Even though winter is not the high season in Iceland, there are several advantages of visiting the country during the colder months. One of them is that the impressive ice tunnels and crystal caves are only open when the freezing temperatures guarantee that these natural sites are stable and safe enough for people to explore them.
Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, is home to the popular Crystal Cave. This is one of those places that you are not supposed to visit by yourself. To go deep into the glacier and eventually inside an ice cave, you must hire a guide. We joined a group and explored the area with Laufey, the power lady of Glacier Journey.
Laufey drove us around Vatnajökull in a kick-ass modified jeep, with the same ease as a kid who rides a bike in the park on a sunny day. We went up and down the roughed path until we reached a flat area close to the entrance of the much awaited Crystal Cave.
The scenery around reminded me of the movie poster of Interstellar. As the heavy wind lifted the snow from the ground and made the visibility stirred up, I could almost see Matthew McConaughey show up in the distance.
The Crystal Cave can only be entered during winter. During the summer, this and other ice tunnels are the glacier’s natural draining channels. As the winter’s snow melts away, these caves and tunnels fill up with water, making them inaccessible. Even during winter, you must take a few precautions when visiting. A sturdy hat and crampons to walk in the snow suffice.
Once inside the Crystal Cave, the first impression can be disappointing. But that’s not because the cave is not impressive. The entire surroundings are! It’s because photos that have popularized the Crystal Cave online are normally so saturated, so unnatural, that if you don’t get to see intense blue the moment you walk in, it’s as if you’re not getting the real deal. Well, this is THE real deal. And it’s pretty damn good!
If you keep your expectations realistic and, most of all, allow your eyes to adjust to the lack of light inside the cave, you will start seeing blue. It’s the exact same thing when you try to see the Northern Lights, actually. If your eyes are used to bright light, it will take a moment until your vision gets accustomed to the dimmer lighting and starts appreciating the details.
The glacier ice that forms the cave is so pure that, when the light shines brightly outside, it manages to penetrate the ice and illuminate the cave underground. Some specific shades of blue have popularized the Crystal Cave. This color that is also present in smaller glacier caves in other parts of Iceland can be explained by the air bubbles that are trapped in between layers of glacier ice compressed over hundreds and thousands of years.
The Crystal Cave, just like any other ice cave, doesn’t always look the same. Their shape is transient and varies from season to season, as well as within the same season itself. The course of water will shape the cave from one summer to the next, but the shades of color, from light to deep blue, remain.
This is a rather surrealistic looking place. When you put down your camera and appreciate what’s around you with your naked eye, you can’t help but to feel privileged to be in such an inspiring corner of the world. It feels like worlds apart, and yet it is so accessible!
When you visit the Crystal Cave in Iceland during winter, expect to find lots of other tourists inside. It’s a very popular spot, and it’ easy to see why. What I really enjoyed about our tour with Glacier Journey is that our guide Laufey made it a point to wait until the crowds were gone. For about 10 minutes, we had the Crystal Cave just for our small group. It felt good to be able to take our time, to photograph and above all to appreciate the moment, without being rushed.
When Laufey explained to us how the glacier caves are formed and that not all ice caves are white or blue, she mentioned how some of them are actually quite dark. So, once we had spent as much time as we wanted inside the Crystal Cave, we headed out to visit a nearby spot also in Vatnajökull Glacier.
This was our time to appreciate how the black ice formations come about when ice mixes with the ash from volcanic eruptions.
White, blue or black, the natural shapes we got to admire during this Ice Cave Tour were spectacular. This is the kind of place that makes you feel lucky to be alive while reminding you that there’s beauty all around us. We just need to pause and actually look at it!
Ice Cave tours run between November and March, departing from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.