That Iceland has an overtourism problem is not news. In fact, so many people have poured into the country from 2009 onwards that the word “overtourism” was coined by Skift, a travel industry website, just to describe what was happening to the land, its cities, and its culture as a result of its overwhelming popularity. And even though tourism numbers are falling fast (helped by the recent collapse of the budget carrier Wow Air), there’s still a steady stream of travelers posting selfies at now-familiar sites such as the Blue Lagoon and Gullfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls.
But that’s not to say the entire country is overrun. The majority of visitors never travel more than one day away from the capital, Reykjavík, and the nearby Golden Circle. More remote areas in the northwest and southeast see a fraction of the tourists that Reykjavík does: In the summer of 2019, fewer than 30 percent of visitors to Iceland stayed overnight in the eastern part of the country, and only 16 percent traveled to the Westfjords. So there are entire regions packed with natural wonders that most travelers have never heard of, much less Instagrammed. AFAR sat down with Ryan Connolly, marketing manager and co-owner of the tour company Hidden Iceland, which specializes in small-group tours, to learn more about the places most people are missing.
Sometimes called the Final Frontier of Iceland, the Westfjords are a three- to five-hour drive from Reykjavík, and according to Connolly, it’s a place even locals don’t visit often. Here you can stand at the base of one of the country’s largest waterfalls, the massive Dynjandi waterfall; walk along the cliffs at Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Europe, looking for puffins and other seabirds; or seek out some of the numerous, lonely hot pots and hot spring-fed heated swimming pools that dot this geothermally active region. You might even spot the elusive arctic fox. Hidden Iceland offers a four-day trip to the Westfjords, but even if you’re going alone, you’ll want to plan to spend at least a few days here: Exploring the area requires twisting and turning your way along the coast between tiny fishing villages, and the driving can take more time than you expect. But, Connolly says, “The only traffic jam you’re likely to encounter in the Westfjords is when the free-roaming sheep decide the road is the perfect spot for their afternoon nap.”
The Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, is a volcanic archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. It’s close enough to Reykjavík that it could make a good day trip, but Connolly says that doesn’t mean it’s overcrowded: The number of tourists on the main island is limited by the spots on the small ferry that sails back and forth each day. “You’re more likely to spot a whale off the coast or dodge a fluttering puffin along the cliff edges than have to deal with crowds,” he reassures.
The main island, Heimaey, was almost destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1973 that caused the town to be evacuated. You can learn more about the event at the Eldheimar Museum or on a hike to the volcano’s crater. You can still feel the heat of the volcano emanating from cracks in the crater.
Vatnajökull National Park’s Ice Caves
“This new UNESCO World Heritage site enjoys plenty of tourists, especially in the warm summer months,” Connolly admits. “But considering it covers around one-eighth of the entire country, there are plenty of hidden gems.” The volcanic region is 5,405 square miles and encompasses 10 central volcanoes, 8 of which are subglacial and 2 of which are among the most active in Iceland. Because of this, the landscape evolves rapidly—especially its electric blue ice caves.
“The glaciers in Iceland are hundreds of years old, but the ice caves that are formed within them are mainly created from summer melting and water erosion,” says Connolly. “When the melting period increases in spring, the caves collapse or melt away. This makes each new ice cave season completely unique.” So the ice caves that travelers explore this year will be different than those they can explore next year. Hidden Iceland teamed up with local ice cave explorers to launch a two day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Ice Cave tour that visits off-the-beaten-path ice caves in the winter season, running November through March.
Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon that borders Vatnajökull National Park, is both well-known and popular. Its giant icebergs, black sands, and sleepy seals can draw crowds in the middle of the day. But Connolly says there are lots of hidden walks along the edge of the glacier lagoon that only local guides will know about. And if you want to skip the recognizable spot altogether, you can check out Fjallsárlón, a smaller and lesser-known version nearby.
There are plenty of glaciers around Vatnajökull National Park that you can hike at any time of year, but Connolly loves Falljökull. “The name translates to the falling glacier,” he says, “mainly because the top section of the glacier is a vertical cliff of ice. This glacier is shaped like a waterfall flowing into a river.” And this topography is what keeps the crowds at bay. Other companies offer short walks on this easily accessible glacier that stick to the flat section at its base. “But if you allow yourself four or more hours to squeeze through crevasses and past holes, you can venture all the way up into the higher sections where you’ll find spectacular views,” says Connolly. “You might even see a distant ice avalanche if you go on a hot day. It’s a place most people just don’t go.”