Most of what I knew about Iceland comes from Instagram.
I knew it was brimming with waterfalls, mountains, and picturesque landscapes. Our Iceland stopover was as beautiful as Instagram had portrayed it, but I also learned plenty of interesting facts about the nation.
We wanted to learn about Iceland from someone other than fellow Instagrammers, so we set out on our first expedition outside of the country’s capital, Reykjavik, on a minibus tour with Discover Iceland to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
When I picture tour groups, I envision an impersonal experience with a busload of other tourists, but our 16-passenger tour bus set out with only five passengers, giving us a great opportunity to get to know, Ingvar Ingvarsson, our born-and-raised-in-Iceland tour guide.
Ingvarsson spent the nine-hour tour pointing out important landmarks and sharing a more personal side of what it means to be an Icelander. He also told plenty of stories about where and how people had died from car crashes, falling into volcanoes, among other morbid ends.
Driving around Iceland grants more freedom, as we learned the following day when our tour with another group forgot to pick us up and we were forced to rent a car (the working theory is that our driver waited for us at a similarly named hotel, there’s a Hotel 101 and a 101 Guesthouse, which is what they seem to call hotels in Iceland, and then proceeded when we never arrived).
Regardless, I wouldn’t discount hopping on a bus while visiting Iceland.
Here are some fun facts I learned from our tour to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Iceland is often used as a training ground for astronauts
For the past 50 years Apollo astronauts have been visiting Iceland for geology training, and the desolate landscape is said to be the place on earth that most closely resembles the moon. Spend a few short minutes in countryside and you’ll quickly see why. Iceland’s landscape seems otherworldly. While it’s certainly beautiful, it’s also barren and at times even seems hostile, making you feel like the creatures from Alien could be around any bend.
Iceland is the home to elves
In addition to possible aliens, Iceland is also home to several other mythical creatures, though mythical may not be the best way to describe them. To call them mythical is like saying Jesus is mythical, but plenty of Icelanders believe in Christ as well.
Elves, which are often referred to as Huldufolk (Hidden People), live in the rocks and are not to be disturbed. Icelandic construction companies have actually been known to “consult” with the elves before building on land where elves are said to live. I know you’re probably thinking, “that’s insane”, but half of the world’s population believe a man could walk on water and came back from the dead, so who are we to judge?
Yes, one more potentially deadly being. Iceland is giving Australia a run for their money.
They’re a little less cute than the possibility of elves, but the Icelandic people also believe that ghosts live among them. The ghosts can take on any shape or form, and can get physical with you, according to our bus driver, who says he was touched on the head by a ghost and then had an accurate premonition that a family member would die. Ghost stories date back to the beginning of Icelandic history and it is such an important aspect of their culture that they actually have a Ghost Centre, where our guide said you can feel an overwhelming presence of spirits. We didn’t visit it because although I’m unsure if that’s true, I don’t want to find out, in case it is.
It’s the healthiest country in the world and not just in the imagination department
Despite the wealth of supernatural creatures and an unforgiving landscape where you could literally fall through the roof of a lava cave into the center of the Earth, Icelanders are the healthiest country in the world according to a study conducted by the United Nations. They’re actually tied with Singapore and Sweden, but still. Thanks to publicly funded health care, tobacco control initiatives, and a very healthy and appetizing diet, Iceland is at the top of the healthiest countries list.
The weather is bipolar at best, sunny one minute and sleet the next, Icelanders are far from couch potatoes, they combat the winter blues with plenty of exercise. They’re also one of the world’s least polluted countries, in part of course, due to the inhospitable terrain, the weather, and the fact that the entire country’s population rivals only a small American city, with 330,000 citizens. Icelandic men live to the ripe old age of 72 on average while women live to 74, leaving ample time for getting to know the elves and ghosts.
There are plenty of great hikes just a short drive outside of Reykjavik, but as our tour guide cautioned, it’s best to stay on the established footpaths or risk plunging down a lava tube into the centre of the earth. It’s no wonder Jules Verne drew a lot of inspiration from Iceland.
No animals can kill you, just everything else
There also aren’t any predators. You can hike easy knowing there’s no chance of getting mauled by a cougar, crushed by a grizzly, or trampled by a moose. However, the animal with the highest K:D ratio is the Icelandic sheep that can unwittingly send loose rocks downhill onto the unprotected heads of travellers.
But again, you’re more likely to fall through the earth’s crust than cross an Icelandic animal intent on inflicting any harm.
Fuelled by magma
Iceland is proof that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Although their landscape is littered with volcanoes and other deadly natural features, they’ve found a way to turn weakness into strength, or rather, their magma into power. 89% of the houses in Iceland are fueled by something called “geothermal energy”, which in the least scientific explanation ever, means that they use the groundwater from the Earth’s crust to create power. The geothermal energy below Iceland is so strong that the sidewalks in Reykjavik are known to steam in the dead of winter. There’s also plenty of earthquakes every day, but no one is particularly worried about them ever.
Icelanders couldn’t drink until 1989
Each day of our trip we battled winds, hail, rain, and a multi-season serving of weather, so ending the day with a beer felt necessary and justified. However, if we had visited prior to 1989 we would’ve been sipping on something quite different and less fun because for most of the 20th century it was illegal to drink in Iceland. The alcohol ban was loosened in 1933 but boundaries remained for beers 2.25% or higher. Finally, on March 1, 1989 parliament decided to stop being such squares and finally legalized, a historic date that Icelanders celebrate each year by drinking as much beer as possible.
There’s plenty of good non-alcoholic drinks in Iceland, including the deliciously pure tap water, Appelsin, an orange soda, and Malt Extrakt, kind of like an unfermented Guinness that tastes way better than it sounds. Icelanders enjoy the best tasting Coca Cola in the world thanks again to the pure water used to produce it.
That church used to be more eyesore than icon
That Icelandic church you always see pictures of on Instagram is actually almost always under construction. Those Instagrammers worked hard to get a good angle of that thing, because trust me, it’s not easy. When we were there both the lower right and lower left sides of the church were covered in blue tarps. The church, despite it’s fairly simple architecture, took 41 years to build, using subpar materials left over from another project. Before the church was complete, sections of it were already being renovated. At least we can say that we got an authentic look a the church’s history when we were there.
Iceland’s only serial killer is long gone
On your visit to Iceland you may have to watch out for ghosts, aliens and elves, but you needn’t worry about any axe murderers. There has only been one serial killer in Iceland’s history, Axlar Björn, and he has been dead since 1596.
As the story goes, Björn’s mother had cravings for human blood while pregnant, a thirst that was quenched by her husband cutting himself to feed her thirst for blood. She sensed that the child growing in her was not right, but as a child he appeared perfectly normal. Björn’s family struggled financially, so he was sent to live with a family friend as a young boy.
In his teen years Björn had a dream that a man offered him a plate with eighteen pieces of meat, which he devoured, but grew nauseous at the last bite. In the dream the man also told him to go up a mountain to find a tool to help him seal his fate. Upon waking from the dream Björn did what he was told, and discovered an axe at the top of the mountain, which is said to be what he used to slay his victims. Björn lived in an inviting cottage at the edge of a road, which helped lure lost travellers and wanderers. He carried on for years this way, killing 17 people, but the 18th was able to escape and alert authorities.
Björn was executed, and Icelanders, being a superstitious bunch, chopped off his limbs and head, making it impossible for him to come back in tacts as a ghost. The farm where Björn lived is still standing, amongst the scenic views of the Snaefellnes Peninsula.