Iceland Golden Circle guide: Big attractions and hidden secrets


(CNN)With dreamy landscapes and an out-of-this-world feel, it’s not surprising that the Golden Circle tour is considered one of the best things to do in Iceland.

Better still, especially for those using the volcanic island as a brief stopover between North America and Europe, it can be done in a day as part of a bus tour or self-drive.
There’s a downside though.
That ease of access, and the ethereal allure of this geological wonderland, means the Golden Circle can get a little busy, particularly when the tour buses arrive.
Not only that, but in following that well-worn trail, visitors could be missing out on equally stunning, but somewhat more hidden marvels elsewhere in Iceland.
To help, we’ve put together a guide to the Golden Circle that offers alternatives to the big attractions for those with extra time on their hands and adventure on their minds.

Þingvellir National Park

Thingvellir, or Thingvellir as many people pronounce it, is a national park and an extraordinary first stop on the Golden Circle tour.
Here, under what looks like the solid ground of Iceland, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting apart a few centimeters (an inch) each year, meaning that eventually the island will be pulled in two at this spot.
ingvellir also holds cultural and historical value for Icelanders — it’s here that the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, was established in 930 AD, making it the site of the first Viking parliament.
Sessions were held until the end of the 18th century, when the parliament moved to Reykjavik.
While it’s rugged and filled with boulders, ravines and creeks with crystal-clear water, it’s easily accessible by trails.



Skalholt Cathedral is an important structure in Icelandic history, having been a bishop’s seat since 1056, and the location of the country’s first school.

It’s also the site of the bloody ending of Catholicism in Iceland in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop was executed here along with his two sons, clearing the way for the Lutheran church.
The current Cathedral is large compared to most Icelandic churches, and its white walls and tower can be seen far away.
Visitors can stay overnight in dormitories and cottages in summer, and classical concerts take place here in July.

Nesjavellir geothermal power plant

Many streets in Reykjavik are heated in winter thanks to the geothermal fields around the city which provide a supply of hot water straight from the ground.
Some of the water comes from the foothills of the active mountain Hengill on the Golden Circle route.
The geothermal areas here are among the most powerful high-temperature fields in Iceland, and are processed by the Nesjavellir plant, which is open to visitors.
Perched in the hills, it looks more like a moon base than a power plant, and it’s equally fascinating to learn about the way the water is processed here.
That sulfur-smelling hot water in the hotel shower in Reykjavik? It’s probably also from Nesjavellir.

Secret Lagoon

A dip into the geothermal waters at the Secret Lagoon, a public pool built over natural hot springs in the small village of Fludir completes the Golden Circle loop.
The name is misleading. It’s not really that secret anymore, but it’s still a relaxing way to end a busy day.
The water here stays at 38-40 C (100-104 F) throughout year, and there’s even a small geyser visible from the pool which erupts every five minutes.
Visit in winter and there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights while bobbing in the hot water.

Beyond the Golden Circle

Northern Lights put on stunning display


After knocking off the Golden Circle classics, it’s worth livening up any Icelandic adventure with a few bonus outdoor wonders a bit farther from Reykjavik.
Here are three extra spots to add to the Nordic adventure:

Reykjanes Geopark

The Mid-Atlantic ridge comes ashore on the Reykjanes peninsula between Reykjavik and the international airport in Keflavik.
The newly opened Reykjanes Geopark is one of the only places on earth where it’s visible above water.
The park is home to breathtaking geological formations — including the geothermal area of Gunnuhver, where the ground is constantly erupting with boiling mud and hot steam wafting across silica hills.
Geology here goes back many millennia, with the last series of eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula beginning around AD 1000.
Fittingly, Gunnuhver is named after a ghost that allegedly plagued locals 400 years ago.


Ásbyrgicanyon lies in northern Iceland, about an hour’s drive east of the northern city of Hsavk.
The horseshoe-shaped depression is part of Vatnajkull National Park and, for over half of its length, the canyon is divided by a distinctive, 25-meter-high (82 feet) rock formation called Eyjan (Island), where hikers can enjoy spectacular views.
sbyrgi was formed by glacial flooding after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The wooded canyon with steep cliffs up to 100 meters (328 feet) is popular with hikers and locals camping here in summer.
A rare wooded area on a volcanic island, visitors to sbyrgi can hike up to the cliffs or even play a round of golf on the nearby course.
From the cliffs, one might even glean the mythological origin of the canyon: according to legend the canyon was formed when Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, touched one of its feet to the ground here.


Cameras ready? Hraunfossar, near Reykholt in western Iceland, is a series of beautiful waterfalls streaming over a distance of about 900 meters (2,950 feet) out of Hallmundarhraun, a porous lava field.
The waterfalls pour into the Hvítá  river from ledges in the hardened lava, flowing dramatically out from what looks like solid ground.
Just upstream is another smaller waterfall called Barnafoss, or waterfall of children.



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Oaxaca, Mexico vivid art, joyous festivals and ant eggs fried in garlic


The fantastic cuisine, textiles and parties of the southern Mexican city stem from a resilient indigenous culture, says mezcal producer Santiago Surez Crdova

Oaxaca has some of the richest and strongest traditions in Mexico. If you go in July for the Guelaguetza festival, the whole city explodes. People from the surrounding villages come in their traditional costumes and perform dances at the Cerro del Fortn, a huge amphitheatre on a hill overlooking the city. Guelaguetza means offering and refers to the tradition still alive and strong in rural communities where if there is an event, everyone contributes, so they have these amazing parties.

Santiago Surez Crdova Mezcal is everything tequila is not. Photograph: C Lamb

Oaxacans are very creative. The area is famous for textiles. The boutique Los Baules de Juana Cata works directly with local artisans and sells beautiful huipiles (embroidered tunics). They can cost up to $1,000 but they take six months to make. There are more crafts on display at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. I also love the Centro Cultural San Pablo (, a beautiful conversion of a 16th-century convent that preserves indigenous traditions. One of Mexicos most famous artists, Francisco Toledo, is a Oaxacan, who has lent his support to several cultural projects. He designed a stained-glass panel for the San Pablo centre.

Oaxacas famed creativity extends to the food scene. The state has the most diverse and the rarest varieties of corn in the entire country and a lot of restaurants focus on traditional recipes. At Itanon, everything is made from corn. It does amazing tortillas rolled with a whole hoja santa leaf and filled with salsa and bean pure. I love La Teca, too, which is in the chefs own home. She specialises in local dishes the mole is delicious.

A show at a recent Guelaguetza at the Cerro de Fortin amphitheatre. Photograph: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

If you really want to eat like a local you have to try insects. Grasshoppers, agave worms and ants are all popular and sold everywhere, from street stalls to expensive restaurants. Chapulines (grasshoppers) have a very distinctive flavour. I love the small ones in guacamole; and the grasshopper quesadillas at La Popular restaurant are really tasty. Escamoles, or ants eggs, are a local speciality too fried in garlic and butter.

Have a tejate for breakfast and you wont be hungry for seven hours. Its the drink of the ancients, made from corn, cacao, cinnamon and mamey fruit and served in a bowl. Youll find it in any of the markets. The biggest and best-known market in town is 20 de Noviembre. Theres a long row of barbecue stands where you order meat by the kilo and they grill it for you. Then women come along and sell you tortillas or guacamole to go with it.

Fried grasshoppers for sale in Oaxaca. Photograph: Alamy

I live in Mexico City but travel to Oaxaca 12-13 times a year to visit mezcal producers. Unlike in the capital, everything in Oaxaca city is in walking distance. One of my favourite places is the Jardn Etnobotnico. All the plants are from Oaxaca and there are cactus and agave plants saved from development sites. Outside the city, the ancient Zapotec site of Mitla is a very special place thats not well-known. Its made up of rectangular buildings, not pyramids, and is famed for its intricate mosaics and stone carvings.

This nighttime shot of Oaxacas Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption captures the towns vibrant mood during the annual festival. Photograph: Getty Images

Mezcal is everything tequila is not. Tequila is industrialised. Jose Cuervo can produce up to 3 million litres a month. We sometimes have problems producing 1,500 litres a month because everything is done manually. The agave is still ground by millstones operated by horses. Tequila is made from one type of agave but mezcal uses 23 varieties, so there are many different flavours. Because its organic and the fermentation is natural, you can drink more of it without being intoxicated. One of the best places to try it is Los Amantes, the oldest mezcalara in Oaxaca city. The owner is a famous artist who used to run one of the best clubs in Oaxaca. Spend a few hours there and test the theory that mezcal gets you high, not drunk.

Santiago is the founder and ceo of artisan mezcal company Mezcal Amores


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