Steam swirls into fog in this otherworldly basin of chalky blue and black as I attempt to slowly lower myself into the water. It has not been a good week for me. My knee went out a few days before boarding a plane to Iceland, a prepaid trip that we couldn’t just cancel. I’ve been hobbling around in pain, using a hiking stick as a cane, unable to do any of the adventures I’d planned. Instead, John is out there hiking and crawling through caves while I’ve been mostly sitting around. When the opportunity came up to join a group headed to “the world’s largest hot tub,” I jumped on it.
The surface beneath my feet is oddly glassy. I get to the bottom step, and discover a big dropoff. Fortunately, my friend Kimberly is nearby and helps lower me down for a soak in Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon.
An Unnatural Attraction
Located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, some of the youngest land near the capital of Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon is not a natural hot spring. As our tour guide explained, “it was an environmental disaster turned into an amazing opportunity.” The landscape surrounding and beneath it is basalt, part of the Illahraun lava field.
It erupted in 1226 and hasn’t been around long enough, geologically speaking, to erode much. The moss that grows on it is the first step of creating new land between tectonic plates. Where there is no moss, the rocks are razor sharp. But in the lagoon, it feels like you’re walking on glass. Here’s why: it is.
When the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Station was under construction, test holes were drilled to find natural hot water sources to power the plant. In 1976, mineral-rich water flowed across the open lava field for a time, and the silica found in the water – the primary component of glass – precipitated, creating the smooth bottom to the lagoon and trapping the water. Presto: instant hot tub. The power station is still active and within view, producing electricity and hot water for more than 45,000 residents, but its presence doesn’t detract from your bathing experience. The lagoon holds more than 1.6 million gallons, which completely circulates through every 40 hours.
Unlike natural hot springs in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is, indeed, a chalky blue. It’s a color you don’t see in nature – except for the split-second before a geyser erupts – but you’ll find it in Iceland adjoining the outflow of every geothermal plant. Since bathing in hot springs is an important part of Icelandic culture, this discovery of the magic of the “geothermal fluid” led to developing the Blue Lagoon as a bathing destination, first under very primitive conditions, and then with public bathing facilities in 1987.
Today, the facilities are extensive. Roomy places to relax and dangle your feet into the water, a sauna and steam baths carved into the lava, and a refreshing hot waterfall to knead those achy shoulder muscles. A poolside bar lets you sip on your colorful drink of your choice.
Temperatures vary throughout the lagoon. You’ll find random hot spots and cold spots as you make your way through the blueness. I settled into a comfortable hot zone while my friends made their way to the silica mud pools to pat themselves down with “beauty mud” on arms, legs, and faces. Health studies in the 1990s proved that the silica-infused fluid does, indeed, treat psoriasis.
It’s no surprise that you can purchase a line of skin care products in the gift shop at the Blue Lagoon; in fact, you’ll find Blue Lagoon-branded products throughout Iceland, all utilizing the output of the power plant. From silica mud to microalgae and mineral salts, these natural precipitates and growths in the lagoon are the active ingredients in these skin care products.
There is a process to visiting the Blue Lagoon, somewhat of a ritual. Upon entering the complex up a walkway from the parking area, the entrance to the bathing is to your left. My friends and I chose to take an elevator upstairs first to the viewing platform to take photos of the lagoon from above and catch our bearings on what was where once you’re in the water. A snack shop and restaurant occupy the ground floor of this wing of the building, both with picture windows looking out over the lagoon.
My tour pass included a towel and a free drink, but the amenities you receive vary according to what you pay to enter. Everyone gets a wristband and heads for the changing rooms. Use the restrooms here. Your wristband controls your chosen locker, and also serves as your charge card when you purchase anything from this point on.
The exit from the shower rooms leads into the relaxation area, an enclosed area where there is an accessible pool elevator and wheelchair for those wheelchair-bound visitors. As you step outside, the air may be brisk, but you can hang your towel on the towel rack and start down those steps into the water. Destination: bliss.
I’d been hobbled with a torn meniscus for two weeks before I bathed in the Blue Lagoon. For the next four days after the soak, I was able to walk without the excruciating pain I’d had. It was enough time bought to let me enjoy the rest of my time in Iceland. And that was well worth the price of admission.
Visit Iceland’s Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is located closer to Keflavik International Airport than Reykjavik, making it a day trip excursion for anyone having a long layover at the airport. Tour buses to the Blue Lagoon are operated by Gray Line and Reykjavik Excrusions. They run directly from Keflavik International Airport – using the Blue Lagoon as a stopover to or from Reykjavik – or can be booked with tour operators in Reykjavik. Luggage can be stored for a fee while you soak.
When you’re considering a trip to the Blue Lagoon, keep in mind the logistics and time of getting to and from the lagoon. There is a fee to just park and wander the premises, unless you’re dining at the LAVA Restaurant, in which case it’s included. The base fee to soak in the lagoon assumes that you brought your own towel. Amenities up to and including spa treatments are piled on as you pay higher entrance fees. While you can spend just an hour, there’s no difference in cost if you spend the afternoon or the day. Plan a longer excursion if you can spare the time. Although you’ll see far more adults than children, children age 2 and over are welcome for a reduced fee, and must be accompanied by an adult.
My friends and I managed to put on our bathing suits and shower with them on without getting our knuckles rapped by the ladies overseeing the changing rooms, but European visitors generally shower in the raw. It’s smart to rub the provided hair conditioner into your hair (and don’t wash it off until you’re ready to leave) as it protects your hair from the drying properties of the geothermal water. Wear a simple bathing suit and expect to take a while to wash the microscopic silica out of it.
Keep hydrated. Drinks are available poolside as well as in the restaurant in the main building. And finally, it is worth carrying a waterproof camera into this surreal environment to capture some memories!