Ever wonder what electrically charged elements from the sun look like when they enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with its gaseous particles?
I’ve always wanted to see these collisions. Perhaps you’ve heard of them—the Northern Lights.
Iceland has always been on my bucket list of places to visit. First, I love the cold. Second, I love nature, and I had heard that this country had pretty much all the beautiful elements of the earth in one place. It is known as “The Land of Ice and Fire.” Third, beauty and anti-aging products—need I say more?
But the priority of this trip was chasing Mother Nature’s phenomenon: the Northern Lights.
My best friend Andrea had recently gone through an abrupt separation. This other bestie of mine, Rica, is married to a Danish gentleman; the rest of her family was going to spend Christmas in Sydney, so she was lonely in Denmark.
This inspired the idea to go on a girls’ trip to 1) celebrate the divorce, 2) visit the lonely, homesick Pinay in cold Scandinavia, and 3) tick Iceland off the bucket list.
Andrea and I booked our flights from Manila to Copenhagen on Qatar Airways, right after Christmas. The plan was to pick up Rica in Denmark, travel together to Iceland, spend a few days in Reykjavik, and be back in Copenhagen to spend New Year’s Eve with Rica’s husband and our other Danish friends.
Four days in Iceland is nowhere near enough. Flights are majorly delayed in first world countries, too.
Another thing: We actually planned to share 20 kilos of weight among us three girls! Who were we kidding? I immediately bought more allowance after I realized how heavy our thermals alone were.
We flew on WOW Air, which was delayed for over an hour. Instead of landing at 2 p.m., we ended up touching down at 4 p.m. We weren’t let off the plane right away due to congestion and a slight snowstorm; by the time we disembarked and got our luggage, it was already 6 p.m.
After leaving Keflavik Airport, we had to drive about an hour to another bus terminal to catch a different coach that would take us to our Airbnb. This was another hour’s drive, and the transfer of luggage required me to get down and dirty.
Our host, Hildur, sent her mother to pick us up. She is 65 and looked 45, I swear. Except for a few lines around the eyes, her skin was immaculate—proof of Iceland’s anti-aging properties.
It was past 8 p.m. when we finally settled into our apartment, starving and exhausted. Luckily, there was a nearby grocery store we raided. I managed to make some fresh guacamole with the amazing produce we found, then melted into my bed, since we had to get up at 4 to catch our 6 a.m. tour of The Golden Circle, Iceland’s initial must-see route.
In Iceland, there is a lot of driving involved, not because of dreaded traffic, but because of the huge land mass. Places are very far from one another, but the scenery is beautiful beyond words. In winter, the landscape looked like crumbled Oreo cookies—dark soil covered with white snow.
Our first stop was the tectonic plates between Europe and Asia. There are 7 km of land in between the two continents, and a whole lot of ice. It felt like the end of the world. Picture Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant.” “Game of Thrones” fans, imagine being beyond The Wall where the Wildlings are and expect to see a White Walker anytime.
The wind was howling, and the sky was dark at close to 8 a.m. I could not feel my hands when I attempted to photograph No Man’s Land. Even after putting my gloves back on and scrambling into the souvenir shop, it took about half an hour for the feeling to come back to my hands.
Next was FriSheimar Farm, a greenhouse that uses sustainable, geothermal technology to grow the sweetest tomatoes all year round. If I ever move to Iceland, I would be a tomato farmer.
The ground in this farm has a lot of hot water to help the greenhouse, and the glasses are 4 mm thick to allow sufficient sunlight to enter. The cold water used for irrigation is as pure as the drinking water, which is very important, since tomatoes are 90 percent H2O.
Iceland also makes use of “green electricity” generated by hydroelectric and geothermal power stations.
Grow lights are used to ensure that tomatoes can grow no matter the weather condition. C02 is derived from HæSarendi, a natural stream nearby; this helps with photosynthesis. Pumice from Mt. Hekla is used as growing media, as it is simpler to control moisture and fertilization than with soil.
Pesticides are not used at FriSheimar. Instead, biological control is practiced; they get assistance from Dutch bees for the pollination and mirid bug to eat all insects and pests. Of course, a central control system allows the owners to monitor, from anywhere in the world, all computers linked to the greenhouse.
The tomato soup, Bloody Mary and tomato ice creams served here were delectable!
Our third stop was a place where the cold and heat coexist and create another beautiful phenomenon: Strokkur Geysir. When 100°C in the water underground meets 2°C (real feel: 7°C) in the atmosphere, a mesmerizing fountain of steam explodes into the air. There are several small geysers in the park, and a huge one that I patiently waited to capture, even as my fingers went numb again.
Last stop on the tour was the enchanting Gullfoss Waterfall. The whole scene was Winter Wonderland, like walking into Narnia right after the Wardrobe—white as far as the eye could see, from the sky to the valley to the water. By this time, around 3 p.m., the sun was beginning to show, even though it was setting and not rising.
By simply turning to a different direction, one could witness the change of the colorscape of the valley. The light gold rays that appeared in the sky ended up displaying a beautiful sunset of blue, white and orange. It looked like the Gates of Heaven.
The next morning was relatively free, but the jet lag was so bad, I woke up at 4 a.m.
What to do that early? I made fresh pasta with the amazing local tomatoes we bought and, of course, the recipe turned out extra magical.
We then set out to walk around town and try the famous Icelandic hotdogs that we had been hearing about from friends and tourists. My opinion: They weren’t terrible with the local brown sauce, but the Danish dogs with pickles and onions were more of my preference. If I were on death row, I would ask for the Danish hotdogs over the Icelandic ones in a heartbeat.
That afternoon was scheduled for a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately, we missed our original bus. The driver didn’t see us, and we didn’t see him. Panic mode, since the Blue Lagoon was objective No. 2 on this trip.
A few calls, text messages and new tickets later, we ended up getting on the next shuttle, which turned out to be a blessing in frozen disguise. The girls and I made some really good friends on the ride. These folk who were also on a trip with their guy besties were such a pleasant surprise.
The Blue Lagoon’s geothermal waters travel from 2,000 miles below the surface. During this flow, the seawater is heated by the earth’s magma and enriched with silica, minerals and algae. These volcanic waters have incredible anti-aging and rejuvenating properties that have made the destination and its products very popular worldwide.
We splurged on the double mask package (and would have done the maximum if we had more time), which allowed us to pile on the silica mask that cleans and refines pores, followed by the algae mask that renews the skin. Iceland has managed to manufacture these products sustainably, which seems to be a trend in this country.
Business and economic practices here do not disrupt nature and its course. We had so much fun in the lagoon and with our new friends that we didn’t realize it was time to catch our jeep to chase the Northern Lights.
I’ve never swum and gotten dressed for anything this quickly. We ran out onto the snow in our underwear with wet hair and skin. But we would have done anything at that point to see what we came to see.
There were so many buses outside, we didn’t know which one drove back to the city. Luckily, when you are this desperate, all shame disappears, and we went from one bus to another until we found the correct vehicle that would take us back to the city center.
Levels of intensity
I originally booked the Aurora Chase for the first night, but the weather was not good the first two nights, so we had to postpone the chase to our last night.
Seeing the lights requires good weather, and we had clear skies only on night 3.
Back in the city, our guide Gunar patiently waited by our Airbnb as we threw on dry clothes and packed some snacks for the journey. We drove about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik to our first stop. The lights of the nearby towns were still too close that we didn’t see the Aurora.
Back in the car while driving farther out, Gunar was explaining that the lights had different levels of intensity. Levels 1 to 3 have the range of greens, while the brighter ones can vary from purple to even orange.
Only 15 minutes later, we parked at our second stop, which was a little more deserted than the first. We could see a hint of patterns in the sky. As I set up my Leica and took the first test photo, I shrieked in excitement upon seeing the colors register on the monitor.
At first, I thought it was just a lucky shot. But then one snap after another presented the miracle of the Northern Lights. Behold—Lady Aurora decided to show herself this evening.
The Aurora Borealis that night was between Levels 3 and 4, which gave the sky a greenish hue. It was so magical, I couldn’t move. The three of us hugged and made a wish that evening.
It was extra special since I experienced this with two friends who are like sisters to me. I also know that not everyone who goes in search of the lights gets to see them, so we were very lucky, and we sent our gratitude to the Heavens. Mission accomplished, bucket list ticked.
We ended our chase at around midnight, which only gave us a couple of hours before catching our 6 a.m. flight. We took the two-hour bus ride (including switches at the terminal) to the airport and found out that our WOW Air flight was delayed to 10 a.m.!
Instead of being in a bad mood, we ended up raiding the Blue Lagoon store in the airport (it’s much cheaper there than to buy online or in the actual lagoon) and I, no kidding, bought all the products for sale.
That wasn’t enough. With more time to spare because of a further delay, we ended up using the masks on ourselves and figured, if we do this now, we would look fresh for our New Year’s Eve dinner and party. I even ended up helping the salesladies explain the merchandise to other customers who visited the shop.
We finally landed back in Denmark with suitcases full of products. Exhausted but extremely happy, we didn’t have the chance to take a nap, and went straight to glamming up for our New Year’s Eve parties.
The trip to Copenhagen and back, however, was no easy feat, and another adventure on its own. But that’s another story.