Iceland Nice Land 3: Livin’ La Vida Lava

In Con's Corner by Con JagerLeave a Comment

Stopping over in Iceland but only for a day? I have two suggestions for experiencing a key aspect of Iceland in a very short time. One is a Reykjavik walkabout, which I will describe in a next blog. But today, we’re going to be livin’ la vida lava!

Shell out for Raufarhólshellir

Reykjavik Excursions runs an awesome half-day tour that will give you something to talk about. The Raufarhólshellir Lava Tube is fascinating, and only half an hour from Reykjavik. Another plus: it’s (duh!) underground, so you can do it in any kind of weather! And that shelling out? I booked online the day before and paid about $110: not exactly cheap but then again, nothing much in Iceland is. I thought it was worth it, as transfers were included. However, if you’re renting a car, you can also book without transfers, for about $70.

Hard hitting outfitting

On a rainy and windy February afternoon, I boarded a van with some 2o fellow adventurers. I enjoy modest-sized groups like this, or even smaller. They feel more personal, special. Small is a necessity anyway, as the Lava Tunnel is not set up for big crowds.

Enroute, our guide explained Iceland’s volatile volcanic past – and present! Remember the eruptions of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, disrupting North Atlantic and European air travel?

La vida lava explained

Most of Iceland is uninhabited wilderness and hard if not impossible to access. Volcanoes were and are everywhere and geologists suspect many lava tunnels exist all over – or rather, under – Iceland, waiting to be discovered.

Raufarhólshellir Tube was formed by hot magma some 5,200 years ago. A volcanic eruption in the Bláfjöll mountains to the east created a flow that melted a tunnel of almost 1,400 meters long (almost a mile) through solid rock.

Fun fact: what’s the difference between magma and lava? Underground molten rock is magma. When is reaches the surface and/or open air, but still flowing, it’s lava.

Going to extremes

The main lava tube is 900 meters long and that’s where the standard 1-hour tour goes.

You can also get the “extreme” version: small groups only, going into the small split tunnels at the end, taking 3-4 hours and a chunk more money at over $200 a pop.

Crampon my style

Arriving at Raufarhólshellir, we went into the Outfitters cabin and were welcomed by Lava Tube staff. They provided us with hard hats complete with helmet lights – required! – and crampons for our shoes.

Neither was a luxury, as we soon discovered. The entrance to the Tunnel was nearby but the path was snowy and icy, and worse, the steep stairs down inside were covered in some serious ice.

The crampons prevented some major tumbles! I still managed to scrape my non-gloved hand taking pictures, slipping and clawing for the handrail. But hey, gotta get my pictures!

Tunnel vision

Once inside, we carefully made our way along the slippery path. The temperature here was just above freezing. Erosion has caused some ceiling parts to collapse, where rain and snow were now coming in. The result is snowy underground hills and amazing ice displays in an ever-freezing and -melting game of stalactites and stalagmites.

The lava tunnel path follows along over the natural bottom ad in parts over manmade boardwalks. Lights along the ceiling and bottom show the ice displays beautifully.

Our guide explained how the magma produced silvery strata along the rock walls, over the underlying red color. The magma was hot enough to melt the underlying rock – but cooled off rapidly in this climate. Molten metallic minerals solidified on top of molten red rock and presto, impressive displays are born.

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Lava lamps

At the end point, we were all asked to stand on a platform. Almost all of us did, although a couple of participants who shall remain unnamed wandered off for better photos… and then the guide switched off all the lights!

To be fair, he told us in advance. And also, before he did, he asked everyone to switch off their helmet lights. Deep down into the Lava Tube, there are no ceiling holes, no reflections, no flashlights, no nothing. Absolute darkness.

Our guide explained that when the human eye has nothing to adjust to, people would actually go blind if the condition persisted for a few months. Of course, we were only in this for a couple of minutes but it was an eerie experience for sure!

Ceiling fans

Our guide then warned us he was going to switch on his flashlight to show us some very small and thin overhead lava stalactites! A powerful beam burned through the black and and hit them, creating tiny thin shadows on the ceiling.

We were duly impressed: we’d never have noticed them without this approach!

Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do

Lava stalactites are extremely fragile. Raufarhólshellir had tons of them but Tube access was unregulated until the mid 1950s and people broke them off as souvenirs. Irresponsible and selfish for sure: unlike calcium stalactites in caves, these won’t ever come back: that lava is long gone.

The two surviving ones are high up, where even NBA 7 footers can’t get to them, and one would hope they’re safe. Still, sadly, there are people in the world who just don’t care.

Drippin’ dots

On the way out, we walked by a cool ice display where water leaked in through the ceiling.

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Drops splished-splashed onto and into ice stalagmites, dozens of them, dotted all over the ground. I took a quick video to give you an idea, while trying not to lose my group again.

Hats off to Raufarhólshellir

Back outside on the slippery ground, we returned to the Outfitters cabin to drop our crampons and hard hats. After saying goodbye to our guide, we boarded the waiting Reykjavik Excursions Lava Tunnel tour van. Thoughtfully, our driver already had the heater running, very pleasant after about an hour in temps around freezing, without moving much.

Leavin’ la vida lava

The rain was still coming down, but no one cared in that nice warm and dry van. In half a day, we had learned about one of the most fascinating aspects of Iceland, one of the most unusual countries around. Livin’ la vida lava was cool – to be followed tonight by warming up in the Blue Lagoon! But that’s for another blog: for now, let’s leave it in black and white….


My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA

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