Native horses roam throughout Iceland. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Skogafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. // © 2016 iStock
"Do we have to see another waterfall?” I asked.
On the last afternoon of a weeklong tour of southern Iceland, I had lost count of how many we had seen.
Luckily, our guide, Hoskuldur — Hoski for short — knew just what to say to snap me out my ennui.
“You can actually walk behind this one,” he said.
That was enough to get me to grab my camera and make the short hike to Skogafoss, where I was rewarded by the sight of a torrent of water crashing off a roughly 200-foot-high cliff in front of me, paired with a rainbow for added drama.
But don’t be surprised if you overdose on Iceland’s natural wonders like I did. From rolling green hills dotted with sheep and rugged snowcapped peaks to rock-strewn wastelands created by volcanic eruptions, it’s a jaw-dropping destination for hikers and photographers.
However, Iceland is not ideal for do-it-yourself travelers. First, you need a four-wheel-drive rental vehicle to navigate roads off the main highways, most of which are rough gravel.
And due to Iceland’s booming tourism, hotel rooms can be difficult to come by — the clerk at one modest hotel I stayed in told me rooms were sold out a solid two years in advance. Don’t expect five-star accommodations in Iceland, either. Especially in smaller communities, rooms are comfortable but spartan.
All in all, it’s far easier to book a tour and let someone else look after the driving and accommodations. I signed up for Exodus Travels’ eight-day Discover Iceland tour through southern Iceland. Each day brought us a different version of the country’s spectacular scenery. Our first day on the road took us from Reykjavik, the country’s capital, to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, where we stopped at the fishing village of Arnarstapi to see the spectacular rock formations off the country’s western coast.
A long hike through a lava field the next day ended at Eldborg Crater. Here, you can look down into the cone that last erupted about 5,000 years ago. At lunch, we fed apples to the long-maned Icelandic horses that were corralled near our picnic spot.
Geysir, Iceland’s version of Yellowstone National Park’s geysers, was crowded with tourists. But at Landmannalaugar — a natural outdoor hot spring in Fjallabak Nature Reserve that can be reached only by a molar-rattling drive — we were solely in the company of seasoned backpackers camping nearby. And later that day, we had the Eldgja fissure — a lush green canyon created by a volcanic eruption around 935 A.D. — all to ourselves.
Despite it being the height of summer, we were also able to see a glacier-filled lagoon. At the edge of the Vatnajokull ice cap, we zipped up our jackets against the chill as we snapped photos of huge ice formations bobbing in the frigid water.
We had repeatedly asked Hoski whether we would see puffins on the trip, and on our last day, he delivered. At Dyrholaey, a nesting area at the southernmost tip of Iceland, one puffin even seemed to be posing for us, turning one way and then the other so we could all capture his profile.
Our tour ended back in Reykjavik, which is full of good restaurants, interesting shops and friendly locals. But when I close my eyes andrecall my trip to Iceland, I have visions of glacier-filled lagoons, hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, horses, puffins, craters and canyons. It’s hard to think of another small country with such a bounty of natural wonders.