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Exploring Iceland
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An ongoing collection of reader stories about visiting the country, its natural beauty, and the impact of the tourism boom there. Send your own personal note about Iceland to hello@theatlantic.com.

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‘Welcome to Brand Iceland’

We’ve spent some time in this space praising Iceland and its precious natural wonders. But it isn’t all fun and Northern lights up there: A reader named Ellen Girardeau Kempler sends over a hilarious satirical essay she wrote poking fun at the country’s tourism boom. Kempler spent some time in Iceland for a writer’s retreat, prompting her to provide “my reaction to the relentless marketing machine behind the branding of Iceland as a tourist destination.”

Author’s Disclaimer: Brand Iceland is a tame and tourist-friendly destination created purely for marketing purposes. Any resemblance to the actual country of Iceland—home to a UNESCO City of Literature; a parliamentary system over 1,000 years old; a written history (as told in the Icelandic sagas) marked by battles with the elements and each other; and some of the planet’s wildest and most dangerous landscapes (including scalding geysers, pools and rivers; deadly rip currents; active volcanoes; yawning crevasses; unstable glaciers; moving tectonic plates; sheer, windswept cliffs; slippery mountain trails; volatile weather; and violent waterfalls)—is purely coincidental.

The advertising onslaught begins as soon as you board an Icelandair jet and plug your own headset into the entertainment console (conveniently available for purchase, in case you forgot). Before every movie, television show or musical selection begins, you’ll learn about souvenirs and tours you MUST buy. To promote the airline’s winning strategy of letting visitors stay in Iceland for up to seven days on their way to other destinations, you’ll be asked to follow them and tag your photos #MyStopover for a chance to be featured in the in-flight magazine.

Landing at Keflavik, you’ll spot familiar faces staring seductively from walls and shop windows, like the breathless, pale siren who whispers in the video ads, “Gee-SSSyr” (geysir—both the Icelandic word for geyser and the name of a clothing company). You’ll see highly enhanced, billboard-sized images of the moss-covered lava fields, blue-white glaciers, steaming geysers and soaking pools, rainbow-draped waterfalls, black sand beaches, bird-inhabited cliffs, glistening ice lagoons, shaggy horses, comical puffins, turf-covered houses, elfin-sized doors, shimmering Auroras and glowing (but never threatening) volcanoes you probably already recognize from such movies and television shows as Game of Thrones, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and many more.

Hike of the day. #Iceland #ايسلند پياده روى امروز

A photo posted by @bahmankalbasi on

A reader, Dave, responds to Rosa’s note with some fond reflections on Iceland:

It is hard to capture just how big and beautiful it all is. We hiked, drove, and mountain biked (with an emphasis on mountains), around Iceland. We saw fields of basalt with sharp-edged mountain ridges that seemed to be made of a single solid rock, covered in moss. We saw tens of thousands of acres with a single tiny road in, one out, and no other sign of humanity: no telephone poles, lines, pavement, agriculture, litter. We came upon waterfalls that would be the wonder of any Colorado resort town but are unnamed, flowing over unnamed ridges into unnamed basins.

Coincidentally one of my friends is currently in Iceland and just posted several photos and videos of waterfalls, including this one:

Last fall of the #Iceland trip.

A video posted by @bahmankalbasi on

Back to Dave:

Then there is the water. It is a force of nature, wonder, energy, and culture in Iceland. It rains, then pours down into rivers, makes up the glaciers, and is heated by ingenious people, then piped by above ground aqueducts into the towns, where it heats lovely, neat homes. And it heats public pools that make your college gym look like a swamp puddle. These heated pools and saunas were worth the trip entirely.

#Bluelagoon #Iceland #استخر آب معدنى #ايسلند

A photo posted by @bahmankalbasi on

And the water tastes like water; in many places you can drink it from the basin of that waterfall. When we came home, our filtered water tasted of metal and chemicals.

Then there are the miscellaneous: A jewel of a city, Reykjavik, where you can eat fish, horse, shark, and whale. Or have great Pakistani, decent Ramen, and awesome bread, and go to bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, stores of all kids. It’s the smallest biggest city outside Reno, full of Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. And the natives: fun and lighthearted, but intellectually curious and fearless. Seemingly they are all industrious, beautiful, individualist and possessing what I'd call an American spirit.

For these and other reasons, if you ever get the chance to go: go.

Another reader who went is Rebecca Zicarelli, and her dispatch and photos will make you want to follow in her wake:

We just got back from Iceland. It’s a beautiful place.

Iceland is the newest landscape; it’s where the North American and Eurasian continental plates recycle back to the raw stuff at the heart of our planet. It’s also the oldest modern culture (if the rule of law is your metric of modernity), based on an agreement in the year 930 that just happened to be signed where the walls of this continental-plate collision rear out of the ground.

This photo is in Þingvellir, a national park where that government of rule-of-law was formed, looking down through the wall of the North-Atlantic plate the to the crack between continents and the plain where modern culture was born:

It’s a landscape of rocks thinly covered by moss, lichen, and small shrubs and trees. Besides the lifting of continental plates into mountains, the dominate feature is the seabed floor and volcanic rock eroding back into the ocean. The delicate landscape won’t survive too many footsteps.

Antiquities won’t survive, either. At dinner one night, a man who makes his living as an Iceland-adventure guide entertained his clients at the next table, and he spoke of this and the Icelandic distaste of saying, “No, don’t do this.” It’s a national ethic of being good stewards of the land, and one I loved. It was certainly lacking in the sign pollution that litters our national treasures proclaiming drug-free zones and don’t litter and don’t park and no dogs allowed and gun-free zone and on and on …

#Iceland #ايساند

A photo posted by @bahmankalbasi on

What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:

This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.

You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.

An Atlantic reader feels the irony:

When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.

If you have a related anecdote from your own visit to Iceland you’d like to share, drop us an email. We published one in our February 1893 issue.