Iceland is lovely every time of year, but I find it particularly beautiful in winter. The landscape is pared down to its bones, and what magnificent bones they are. White snow, black and red lava, turquoise glacial rivers. It’s truly a winter wonderland. And it’s completely safe – as long as you’re not an idiot.
Almost a million people visited Iceland in 2015. Three times the number of Icelandic citizens. And in the years between 2000 and 2015, 138 people have died in Iceland, most of them in traffic-related incidents. That’s combined Icelanders and tourists. Washington state has 450 traffic deaths a year. California has around 3,000 traffic deaths in a year. That’s bigger than most Icelandic towns.
While I was in Iceland, a tourist drowned.
The winds blowing off shore were 60-80mph. Sneaker waves were announced as a public danger on the Icelandic travel sites, and at road.is which gives current road conditions for all of Iceland. Is it sad? Yes. It was also stupid.
Last year, 100 people drowned along Washington beaches. I’ve lived most of my life in the west, close to the Pacific where not only are sneaker waves common, but the ocean will throw entire damn TREES at you to crush you and pin you down so it can drown you more easily. Walking near the waves in a gale force storm is stupid. You never turn your back on the ocean. It has nothing but contempt for your puny human swimming skills. Fortunately, where I live and in Iceland, the sea water is so cold, likely you’ll die of hypothermia first, so small blessings, eh?
If you’re a tourist, have respect for your environment. In a place like Iceland, rent a 4WD. Even in summer, because some roads are more like guidelines. If the sign says the road is impassable, believe it. Familiarize yourself, as best you can, with Icelandic road signs. They are not the same as US, and it helps to know the difference between DO NOT ENTER and PEDESTRIAN CROSSING. Check out road.is which tells you all the road conditions in Iceland, and updates them every 4 hours. If it says there are hazardous conditions, believe it. I love that website. It became my night time entertainment watching as roads went in and out of drivability (at least for us foreigners).
To be fair, Icelanders are far more phlegmatic about their roads than I. Although the maps indicate two types of roads – paved and unpaved – really there are four. Paved, used to be paved but not so much anymore, gravel, rutted track or maybe it was really a stream bed hard to tell. On our way to Gullfoss we saw a 2WD off in a ditch on a road that a 2WD car had no business being on. Perhaps they thought that because it was part of the Golden Circle, the road would be clear. They were wrong. They were in that situation because they were dumb. When they reached the point where they should have turned around, they didn’t. Instead ending up in a ditch with three cars trying to haul them out. When we came back from Gullfoss several hours later, they were still in the ditch.
Nothing in Iceland is interested in hurting you.
I’ve been stalked by a cougar in the North Cascades (because I had Kai with me – tasty, tasty dog, so my fault entirely). I’ve taken pictures of grizzly bears salmon fishing, and been deeply glad I was at the top of the waterfall, and they were too busy to check me out. Sea lions have threatened my kayak hoping to frighten me into giving them my non-existent fish. Raccoons have chased me off the sidewalk. You think raccoons are cute? Wait until it’s night and two of them are lumbering along the sidewalk like a couple of Mafioso. You give them the road. Trust me.
Every animal I took pictures of was either uninterested in us, or ran away. Sheep, horses, swans. Mostly they wanted to be left alone. If I’d been an idiot and chased the swans, maybe one of them would have flown at me, and I’d have bruises. But I’m usually not that particular kind of idiot.
Reykjavik is the safest city I’ve ever been in. From my US perspective, no crime at all. Drivers drive pretty slowly. People are nice. It’s not like Paris, where pick pockets work in teams to size you up and seize what they can. It’s certainly not like any US city where if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may be physically harassed or attacked. Maybe killed.
I love Iceland. It’s the safest place I’ve ever traveled. I love the landscape, and the people, and the food (but not the fermented shark, no). Next year I hope to go in a different season, and travel more extensively. And I promise, I won’t do anything obviously stupid.