Monday, August 1, 2016

Atlantic Puffins & the Golden Circle

Day two in Iceland was a "must-do" day. I spent the morning doing the activity about which I was most excited, and the afternoon doing the activity that everyone else said I needed to do.

Clearly, going on a puffin-watching tour was the entire reason I visited Iceland.

I pre-booked a puffin-watching tour with Special Tours for approximately $35, which promised an hour full of puffins. The earliest tour during peak season is 8:30 a.m., and being the early bird that I am, I opted for that first tour of the day. Boy was I in luck--it ended up being a private tour! Turns out, no one else felt like waking up that early, but no complaints there.

After stepping onto the boat, the captain retreated to his quarters and we left Reykjavik Harbor. It was really just me and the guide, Guðjón (pronounced like "good John"), who is a university student studying the fishery business. It was his third summer working as a puffin tour guide, and it was really nice to have someone close in age to chat with. He did his job of guiding, but also told me a bit about Icelandic culture, and how the grandmothers are knitting less and less nowadays--sad, because that means the sweater tradition will die out!

Not even 20 minutes away from Reykjavik and we approached an island where nearly 20,000 puffins live. These birds are SO cute and almost cartoon-like! I couldn't get a ton of great photos, but I could see them so clearly, especially with the binoculars they provided on board. Did you know that an Atlantic puffin can hold 10-20 fish in its beak at once? Seeing the glints of silver hanging out of their beaks was such a treat.

This wasn't the best puffin-watching spot in Iceland by a long shot, but definitely the most convenient to Reykjavik. We docked back in the harbor by 9:30, giving me a great view of a sleepy Reykjavik, as well as the rest of the morning to explore the city.

At around noon, I headed to my next activity--an afternoon Golden Circle tour.

Ugh. "Tour" is the right word--it was SO touristy. Iceland's Golden Circle is comprised of the Great Geysir, Gulfoss Waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park, and while they are all beautiful natural wonders, there is no reason that they should be the crown jewels of Iceland. Rather, I think that the Golden Circle is Iceland's way of profiting off of FOMO--if one gives off the illusion that these are "must-sees," then everyone will flock there (and pay good money for it). Mad props to the tourism board, or whoever decided to create this.

The Golden Circle tour definitely wasn't worth the money I paid, especially since all of the sites had free admission, and this is really where I saw the advantages of renting a car. Still, I did not feel comfortable driving around a foreign country as a solo female traveler, no matter how safe it was, so this was the only way I was willing to do it. Plus, our bus driver rushed us at every site--we only had 15 minutes to spend at Þingvellir National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates meet (see that giant crack?), Þingvellir is also the site of the oldest parliament in the world. The parliament has since moved to Reykjavik, but it would have been really nice to further explore the area. I think the site is important enough that it should have been dignified with more time.

At least we had almost an hour at the Great Geysir. The geysir itself isn't super amazing (check out the crowd!), but there are plenty of hills to hike up. The view was much better from the top!

The tour also included a visit to Kerið, a volcanic crater lake. Aside from trekking around the Great Geysir, this was my favorite part of the tour. It is absolutely stunning there!

So now that I've seen the Golden Circle, I don't need to go again. Been there, done that. There are much better natural sights that don't require navigation through hoards of tourists--for example, the waterfalls and black-sand beaches along Iceland's southern coast--but at least I'm not "missing out" now.

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