This is a whole new experience for me. Normally when I blog about a trip, I pick up the narrative right where the previous post left off. There’s no introduction, no denouement, just writing until a stopping point, then stopping. So imagine how it must feel to be writing about my honeymoon, and picking the narrative up on Day 3 of the trip. But before the memories start to fade, I want to hit our four biggest activities with the attention they deserve. We’re starting with the first one – snorkeling inside the Silfra tectonic rift.
Silfra is located within þingvellir National Park in southwestern Iceland. It’s accessibility near Reykjavik and location along the Golden Circle made þingvellir one of the few places that Elizabeth and I had been forced to deal with little piggies after our quiet couple of days in Snæfellsnes. Even then, it wasn’t like American-level crowded. It was sort of just what I would consider average congestion at something like Pinnacles or Carlsbad.
To get to þingvellir, we had to drive south toward Reykjavik then east out of Mosfellsbaer along Highway 36 – the official beginning of the Golden Circle. The sun was bravely trying to peek its way through the clouds and haze as we drove through an incredibly barren mountain pass on our way to the national park. We came up and over the pass and suddenly had an insane view of a big old lake far below us.
This is þingvallavatn, the largest freshwater lake in Iceland. The national park is located right on the upstream side of it, and we were only a few minutes away.
One source of tension between Elizabeth and myself on the honeymoon was our relative lack of preparedness. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean “we were showing up without any plan for how to snorkel” or anything of the sort that plagues truly unprepared vacationers. For us, it was more like “Nolan hadn’t researched where to meet up with the adventure company”. Which, true, is a pretty stressful thing. But my operating assumption was that we had a trip planner for a reason, adventure companies *have* to dummy-proof their operations, and that we’d just survived months of extensive wedding preparation and it was time to relax and enjoy ourselves at least a little bit while also going all-out on the adventuring. In the end, we were both right – but I got a little bit of a laugh when, while anxiously looking around the main road within the park for where the snorkeling groups would be, we passed this sign:
Elizabeth parked our rental car and we got changed in the extremely nice, extremely clean bathroom at our parking lot. The tour groups convened across a little river back by the diver sign in a parking lot. Each group had their own big vans. It was just a matter of finding ours – Troll Expeditions. The outfitters were taken aback to see the two Americans who had arrived absurdly early for their snorkeling time (the previous group hadn’t even left yet), but recovered from the surprise and started helping us through the surprisingly complex process of getting ready to snorkel. In my head, this wasn’t a complex thing. Get us in a wet suit, put a snorkel on our heads. Right?
Well… it was a bit tougher than that. First of all, we had to get in the van and grab a dry suit. Note, this was not a wetsuit, it was a dry suit. There’s a difference – first, a drysuit is designed to seal out all water. Second, they’re buoyant as hell. Third, they’re extremely mobility-restrictive. Combine all three and you start to look and feel like a Michelin Man inside of one of them. Fortunately, we didn’t get *all* the way zipped into our drysuits until the other people from our tour had arrived. Our tour guide, Mieria, pulled Elizabeth, myself, and three other snorkelers off to the side and talked us through the excursion.
This is probably where I should give some of the backstory on Silfra and þingvellir itself. Iceland is a volcanic island along the zone where North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating. þingvellir sits along a tectonically active portion of that fault zone. The rifts within the park (and there are several) form in much the same way that silly putty starts to fray the longer you pull it apart. Silfra is a rift right along the edge of þingvallavatn that penetrates into a volcanic aquifer. As water from a nearby glacier melts, it percolates down into the aquifer and spends about a century wandering slowly downhill until it reaches the rift zone. The effect is to filter the already extremely pure glacial water into a zone of the purest, clearest 34-degree water you’ll ever see. Which, naturally, makes it a world-class snorkeling and diving spot.
Mareia led us in our enclosed drysuits to the diving zone across the street. Somebody had very helpfully plopped a staircase into the tectonic rift so that you could walk right on into it. There were plenty of other groups ahead of us, so I had lots of time to notice how uncomfortable the suit was. My knee itched, but there was basically no way to scratch it. I kinda had to pee. Were we sure this snorkeling thing was actually going to be worthwhile? Because right now it just seemed like a claustrophobic hell.
With every group closer to the water, we added more layers too. The gloves, which were not waterproof but were insulated so that once water got in your body heat would keep your hands warm; the helmet, which fit *very* snugly on your head and permitted no way to scratch my head if my hair itched; the goggles, which did likewise to my nose.
It wasn’t a super warm day by normal standards, but Iceland seems to operate on a permanent spring principle where 55 and sunny feels warmer there than it does elsewhere. The sun beat down on those drysuits of ours, and at least one Michelin Man in line (me) was now fighting down a full-on claustrophobia panic attack. It took a couple of ragged deep breaths and a reminder that I was not actually going to be squeezed to death by the suit to get back under control, but, could we please get in the water now?
We could, thank you. It was a very weird feeling easing down into the water up to waist-deep because I legitimately couldn’t feel a thing. Sure, there was a vague coolness, but no moisture got through whatsoever. It provoked a sort of out-of-body-feeling. But at least it was better than sitting around thinking of being a mummy and buried alive inside an Icelandic aquifer.
Mireia showed our group of 5 how to navigate the narrow rift zone inside the suits. The drysuits themselves were insanely buoyant, so you didn’t have to do a single thing to swim. There was also a modest current carrying out into the lake, so you really didn’t have to put any effort in at all. It’s literally just a luxurious spread-eagled float down a slow lazy river.
The only skin exposed to the water when I rolled over from my back onto my stomach was right there on the face. It was a biting cold that didn’t actually feel overwhelmingly bad when set against the claustrophobic suit elsewhere. In fact, it all kind of seemed to cancel out, and I could feel myself relaxing. I got the snorkel in my mouth and began to breathe, peering down into the depths.
First of all: whoa. On a sunny day like this, each individual piece of algae was noteworthy in the water because otherwise, there was absolutely nothing to obstruct your view. The view was stunning.
While our guide’s GoPro maybe saturates the colors more than I remembered seeing while we were snorkeling, the world really was a mix of deep blues and yellow-greens. At some points, the water was so shallow that to get from chamber to chamber your belly scraped on rocky bottom. In others, it was 10, 20, 40 meters down to the bottom and no more than your wingspan across.
I found Elizabeth treading water in front of me and look at this cute shot of us glove-in-glove:
At one point, the chamber narrowed up. Everyone was queued up in line to get their picture taken with one hand on the North American tectonic plate and the other hand on the European tectonic plate. While that is a little bit of tourist-y cheeseball-ness (isn’t that how the whole rift zone works?), the picture of me touching both is still pretty badass.
After I’d been going for a while, I did run into some slight suction problems – specifically, my helmet was coming a little loose on the left side with a massive hissing bubbling sound. Water wasn’t filling up my ear, so I figured it wasn’t a huge deal. Water in the snorkel was a much easier solution – I just drank it. It’s purified glacier melt. You’re not going to find a more crisp or refreshing hydration anywhere else in the world.
The whole thing took only 30-40 minutes, tops. I would have been content to float along in the slow current for a couple more hours and stare down at the green grass of the shallows, or the moody shadows of the depths, or the bubbles kicked up by Elizabeth’s flippers when she kicked. But I saw everyone turning left around a rock outcropping and into a shallow lagoon where the exit ramp was. There was a yellow sand area that I kind of wanted to explore – this was fun! Outside of a very cold face, I could do this much longer! – but when we surfaced to talk about it, Elizabeth indicated she’d rather head back.
Note: drysuits are not flattering.
And that’s kind of all there was to it. We got out of the water, marched our drysuited selves past the snorkeler sign, and got changed back into everyday clothes (freedom!) at the Troll van. Troll provided us with some watery hot chocolate and delicious Scandinavian wafers to munch on, presumably for warmth, but the mild day made it more of a bonus than an “omg give me now” kind of thing.
Of our major excursions, this was maybe the one we’d talked about the least and I was anticipating the least. But honestly, that also made it the part of our entire honeymoon that exceeded expectations more than anything else. If I ever have a friend who goes to Iceland, I’m telling them to hit up the Golden Circle and check this opportunity out. It wasn’t just very cool – it was downright cold.