°C) year-round. A dry suit grants maximum warmth and protection to explore the rift, even if it takes several steps and some interesting maneuvers to get it on.
It’s worth all of the work, however, as we enter the bracing water of the rift with our masks, snorkels and fins. The glacier water in Silfra has traveled through underground lava fields for many years before emerging through underground wells and, as a result, is incredibly pure—the visibility is an unbelievable 300+ feet (the best dives in the Caribbean only have a visibility of about 90 feet). While there isn’t much animal life in the rift (you try living in water that cold!), there are spectacular rock formations draped with shroud-like algae to ogle. After about an hour of exploring the rift, we emerge from the “blue lagoon” and tromp back to the van with a mandatory cliff jump as a last hurrah.
After a restoring lunch of hot soup and a bit of thawing out, we piled into the van for part two of our adventure: caving in Leiðarendi cave in the Blue Mountains. We strap on helmets and headlamps and follow a trail through a scene suited to a Ray Bradbury novel with hunks of lava smothered with lime colored moss. The cave entrance looks innocuous enough, but once we clamber into the opening the beams from our headlamps do little to penetrate the darkness.
Gilli regales us with tales of outlaws and trolls as we crawl and roll our way over stalagmites, avoiding sections where the cave roof has lost its battle with gravity. Waves of lava are frozen in the floor; a chandelier of stalactites prompts a science lesson. We delve into various chambers and tunnels and, while I’m not claustrophobic, there’s a small part of me that hopes that Gilli has been leaving a trail of yarn so that we can find our way back through the labyrinth again. It’s only after we emerge into the waning light that Gilli informs us that Leiðarendi means “end of the way.”
Our group is quiet on the ride back to Reykjavik, either worn out or overwhelmed by the day’s activities—it’s hard to tell. My own mind is flitting between an azure-tinted tarn and a crimson-hued cavern. While much of Iceland’s iconic scenery juts proudly into the sky, my own memories will dwell below the earth.