Date of trip: June 7, 2018 - June 17, 2018
The second half of our trip around the Icelandic Westfjords slowed down a bit, only to heat up again in Reykjavik for the World Cup. Read on for photos of a hidden waterfall in Southern Iceland and our midnight venture to the gorgeous Seljavallalaug swimming pool.
If you haven’t seen Part I yet, check it out!
That morning I couldn’t sleep through the midnight sun. I walked around, admiring the details of the home, trying to find angles to photograph. A map of Iceland hung in the kitchen, black and white polaroids of people tucked in the sides of the frame. A small Icelandic flag sat in a ceramic vase in the window. Knitted wool slippers of all sizes hung on the coat rack, ready to hug the cold toes of unsuspecting guests.
The morning was slow, as we waited for the grocery store doors to open at 10am. We only had one thing on the agenda for that day, a hike to Valagil waterfall. By the time our sandwiches were ready for the road, our bellies were ready for our sandwiches. We ate them there, standing in the kitchen. We packed the peanut butter and beer, instead.
Our 20 minute drive felt like a sweet treat and change of pace. We walked through the valley, following the spongy trail that tagged along a meager little river, waiting for a waterfall to jump out at us.
Craig spotted a bridge spanning a canyon to the right of us. From the bridge, we followed the noise of the falls to see the water cutting through a deep, slim canyon. It was Valagil.
This was the spot where my little 50mm lens almost lost it’s life. I was switching over, one lens for the other, when the soft spot I set her down in gave up on me. In slow motion I found myself watching the little lens roll down the rubble in front of me and me holding my exposed camera to my body and diving forward to grab the lens. From my memory of it, I wasn’t fast enough, but the bushes in front of me finally caught it. I pushed myself back to my knees, taking a deep breath and wondering why on earth I was such a bad camera mother. “Did anyone just see that?” I had to ask. “Nope. What happened?” Nothing.
Valagil was such a splendor. It was massive. The most beautiful I told myself, though I had said that each and every time we found a new one. We took our time, Chris and I, even after Jenna and Craig had started the hike back. I took a million of the same photos while simultaneously telling myself less is more. When I was sure I had the shot, we strolled back together and picnicked near the car.
That afternoon was open for whatever our hearts desired. Mine was a nap, to rid of the kind of tired that lives in your temple and your ears. Oh, glorious, glorious sleep. I believe everyone else was too excited about dinner to sleep, because when I came out of my room, disheveled and rubbing my eyes, they asked if we were ready to go.
On our way back into town for the evening, we took the weedy trail behind the house, down the hill and towards the water.
Like children on a new playground, we split up ogling at the years–the old fishing homes, some with plaques dating as far back as 1816. Many yards had screened in trampolines, a trend we were noticing–this is what Icelandic children do for fun, Jenna.
The brothers grabbed a table and a beer at a nearby bar while Jenna and I walked along the water, inspecting the fishing boats. I was armed with both cameras, but wasn’t finding anything to shoot. When it was the hallowed time of our dinner reservation, we returned to the far corner of the city.
The area in and around Tjöruhúsið was the site of the old danish trading post, Neðstikaupstaður. It now contains the oldest timber frame houses in Iceland, which include Krambúð (1757), Faktorshús (1765), Tjöruhúsið (1781), and Turnhúsið (1784). It’s visually apparent when you enter the area that you’ve transported to a different time.
The restaurant is named after the building, Tjöruhúsið, which was built in 1781 as a storage house. Adjacent to it, and unbeknown to us, is the Westfjords Heritage Museum. Three huge whale bone, tailbones and vertebrate, sat in the rocky landscape. A massive log table lined the back of one of the buildings. Two beautifully polished boats sat near the water.
And on top of this backdrop and beautiful place, we were about to dine on the most glorious Icelandic food. As I said before, the space was a relic in itself with wooden beams and communal tables, but to kill us slowly, Louis Armstrong and other various artists played on the record player behind the buffet and a candelabra flickered in the window. The small kitchen door was left open, allowing us to track the activity of the kitchen.
Lights were strung around the perimeter giving a romantic glow to the glassware. I can’t say more. This is where I hand over the storytelling to Craig, who I warned mid-bite would have to guest write about this place.
After dinner, we were heavy from the glorious, blessed meal and happy as hell. We walked slowly past the harbor, bantering and laughing at ridiculous things, like Judging Amy and the face Craig made in my camera that morning. The weather was mild and still, the town was quiet. A father and daughter stood on the back of a boat, fishing. The other three found room for ice cream before we made it home to update our social media and find some rest.
On our seventh day, we bid farewell to Ísafjörður and the Westfjords, and drove across the country to Reykjavík. Thankfully, the weather was still gloom and doom, making it easier to deal with hours in the car. Cruising to the tops of mountains, over rivers and past the ocean, we filled our ears with Craig’s weird music and Jenna’s caffeinated ponderings about life in Iceland and beyond. The trip took about 6 hours, with a stop for more groceries along the way.
Once back in Reykjavík, we returned to a familiar Airbnb near the city. The apartment on the top floor of Ljósvallagata looks out over the Hólavallagarður graveyard. It felt updated, with newer furniture, perhaps even fresh paint. We led Craig and Jenna past the graveyard, the colossal red house with plants squished in the windows, and the town hall.
It felt familiar, like walking through a movie of your own life, through previous pictures and memories. Jenna found and bought the poster of Icelandic fish, which she had seen continually throughout the trip and needed to have. Harpa was our first stop.
Due to construction and rain, we skipped much of the walking and just sat in the dimly lit basement of Stofan Café, our tried and true spot in the city, reading the Grapevine, and talking briefly about politics. Beer was there too.
That night our chefs made pork and cauliflower tacos. We finished the red wine and passed the time with songs from 8th grade. Chris ruined it by playing that Eiffel 65 song, “I’m blue…da ba dee da ba daa…” F you, Chris.
We had two full days left. One for more of the same chasing waterfalls and such, and another to tour the city. We hit the ring road for southern Iceland that day, happy to see many more Icelandic ponies than we had in the Westfjords. (Except, ironically, we have no photos of these southern ponies, so we’re posting here a photo of some northern ponies).
I sat in the back seat, a broken record of sorts, crying over the baby horses, “Awwwww sooo cute!”
Is this where we cue the extreme hypocrisy and say we will never tell, fearing it’ll become the new Skógafoss? Or say fuck it, no one is reading this anyways, and “just kidding” because we ask instagramers all the time for the details of such places? Her name is Kvernufoss. She’s the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen. I’ll let the others speak for themselves (but I’m right).
The hike was easy and took under 10 minutes, with the trail leading you straight into all her glory. Two other people were there–a young woman from Cuba and another from Sweden, living in NYC. Craig and Chris munched on their sandwiches from behind the falls, chatting with the women (no undertones of jealousy intended), while Jenna and I sat on a boulder overlooking the entire canyon.
What will become of this secluded oasis? Fingers crossed no one has read this far–except you–you’ll have the place all to yourself one day.
After the tranquility, we joined the party at Skógafoss where we got up close and personal with the falls this time, letting the mist cling to our faces.
The thousands of steps to the top took all my strength, especially as the rain fell harder. At the top, a wooden fence and gate had replaced the barbed wire and ladder that we once ventured over.
The rain was relentless, but we had been looking forward to this moment for almost four years, the moment of returning to the place on top of Skógafoss where Chris lost his mind and cried a man tear. We followed the path along the Skoga river within the wide canyon of boulders and other falls. The rain picked up, showing itself on every desperate photo we took. Our jackets were leaking and pants soaked. We surrendered, stuffed the cameras away, and booked it back to the base of the falls for one last moment together, us and the falls.
The drive back west was just as wet, so we forfeited our plans and vowed to return for a midnight tour when few others, including the rain, wouldn’t get in our way. And so we slept that afternoon, ate a big dinner and set out again around 7pm.
Hopes were high, with the weather mild and a bit golden. The horses were still frolicking. Gas stations were still selling candy bars. Everything was right. Until it wasn’t. A dark wall of clouds and visible rain appeared in the distance. We couldn’t even see the mountains beyond the rain, it blanketed the entire horizon.
I probably said “fuck” and Chris said something like, “It’s fine, it’s not even raining. I see some blue sky.” We sat silent, the rain pounding the windshield. And as we pulled up to Seljalandsfoss, somehow the rain. just. stopped.
We gave each other a dumb smile and hurried our shit together to get out and shoot before the rains came again. There were still others around, but fewer, and mainly ones with tripods. Their jackets were still wet.
The paths around Seljalandsfoss were definitely more groomed than the first time around, and the greenery around the falls was overgrown in spots where Chris had once climbed to take a photo. This time, there was a groomed path and a sign leading people to the other nearby falls, Gljúfrafoss, a place once found only by wanderers and nosy jerks like us.
A field of cars and tents sat under the cliff side, a campsite, something I’d never noticed before. We were completely high on adrenaline and the midnight sun. It glowed orange in the west, beyond the lavender and blue clouds.
Our last stop, which we had skipped that morning, was the popular Seljavallalaug swimming pool, where we had spent Christmas Day in 2015. We knew the way, but not what it would look like without snow. In the fading light, we walked along the black rocky ravine, through a valley colored with purple lupines.
The walk took no more than 10 minutes, with a few other couples coming and going. I was hot from the walk in, and remembered the cold, dirty cement floor of the changing hut. I held off on getting in, wandering up the sides of the valley to take a photo, to find the right lines.
Chris made hot chocolate with our rented Jetboil portable flame and kettle before jumping in. He said his hot cocoa was hotter than the pool–indeed, Seljavallalaug isn’t the coziest pool, but arguably the prettiest.
I had decided not to get in, content with stealing Chris’ hot cocoa a few times and wandering around the canyon, which sits under the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Chris finally found the courage to get out of the pool and we left around midnight. As we left, people were walking in to take a dip.
It never rained on us that night. And not to be cliche, but we did actually drive off into the sunset the whole way back, watching as the sky changed from vibrant orange, to coral, lavender and peach. Each lone farmhouse burned red as silhouettes against the sky. The horses weren’t all sleeping. One lone, white horse stood staring right at the road, and must have burned straight into Chris’ soul. “Did you see that?” He cranked his neck to get another look. “Fucking majestic,” he whispered, speeding towards the light.
We slept in that morning, recovering from our midnight galavanting and giving Craig and Jenna time to venture on their own. That day, filled with anticipation by the entire country, was the first day of Icelandic football games in the World Cup. The city was bustling and festive, with people wearing ponchos and other rain garb, and navy and powder blue knitted World Cup scarves, sold by a boisterous balding man in the town square. Fans and tourists gathered in front of big screens in parks, city centers, museums even. In different corners of the city, in each bar, people were gathering and snagging tables with the best views to watch the premier game.
We grabbed some beer and whiskey at the liquor store, prepared to stand out in the rain and watch the game from under the awning of a store front. But the rain was just as enthusiastic, so I suggested we snag a seat in the basement of Stofan Cafe, where days earlier a projector screen hung on the back wall. Surely they would be streaming the game, too.
And that was the start of a perfectly comfortable, virgin World Cup experience for me, as we sat on a couch in the corner of the cafe drinking beer and eating a bagel. Towards the end of the game, with Iceland tied 1 to 1 with Argentina, we plowed through the rain and empty streets, passing overflowing bars and the sound of the game to reach the park. The game rang out across the park. Tense Icelanders with red white and blue paint on their cheeks, some smudged from the rain, stood intently, watching the large screen as if they weren’t dripping from the rain. We were ready to experience the ending, good or bad, with the crowd.
We got there just in time to watch the Icelandic goal keeper Hannes Halldorsson save a goal kick from Messi to end the game in a tie. The crowd roared and embraced each other. They threw their children in the air. I saw a grown man soaring around and pick up another man off the ground, and a three-way hug by grown adults. When it felt like people were starting to disperse, everyone stopped and turned back to the screen, where underneath was a stage. I couldn’t see, but heard a drum beat twice. The crowd gave two full arm claps above their head with a grunting sound, and waiting for the drum to lead them again. Those who missed the first clap put their umbrellas down and with the most shameless patriotism, everyone in the crowd clapped and grunted until the beating of the drum sped up to a roll. The crowd cheered, and just like that, it was done.
The rain had soaked through at this point and we retreated to the apartment, but not before grabbing a few baked goods at the corner bakery.
Miraculously, Craig, Chris, and Jenna (mostly Jenna) managed to figure out how to work the apartment’s television and stream the other World Cup games. As I slept a headache away, they watched Croatia play Nigeria.
When the rain had stopped, we found our way around the city. We passed a boy, perhaps 10 years old, kicking his soccer ball around in his backyard, and a father and child petting a fluffy, graveyard cat.
We wandered the old pier, sipped some happy hour beers, and feasted on warm sandwiches at Hlöllabátar (open until 5am on weekends).
Craig asked a local where we could find a dartboard, which led us to Skúli Craft Bar. Craig infiltrated the group already throwing darts, while a couple from Minnesota noticed Chris’ Indeed Brewery hat and struck up a chatty conversation with us until the end of the night.
We walked home in the midnight glow. It felt bright enough to stroll through the cemetery, but I knew it was wrong as soon as I was far enough in that I couldn’t turn around. I hummed a little ditty to myself, and the ghosts, of course, to let them know I was a friendly human and fucking sorry I was walking on top of their graves. It wasn’t my fault the sidewalk ran out. We made it out alive, in the end, and more importantly, Iceland was continuing on in the World Cup.
On our last morning in town, Chris and I walked to a cafe on the water, at the suggestion of an Icelandic teenager named Ágúst who befriended Chris on Instagram.
The best pancakes were to be had at Kaffivagninn, he said, the oldest cafe in town. We arrived too soon for the 11:30 pancake hour, so we ordered some savory bites like a tuna melt. Contemplative about those pancakes, we stayed near the pier, studying the fishing boats and watching the time. We returned to enjoy those beautifully round, bite size pancakes and firm blueberries, all dusted with a fine layer of powdered sugar. Chris snapped a pic for Ágúst, who unabashedly told Chris, “you are a legend.” Ágúst, you’re too kind.
It was the perfect treat–the pancakes and compliment–before heading back, packing up, and going through the motions of leaving. And as it typically goes, we made it on the plane and back home in time to catch a big rainstorm. Thank you, deities of rain, for following us home!
If you ACTUALLY read all the way through this story and have any questions or comments about our travels, we would love to chat. OR find pictures, sights, and travel details on our Explore Iceland page.
Við sjáumst, Iceland!
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