What’s not to like about a lake-size hot tub nestled in Iceland’s rocky northern hills overlooking a verdant valley of green growth, volcanic craters and neon blue waters? You do have to watch out for cold spots, hot spots and some naturally occurring heat-loving algae, but the cool areas feel nice after trying to cook yourself in the deliciously hot zones and the algae is supposed to be good for your skin. So really? There’s nothing not to like about the Mývatn Nature Baths except the price, which at just under $30 is still $20 cheaper than the mother of all geothermal hot tubs — the Blue Lagoon — in Southern Iceland.
Our plan for day five of our trip around Iceland was to drive down the east coast of Lake Mývatn, around the southern tip of the lake, and then west down the Ring Road to Akureyri — the capital of the north. My family made a unanimous decision that the best way to start such a jam-packed day of touristy adventuring was with a couple hours of soaking at the Mývatn Nature Baths. In the summer the baths open at 9am, and if there is anything that will get me up early it’s a lake of hot water.
We got to the baths right after they opened, put everything in sex-separated lockers, put our locker keys around wrists and ankles, and showered naked before putting on swimsuits in accordance with Iceland’s health and hygiene standards (there is no or very little chlorine in Icelandic community pools and hot pots, so nothing makes Icelanders angrier than dirty foreigners polluting their geothermal pools). The only time I ever heard Icelanders rant it was about the “kreppa” or crisis (the Icelandic banking meltdown), politics (the same the world over), foreigners not showering before swimming, and foreigners calling Icelandic horses ponies. Don’t anger your viking hosts! Shower thoroughly with soap before swimming, and remember to say “horse” even when you’re thinking “pony”. Coincidently, after spending two hours at the baths we visited a paddock of Icelandic horses during our search for a tiny, naturally-occurring geothermal pool hidden in a crevice just south of the village of Reykjahlíð.
Unfortunately, our guidebook informed us that the small geothermal pool had become contaminated and was no longer safe for swimming, but it was still fun to find a heated turquoise hot tub in a tiny cave. Our next stop a few miles down the road from Reykjahlíð was Hverfjall Crater — a tuff ring volcano that last erupted thousands of years ago. We didn’t have time to take one of the hiking paths up to the crater rim, but stopped to photograph it from a gravel road.
One of the highlights of our day was visiting the natural rock maze that is Dimmuborgir or “dark cities/castles” — a sprawling field of lava rock formations and caves explored via a couple miles of twisting trails. There were giant arches, collapsed lava tunnels, haphazardly balanced rocks, natural lava towers, and even a large cavern called the Kirkjan or “church”. The only thing better than walking and photographing the lava field was relaxing over cake and coffee at the cafe overlooking Dimmuborgir on one side and Lake Mývatn on the other after the hike. If you’d like to try a local specialty called hverabrauð — a dark molasses bread baked in a geothermal hot spot — you can buy a loaf at the Dimmuborgir cafe.
After the lava field, we decided to pull over at a turn out overlooking the lake and some of the rock formations jutting out of the water. Fields of green grass and wildflowers led the way down to the shallow lake shore. Chris and I decided this would be a great place to test out our underwater camera for the first time.
The day was more than half over and we had barely made it to the southern tip of Lake Mývatn with two of the most beautiful sites yet to come. On Lake Mývatn’s south shore we finally came to the pseudocraters that Mývatn is famous for — these giant craters were formed by explosions during ancient eruptions from lava fissures under the lake. The large collection of pseudocraters at Skútustaðir on the south shore is a national monument, and well worth a stop.
There are trails and stairs around, up and into the Skútustaðir pseudocraters, which gracefully jut over the lake and summer fields of yellow flowers. Lake Mývatn is famous for it’s waterfowl and even has a museum dedicated to birds on the west shore. We were lucky enough to see several family groups of waterfowl swimming together amongst the pseudocraters.
After a short walk my parents left Chris and I to explore the craters to our heart’s content, while they had an afternoon nap and non-alcoholic beer (you can only buy alcoholic beverages in Iceland at special state-run liquor stores so grocery stores sell beer sans alcohol) on the RV kitchen table that transforms into a bed.
We were all getting tired at this point, so we made only one more stop on our way to Akureyri. What’s worth stopping for on a road trip when everyone is getting tired and just wants to get to the final destination? Ice cream of course! Ok, we actually stopped to see the awe-inspiring “Waterfall of the Gods” or Goðafoss — the Niagara Falls of Northern Iceland — but there was also ice cream at the little gas station store by the parking lot.
Goðafoss got its name from an Icelandic legend that says when the head of the pagan church and Icelandic’s ancient parliament made the decision to switch the country to Christianity in order to avoid bloodshed over the two religions, he threw the idols of the Norse gods into this waterfall on his journey home. I personally think it must also be called the “Waterfall of the Gods” because it’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.
Ice cream and rainbows in the fine mist of Goðafoss’s turbulent waters made for the perfect end to day five of our trip around the Ring Road. It wasn’t long after Goðafoss that we reached our campground outside of Akureyri and settled down in a grassy glen on the slope of the peaks surrounding the fjord. It was a bittersweet end to an amazing day — bittersweet because we knew that day six would be our last day RV’ing around Iceland.